STEPHEN’S PRESBYTERIAN CHURCH DECEMBER 27, 2020

Rev. Sabrina Ingram                                                                                                                                 Christmas 1

 

WORSHIPPING TOGETHER AT HOME

 

Call to Worship

 

Lighting of the Christ Candle

 

Music – Infant Holy, Infant Lowly

 

Prayer of Adoration and Confession

Holy  God, we praise you.

You love us with an everlasting love.

Your mercy never comes to an end.

You never leave us or forsake us.

You have sent your Son as light in our darkness.

You give us hope.

 

We confess that our darkness can be pretty bleak.  We easily fall into despair.  We fail to trust you and to believe your promises.  We are negative and we give negative messages to others.  We squash the hopes and dreams of those we love.

When we look at our world, we tend to see doom and gloom.  The News reports are usually discouraging.  We forget to see the beauty and wonder of your Spirit at work.

We also look at our lives, seeing what is harmful and problematic.  Hope is fleeting.

Forgive us.  Of all people, we have the most to be hopeful about because you are our God; Christ has come and been victorious; your Spirit is always with us.

 

As we worship today, lift up our hearts that we may be filled with thanksgiving, hope and praise.  We lift up your holy name, Father, Son and Holy Spirit.  Amen.

 

Assurance of Pardon Romans 5: 1 & 2

By entering through faith into what God has always wanted to do for us

—set us right with him, make us fit for him

—we have it all together with God because of our Master Jesus.

And that’s not all: We throw open our doors to God

and discover at the same moment that he has already thrown open his door to us.

We find ourselves standing where we always hoped we might stand

—out in the wide open spaces of God’s grace and glory,

standing tall and shouting our praise.

 

Prayer for Illumination:

God of grace, as we wait for the birth of Christ, fill us with anticipation and let our hope touch all those we encounter this Christmas and always.  Amen. 

 

Scripture Readings

Romans 8: 18 – 28

John 1: 1 – 5

 

Message:  Christmas in the time of CoVid: Hope

 

Once again, we’re on the verge of a new year.   However, if we don’t stop it from happening, we’ll have to admit 2021 (hint: say it slowly).  A new year is a hope-filled event but 2021 can’t come fast enough.  No one will be nostalgic for 2020 and few will look back with fond memories.  Typically, we view the passage from one year to the next as a time to wipe the slate clean and start over.  Press the reset button.   Whatever the year, we hope the new one will be better still.  To help that fresh start along, we make resolutions.   Resolutions soon become commitments to give old habits a fresh start.   But for those with strong will power – before you give up all your bad habits, remember – nobody likes a quitter.

 

There are other times in life when we’re hopeful.  When we graduate from school, start a new job, get married or give birth we’re bursting with hope for the future.  Children are hopeful – or adults are hopeful for them because, in retrospect, we realize that for children anything is possible.   Everything’s an option.  Life lies before them like a blank canvas.  Maybe that’s the reason adults like to ask children what they want to be when they grow up.    Here are some responses from children who were asked that question:

  • “When I grow up, I want to get a girlfriend, I want to kiss her, and I want to rule the world”.
  • “… be a fireman, have a wife and kids, and breed dragons.”
  • “… I want to be a dog”. That’ll make his parents proud.
  • “When I grow up, I want to get a hat and put it on”. I think that one will be attainable.
  • “Someday, I’ll have so much food to eat that I’ll explode.”    Her short-term goals might make her happy, but her long term goals are questionable.

But not every child is hopeful.  For some, despair kicks in at an early age.

  • “After high school I will…die.” Although, he could think that’s true of everyone given the advanced age of high school students.

 

It is a terrible thing when the future looks bleak and we’re filled with despair.  This Christmas season was disheartening for many who were isolated from family and friends due to the CoVid lockdown.  This year some have dealt with illness or the death of a loved one.  The suffering indicated by the global death rate is overwhelming.   Many are thinking about our own mortality.   Isolation leads to a state of depression.  The divorce rate is going up.   Good parents find themselves being impatient.  Front line workers are exhausted.  Anxiety abounds.   Many who have been unable to work are facing bankruptcy, losing their homes or unable to support their families.  And just when a vaccination gives us hope, the virus mutates into something 70 times more contagious.  It’s disheartening just talking about it.

 

Even in the best of times, it is also the worst of times.  Although much in our lives is good and the future holds promise, we still live in a world where iniquity abounds.  Nations go to war.  People are oppressed.  Children are abused.  Many these days are filled with hostility.  Cheating, lying, stealing are considered life skills.  And against all odds, sexual promiscuity finds ways of reaching new heights.  There are drug cartels and arms dealers and human traffickers.  Hope that is based on human behaviour is a fragile thing.   Even in our personal lives, suffering abounds, undreamed of events shatter our equilibrium and tragedy covers us like a cloak.  We are shrouded in darkness.

 

Christmas – the coming of Christ – is a time of hope.  John tells us that “What came into existence [through Christ] was Life, and the Life was Light to live by.  The Life-Light blazed out of the darkness; the darkness couldn’t put it out.   Into the darkness of human life, Christ is born.  The embodiment of transcendent, eternal Divine Life.  His Life is a light for us, shining into the bleakness of our despair.  The promise of Christ’s birth is that the darkness cannot triumph over the light.  Darkness may creep in, to every corner of our human existence, but it can’t snuff out this light.  This light is stronger than darkness, brighter than despair and victorious over death.  This light is a reason to hope.  This light is the only reason to hope.

 

The skeptics among us may challenge that.  If the light of Christ conquers our despair and gloom, why is the world not a bright, cheerful, peaceful, perfect place.  Paul argues we live in an in-between time.  Jesus has risen – the triumph of light over darkness has been fulfilled.  And we are waiting.   Paul uses the analogy of pregnancy.  A pregnant woman is different than she was before her pregnancy, yet she isn’t quite a mother until the baby is born. She is in an in-between time of waiting.   Just as a pregnant woman waits with expectancy for her baby to come to term, so Christians live with anticipation.  The light is here.  It has conquered the darkness.  We’re waiting for that victory to come to full term.  Paradoxically, Christ’s victory over sin, death and despair is real now and it’s coming in the future.   Our present suffering will be nothing compared to what awaits us.  In Christ, we’re guaranteed a bright future.   So, in spite of the lingering shadows, we can be hopeful.  In fact, this is the time for hope, because “hope that is seen is not hope.  For who hopes for what is seen?”   Who awaits what’s already here?  (A new mother doesn’t anticipate the birth of her child; she holds her baby in her arms with joy.)  But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.” (Romans 8: 24 & 25).    In the meantime, we see glimmers of light all around us.  Moments where we get a glimpse of this spiritual reality.  (A pregnant woman watches her belly grow, feels the baby kicking, and sees the ultrasound – signs of what is to come.) So, today I want to share three stories that fill us with hope.

Recently, a customer in an Alabama “drive thru” threw his drink at the server, because she got his order wrong.  He didn’t want ice in his drink.  The woman behind him in the drive through witnessed what happened.  When she pulled up, the worker was soaked and crying.   She was also six months pregnant.   The woman  gave her a $20 tip, expressed her outrage at the man and offered to contact the police.   Still angry hours later, the woman posted about the incident on her Facebook page and got a huge response.  That gave her an idea.  She asked her contacts if they’d be interested in donating “$5 or (whatever)” to the server.  Soon, donations poured in.  A few days after the incident, the two connected.  The server said  “She gave me the envelope and I couldn’t stop crying because I wasn’t expecting that.”  Inside the envelope was $1,700.  Then the woman set up an online baby registry at Target.   “She has been a blessing,” the server said, “There’s still some good people out there.”  The woman said she did nothing special: “I saw somebody being mistreated and I didn’t like it.  Doing the right thing inspires others to do the right thing and what I keep learning is when you see someone is being mistreated … all it takes is one person to change the narrative.  Anyone can do what I did”.   Not only did this woman dispel the darkness of the first customer’s abuse she reminds us that any of us can shine the light of Christ in whatever situation we find ourselves in.  And if anyone can shine the light of Christ, then the world becomes a place of hope.

 

In 2012, Pastor John Tandamba had the vision to develop a school and church in the impoverished outskirts of the capital city of Burkino Faso in West Africa.  Today more than 400 elementary students attend this thriving school.  The mission also offers pastoral training, vocational skills training for adults, a medical clinic, and regular worship services.  It’s a sign of hope in itself.  One day a woman named Elenne came to the mission with her three youngest children, aged two, four, and seven.  Terrorists had attacked their village, and killed her husband.  Her 14-year-old son fled – she didn’t know if he was alive, if he’d been taken to be trained as a child soldier, or if he got away.  She didn’t know where he was.  After this the mother and little ones travelled 250 km by foot over 20 days, until she collapsed not far from the mission.  John and his family brought them into their home, fed them and gave them a few days to rest.  When he asked how she walked so far with the children, Elenne explained, “The youngest went in a wrap, while the toddler sat on my shoulders, my seven-year-old boy walked on his own.  My son was disguised as a girl to keep him safe”.   Elenne was travelling to her parents, and still had some distance to go.   The mission gave them food for the weeks ahead and bought the family bus tickets to reach their destination.  Elenne’s life had been flooded with darkness.  The kindness shown through the mission, in the name of Jesus, was a light that guided her family to their destination.  It was also a sign showing them that, because of Jesus’ love, there were reasons to hope.

 

Journeying back to the civil rights movement in the 60’s, Andrew Young recalls God’s miracle in Birmingham Alabama.    He writes, “ Easter Sunday dawned with Martin [Luther King, Jr.] in jail…”  The previous year peaceful protesters, many of whom were teens and children, were attacked by police dogs and sprayed with fire hoses; arrests were made, including King.  “We planned a march from New Pilgrim Baptist Church to the city jail for that afternoon.  Some 5000 people gathered.  The marchers set out in a festive mood.  Suddenly, they saw police with dogs, and firemen with hoses in front of them, blocking their path.  “Bull” Connor [The Commissioner of Public Safety for Birmingham] bellowed, “Turn this group around!’  5000 people stopped and waited for instructions from their leaders.  Wyatt Walker and I were leading the march.  I can’t say we knew what to do.  I know I didn’t want to turn the march around…  I asked the people to get down on their knees and offer a prayer…”  So, right there in the street 5000 Christian people got down on their knees and began to pray.  “Suddenly, Rev. Charles Billups, one of the most faithful and fearless leaders of the old Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights, jumped up and hollered, ‘The Lord is with this movement!  Off your knees!  We’re going on!’  Stunned at first, Bull Connor yelled, ‘Stop ‘em, stop ‘em!’  But none of the police moved a muscle.  Even the police dogs that had been growling and straining at their leashes were now perfectly calm.  I saw one fireman with tears in his eyes just let the fire hose drop at his feet.  Our people marched between the red fire trucks, singing, ‘I want Jesus to walk with me’.  The police refused to arrest us, the firemen refused to hose us, the dogs refused to bite us.  It was quite a moment to witness.  I’ll never forget one old woman who became ecstatic when she walked through the barricades.  As she passed through, she shouted, “Great God Almighty done parted the Red Sea one mo’ time!”   Faced with the darkness of hatred and prejudice, the light of Christ was channeled through the prayers of his people reminding them of Christ’s victory and filling them with hope to continue their quest for justice.   Our prayers continue to be avenues of hope through which God’s grace flows.

 

The Life-Light blazed in the darkness.  Not the light of human goodness which, while precious, is also precarious.  But the light of Christ, shining through those who trust in him.  The darkness could not, did not and will not overcome it.  That is why “there is no comparison between the present hard times and the glory about to be revealed to us.”  That is why we wait with hope.   

 

Silent prayer and reflection

 

Offertory Prayer

God, just as you offered the gift of Christ with hope for the world, so we offer our gifts this week anticipating they will give hope to others.  Use them and use us to spread the hopeful news of Jesus birth.  Amen.   

 

Music – Angels We Have Heard on High

 

Prayer of Thanksgiving and Intercession

Lord God, we give you thanks for the hope that is within us because of the coming of Christ.  We pray that his light would shine in our hearts and that would shine in your world as beacons of hope.

 

We thank you for this past Christmas, as different as it was for many of us.  Although we couldn’t celebrate as we normally do, we thank you that those we love are healthy.  Missing them has made us appreciate them all the more.  It has re-oriented us to cherish their place in our lives.  Watch over our loved ones and bless them.  Where there is despair, fill them with the peace, hope, joy and love that Christ gives.

 

We thank you for our government leaders.  Although none of us is happy about another lockdown, we realize their concern is for their people.   And although not all of their decisions have been perfect, we know they are doing their best in a crisis that is new to everyone.   We pray that you would give them rest and refreshment this Christmas season.  We pray that people would heed their directions for the good of the whole community, province and world.

 

We thank you for the hope of a vaccination, for those who have developed it and those who will distribute it.  We pray that by your power, it would be effective.

 

We thank you for a new year with new goals and dreams.  Renew our world.  Give us grace for one another and forgiveness in the hearts of individuals and nations.  May this be a year where unity and peace abound.

 

We pray for those we love whether they are physically ill, whether they are mentally ill, whether they are in despair or in trouble.   We name them before you now.

 

We thank you for the many times you have answered our prayers in the past year.  Your faithfulness gives us hope.  May we enter this new year full of dreams, possibilities, plans and hope that reflect your will for our lives and which are already ours in Jesus our Lord.  Amen.

 

The Lord’s prayer

 

Music  – By Our Love

 

Invitation to Mission

We go from here with hope because the light shines in the darkness

And the darkness cannot put it out

 

 

Benediction.