What you’re about to find here are some thoughts, maybe more like “approaches” to the Christmas message. I’ve thought about these things for many years, as a song-writer and as a prose writer. But, I also find I ponder them anew each Advent & Christmas as one who so very much wants it all to be true; one who wants it to be the most wonderful dream beyond all telling come to life.
Me? I can boast no official “credentials.” I am simply an avid and deeply curious lover of the Christmas texts and what they have to say to 21st century men & women. And about the God who seems to “show up” among us in the most vulnerable of ways. I will only claim that I feel that I have immersed myself in the texts concerning Christmas. I’ve prayed over them, written scores of songs about them (not your typical “hymns,” mind you); I have wrestled with the implications of Emmanuel, “God With Us.”
And so: If these “homilies” can be of help to anyone (layperson or pastor) feel free to quote at length.
May the health & wholeness of this Season of Hope be yours & your loved now and always…Happy Holidays & Merry Christmas ~ bill mallonee
1st Sunday in Advent. Emmanuel “God With Us.”
The Birth of Jesus Luke 1: 18-25 (From The Message Bible)
“The birth of Jesus took place like this. His mother, Mary, was engaged to be married to Joseph. Before they came to the marriage bed, Joseph discovered she was pregnant. (It was by the Holy Spirit, but he didn’t know that.) Joseph, chagrined but noble, determined to take care of things quietly so Mary would not be disgraced.
While he was trying to figure a way out, he had a dream. God’s angel spoke in the dream: “Joseph, son of David, don’t hesitate to get married. Mary’s pregnancy is Spirit-conceived. God’s Holy Spirit has made her pregnant. She will bring a son to birth, and when she does, you, Joseph, will name him Jesus—‘God saves’—because he will save his people from their sins.” This would bring the prophet’s embryonic sermon to full term:
Watch for this—a virgin will get pregnant and bear a son;
They will name him Immanuel (Hebrew for “God is with us”).
Then Joseph woke up. He did exactly what God’s angel commanded in the dream: He married Mary. But he did not consummate the marriage until she had the baby. He named the baby Jesus.”
Most of mankind’s wildest, most noble hopes are wrapped up in flesh & blood of Him who they call Jesus, the Savior of the world.
He came at a time when the ancient world was filled with brutality and fear, heavy-handed rule and political ambition.
It was a world starving for love. Social caste systems were inviolable and military might “made right.”
Into that world is born Jesus Christ.
Vulnerable, helpless, lacking any worldly “credentials” that would have put one ahead.
He came with authority.
He came with healing power.
He came with a special love for the poor,
He came to those who knew their own skin and what shabbiness dwelt beneath that skin.
He came with Beatitudes of the Kingdom; ones that turned the values of the day upside down.
And He came with a Sermon on the Mountain guaranteed to blow your mind.
That text alone was the internalization (and one might add, simplification) of everything Yahweh had been trying to teach His people for centuries.
And here it was falling from the lips of a Jewish carpenter; laid out in bold, poetic, immediate terms.
Authorities and bureaucrats tend to have no time for “exceptions” to the rule.
Things were no different back in the time of Christ. Here was Jesus, born of low-estate, from a back-water Judaean town delivering His message as a self-styled rabbi.
In the end, it was more than the authorities & Jerusalem blue-bloods of His day could handle.
But that’s another story…
His message, indeed His whole Person, was an upheaval to the individual heart and the whole social order of the day;
Straight-forward and without compromise.
His message and His very life was a “first shall be last and last shall be first” politic of the heart.
He preached the intimate Love & Tenderness of the Father towards the repentant sinner.
He scandalized the His followers to address God as Abba. “Papa.” “Daddy.”
He claimed equality with the Lord who made Heaven & Earth, and insisted that one’s response to Him was also the same response to His Father.
He preached a Kingdom that was only beginning to stir among men & women; and He proclaimed that it’s membership encompassed everyone.
Me? I knew at an early age all the joys and expectations of Advent & Christmas narratives (whether they are history or memories nuanced with touches of zealous imagination.) They seeped into this small child’s imagination and have been inspiring him ever since.
Later, as an adult and as a songwriter, I was fortunate to attend a small house-church fellowship for many years in Athens, Ga.
The solid, informed Biblical teaching began to orient me towards God’s way of “seeing things;”
Including how He see me in Christ.
The New Testament writers were a varied lot. Different backgrounds, different audiences. But all of them were united in gathering the facts concerning Jesus and His work, reporting His words and deeds…and then wrestling with the implications of this One Life, the very Light of the World.
The very Light that came that first Christmas and continues to come into our broken, weary, sin-sick hearts and world.
Jesus. Emmanuel. “God With Us.”
So deep and wide and broad in His Love and Concern for each of us that one could never sound the depths of it.
Jesus. The Mystery we are called to love in return, no matter how stumbling our steps.
It often happens that the people who are supposed to “represent” Him here do the worst and bloodiest damage throughout mankind’s dismal history, I have all sympathy with those for feel they must “turn away” from such representations of Christ, the man of Peace.
But, Christ “takes us where we’re at.”
I’m convinced He’s more concerned about each of us “learning His heart.”
It’s all right there in the New Testament.
Immerse yourselves in it.
Pray over it’s texts, it’s words, it’s demands, it’s implications.
Take a risk: Ask Jesus to help you apply it to your own heart and situations.
He will not fail to teach you; not fail to lavish His Mercy upon you, nor fail to lead you into His Truth.
“Your Redeemer lives.”
He is near…
As the Christmas Gospel proclaims Our Emmanuel, “God with us.”
Experience His Spirit, quietly and steadfastly at work within you.
You will find such a balm is healing for the soul.
And then the learning to walk.
Do any of us ever really get past this?
I remember memorizing Psalm 51, one of the Bible’s penitential psalms, just to have it ready-reference as I walked or jogged;
It was a way of prompting contrition and reminding myself of the Lord’s lovingkindness.
Yes. That trying our best to live out that Kingdom life; that all-too-frequent picking ourselves from our failures, dusting ourselves off and beginning again.
However stumbling we may be in our “first steps.” We begin, by accepting our acceptance.
We begin by recognizing our deep need and broken-ness. An empty cup He seems to be all-too-ready to fill.
Then the simple exchanges of just talking to Him daily & listening become a way of transformation from within and into the world in which we live.
We get use to living in our own skin.
And one thing more:
And we learn to love the spirits of our fellow travellers.
Our brothers & sisters.
And maybe, by God’s Grace, even our enemies.
The world is starving for such manifestations of that Love.
Joy & courage on your journey,
2nd Sunday in Advent
1. Luke 3: 1-6
“In the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar,
when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea,
and Herod was tetrarch of Galilee,
and his brother Philip tetrarch of the region
of Ituraea and Trachonitis,
and Lysanias was tetrarch of Abilene,
during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas,
the word of God came to John the son of Zechariah in the desert.
John went throughout the whole region of the Jordan,
proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins,
as it is written in the book of the words of the prophet Isaiah:
A voice of one crying out in the desert:
“Prepare the way of the Lord,
make straight his paths.
Every valley shall be filled
and every mountain and hill shall be made low.
The winding roads shall be made straight,
and the rough ways made smooth,
and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.”
Luke begins his version of the story of Jesus by anchoring it in history; by grounding it in the stuff of flesh & blood. Not fiction, not fancy.
Real history. It is Christianity most “outlandish” claim. Christianity is not mere “spirituality,” although it is that, as well.
But the claim that God entered human history in the Person & work of Christ?
THAT is the claim that believers are asked to test, to trust in and participate in.
God makes Himself vulnerable and personal to each of us. It is quite a claim and yet it is the bedrock of our faith and our hope.
The near-ness of God.
Earthy. Immediate. And he anchors it story by story, parable by parable, miracle by miracle in the lives of folks like you & I.
The Gospel of Luke. It’s the Gospel of “John & Jane Doe.”
People ask me about Jesus sometimes. I’m known, fairly far & wide in some circles, as a singer-songwriter who writes about “faith issues.”
People ask me: “How do you know Jesus is there? How do you know He’s real? How do you know that all the gospel writer’s claim about Him…is true?”
And for years, most of the answers I’d give people seem to border on something like an intellectual insult to them or they took some form of academic pontificating from some higher moral ground.
Sure, there’s a place for true scholarship and that branch of theology known as “apologetics.” (Unfortunately named “label,” if ever there was one!)
But, these days I trend to downplay the “canned” responses, even when feel tempted to resort to them…
Perhaps our faith is already storm-battered, threadbare.
How to respond?
“Well,” I say, “you can talk to Him. Just like a Friend. Ask Him to “show” Himself to you.
And “Yes,” I say, it might be a little scary.”
Ask Him hard things like: “Why is the world is such a broken place?”
And, if you get the courage, ask Him: “Why am I so broken within myself?”
And, why you’re at it, ask Him why everything & everyone hurts.
And ask Him why there seems to be no end to the atrocities man inflicts on his supposedly fellowman.
If He’s real, then assume He’s a ‘big” God. And assume that He isn’t at all offended by your questions, if they originate from an honest heart.
He’ll answer, I believe.
But then, of course, you have to learn to listen.
But, it’s “listening” in a different way; Much like trying to tune in an old AM station.
With Jesus, you have to be open to picking up His frequencies in a different manner.
Via the texts (Holy Scriptures) we have handed down to us through the centuries, though the promptings or “nudges” of His Spirit, or through the mouths of his stumbling saints, He speaks. To you. To me.
Listening in such a way is not necessarily modern man’s strong card these days.
In a day and age of disposable info delivered through the barrage social media, it’s no wonder we feel over-whelmed.
Strangely, for all of our “full-course dinner” of information, we also seem to be life-threateningly “under-nourished.”
Let us try, asking His help & His Grace to approach these texts in a different way, with the ears of our spirits more opne. Not only on the Sundays of Advent, but perhaps, as time affords, in private moments throughout the Advent & Christmas Season.
Because, His Coming, His compassionate sharing in our own flesh & blood (in every way like unto our own except for sin) is the “Reason for the Season.”
He still has much to say; To you, and to me.
Dial in that station.
Reach out to Him, through prayer, asking for light (even with the hard questions!); I believe you will find that even as you reach out to Him, that He in His Bethlehem-Love, has already reached out to you.
3rd Sunday in Advent ~ Luke 4: 14-32 (The Message Bible)
“Jesus returned to Galilee powerful in the Spirit. News that he was back spread through the countryside. He taught in their meeting places to everyone’s acclaim and pleasure. He came to Nazareth where he had been reared. As he always did on the Sabbath, he went to the meeting place. When he stood up to read, he was handed the scroll of the prophet Isaiah. Unrolling the scroll, he found the place where it was written,
God’s Spirit is on me;
he’s chosen me to preach the Message of good news to the poor,
Sent me to announce pardon to prisoners and
recovery of sight to the blind,
To set the burdened and battered free,
to announce, “This is God’s year to act!”
He rolled up the scroll, handed it back to the assistant, and sat down. Every eye in the place was on him, intent. Then he started in, “You’ve just heard Scripture make history. It came true just now in this place.”
All who were there, watching and listening, were surprised at how well he spoke. But they also said, “Isn’t this Joseph’s son, the one we’ve known since he was a youngster?”He answered, “I suppose you’re going to quote the proverb, ‘Doctor, go heal yourself. Do here in your hometown what we heard you did in Capernaum.’ Well, let me tell you something: No prophet is ever welcomed in his hometown. Isn’t it a fact that there were many widows in Israel at the time of Elijah during that three and a half years of drought when famine devastated the land, but the only widow to whom Elijah was sent was in Sarepta in Sidon? And there were many lepers in Israel at the time of the prophet Elisha but the only one cleansed was Naaman the Syrian.” That set everyone in the meeting place seething with anger. They threw him out, banishing him from the village, then took him to a mountain cliff at the edge of the village to throw him to his doom, but he gave them the slip and was on his way.
He went down to Capernaum, a village in Galilee. He was teaching the people on the Sabbath. They were surprised and impressed—his teaching was so forthright, so confident, so authoritative, not the quibbling and quoting they were used to.” ~ Luke 4: 14-32
People tend to forget just how “disowned” He was. Right off the top.
We forget that He was disowned by the authorities both political & religious.
God “scandalizes” us by deciding to “appear” among the meek, the lowly, the poor, the marginalized.
He “scandalizes” our sensibilities still to this day.
We’re scandalized by Him to this very minute;
Scandalized and “offended as a nation, and mostly likely as individuals, as well.
There are “hard” truths to reckon with.
At least I find them hard.
It helps to remind ourselves that often human history is one set by “trajectories;” That a move in one direction can have a domino-effect for good or evil.
I remind myself that push backs against the world’s darkness & despair start with little acts, that are very important because they can reset the trajectories of our lives personally, as a nation and as the people of God. “Little acts” like loving your spouse, your children, doing your job with integrity and goodwill.
Still, (sadly) we live in a world of “static;” One that screams other values that compete for our heart’s affections.
A world that makes idols out of Mammon, Power & Distraction will likely always be scandalized by His words, His message, His Love.
It’s hard to reconcile His Kingdom values with what we tend to call “the real world.”
(In fact, much of His message, and the theology of the apostolic letters, is God’s way of trying awaken us to what real life is vs. the world illusion and it’s counterfeits.)
We tend to try and steer a “middle course.”
We wear our symbols of the faith, be they visible or “invisible.”
We champion our faith…but then hedge our bets by building and employing massive war machines (in the name of the Prince of Peace);
We hide behind the walls of our gated communities.
We call into service rhetoric that diminishes our responsibility towards the poor, the lowly and the marginalized of society;
The very people He seems to have taken such and interest in.
We fail to address systemic evil and fail to ask our leaders to do the same.
Let us ask the Lord for Grace on these matters.
And Courage, as well.
Because it will take Courage to ask of ourselves, our leaders (both religious and political) the clarification, the discernment and the action that are demanded as we wrestle with the implications of Jesus’ Kingdom message.
4th Sunday in Advent/Luke 2: 8-20 (The Message Bible)
“There were sheepherders camping in the neighborhood. They had set night watches over their sheep. Suddenly, God’s angel stood among them and God’s glory blazed around them. They were terrified. The angel said, “Don’t be afraid. I’m here to announce a great and joyful event that is meant for everybody, worldwide: A Savior has just been born in David’s town, a Savior who is Messiah and Master. This is what you’re to look for: a baby wrapped in a blanket and lying in a manger.”
At once the angel was joined by a huge angelic choir singing God’s praises:
“Glory to God in the heavenly heights,
Peace to all men and women on earth who please him!”
As the angel choir withdrew into heaven, the sheepherders talked it over. “Let’s get over to Bethlehem as fast as we can and see for ourselves what God has revealed to us.” They left, running, and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby lying in the manger. Seeing was believing. They told everyone they met what the angels had said about this child. All who heard the sheepherders were impressed.
Mary kept all these things to herself, holding them dear, deep within herself. The sheepherders returned and let loose, glorifying and praising God for everything they had heard and seen. It turned out exactly the way they’d been told!”
The core of the Holy Season is built upon it.
There was waiting through the millennia. There were rumors abounding. Legends, myths; Mankind was sent “good dreams,” said C S. Lewis. All visited upon mankind to rouse his sense of expectation…and hope.
Scripture paints a picture of curious detectives combing through texts and clues, spirit promptings and circumstances; sifting through the work of God in Israel’s history, trying to discern the where, the when, the intentions of God, “things the angels longed to look into,” says St. Paul.
In Jesus’ time, there was a renewed expectancy for God to “make good on His Promise;” to send Israel a warrior, a liberator, One who would free them from Roman domination and restore them as a “player” among the nations.
And it happened. Yes, The Promise appeared.
The culmination of all that the ages of tired, weary, sin-sick humanity had hoped for & strained to see, appeared.
All that the Good & Gracious Lord longed to show us and do for us appeared. “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us.”
A living, breathing, walking, speaking Promise.
It was all too much for most…
So much that even the Gospel writers themselves strain for an adequate nomenclature to describe the experience. (St. John utilization of “the Logos,” “The Word” comes to mind.)
And of course, no one was ready.
No one except those with eyes and hearts to see.
They numbered the poor in spirit, the lowly, the humble, the meek, the lost, forgotten, the disenfranchised, the marginalized.
No marching band kick-off ritual. No main street, ticker tape parade.
There were some shepherds doing the night watch. What they were on the verge of seeing, experiencing and believing is nothing short of the Glory of God.
it took then “off-guard.” I think true Grace, once comprehended, always makes us catch our breath.
It’s those “lump-in-the-throat” moments that empower us, humble us. It’s an awakening to the beauty and tenderness of the universe. A son or daughter graduates; a friend stares down cancer; a loved one comes home from rehab; a soldier comes home from war…
They are each and all a testimony that the Kingdom is “breaking in” to our lives and our world.
The “intrusion” of God into the simple goings & comings of simple men & women is one of Luke’s most endearing literary trademarks; And one of the Church’s favorite stories. The shepherd’s sense of astonishment and chil-like wonder makes all of us yearn for God’s revelation o have a similar impact on our own lives..
There was also a band of angels made the gig. (Personally” I like to think they were swinging some New Orleans style Dixieland jazz);
They probably expected a much larger crowd.
After all. This is Christ the King, the Lord of Glory, Lord of Heaven and Earth who is coming into the wold.
But, the concert goers were small in number.
No suit & tie crowd, either. No “Will-Call” attendees. No balcony, reserved seating.
Shepherds, in all their brutish, blue-collar rough-ness, were the favored ones that evening.
Perhaps no one, ever since, has ever loved a “show” more than the shepherds who witnessed & heard the angel choir that Bethlehem evening.
So much so they became His first earthly heralds:
“As the angel choir withdrew into heaven, the sheepherders talked it over.
Let’s get over to Bethlehem as fast as we can and see for ourselves what God has revealed to us.”
They left, running, and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby lying in the manger.
Seeing was believing.
They told everyone they met what the angels had said about this child.
All who heard the sheepherders were impressed.
Mary kept all these things to herself, holding them dear, deep within herself.
The sheepherders returned and let loose, glorifying and praising God for everything they had heard and seen.
It turned out exactly the way they’d been told!” Luke 2: 15-20
Let us ask God to create in us a sense of Holy expectation as we journey through this Advent in preparation for His Christmas coming;
Let us ask him for the eyes & heart of the meek & lowly, too both see and embrace, just as they did, Jesus, Emmanuel, “God with us.”
(copyright Bill Mallonee Musings and Songs For the Journey & Beyond c. 2016)