I walked into the living room this morning. This time of year the entire space looks like a winter wonderland. There is not a square inch that is not filled with Christmas decorations: a collection of ten nutcrackers, five Christmas stockings, two trees, hundreds of lights, five advent calendars, and all kinds of knickknacks, wreaths and evergreen everywhere. The one collection that stands out most though are our currently 18 nativity scenes. They range from tiny candle holder to children’s toys to finely crafted olive wood straight from the Holy Land. We have amassed them over the years always looking for the perfect one. In the process we found out that there probably is no perfect one because we really love having this museum of variety in our living room.
Remember how I walked into the sanctuary last week?
There you will find a similar collection of nativity scenes. There are 26 of them currently. Some display the stable with child-like naivete. Some create a royal palace around the divine child. They come it all shapes and sizes.
Both at home and at church I am very diligent at making sure to take Jesus out of the scene where possible. The baby simply does not belong in the manger until Christmas. If he is glued in or otherwise attached I will not break the piece but a removable Jesus will be removed. That is good Christian practice to me because it sends a powerful message: Advent is not Christmas!
Advent derives from the latin adventus and means “coming”. Christ is still in the process of coming! He is not born yet. Our job is to be here tensely waiting. There is no fulfillment yet. There are no gifts yet. Expectation is building up. Advent wreath and calendar serve as countdown clocks to tell us: It is not Christmas yet! And there is great reward in expectant waiting.
The Stanford marshmallow experiment showed how important delayed gratification really is: Psychologist Walter Mischel placed a marshmallow in front of series of children and left them alone with it for 15 minutes. Before he left he told them that they would get a second marshmallow if they did not eat the first one while he was away. Wait 15 minutes and add 100% – sounds like a great deal. In follow-up studies, the researchers found that children who were able to wait longer for the preferred rewards tended to have better life outcomes, as measured by SAT scores, educational attainment, body mass index, and other life measures.
Christ is in the process of coming. The baby has not hit the hay yet. There are no shortcuts.
In the Greater Houston Area we usually don’t have much of a chance to experience a white Christmas but the holidays can be very festive around here anyway. A lot of cherished Christmas traditions are of German origin and St. John’s United Church of Christ in Rosenberg has offered German Holiday Programs for three years now. On December 4th at 10 a.m. they will have a bilingual Christmas service that also incorporates German language readings, prayers, hymns, and for the first time a Christmas Pageant. “Habt keine Angst! Do not be afraid!” yells the little angel.
Following the service there will be a time of fellowship and German holiday treats. The German Consulate General Houston has been gracious enough to sponsor musicians and singers to perform traditional German Christmas and Advent music during that time. Sing along is strictly encouraged!
Under their German name “Johanniskirche United Church of Christ” they provide church events and pastoral services in German language. Over the last few years they have seen numerous weddings and baptisms that were celebrated in bilingual ceremonies. No matter who you are or where you are on life’s journey you are welcome here.
I walked into the sanctuary this morning. It’s Monday morning and I wanted to see how the Advent decorations looked this year. I wasn’t around to help set up the afternoon before. But I can tell: Everybody knows exactly what they are doing. Everybody knows exactly where each piece goes. It looks gorgeous – like every year. Then I started checking for the little things that are sometimes off: No, the tree is not crooked. No, the extension cords are in place and actually long enough. All is well. All is as it always has been.
I find that comforting. I like it when tradition keeps me grounded. I think it is healing in an ever more hectic and divided world that there is this bastion of togetherness and grandeur that just falls into place year after year. There is beautiful stability in knowing what’s going to happen: The smells, the bells, and all those little things that make the holidays merry and bright.
As I am floating through the sanctuary I lay my eyes on the dozens of nativity scenes that are neatly arranged along the windows. My mood changes. All of a sudden I find myself bored. It is kind of same old same old. How is the gospel of Jesus Christ supposed to come alive for a new generation, for a new day and age when we keep everything exactly the same year after year?
But that’s how a liturgical church works. Repeating rhythms come with opportunities and limitations. The paraments are also the same as every year. One shows the Alpha and the Omega, a reference to Revelations where the one who was seated on the throne said, “See, I am making all things new.” Wow! There is the promise of newness in the same old same old. That’s why we do this: Because the new needs to be birthed out of what came before.
That is also reflected in the other parament with its Isaiah reference: “A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots.” That old kingdom of David is coming to new life and new fruition in an entirely different shape, form and context. Out of an ancient flower grows the cross of Christ. May this Advent season surprise you with its openness to an entirely new future and may its traditional same old symbols guide you into something fresh. It worked for me this morning in the sanctuary.
Thanksgiving is right around the corner. The story goes that the pilgrims thanked God for sustaining them in a strange and dangerous land. They had just escaped another grave set of dangers from their nemesis King James of England. Walking through the four centuries since then we discover a few kings that did not turn out so well.
King James is not the king. The pilgrims sure did not want to live under him. These separatists did not want to be a part of the king’s church so they preferred to risk the journey across the Atlantic instead.
King George III is not the king. The american colonies declared boldly: “The history of the present King of Great Britain is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations, all having in direct object the establishment of an absolute Tyranny over these States.”
Prince Carl of Solms-Braunfels is not the king. He may have brought the first German settlers to Texas but along with the Adelsverein he did not make good on many of his promises: free land, safety and plenty of opportunities. A lot of it did not come to pass for many early settlers.
Adolf Hitler is not the king. He demanded worship for himself but the confessing church denounced him declaring: “We reject the false doctrine that beyond its special commission the State should and could become the sole and total order of human life and so fulfill the vocation of the Church as well.”
Jesus Christ is the king. This week the church celebrates Christ the King Sunday. The last Sunday of the liturgical calendar puts all of creation, including all of history under the lordship of Jesus Christ. No matter how terrific or horrific our leaders, past or present or future may be, their reign is subject to Christ’s reign. And their service will not be judged by how great they are but by how humble they are: “But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all.” (Mark 10:43-44)
Besides our own Helper you should consider subscribing to the newsletter of the South Central Conference of the United Church of Christ. Here is the latest weekly reflection from Rev. Dr. Don Longbottom:
Sunday morning, I drove through dense fog and showed up to preach at St. John’s Church in Burton, Texas. St. John’s is another of our congregations of Germanic origin and grounded in the solid “can do” ethos of rural Texas. I had a wonderful experience, and the fried chicken was enough to melt a former Baptist’s heart however it did not do much for my diet.
Pastor Glen has served St. John’s for 35 years with grace, distinction, integrity and humor. My sermon followed a children’s message delivered by Glen, and I have to tell you we could have taken an offering, pronounced a benediction and called it “church.” All in all, it was a warm and engaging worship service permeated with laughter. I especially appreciated the acapella singing that reminded me of my time among the Mennonites.
It would be a mistake to think in the case of St. John’s that rural means out of the loop. The service itself was a winsome mix of traditional and contemporary music. The makeup of staff includes Pastor Risa, a young Latina coming to the ministry through the congregation’s heavy emphasis on discovering and developing lay persons for licensed ministry. The people themselves were so welcoming and authentic that I wanted to move in like the boll weevil. Thanks folks for making my day. Hard to believe that I get to do this for a living. Please don’t tell the Board of Directors.
Early Monday morning, as is my daily practice, I opened up the internet. Someone had sent me a 7-minute video of our government’s response to the happenings at Standing Rock in the Dakotas. The situation is deeply disturbing to me and should be to all freedom and earth loving Americans. The indigenous peoples in the area are trying to obstruct construction of an oil pipeline that will threaten their water supply and the desecrated ground they hold to be sacred. The video shows non-violent protesters confronted by police dogs, pepper spray, armored vehicles, and snipers armed with high-powered telescopic rifles, and soldiers or police but who can’t tell the difference. Frankly, the video looks more like life in East Berlin before the wall came down than the home of the free and the brave.
As a people of faith, whose moral compass is the life and ministry of Jesus of Nazareth I do not believe that we in good conscience can remain silent. Several of our Conference Ministers from across this nation are traveling to Standing Rock to give non-violent witness to a Christ who calls us to go in harm’s way for what is right and just. Tim Wiersma and husband Donnie from Cathedral of Hope are coordinating a group to go to Standing Rock to witness. They are planning on arriving November 5 and leaving on the 10. If you are feeling called to action, please contact Tim via email or by phone” 214-288-6221.
Whether you are from Louisiana, Texas or Arizona my home state, this much I know. We are a freedom loving people who will not sit idly by and watch injustice have its way. It matters little whether we are Republican, Democrat or any space on the political spectrum… we are Christians first. Followers of Christ to not flee from injustice in fear. According to II Timothy God has given us a spirit, not of timidity but courage. Let us be courageous and faithful in our witness as this time of testing has come upon us. Our nation’s soul hangs in the balance.
Peace and Honor,