Do You Hear What I Hear? Away In A Manger

Read the Scripture for this message: Luke 2:1-7

If you missed last week, you missed out on our giveaway and some great conversation about favorite traditions.  There and in some other great times with friends this week, we started talking about the variety of traditions that are wide and varied around the US and the world.

Does Santa wrap the presents he brings to your house or not?  He didn’t when I was growing up but when I got married, suddenly he started wrapping gifts.  Today is Lessons & Carols in our traditional services.  I never had been to this type of service until I moved to Cumming FUMC.  It is a really beautiful service to be part of.  Nativity scenes were not an immediate part of church tradition either.  Nope, Francis of Assisi was credited with creating the first one, a living one, around 1223.  In 1957, Frances Kipps Spencer at Ascension Lutheran Church in Danville, Virginia began thinking about a way to decorate the Christmas tree in her church that would be more suitable for a sanctuary and came up with the idea of the Chrismon tree with symbols of the Christian faith.  Some of our traditions are easily taken for granted.

Since it appeared in 1887 in a book of songs no one would be caught reading today “Dainty Songs for Little Lads and Lasses,” people believed that it was the church  reformer, Martin Luther, who had written the song.  It was described as a lullaby which he sang to his kids.  But in 1945 a church historian named Richard Hill began to research the song’s origins.  He went all the way back to Luther’s original writings and have you guessed?  Yep, there is no trace of these words in Luther.  In fact, the earliest Hill could find the words referenced was in 1885 and then it was only the first two verses.  Somewhere between 1885 and 1887 the third verse was added.1. 

We’ve come to imagine so many scenes of the night of Jesus’ birth from this carol among others.  Did they have cribs like we have back then?  How do we know there was a cow there?  One of my favorites though is the line, “no crying he makes,” really?  But there is one aspect of this simple little carol that is spot on important – the one whose head lay in that manger was the Lord of all creation.

Over the past few weeks we have traced the advent story through three carols now.  It began with prophetic message of “O Come, O Come Emmanuel,” God had heard the cry of all creation longing for hope.  And in “O Holy Night,” the truth of that name was given to simple shepherds and sinners, a word of hope to us all that God loves everyone.  And it was the shepherds who brought word of another title for this little baby, a title we find in 2:11 – this is Christ, the Lord!

Jesus is referred to as Lord over 700 times in the New Testament.  The idea of Lord combines two ideas 1) that this is The One who has the absolute power to create us (which God did) and 2) has the absolute authority to demand our worship (which God doesn’t). 2.  To be Lord is to be The One who is ultimately in control.  I’m sure some of ya’ll have done personality inventories.  I am a Myers-Briggs “J,”  I’m a DISC –“D,” I’m an Enneagram “1,” shall I go on?  Clearly, control is not an issue for me – not!  Those are images we know far better than the image of “Lord.”  We don't use the word Lord much (though it is part of pop culture in one place: Darth Vader is also known as Lord Vader, but I digress).

Why is this important?  What is the difference this ought to make in our live’s?  I believe that Jesus is God after all.  But that is just the point!  It is easy to make declaration of belief but it is so much harder to release control of our life.  Jesus is far less interested in just what we believe than He says he is concerned about how we’re living life!  “After what they did, there is no way I’ll forgive!”  “How can avoid going into debt if I give 10% to God especially during Christmas!  Look, I’ll give God Sunday mornings unless the game on Saturday is a late game or if the Sunday game is a 1pm start time, or if I had a long week.” 

I really don’t know if you are hearing what I hear, I hope so because what I have been hearing today or these past few weeks has been a vision for a new creation, a new world, a new life.  As I have been leading a small group this year, I’ve been offered some new ideas and this week really struck home on one of them.  “For God so loved the world that he sent his only son that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life,” was a verse we reflected on everyday.  One day we were asked to write a list of all those we loved and consider them as we reflect on the verse and then, we were to list those we had difficulty loving and reflect and pray for them.

You know what I heard in this?  I heard that believing offers a new life, an eternal life, a life like Jesus, Emmanuel: God is with us, the one who is Christ the Lord!  Eternal life doesn't refer to living the same life.  Eternal life refers to the new life - God with you! God isn’t going to force you to believe or change.  In that manger, the Lord Jesus came to us, became like us.  Later he died to save us.  We sing it in Away In A Manger, a simple prayer, "Be near me Lord Jesus," and it echoes the promise of Jesus in Matthew 28; "I am with you always even to the end of the age!"

Works Cited:
1. Morgan, Robert J. "Then Sings My Soul, Book 2." Nelson, 2004.
2. Bromiley, Geoffrey. "Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, Abridged." Eerdmans. 1985.

Do You Hear What I Hear? O Holy Night

When Heather and I got married we had to figure out how to merge our family traditions into our own.  We had to figure out when the tree goes up and when it must come down.  When do the presents go under the tree?  As they get wrapped or on Christmas eve?   One of the traditions of her family was listening to Nat King Cole’s famous Christmas album.  Today we’ve added a number of CDs to our collection and we have a blast doing karaoke while putting up the tree.  But I can’t help but stop and reflect everytime Nat King Cole’s version of “O Holy Night,” comes on in the rotation.

The carol, O Holy Night, was written in the mid 1800's. There was a parish priest asked a guy in town to write a poem based on Luke 2.  The man he asked was a French merchant and a poet named Placide Cappeau. Now Placide was known more as the life of the party than by a life changed by Jesus Christ.  Church was not on his to do list but he was known as a good poet. So, Placide wrote the poem as requested but then he did one better.  He asked a friend who was a good song writer to put the poem to music.  Of course, this friend wasn’t a Christian and in fact, his family was Jewish by heritage.  The song became so popular within a couple of years everyone in the Catholic Church was singing it!  Word did get out though about the character of the two guys who did the work and so a push was made to remove the song but it didn’t do much good as so many people loved it.

Legend has it that on Christmas Eve 1871, during the Franco-Prussian War, a French soldier suddenly jumped out of his muddy trench. Both sides, French and German, stared at the seemingly crazed man. Boldly standing with no weapon in his hand or at his side, he lifted his eyes to the heavens and sang the first line of “O Holy Night.”  The story goes that an unofficial cease fire occurred for the next 24 hours as the soldiers celebrated Christmas together.

Later in 1906, Reginald Fessenden was a 33-year old professor and assistant to Thomas Edison, did what many people thought was impossible. He used a generator, plugged a microphone into it and broadcast the very first AM broadcast in the history of the world on Christmas Eve in 1906. He read from Luke, Chapter 2, and broadcast the Christmas story.  Sailors on ships and writers at newspapers were shocked to hear a voice over their radios that before that day only broadcast coded impulses. Next he took his violin and played into the microphone the first song broadcast across airwaves in the history of the world.  The song was “O Holy Night.” (See Beliefnet's History of O Holy Night)

Honestly, why should this really surprise us?  As I spent time both with the scripture and the song, it seems to make perfect sense.  Read the words carefully and it seems that the song comes from the perspective of the shepherds.  Shepherds, a group of people whose profession made them unclean by the temple standards and unable to testify in court.  Shepherds were a people who the Pharisees and Priests couldn’t get by without because they needed the sheep for making sacrifices!  And who again wrote the poem?  Who wrote the song?  Why, an outcast and a sinner.

And so who is it the angel is sent to tell the “Good News?”  It is shepherds, in other words, the dregs and outcast.  And who is it Jesus, as a grown man, would be accused of hanging out with again and again?  What kind of people would attach themselves to Jesus, and follow every word and every step?  Tax collectors and prostitutes…sinners. 

But as I sat reflecting on the scripture and song, I felt I was still missing something.  How is it these two collaborators had created such an inspiring and well loved song?  And then it hit me in the first lines of each verse, the words of the apostle Paul from 1 Corinthians 13…faith, hope and love.  Could it be that these three that remain are a longing for all of humanity?  Could it be they expressed the desires of all our hearts and proclaimed a message that resonates in us all?

1. Hope for the weary world.  Have you ever just stopped and listened to your soul?  Usually it is on a mountain top or that morning cup of coffee looking over the beach.  Something speaks to our core – that is our soul.  Our souls have worth and we are not left to wander aimlessly in this life. 

2. Faith leads us to Good News, the reality that God has come to be with us (Immanuel).  This is what led the wise men to search.  All they had was a star in the sky!  They had no Tom-Tom, Google maps or Siri to talk with about where to go.

3.  Love becomes the new law by which we live.  Love is how Jesus lived and what he taught.  Not just any love but a love that breaks our handcuffs that have us locked to sin and frees us to live a new life!

The hope to begin anew is here.  The faith you have been seeking is here.  The love you have longed for is here.  If this is good news to shepherds it is good news for you.  If it is good news for tax collectors, it is good news for you.  If it is good news for prostitutes then it is good news for you.  If it is good news for sinners it is good news for you.  Faith, hope and love remain, wrote the Apostle Paul, but the greatest of these is love and love is here – in Jesus!

Swords To Plowshares: What The Walking Dead Revealed About the UMC

I am a recent comer to the series “The Walking Dead.”  I am not a
fan of the zombie genre at all but so many friends were watching it that I ran through the seasons on Netflix and am now thoroughly entranced in the story and up to date.  Like many others, I have, to a limited degree found myself reflecting on the moral messages of the story arc.

The mid-season finale of the fourth season clearly struck a chord with many of my friends and viewers.  I was not so surprised because the writers have done a good job of creating a universe where no one is immune to the reality of their mortality.  Even so, I was caught off guard by one word.


It was a word spoken by the “Governor/Brian” in response to a plea by the story’s hero, “Rick.”  Rick had laid out the possibility of two groups living in a prison that had in fact, become a fort protecting them from the zombie hordes.  The Governor declined the plea from Rick with one word declaring Rick to be a liar.

Had Rick lied?  Oh, certainly he had at other points in the story arc but Rick had also been humbled and broken by many crises.  The Governor, we thought, had been changed for the better too, up until this point.  But the Governor had been a liar and continued that path.  He had come to see in everyone else the sin which most tormented himself.  In one man’s plea for peace and community, all the Governor could see was the evil which had come to own him.

As I read and listen to conversations surrounding our United Methodist Church about the recent rulings in Pennsylvania and the actions of a retired Bishop in Alabama, I could not help but consider the many sides and the conclusions we seem to be reaching regarding one another.  I have no intention of calling anyone out for their posts on blogs, Facebook, or Twitter.  I willingly admit to creating “straw-men.”  I do not see how the other matters at all.

Sexuality and homosexuality specifically, has taken center stage for the UMC.  We have done much work according the “Quadrilateral,” making careful cases using Scripture, reason, experience and tradition.  I have read well presented cases from many sides of the issue.  Yet, it seems to me, we continue to fall for the same mirage which entrapped the Governor.  Are we really making our cases “for” or “against” a position or are we seeing in others the sins which we fear in ourselves? 

When Jesus brought up the issue of “specks” and “logs” in our eyes, he kept it simple, “Why do you see the speck that is in your brother's eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye? Or how can you say to your brother, 'Let me take the speck out of your eye,' when there is the log in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother's eye. (Matthew 7:3-5)” It is incredibly easy to make this a measurement of how much sin we have compared to those we want to judge but I don’t think it is that at all.

We have got to come clean with the condition of our own soul and our own sin.  Jesus’ example is one of absurdity to try and show us the truth that it is most often what we fear the most in ourselves is what we see in those around us.  When “the right” is condemned for a lack of compassion and failing to love like Jesus, is this not what we on the left are failing to do ourselves?  When “the left” is condemned for being slack in their scholarship and wishy-washy about sin, is this not what we on the right fear in our own inner work? 

Liar.  With that word, the Governor proceeded to end the life of one of the show’s most prophetic voices.  The left and the right of this argument (and many other arguments for that matter) do not own a monopoly on having prophetic voices.  However, the quicker we are to cut with the sword, the fewer brothers and sisters we have to beat them into plowshares.  

Ken's Note: This is not an endorsement for watching "The Walking Dead."  If you are uncomfortable with gore and violence, don't watch it.  I think I did a fair job of describing the scene, just leave it at that.

Do You Hear What I Hear? O Come, O Come Emmanuel

Click for this week's text: Matthew 1:18-24

How do songs, centuries old, full of religious imagery and messages, keep getting air play?  Simple, stop talking about the meaning.  As the season of Hallow-thank-mas gets to the final stretch, we will listen to every version of every Christmas carol in every store we visit.  Yet in many cases, the meaning has been lost.  My hope and prayer during the weeks leading up to Christmas, we’ll rekindle some of the glow.

To start, I’d like to share with you about the history of the lyrics of O Come, O Come Emmanuel. The history of this carol dates back to between the Eighth and the Twelfth Century. During this era in Church history people would actually either sing or chant these phrases that all started with the letter 'O'. Songs were important because most people were uneducated.  Somebody would read a Psalm and then they would sing or chant phrases that started with the letter 'O', and they became known as the O antiphons. Over time, one of the lines they would sing birthed this song, O Come O Come Emmanuel  (from "Then Sings My Soul, Book 2 by Robert J. Morgan).  In the Methodist Hymnal, you’ll find these antiphons still listed!

But that is only part of the story.  It is a name meaning “God with us.”  It also doesn’t come from the night of Jesus’ birth.  It actually comes from the words of the prophet Isaiah found in Isaiah 7:14-15:  Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel. He shall eat butter and honey when he knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good.

Names were important in the Bible.  The choosing of names and the titles one received were critically important.  One can easily dismiss the “Immanuel” with the idea of God being present through his Spirit or that God is present in his creation.  But Verse 15 of Isaiah tells us something unique – God became like us: he ate our food and lived our lives. 

           And at the transition between BCE and the Common Era, sometime around the year 1, the Jewish people were under foreign rule.  Rome and Caesars had the final say.  The prophets and people hoped and looked for a leader, a king, sent by God to free the Jews.  What they couldn’t seem to understand was God not only wanted to free them but all of humanity from our sinful nature, to make a way for us all to choose good. 

The Jews were looking for a Messiah.  The Jews and gentiles alike were looking for a savior from Roman rule.  Today those words have lost most of their meaning.  But when I read the headlines, articles and blogs, the one I still hear people looking for is a desire for God to be with us. John’s gospel describes that The Word became flesh and blood, and moved into the neighborhood.  It almost sounds like Jesus meets us down at the Waffle House. As it was 2,000 years ago, it remains today, humanity is still crying out for Emmanuel, but how will the people of the world know God is with us?  It will be “...through every action of our life, that we begin, continue, and end in Jesus’ name” (from Clarke's Commentary on the Holy Bible).

There is a story told of a winter night where a farmer heard an irregular thumping sound against his kitchen storm door. He went to a window and watched as tiny, shivering sparrows, attracted to the evident warmth inside, beat in vain against the glass.

Touched, the farmer bundled up and trudged through fresh snow to open the barn door for the struggling birds. He turned on the lights and tossed some hay in the corner. But the sparrows, which had scattered in all directions when he emerged from the house, hid in the darkness, afraid.

The man tried various tactics to get them into the barn. He laid down a trail of Saltine cracker crumbs to direct them. He tried circling behind the birds to drive them to the barn. Nothing worked. He, a huge, alien creature, had terrified them; the birds couldn’t comprehend that he actually desired to help. The farmer withdrew to his house and watched the doomed sparrows through a window. As he stared, a thought hit him like lightning from a clear blue sky: “If only I could become a bird – one of them – just for a moment. Then I wouldn’t frighten them so. I could show them the way to warmth and safety.”  At the same moment, another thought dawned on him. He grasped the reason Jesus was born.  (story credited to Paul Harvey)

 And when we invite Jesus into our hearts, then the world will see the truth - God IS with us. 

Ken's Note: I am aware of the similar series done by Craig Groeschel  and  It is a work I have referenced in my own work but it has not been the basis for my work.  Where appropriate, I will cite.  

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