“The sermon was the best part of the service this year,” my sister-in-law said after mass at Clonard Monastery on Christmas Day, and I agreed. She was referencing Fr Derek Ryan’s weaving together of the nativity story with his experiences as godfather to his niece. (You can watch his homily here.)
I have also been enriched over the last few weeks as the monks at the Benedictine Monastery in Rostrevor have begun posting their Sunday homilies on Twitter and Facebook, providing plenty of food for thought.
And I was fortunate to receive the text of the sermon preached by Pastor Roger Newton at Hope Lutheran Church (Missouri Synod Congregation) in Levittown, Pennsylvania on Christmas Day. Newton is retired but still works part-time for the US Navy. He was a guest speaker at Hope Lutheran.
Newton has previously written guest posts on this blog about ‘Celtic Music as a Path to Reconciliation?’, and his Christmas sermon included a recording of the ‘Wexford Carol’ sung by Anúna. He also references the Celtic concept of ‘thin places,’ which he describes as places ‘where you can experience the presence and the power and the love of God more intimately than anywhere else.’
I like how Newton’s sermon acknowledges the range of emotions that may be in the building on Christmas Day, and prompts us to ask questions about merriness, blessedness, peace and fear.
SERMON FOR CHRISTMAS DAY (Based on Luke 2) by Roger Newton
Thank you all for being here today. As you were coming in, did you all wish one another a “Merry Christmas?”
Let’s take a moment to think about Christmas greetings. The greeting you give another person should reflect something you personally possess, something you want to share with the other person.
How about the traditional “Merry Christmas?” Are you merry today? Or are you fatigued from all the seasonal rushing around and shopping? Are you one of the people for whom Christmas is a sad time? Are you worried about something or angry at someone? Are you or a loved one ill? Are you in mourning?
Maybe you aren’t merry today. If that is true, can you sincerely wish another person a “Merry Christmas?”
How about “Blessed Christmas?” Do you feel blessed today? Do you feel that God the Father and His Son Jesus Christ are with you and care about you and that they will make all things beautiful for you, as the preacher promised in Ecclesiastes 3? Maybe you don’t feel blessed today. If not, can you sincerely wish another person a “Blessed Christmas?”
How about “Peaceful Christmas?” After all, “Peace on earth” was the song of the angels on the night Jesus was born.
We usually think of peace as being freedom from war. But for the Christian peace also means that God accepts us as His beloved children. Jesus was born and lived and died so that we might be forgiven for our sinful rebellion against His Father. Jesus came so that we might be at peace with His Father. And he gave us the privilege of calling His Father “Our Father.”
Peace also means freedom from fear.
The shepherds were terrified when the angel first appeared. The angel told them, “Don’t be afraid.” And then they heard a whole multitude from heaven singing, “Glory to God on high and peace to His people on earth!”
Have you seen Norman Rockwell’s painting called “Freedom from Fear?” It is one of four paintings that Rockwell created during World War II in response to a wonderful speech that President Franklin Roosevelt gave titled “The Four Freedoms.” In the painting a mother and father are bending over their two sleeping children with love on their faces. It’s kind of like Mary and Joseph keeping watch over the sleeping newborn Jesus on that holy night. And Jesus’ heavenly Father was looking on lovingly as well.
Fear is very common in our world, just as it was in Jesus’ time. How many times did the angel have to say “Don’t be afraid” to the people who were involved in the birth of Jesus: to Joseph, to Mary, to the shepherds?
Are you at peace today? Or are you fearful about what may be in store for you and your family and your nation and your world in 2014? I hope that today you feel so much at peace that you want to share it with others by wishing them a “Peaceful Christmas.”
I hope you are merry enough to wish others a “Merry Christmas” and blessed enough to wish others a “Blessed Christmas” and at peace enough to wish others a “Peaceful Christmas.
If you are all of those things, you have experienced what those shepherds experienced. You have believed the angel’s message that God is at work through Jesus. You have believed the Gospel.
I’m happy that you decided to come here today in the midst of all the busy-ness and all the rushing around. I hope you are here because you remember that God is still at work through Jesus today. God didn’t stop working after that first Christmas. God didn’t stop working after Jesus preached and taught and healed. God didn’t stop working after Jesus died and was resurrected. God didn’t stop working after He sent the Holy Spirit to the disciples at Pentecost.
God never stops working. God is still at work. And we are celebrating that fact. God is alive and active. God is unleashing His Kingdom in the world today. God is still at work redeeming and bringing about good in our world.
You and I are here today because we have not lost our vision. We are here because we know that God is in control of all the events in our world that could cause us to fear, to doubt, to worry, and to be stressed out.
We may be mourning the loss of a loved one. We may have lost a job. We may have suffered a divorce. We may have failed to get a high grade on a test at school. A loved one may have been diagnosed with cancer. The news on the TV may be bad. Your home may have been robbed or destroyed by fire. A shooter may have terrified and killed the teachers and students at your children’s school.
We are here because we have heard the gospel which the angels proclaimed: “Fear not! There is good news and great joy for all people. The news is good: the Savior is born.” God is at work in us and in our world! And if God is at work, what do we have to fear?
Some of you have heard me speak about the Celtic metaphor known as “thin places.” That’s T-H-I-N, thin places.
Thin places are where you can experience the presence and the power and the love of God more intimately than anywhere else.
I have mentioned my home in a Vermont village. I have told you about the lovely Kitchen Kettle Village in the Amish country of Pennsylvania, where you can watch the ladies making and canning the delicious jams, jellies and relishes and where you can sample the goodies to your heart’s content. Those are thin places for me.
On the Saturday before Christmas, 2013, Kitchen Kettle Village became an even thinner place for me as my family and I experienced the presence of God very powerfully in the music of two magnificent choral groups. I initially regretted that I didn’t get the names of the choirs, but now I realize that it is sufficient to identify them as God’s singers. The first ensemble, from 11:00 AM to 1:00 PM made me want to worship and sing praise to God with dancing and raised hands. The second ensemble, a chamber choir, from 1:00 to 3:00 PM, made me want to fall on my knees and thank God for the heavenly harmonies with which He blesses both the sacred and the secular joys of Christmas. The Village was very “thin” that day.
The bedroom of the sleeping children in the Norman Rockwell painting must have been a “thin place” for the Mom and Dad who bent over their children with love.
The field where the angel told the shepherds not to fear and where the angelic choir sang must have been a very thin place for those shepherds. And the manger where the shepherds beheld the baby Jesus must have been the thinnest place of all.
The Irish monks who helped all of Europe to keep the Christian faith alive in the early Middle Ages must have experienced “thin places” wherever they preached and wherever they prayed.
I love Irish music, especially Irish Christian music. The Irish people have suffered a lot. But they have produced some of the most beautiful Christian music that believers have loved for many centuries. Listening to that music, I feel that I am in a “thin place” because I experience the presence and the love of God the Father and His Son Jesus in that music.
Let’s relax and listen to The Wexford Carol performed by Ireland’s magnificent chamber choir Anúna, featuring the lovely soprano voice of Monica Donlon. When Monica heard that I would be using her recording in this sermon, she e-mailed me that “It’s lovely to know that at least one church on Christmas morning will be thinking about the beautiful text of this carol.” And the director of the choir, Michael McGlynn, gave me permission to play the recording with his blessing.
And after we listen, let’s take the words home in our hearts.
I hope this church is a thin place for you today. And I hope your home will be a thin place for you, where you will experience God’s presence and power and love every day.
May you have a Merry Christmas, a Blessed Christmas and a Peaceful Christmas.
(Image of Norman Rockwell’s ‘Freedom From Fear’ sourced on Wikipedia)