Sermon: “Telling the Story”

21 December 2008

Rev. Bryn Smallwood-Garcia
Congregational Church of Brookfield (UCC)

Fourth Sunday of Advent
December 21, 2008

“Telling the Story”

THE FIRST LESSON: Isaiah 9:2-4, 6-7
Christ’s birth and rule of peace and justice are foretold by Isaiah.

THE SECOND LESSON: Isaiah 40:1-5
The Glory of the Lord shall be revealed

THE THIRD LESSON: Luke 1:26-38
The story of the Annunciation.

The birth of Jesus.

The angels call the shepherds to the manger.

THE SIXTH LESSON: Matthew 2:1-11
The Wise Men are led by a star to Jesus.

John unfolds the great mystery of the Incarnation.

Prayer:   “May the words of my mouth, and the meditations of our hearts and minds be acceptable to you, O Lord, our strength and our redeemer.  Amen.”

Music is a great way to tell a great story.  I know we don’t usually think of anthems as preaching, or hymns as statements of faith – but they are.  The words we sing help us to memorize scripture, and even when we’re very little, they plant big ideas about God deep within our souls.  “O God, our help in ages past, our hope for years to come!”  That hymn was number 1 back in the old Pilgrim Hymnal when I was growing up, and I’ll never forget singing it – sharing a hymnal with my grandmother Lela.  Music works like a mortar to bind our hearts together and shore up the foundations of our faith. 

I asked the choir to share with me their thoughts about how music connects them to the divine, and one singer e-mailed me these words:  “Singing provides emotional release for me. When I joined the choir, when I found an anthem that ‘resonated’ with me, I would memorize it, and then bellow it out to the Lord whenever I felt so moved – in the shower, in the car, doing dishes, whatever.... It is my hope and prayer that those songs and messages I keep in my heart are translated to word and deed for others. After all, how can you sing about peace while you are cutting someone off in traffic?”

So music teaches our souls and touches our emotions.  But not only that, music has the power to transport us to another time, another place.  Music can paint a vivid landscape that words can approach but can’t quite reach.  Toni and I were just talking yesterday – she was playing me a part of her organ prelude for Christmas Eve, “La Nativité” by Langlais – and we were amazed at how well it sets the stage for the shepherds to have their close encounter with heaven.  The mixing of the woodwinds and celeste stops, and the rippling of the melody through the 3 keyboards down to the big pipes on the foot pedals – all were tones we never heard on our old organ, and yet they sound just like a starry sky filling with angels.

But there is danger in all this beautiful Christmas music.  We’re so used to these lessons and carols that, if we’re not careful, they can lull us to sleep like a second helping of roast turkey, or a little too much eggnog.  Because you know, this story we tell every year is actually very shocking – a homeless unwed mother gives birth and has to lay her baby in a feed box!  The shepherds must have been amazed – not only at the news, but that THEY were chosen to receive it. Those shepherds were just ordinary guys – they never in a million years would expect to meet angels.  I mean, wouldn’t you think God would send a heavenly message to CNN headquarters and not to the night watchmen in the Wal-Mart parking lot?  You’d expect angels to appear at the Temple, not on some remote Bethlehem hillside.  The truth is, no one really expects a miracle to happen – not now, and not back then either.  We expect miracles to stay there in the Bible, where they belong, and the shepherds did too!  Remember that for them, it had already been 1300 years since God appeared to Moses in the burning bush.  It had been more than 500 years since God had spoken to the prophet Isaiah.  To the shepherds, messages from God were just what they are to us today – ancient history. 

And yet, real miracles do happen, right here in Brookfield. (I’ll tell you a secret: at my house Thursday night, we prayed for a snow day.  And, lo, there was snow – and there IS snow!)  But no one expects the sky to open and angels to flutter down!  Our miracles are usually much quieter.   Some of you have told me about them.  Your parents divorced and you had to move, but it turned out the best thing that ever happened to you.  You looked across a high school classroom and you fell in love.  You went off to a terrible war and you came back alive.  You had a baby when the doctors said it was impossible.  You had surgery and chemotherapy and then got back on your feet again to dance at your daughter’s wedding.  Resurrection happens!  Here in church, we proclaim that Good News every Sunday.  Here in church we can sing out our thanks and praise at the top of our lungs, and no one cares if we’re off key – there’s amazing grace in a big loud organ!  But here in church, music sets the miracles of the Bible and the miracles of our own lives to the accompaniment of heaven.

Did you read there in your bulletin how the tradition of doing this service of Lessons & Carols began back in 1918?  Your bulletin says it all happened in Cambridge, England.  But do you know who started it, and why?  A group of very grateful students, college students at King’s College, chose these carols and readings as a way to celebrate by candlelight on the first Christmas Eve after November 11, 1918 – the day the First World War ended.  That was a war fought over 4 years in 35 countries.  So many young men had died, that a whole generation of young women – like my great aunts – never did get married.  In Great Britain, with half the population of the United States, they lost close to a million people in the war.  Our country lost just about 100,000 – one-tenth of that amount.  Don’t you know those young Englishmen were happy to be thinking about starting their spring semester at Cambridge?  They couldn’t contain their joy, just to be alive, and so they sang out the story once again.

Think about your life and your greatest joy.  Think about your own stories of miracles: Don’t you have a story to tell?  This is the season I beg you to tell it, and to tell it to anyone who will listen.  Who in your life needs to be in church this magical and candlelit Christmas Eve?  Tell them what worship here means to you – tell them how the stories and music move your soul.  The world needs to be reminded of the amazing gift of love made flesh, born to us in the baby Jesus.  And we get to sing about it, and to tell the story one more time. 

Thanks be to God for this Good News.  Amen.




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