Archive for December, 2010

Christmas Eve — Isaiah 9: 2-7

Merry Christmas, everyone!


Isaiah 9:2-7

Rev. Dr. Teri McDowell Ott

December 24th, 2010 – Christmas Eve

Ebeneezer Scrooge was a “squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous, old sinner!  Hard and sharp as flint, from which no steel had ever struck out generous fire; secret, and self-contained, and solitary as an oyster.  The cold within him froze his old features, nipped his pointed nose, shriveled his cheek, stiffened his gait; made his eyes red, his thin lips blue; and spoke out shrewdly in his grating voice.  A frosty rime was on his head, and on his eyebrows, and his wiry chin.  He carried his own low temperature always about with him; he iced his office in the dog-days; and didn’t thaw it one degree at Christmas.”[1]

Ebeneezer Scrooge is, of course, the creation of Charles Dickens, and the character whom we know best for his degradation of Christmas.  “Bah humbug!”  Ebeneezer cries!  “Bah humbug!” Don’t you dare try to wish Ebeneezer a Merry Christmas.  He doesn’t believe in Christmas.

As I considered the scripture texts for tonight’s service and as I considered who might all be gathered in this sanctuary tonight I wondered to myself if there might be some Ebeneezer Scrooges in our midst.  I wondered if there might be someone who is here…but not really here.  I wondered if there might be someone here who is cold through and through because life hasn’t given him much to warm himself by.  I wondered if there might be someone here who thinks Christmas is really just a big sham, a holiday marketed out the wahzoo to steal our time and our money and our attention for far more than a month.  I wondered if there might be someone here tonight who might want to believe…who might want to let go…but who knows better and therefore doesn’t.  I wonder if there are any Ebeneezer Scrooges here tonight.  If I’m speaking to you…don’t worry…I imagine you’re not alone.

In fact, I imagine there might be a little of Ebeneezer in us all.  He’s like our dark side, our shadow side, our pessimistic side, that’s not supposed to see the light of day…especially during Christmas.  Yes, at Christmas everything’s supposed to be bright and shiny and happy.  No Scrooges allowed.  Right?  Well…I don’t know about that.  Actually, I do know about that.  I know that Christmas is not just for those who are bright and shiny and happy.  It’s for the Scrooges among us / within us, too.  But it doesn’t feel like that, does it?  It doesn’t feel like it’s okay to be a Scrooge.

The week before Thanksgiving I caught that nasty stomach virus that was going around.  For about 24 hours all I could do was lay in bed as my head throbbed and my stomach churned.  To distract myself from my agony I decided to get up for a while and watch a little T.V.  And it just so happened that Oprah Winfrey’s big “Favorite Things” giveaway show was on.  So I watched it.  You know, this is Oprah’s final season so she had to make this last giveaway show a big one.  And boy did she.  Everyone in her audience that day went home with a brand new Volkswagon Bug along with tons of other really cool stuff.  You should have seen the people on her show.  They were so happy!  They were jumping up and down, weeping with joy, hugging their neighbors, and falling on the floor in the sheer ecstasy of the moment.  Seriously!  It was like a Pentecostal church gathering with all that carrying on.  They had to have medics on hand in case someone had a heart attack.

The whole thing turned into a very good distraction from all that was ailing me. The hour went by fast.  But then it was over.  And I was still sick.  So I crawled back into bed, exhausted from all that happiness, and threw the covers over my head.

Later on, I pondered to myself…is Christmas supposed to feel like this?  Like a happy celebration of happiness?  Like one long month’s worth of ecstatic merry-making that distracts you from all that ails you?  I don’t think Christmas is supposed to feel like this.  But I know, for many, that this is exactly what it is.  It is a season of happiness.  And it doesn’t go a hair deeper.  It doesn’t touch the inner Scrooge.  It doesn’t penetrate the darkness.  And for these unfortunate souls Christmas soon comes to end; the distraction is over and we are back to what ails us.

Of course Christmas could be more.  Christmas could be much much more.  But in order to get us to that “more” we need a prophet to name what is real and point us toward what is possible. We need a prophet who is not peddling happiness all wrapped up in silver and gold…but is proclaiming hope in the form of light that transforms the darkness.

The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness—on them light has shined.  For the yoke of their burden, and the bar across their shoulders, the rod of their oppressor, you have broken as on the day of Midian.

The prophet Isaiah is not addressing a people who are happy for happiness’ sake.  He is addressing a people who are walking in darkness; a people who are heavily burdened; a people who are beaten down, and weary, and oppressed.  They are cold through and through because life hasn’t given them much to warm themselves by.  They want to believe…they want to let go…they want to hope that something better, something beautiful is around the corner….but they just can’t…they just can’t shake the darkness to believe in the light.

It’s to these people that Isaiah cries out.  I know you are tired, Isaiah cries.  I know your burden is heavy.  I know you are sick of all the war and all of the violence and all of the problems that are too big and too impossible to solve. I know you are tired of trying to make ends meet…of cutting back…of trimming when there is nothing left to trim.  I know you are tired of the grief…of the loss…of the wounds that time just can’t seem to heal.  I know you are tired of being tired…and of feeling so scared and so anxious…I know!  I know!  Isaiah cries.

But, I imagine Isaiah then saying, you have come. You are here. Tired as you may be.  Scared as you may be.  Walking in darkness as you may be.  You are here.  And I imagine you are here at least in part to hear these prophetic words…

A child has been born for us, a son given to us; authority rests on his shoulders; and he is named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.

In 1964, when Nelson Mandela was forty-six years old, he was sentenced to life in prison for fighting apartheid in South Africa.  In his autobiography Mandela describes his prison cell on Robbins Island.  “I could walk the length of my cell in three paces.  When I lay down, I could feel the wall with my feet and my head grazed the concrete at the other side. This small cramped space was to be my home for I knew not how long.”[2]

When Mandela first entered that cell his daughter, Zeni, was a very young child.  During his imprisonment she grew up, got married, and then had a child of her own.  By 1979, South African authorities had loosened some of their restrictions on family visits, so Mandela was granted the opportunity to briefly see his daughter, her new husband, and their newborn baby.

“It was truly a wondrous moment when they came into the room,” Mandela writes.  I stood up, and when Zeni saw me she ran across the room to embrace me.  [It had been fourteen years since I had seen and held her.]  I then embraced my new son and he handed me my tiny granddaughter, whom I did not let go of for the entire visit.  To hold a newborn baby, so vulnerable and soft in my rough hands that for too long had held only picks and shovels, was a profound joy.  I don’t think a man was ever happier to hold a baby than I was that day.

Mandela continues, “The visit had a more official purpose, [though], and that was for me to choose a name for the child.  It is the custom [in South Africa] for the grandfather to select a name, and the [name] I had chosen was Zaziwe—which means ‘Hope’.”[3]

There in a dark prison cell not much bigger than many of our closets, a prison cell from which Mandela (for all he knew) might never be free…he names his newborn granddaughter, “Hope.”

Ah…there is something about a newborn baby that inspires hope.  Even in a cramped prison cell…even in a land of deep darkness….even in a heart that has grown cold through and through…a newborn baby inspires hope.  And that, my friends, is what Christmas is all about.

A child has been born for us, a son given to us; authority rests on his shoulders; and he is named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.

Christmas isn’t a happy celebration of happiness.  Christmas is hope. Christmas is the hope that comes with the birth of a newborn baby; the hope for a future, the hope for possibility, the hope for a new beginning, the hope for new moments of joy and grace, beauty and love.  Christmas isn’t something that merely distracts us from what ails us.  Christmas changes us.  Christmas transforms us.  Christmas dives deep and penetrates the darkness because Christmas is hope.  Christmas is for real people with real lives who struggle with real darkness.  Christmas is for the Scrooge within us all.

Perhaps you know how the story goes.  How Scrooge, that old curmudgeon, is taken on a tour of Christmas past, present, and future.  He is taken on a tour and shown how dark the darkness can really get.  But the tour is also a chance…the tour offers Scrooge an opportunity…the tour of Christmas offers Scrooge the gift of hope.  And that hope changes him, that hope warms him, that hope transforms him.

Ebeneezer Scrooge emerges from his tour of Christmas past, present, and future a changed man and he can’t wait to tell the world.  It’s a new day…it’s Christmas day…he scrambles to get himself dressed…he shaves so quickly he almost cuts off the tip of his nose…and he bursts out of his house onto the city streets.  He bursts out of his darkness into the marvelous light and shouts out to anyone who will listen, “I don’t know what day of the month it is!  I don’t know how long I’ve been among the Spirits.  I don’t know anything [because] I’m quite a baby; [quite a newborn baby.]” [4]

“I am as light as a feather, I am as happy as an angel, I am as merry as a schoolboy.  I am as giddy as a drunken man.  A merry Christmas to everybody!  A Happy New Year to all the world.”[5] And God bless us, every one!

Christmas is for real people with real lives who struggle with real darkness.  Christmas is for the Scrooge within us all because Christmas is hope.

May we all be transformed by this hope tonight.  May we all be transformed by the light of the newborn Christ child who has come to penetrate our darkness.

Now to the God who gives us this child, be all honor and glory, thanksgiving and power, now and forevermore.  Amen.

[1] Charles Dickens, “A Christmas Carol,” first published in 1843, Kindle locations             44-60.

[2] As quoted by Donald Shriver, Jr. in “Honest Patriots: Loving a Country Enough to Remember its Misdeeds,” (Oxford University Press, New York, NY, 2005), pg. 63.

[3] Ibid, pgs. 69-70.

[4] Charles Dickens, “A Christmas Carol,” first published in 1843, Kindle locations             1261-1262.

[5] Ibid, Kindle locations 1177-1179.

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Do Not Fear — Isaiah 35: 1-10

My time as the pastor of Cameron Presbyterian Church is coming to a close.  What follows is the sermon from this past fourth Sunday of Advent.  I have two more sermons to preach for my church, one on Christmas Eve and one final sermon on Sunday, December 26th…my last Sunday.  I will post my Christmas Eve sermon here on the blog but I am debating posting my final sermon.  It may just be too personal to post.  Thanks to all of you, near and far, who have been following our blog.  Dan and I definitely plan to keep the blog up and running and will post our sermons, theological reflections, and random musings in our new positions at Monmouth College in Monmouth, IL.  May God’s peace be with you all as we celebrate this holy season and move into our new year full of new beginnings….

“Do Not Fear”

Isaiah 35: 1-10

Rev. Dr. Teri McDowell Ott

December 19th, 2010 – Fourth Sunday of Advent

We live in frightening times.  People are afraid.  People are anxious and afraid for their children.  People are anxious and afraid about their jobs.  People are anxious about losing the life that they have self-constructed and they are afraid because they know that the loss of these things is inevitable.[1] We live in frightening times.  But it’s not just these times…because we humans are also timelessly afraid of death and of loss.  We are timelessly afraid of the stranger.  We are timelessly afraid of those who think and act differently.  We are timelessly afraid of change.  We are timelessly afraid of all that we cannot control, of all that is beyond our human power.

Alyce McKenzie, in a sermon on fear, suggests it’s a good practice to name our fears, to name the knots that fear has balled up in our stomachs.   Illustrating this point she tells the story of Gary.  “Gary is a computer analyst in his mid-forties and he has been married and divorced twice, most recently about three years ago.  For about a year he has been dating a wonderful woman…named Gina, also divorced and with an adorable seven-year-old daughter she is trying to get full custody of.  Gary and Gina came to me [McKenzie writes] last winter and asked if I would marry them at the end of April.  Our counseling and wedding planning were going along fine until, along about mid-March, Gary began to develop a case of very cold feet.  When he shared this with Gina…instead of getting angry, she suggested he go away for a daylong retreat to be alone with God and himself, to get clear about things.  Gary started driving with no particular destination.  He ended up at a beautiful site near Lake Texoma.”

“[Gary] got out of his car and began to walk [McKenzie continues] to soothe his jangled nerves, to center his thoughts on God.  He sat down on a bench that overlooked the lake and he tried to unravel the knots in his stomach.”

“As he stared out at the lake…it became clear to him that there were three knots in his stomach, and each had a name.  One of the knots was his fear that he would just keep repeating the same relationship mistakes.  The second knot in his stomach was the fear of the chaos and pain that could come from the custody battle facing Linda.  And the third knot in his stomach was maybe the hardest, knottiest of all:  it was the fear that maybe he was just not worthy of another person’s love and was destined to have to face his future alone.”[2]

McKenzie concludes her illustration by suggesting that it is wise to take some time, to find a quiet spot and get some focus on our fears.  Name the knots in your stomach.  Name that which is physically causing you stress and anxiety so you can bring it into proper perspective.

Do your knots hold the names of the people you are worried about?  Spouse.  Parent.  Child.  Sibling.  Is your knot named after your marriage?  Is your knot named after your uncertain future?  Is your knot currently on a moving truck to Illinois with all your worldly possessions?  Oh….I need a minute….

Focus on your fear.  Name your knots.  And then hear these words from the prophet Isaiah.

Strengthen the weak hands,

And make firm the feeble knees.

Say to those who are of a fearful heart,

Be strong, do not fear!

Here is your God.[3]

Perhaps the most pervasive command in all of scripture is, “Do not fear!”  From cover to cover our scriptures proclaim, “Do not be afraid.”  When the glory of the Lord shone around those shepherds and an angel appeared, they were terrified.  But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid!”  And Jesus constantly encouraged his disciples not to live in fear.  He constantly encouraged them because they were constantly afraid.  When he decided to go to Jerusalem, the disciples were afraid and begged him not to go.  When he was arrested, they all fled in fear.  After his crucifixion they cowered in fear in a locked room.  And when a few of them ventured to the place of burial early Sunday morning and found the tomb empty, the encouraging words came again: “Do not be afraid!”[4]

The bible tells us over and over again not to be afraid and it does so because fear is the enemy of life.  John Buchanan, in an article on this passage, writes, “Fear is such an enemy of life.  It’s hard to love when you are afraid.  It’s hard to care passionately when you’re afraid.  It’s impossible to be joyful about anything when you are afraid.  Fear limits life, constrains life, pollutes life.  Fear can be a good thing when it alerts us to danger.  But…when fear becomes overwhelming….it takes over.”  Living in fear is not really living.  Fear is not life-giving.  So the bible tells us over and over again, “Do not fear.”

Of course, this is easier said than done.  We do, after all, live in frightening times.  There is much to be afraid of.  So how do we escape being ruled by our fears?

At a preaching conference I recently heard Dr. Craig Barnes speak about fear and about how we might escape it.  Dr. Barnes wisely said that the only way to get rid of fear is to be loved out of it. Think about it, he said, you can’t argue anyone out of their fear.  You can’t rationalize them out of it.  The only way to get rid of fear is to be loved out of it.  When your little child wakes up in the middle of the night terrified and screaming because there is a monster in his room, you don’t get up and go to his door and say, “Now Isaac, we’ve talked about this…there’s no such thing as monsters and they certainly don’t live under your bed.”  No!  Barnes’ said.  You rush into the room and pull Isaac into your arms and you love him until he’s no longer thinking about monsters but instead about those loving arms that are embracing him.[5] Again, the only way to get rid of fear is to be loved out of it.

Dr. Barnes’ words were very wise.  And they are good for us to hear especially during this season of Advent.  I recently read a devotion that suggested that—just like we give up something for Lent each year—that we give up fear for Advent.  Give up fear?  Is that even possible?  Well, perhaps it is when we consider what all we are celebrating.  During Advent we prepare ourselves for the birth of the Christ child, for the birth of Emmanuel, or God-with-us.  During Advent we remember that God loves us so much that God chose to be incarnate, that God chose to be flesh with flesh, that God chose to live with us, to live among us, and to live among all that frightens us.  During Advent we remember that God risked everything, entering our scary and frightening world as a vulnerable newborn baby.  God did this, God took this risk so we could feel and know and experience the embrace of God’s amazing love.

The great poet Madeleine L’Engle writes:

This is no time for a child to be born,

With the earth betrayed by war & hate

And a comet slashing the sky to warn

That time runs out & the sun burns late.

That was no time for a child to be born,

In a land in the crushing grip of Rome;

Honour & truth were trampled by scorn—

Yet here did the Savior make his home.

When is the time for love to be born?

The inn is full on the planet earth,

And by a comet the sky is torn—

Yet Love still takes the risk of birth.[6]

We live in frightening times.  There is much to be afraid of.  And our fears certainly could rule our lives.  But this Advent, perhaps we could give up that fear.  Perhaps we could give up our fear because God has heard our terrified screams, has come rushing to our room and is here to love us out of our fear.  God is here to pull us into God’s arms and to love us until we’re no longer thinking about monsters under our bed, but about those loving arms that are embracing us.

Strengthen the weak hands,

And make firm the feeble knees.

Say to those who are of a fearful heart,

Be strong, do not fear!

Here is your God.[7]

Now to this loving God, be all honor and glory, thanksgiving and power, now and forevermore.  Amen.

[1] Dr. Craig Barnes at the Lectionary Homiletics 2010 Conference in Nashville, TN.

[2] Alyce M. McKenzie, “Novel Preaching,” (Westminster John Knox Press, Louisville, KY, 2010), pgs. 127-128.

[3] Isaiah 35: 3-4

[4] John Buchanan, “Preaching the Advent Texts,” in Journal for Preachers, Advent 2010, pg. 11.

[5] Dr. Craig Barnes, from his lecture at the May 2010 Festival of Homiletics in Nashville, TN.

[6] Madeleine L’Engle, “The Ordering of Love,” (Waterbrook Press, Colorado Springs, CO, 2005), pg. 155.

[7] Isaiah 35: 3-4

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