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Christmas Eve — Isaiah 9: 2-7

Merry Christmas, everyone!

“Hope”

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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“This Day”

The Christmas Eve service was beautiful.  Although, it’d be hard to mess it up what with all that amazing candlelight and all those people come to worship Christ the King.  Dan sang “Oh Holy Night” and Leon rang our church’s bells just at the right moment at the end of my sermon.  This is the kind of worship service that gives me hope. Merry Christmas everyone!

“This Day”

Luke 2: 1-20

Rev. Dr. Teri McDowell Ott

December 24th, 2009 – Christmas Eve

What was Luke thinking?  What was he thinking when he put pen to paper, or ink to papyrus, and began to record a story that undoubtedly challenged the reigning powers of Rome?  What was he thinking?  Why would he take such a risk?  The Romans were killing people left and right for challenging their authority.  In order to stamp out any sort of uprising, the Romans were slaughtering and enslaving the people in droves.  The social and political tension between the ruling Romans, their hand-picked client kings, and the people of Palestine was so thick that even a rumor of rebellion could get you publicly executed.[1] So what was Luke thinking when he sat down and began to write?  Why was it so important that this story be told?  And why is it so important that we give Luke our full attention tonight….even though his story is anything but new to us?

Well, apparently, Luke believes in the power of the word.  Apparently Luke believes that a story can make a difference, that a story can effect change, that a story can transform a bad situation….even as bad a situation as his.  So Luke took the risk and wrote the story.

In those days…this is how Luke, our master storyteller, chose to begin.  In those days…. of Emperor Augustus, of imperial census, of long trips home in order to be registered.  In those days….of taxes and tributes, of economic burdens too heavy for families to bear, and of a heavy-handed military ready to pounce on anyone who got out of line.  In those days….of forced peace, of oppression of the poor by the rich, and of expectations to worship the emperor as the people’s savior.  In those days… the story begins.

In those days….the words themselves sound tired and hopeless[2], not to mention the people living through them.  But it was in those days that Jesus was born.  And it was in those days that Jesus comes to us again tonight.

Tired and hopeless.  Maybe you know those days as well.  Maybe you have come here tonight with a foot in Luke’s world.  Maybe those days are today to you.

I’ve found myself waiting in a lot of lines lately.  It seems that this is how we spend a lot of our time during the busy holiday season.  I waited in line at the doctor’s office because they chose the week before Christmas to upgrade to a new (and apparently confusing) computer system.  I waited in line at Rite Aid to get my H1N1 vaccine along with about 150 other germ-a-phobic souls.  I’ve been waiting in a line of traffic for about two months now whenever I venture down highway 15-501.  And of course, I waited in line at Walmart.  There’s no place like Walmart during the holidays.  I waited in line and I did what I assume most everyone does while they wait…I studied the people around me.  And after studying the people for a while I determined that there are two kinds of waiters….people who wait in line quietly and solemnly, they are not happy to be there, but they are not going to make a fuss.  And people who wait in line loudly and indignantly, people who honk their horns in exasperation, or who try to strike up a conversation with you (the quiet, solemn type) in order to complain about the injustice of having to wait.  Regardless of whether you wait quietly and solemnly, or loudly and indignantly, no one is happy to wait.  No one is of especially good cheer.  And I’ve noticed this unhappiness more this year than in year’s past.  I’ve heard more complaining. I’ve witnessed more obscene gestures.  I’ve observed more general unhappiness than I can remember.  Maybe it’s just me.  But maybe it’s not.  Maybe the depressed economy has stolen our Christmas spirit?  Maybe the political tensions of our country and the angry, in-your-face bumper stickers have gotten us all on edge?  Maybe we’re just tired of war and hate and prejudice?  Maybe we’re just dying for peace, but feel there is no peace to be found?

Maybe we’re tired and hopeless, hopeless and tired, and living in those days.

I heard the bells on Christmas day

Their old familiar carols play.

And wild and sweet the words repeat

of peace on earth, good will to men.

I thought how, as the day had come

The belfries of all Christendom

Had rolled along th’ unbroken song

Of peace on earth, good will to men.

And in despair I bowed my head,

“There is no peace on Earth,” I said,

“For hate is strong and mocks the song

Of peace on earth, good will to men.”[3]

Maybe we’re tired and hopeless, hopeless and tired, and living in those days.

But, fortunately for us, this is just the beginning of Luke’s story.  Luke begins in those days, but then he carries us, on the wings of his narrative, to this day, to this day, when the angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them.  Luke carries us to this day, to the day when the angel declares, “Do not be afraid; for see I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.  Those days are gone.  This day has arrived.  And along with this day comes good news and great joy for all the people.  Along with this day comes a new hope and a renewed faith.  Along with this day comes a promise and a future because to you is born this day a Savior.

Luke wrote the story.  He wrote the story, even at great risk, because he knew the power of this day. Luke knew that the birth of the Christ-child meant that God had inaugurated the long-awaited deliverance of God’s people from their enemies.[4] Luke knew that the birth of the Christ-child brought the people hope in a hopeless time.  Luke knew that the birth of the Christ-child brought the people renewal in a time of desperate weariness.

So Luke sat down and wrote the story.  He wrote the story to keep it alive.  He wrote the story to proclaim God’s good news.  He wrote the story to change your life, and my life, and the life of all those living in those days.  He wrote the story so that our ending would not be like our beginning.

And in despair I bowed my head

“There is no peace on earth,” I said,

“For hate is strong and mocks the song

Of peace on earth good will to men.”

Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:

“God is not dead, nor doth he sleep;

The wrong shall fail, the right prevail

With peace on earth, good will to men.”

Till ringing, singing on its way

The world revolved from night to day,

A voice, a chime, a chant sublime

Of peace on earth, good will to men.

Church bells ring….

Now to our God, for whom we ring our bells this Christmas night, be all honor and glory, thanksgiving and power, now and forevermore.  Amen.


[1] Richard A. Horsley, The Liberation of Christmas, pg. 33.  “The period from well before the birth of Jesus through the time of his birth and well beyond the point at which Luke was written was dominated by continuous tension and periodic outbreak of overt conflict between Roman imperial rule and the people in Palestine.”

[2] Charles L. Campbell, “Homiletical Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Year C, Volume 1, pg. 119.

[3] Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day

[4] Richard Horsley, The Liberation of Christmas, pg. 155.

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Christmas Eve Sermon

It’s Monday at 3:00pm.  The kids come home at 4:30pm.  Thursday is Christmas Eve.  And daycare is closed on Wednesday.  Which means I have about an hour left today, plus daycare hours tomorrow to get ready for Christmas.  No pressure, though.

Seriously.  I try to take deep breaths and not put too much pressure on myself.  But this is Christmas Eve!  One of the church’s most beautiful nights!  And a night on which more people will be packed into our pews than on any other occasion, except, of course, maybe Easter.  As a pastor it’s easy to fall into feeling a little cynical about all those unfamiliar faces crossing the church’s threshold on Christmas and taking a spot in a pew.  But I try real hard to see it as more of an opportunity.  It’s a pretty amazing privilege to be given about 10 to 15 minutes to speak to the masses….to have people’s ear and hopefully their attention during worship.  So I want to do well.  No, honestly, I want to do great.  I want to create a worship moment full of beauty.  I want to say something meaningful, and truthful, and hope-filled.  I want to shed a little light into people’s darkness.  And, by the grace of God, I believe that this is possible.  I believe that it is possible for people to experience the Living Word through a pastor’s words….if that pastor has carefully and prayerfully prepared.  So, again, no pressure.  When are my kids coming home??

My primary preaching text for Christmas Eve will be the traditional birth narrative from Luke, Chapter 2: 1-20.  I focused on Isaiah 9:2-7 last year and had fun playing with the dark / light image of “the people who walked in darkness have seen a great light.”  The year before last, I preached a sermon called “What Mary Knew” and focused on Mary’s Magnificat.  Dan followed the sermon by singing, “Mary, Did you Know?”   I can always count on Dan to do something beautiful musically.   So this year I felt it was time to go back to Luke’s familiar story.

My challenge with Luke, though, is how to find a new angle on an old, familiar story.  I’ve found that in order to get my creative juices flowing, I have to find some new angle on the passage, or a new phrase that pops out at me, or a new image.  This year, Charles L. Campbell in his “Homiletical Perspective” in Feasting on the Word gave me my angle.  He directed me to two phrases in the Luke passage that I hadn’t noticed before.  In his article he discusses the significance of the passage that begins with the phrase, “In those days…”  “In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered.”   Then, halfway through the passage, and the story, when Jesus is born the angel announces to the shepherds, “Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.”  It’s an interesting turn in the passage when Luke takes us from “In those days” to “this day” of Jesus’ birth.

In those days” clearly marks the days of Roman imperialism and Roman oppression of the people.  In those days all the world was to be registered.  All the world was to pack up their bags, head home to the place of their birth and be registered so they could then be properly (or exorbitantly) taxed.  How inconvenient.  How rude.  How oppressive it must have felt to make such a trip….especially if you were expecting a baby real soon.  The story begins “in those days.” In those days of forced marches back to your hometown and of heavy, burdensome taxes.  “In those days…” “Even the words sound tired and hopeless,” writes Charles Campbell.

Yet, after Jesus has been born, “this day” has arrived.  “This day,” is full of hope, and promise, and new beginnings.  “This day” has the energy of the present, rather than the weariness of the past.  “This day” marks the turning point in the Christmas story, in our Christian history, and in the lives of all those gathered for worship on Christmas Eve.  From here on out it is all about “this day” and how we respond to the promise that “this day” brings.

Using the contrasting phrases, “In those days” and “this day” I am hoping to write a sermon that somewhat poetically can go back and forth between the two, contrasting the hopelessness of “in those days” with the hope of “this day.”

I am also thinking of using Longfellow’s poem / carol, “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day” that begins pretty hopeless.  “And in despair I bowed my head ‘There is no peace on earth,’ I said, ‘For hate is strong and mocks the song of peace on earth, good will to men.’ But it ends pretty hope-filled, “Then pealed the bells more loud and deep: ‘God is not dead, nor doth He sleep; the wrong shall fail, the right prevail with peace on earth, good will to men.”  And maybe…just maybe we’ll hear some bells pealing at the end?  I need something.  Something creative.  Something beautiful.  Because it is, after all, Christmas Eve.

May the words of my mouth, the meditations of my mind, and the feelings of my heart be acceptable to you, O Lord, my Rock and my Redeemer.  Amen.

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