Christmas Eve Sermon, December 24th, 2014, 7:00pm

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In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. All went to their own towns to be registered. Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.

In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, “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. This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.” And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!” When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.” So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger. When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child; and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them. But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart. The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.- Luke 2:1-20

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They finally finished packing and set off on their way to Bethlehem. But this wasn’t a pleasure trip. It was a trip made solely because the Roman emperor had ordered it. Everyone had to be registered in a census, but this wasn’t a census to figure out how to distribute members of Congress or how to allocate social welfare programs. This census had only one purpose – to identify every person under the power of the Roman Empire, so they could all be taxed. Yes, name right there, address just below. Sign here, please. Thank you, here’s your taxpayer ID number; one of our agents will be contacting you shortly.

They barely had enough to survive on as it was, before the tax, and the cost of this trip was going to make things even worse. Why did they have to go to Bethlehem to register, anyway? Rome couldn’t have cared less what tribe or clan you were from, much less where its ancestral home was; all they cared about was that the check cleared. The tax was going to be collected in Nazareth anyway, why couldn’t they just register there? No, this trip was just another way for Rome to inconvenience the locals just because they could; just to remind them who was in power; who was calling the shots. So like it or not, and with the added inconvenience of traveling while extremely pregnant, off they went.

At very least, they’d be able to mix a little pleasure with the business. At the risk of contradicting countless Christmas pageants and TV specials, there wasn’t any such thing as a commercial inn or hotel in ancient Palestine. When you traveled, you had to stay with relatives, or rely on the hospitality of strangers. That’s why the idea of extending hospitality was so important in the ancient world; it was a life and death matter. It was so important, the prophet Ezekiel tells us that it was a lack of extending hospitality and compassion to others that caused God to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah. So when they got into town, Joseph and Mary checked in with some of Joseph’s relatives, but with all the people pouring into the little village for the census, all the relatives’ homes were already full with other houseguests. The homes in Bethlehem were all very similar – the family’s sleeping quarters, what in the ancient Greek was called the kataluma, were all on an upper floor, while the ground floor was cooking space, and work space, and where the animals were kept. So since all the guestrooms were already full, one family member gladly welcomed them into his home. Sure, the bedrooms are all full, but we’ll put some sheets on the couch, blow up the air mattress, and you can sleep here on the first floor. It isn’t much, but it’s warm and safe and dry, and we’ll all have a good time visiting together; come on in.

Of course, while they were there, Mary goes into labor and has her baby. And just like so many people who have used a dresser drawer as a makeshift bassinette in a pinch, Mary improvises for her newborn baby, wrapping him up snugly and laying him in a niche cut into in the wall that was normally used as a food trough for the animals. And as soon as they can, all of Joseph’s family members staying in this house and probably several others nearby, all of the baby Jesus’ new aunts, uncles, and cousins, crowded the ground floor of the little house to get a peek at their new little relative, to touch him, hold him, count his fingers and toes, kiss him on the forehead.

Not far outside of town, some shepherds had finished their work for the day and were trying to get a little bite to eat just before they tried to find a soft spot on the ground to sleep on. Shepherds were typically, the weakest, the slowest. The family members who couldn’t really do much of anything else, so they were sent out into the field to watch the sheep; it was hard to mess that up. They were at the lowest rung of society. Plus, they just smelled bad. And yet, it was to these shepherds that God chooses to be the first to hear about Jesus’ birth. The angels tell the shepherds about the wonderful news of this magical night, and the birth of this child, God’s chosen one, who would change the world forever.

So they head into town and somehow, they find the right home, and they knock on the door. The owner welcomes them in and offers these strangers the hospitality of his home. He shows them where they can clean up a bit; his wife offers them some bread and a little wine and maybe some dates. After they’ve eaten, they work their way through all the relatives and introduce themselves to Joseph and Mary, and ask if they can see this wonderful child they’ve been told about. And one of Jesus’ little relatives, wanting to act oh-so-grown-up, carefully picks up her little baby cousin and shows him off to the visitors. And like everyone else, they look at the little baby in all his newborn perfection and can only imagine the hope and possibility of this tiny new life. If they only knew.

Well that isn’t exactly the traditional way to tell the Christmas story. But it certainly isn’t anything contrary to the scriptures, and it’s probably a lot closer to the way the events actually would have unfolded. Thinking about the Christmas story this way helps us to remember some important things, things that can easily be missed if we just hear this story yet again and imagine it in the same way that we’ve all gotten so familiar with.

Jesus’ birth occurred in the midst of the powerful rule and oppression of an occupying civil government. Emperor Augustus was officially known as the Son of God, the one with all the power. This story says no, *here* is the Son of God, here’s where the real power and real goodness is. Real peace is God’s peace, not the heavy-handed peace imposed by Rome which caused so much trouble in the people’s lives. This story reminds us that we need to place our trust in God, not in the powers of the world who would try to take God’s place in our lives.

This way of thinking of Jesus’ birth also emphasizes that from the moment of his birth, love, and compassion, and hospitality are important elements being held up in this story, if we can pay attention to it, that set the stage for how important these issues will become in Jesus’ teaching as an adult, and how important these things are to us as his followers.

And it’s important to notice that the very first people who God comes into contact with, in this direct way, are the common people – Joseph’s family, and their neighbors, and the lowly, smelly shepherds just in from the fields. This is who God first reaches out to, to share the good news of God’s favor for them. Not to the Emperor Augustus in Rome. Not to Herod the Great, the emperor’s appointed king of the Jews. Not to the chief priest at the Temple in Jerusalem. Not to the rich or powerful. Frankly, not even to people like us. To the poorest of the poor; the lowest of the low. God’s good news is good to them first, and then to us.

All through Advent, we’ve been lighting candles, symbolizing and building up to this night, the night we observe God’s light breaking into the world and changing it forever. That light, the true Light of the World, started in that humble little food trough cut into the wall. It spread out, first to the family gathered around, and then to the poor, lowly shepherds and the others who came to see the baby, and then out into the street, and then out into the street, and across time, and ultimately, to us. Tonight, we’ll take that light and we’ll share it, and spread it again, and then we’ll take it out even further, sharing it with everyone we encounter, showing them the same kind of love and hospitality offered to Joseph and Mary. This is the night of celebration – Christ, the Light of the World, has come –

Thanks be to God!

The Longest Night (Evening Sermon, 12/21/14)

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In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people.

The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it. There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light. The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world. He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him. But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God. And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth. – John 1:1-14

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If you’re here tonight, you know that this time of year, so filled with happiness and joy for so many people, isn’t so joyful to everyone. The odds are that you’ve suffered some loss, maybe this past year, maybe longer ago, that you’re still wrestling with. Maybe your loss occurred at this time of year, and its anniversary has brought it to the forefront of your mind again; or maybe the memory of that loss, or separation, or disconnect, or just plain loneliness, is just brought more sharply into focus during this time of family and friends and togetherness. For whatever reason, whatever the details, there’s an aching in your heart, something that just doesn’t correspond with the overriding emotion of the Christmas season. The Book of Proverbs warns us not to sing songs to a heavy heart, but in fact that’s exactly what you feel every time you turn on the television or radio, or see friends gathering together and laughing and having a good time, apparently without a care in the world. It can make us feel disjointed. If we aren’t acting happy like everyone else, we gradually get pushed to the side of all the festivities. We can start to feel like we and our pain don’t matter; not to the people around us, not even to God.

We aren’t alone in this. A lot of the Psalms are songs of lament –  outpourings of pain, sorrow, anger, even accusation against God. After laying out the pain in the psalmist’s heart, some of them turn around toward the end, conceding that God is really good and in control, and the psalmist is confident that everything is going to be alright. But some of them don’t do that. There isn’t any neat, tidy resolution to the problem like a TV sitcom where everything’s resolved by the end of the episode. There’s no acknowledgement of God’s goodness or compassion. There’s only the anger, the sadness, a sadness that’s hung in the air and in our ears for some 2,500 years.

I think it’s important that these Psalms are a part of our tradition. They show us a number of things, but tonight, they’re especially important because they show us that in our faith, we take pain and sorrow seriously. We don’t sweep it under the rug and try to act like it doesn’t exist. We don’t try to prescribe some quick-fix for it. All of those psalms of lament, and the other places throughout the scriptures that paint pictures for us of the sorrow and suffering of people, show us that we are not alone in our sadness. We’re in the company of all of these people from the past – and we’re in the company of each other here tonight as well. This evening, as we look around, we can see that we’re not alone in our feelings; there are many of us here who are experiencing the same thing And it isn’t unnatural, it’s perfectly normal, and we don’t have to apologize, or feel guilt or shame over the way we feel. Instead, we can honestly recognize and acknowledge our feelings, and we can honestly share them with God. This evening, we can look around us, and see faces of good friends who can offer us understanding and comfort for our feelings, because they know those feelings themselves. And as we look around, and we see those faces, we see people who we can offer that same kind of comfort and support too in return.

People coming together on this night, the night of the year that has the least amount of daylight and the most amount of darkness, looking forward to the coming of greater and greater light, is something that predates the Christian faith by thousands of years. As Christians, we’ve borrowed the same idea, through our observance of Advent, as we gradually light more and more candles, symbolically increasing the light until the arrival of Christmas – the birth of Jesus, and the entrance of the ultimate, true light into the world. And we continue to observe this service, as we ask that the light of Christ, the light of God, would increasingly break into our existence, and into our own heavy hearts.

As hard as it might be to believe while we’re in the midst of our grief, that really is possible. We can see that possibility when we think about God’s light breaking into the world through Jesus, in the weakest, humblest way possible – a man who knew near-constant sorrow and setback. He didn’t know any of the benefits of wealth or power or prestige, but all of the pain of rejection from family and friend alike. A man who seemingly never had any real security or stability in his life, and who eventually paid the ultimate price while being persecuted by his enemies. So even while we suffer, and mourn, we can know that God, through Jesus, knows and understands our loss and suffering. Jesus walked this same path. And he walks it together, with us, now.

Christmas is the time that we observe God’s light breaking into the world, to shine into its darkest places. In a little while, we’ll invite you to come forward to light a candle to remember and acknowledge your loss, your sadness, whatever it is. And when you do, imagine that you’re coming into the very presence of Christ, presenting your sadness to him, and asking him to heal you of its pain and to remove that burden from your shoulders. And after you’ve lit your candle, take it, and the candle holder, home with you. Put it somewhere in your home that you’ll see it often. And whenever you wrestle with your sorrow this coming year, light your candle again, as a reminder that Christ, the light of the world, is with you always – especially in the midst of your suffering. Christmas is a time of joy, certainly. But a big part of that joy is that God has come into the world to set the captives free – especially those who, like us, are held captive by the pain in our own hearts. Amen.

Pointer Sisters, and Brothers (sermon 12/14/14)

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There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light…. This is the testimony given by John when the Jews sent priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him, “Who are you?” He confessed and did not deny it, but confessed, “I am not the Messiah.” And they asked him, “What then? Are you Elijah?” He said, “I am not.” “Are you the prophet?” He answered, “No.” Then they said to him, “Who are you? Let us have an answer for those who sent us. What do you say about yourself?” He said, “I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord,’” as the prophet Isaiah said. Now they had been sent from the Pharisees. They asked him, “Why then are you baptizing if you are neither the Messiah, nor Elijah, nor the prophet?” John answered them, “I baptize with water. Among you stands one whom you do not know, the one who is coming after me; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandal.” This took place in Bethany across the Jordan where John was baptizing. 

– John 1:6-8, 19-28

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I don’t like John the Baptist.

There; I said it. I just don’t like the guy. And truth be told, most of you probably wouldn’t like him, either. Let’s face it, the guy’s just a little bit creepy, the way he’s portrayed in the gospels. Hanging out in the wilderness and with all the social graces of the Unabomber. Never cracking a smile, always just ramrod strict and serious; hardly the life of the party. Probably as big a buzz kill as John Calvin, but at least Calvin dressed and ate a little better. I picture John the Baptist as Christianity’s version of that one relative we all have. You know the one I’m talking about; the one we’re always worried about having to be with during the holidays. Their stare is just a little too intense; and they’re just a little too wrapped up in their politics or religion or whatever, and they’re always ready to share it with everyone, bidden or unbidden. That relative that everyone’s on edge around, worried they’ll say something to trigger their next rant. “That’s a very nice sweater, Mary.” “Oh, thank you! I got it at the Big Q Mart; I do almost all my shopping there now. I won’t shop at the Bullseye Department store anymore, because you know, they donate a bunch of money to those liberals.” “Want some more roast beef, Steve?” “Yes, give me a nice rare slice with lots of blood – you know, that reminds me of the blood of Jesus, which he shed for my sins, and for yours, too – and if you haven’t accepted him yet as your personal Lord and Savior, I have some literature for you right here, and we can go into the living room and pray before they serve dessert…” “Allen, would you like some olives?” ”No, I’m boycotting the olive industry because they’re all racist. Just look at the olives in the grocery store! Haven’t you ever noticed they sell the green olives in clear glass jars, but they always sell the black olives in cans so no one can see their black skin – it’s all part of a conspiracy; it’s just another example of the white man trying to keep the black man down!”

You know the relative I’m talking about.

Well that’s the way I picture John the Baptist. A little too intense for his own good, not helping his own arguments just because he’s always just a little too confrontational, too insulting, too in-your-face, and more than just a little bit nutty.

But I do like John the Baptist for what he truly was – a witness to Jesus, identifying Jesus as the true messiah, God’s very own specially chosen one whose coming had been foretold by the prophets. Throughout all of Christian history, John stands there, in all of his weirdness, pointing away from himself and to Jesus as The One on whom all history, all of the relationship between God and humanity, was going to pivot. And he calls us – demands of us – that we follow where his finger is pointing, and that we pay attention to Jesus as the one who breaks into the world and changes everything.

It’s kind of interesting, the way that the gospels treat John the Baptist. He actually gets only a slight bit of print in the gospel of John, and when he does, it’s always in a way that clearly keeps him in a minor role with relation to Jesus. In the first three gospels, you get stories about his having many followers and disciples, and that he continues on with his own ministry even after Jesus has come on the scene. John is a lot more in the shadows in the fourth gospel; in fact, it’s here in this gospel that John the Baptist is quoted as saying that he must decrease, so that Jesus might increase. People have suggested that this difference in the way John is portrayed might have been because in the very early church, John the Baptist may have had a following of believers that were competing with Jesus’ followers, and that by the time the fourth gospel was written, it needed to be cleared up that John the Baptist was just a secondary player and Jesus was the real focus. I suspect there’s probably at least some truth to that explanation for the different way he’s treated in this gospel, but however he’s treated, John’s first and foremost job is to point to Jesus as the Christ – the one who illustrates, who personifies, the gospel – God’s good news for humanity.

And that’s our first and foremost role as followers of Jesus, too. We’re called to point to him through all we say, and all we do – so that when people see us, and hear us, it’s clear that our focus is not all about us. So that they recognize we’re not just trying to be nice people; that there’s something more, something greater, that we’re pointing toward, that we’re witnessing to, testifying to, and that something is Christ. In that sense, we’re all called to be “Pointer Sisters,” and Brothers – always pointing to Christ and his message – the message of the gospel.

But what do we mean when we say “the gospel”? We use that term a lot, but really, if some total stranger dropped out of the sky who’d never heard of Christianity, and they asked us, “just what exactly do you men when you talk about ‘the gospel’?” what would we say? What is the good news from God that Jesus was really proclaiming and showing us? Just what is it that we believe? What is God’s good news for humanity that we see through Jesus, and that we remember and honor during the Advent season as having broken into our world?

A very good summary of what I think “the gospel” means can be found in a poem written by Daniel Berrigan called Advent Credo:

It is not true that creation and the human family are doomed to destruction and loss—
This is true: For God so loved the world that He gave his only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish but have everlasting life;

It is not true that we must accept inhumanity and discrimination, hunger and poverty, death and destruction—
This is true: I have come that they may have life, and that abundantly.

It is not true that violence and hatred should have the last word, and that war and destruction rule forever—
This is true: Unto us a child is born, unto us a Son is given, and the government shall be upon his shoulder, his name shall be called wonderful councilor, mighty God, the Everlasting, the Prince of peace.

It is not true that we are simply victims of the powers of evil who seek to rule the world—
This is true: To me is given authority in heaven and on earth, and lo I am with you, even until the end of the world.

It is not true that we have to wait for those who are specially gifted, who are the prophets of the Church before we can be peacemakers—
This is true: I will pour out my spirit on all flesh and your sons and daughters shall prophesy, your young men shall see visions and your old men shall have dreams.

It is not true that our hopes for liberation of humankind, of justice, of human dignity of peace are not meant for this earth and for this history—
This is true: The hour comes, and it is now, that the true worshipers shall worship God in spirit and in truth.

So let us enter Advent in hope, even hope against hope. Let us see visions of love and peace and justice. Let us affirm with humility, with joy, with faith, with courage: Jesus Christ—the life of the world.

That’s what we Pointer Sisters and Brothers point to this Advent season. That’s God’s real, true good news that we see opening up in the birth of Jesus. That’s the great, joyful news that we lift up when we light this week’s Advent candle, representing joy.

Thanks be to God.

Peace Be with You (sermon 12/7/14, Advent 2B)

The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.

As it is written in the prophet Isaiah,

“See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you,
who will prepare your way;
the voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
‘Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight,’”

John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. He proclaimed, “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”  – Mark 1:1-8

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In early 1863, a young man named Charles Longfellow joined the Union Army and went off to war. He did it against the wishes of his father, the great American poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. Later that year, shortly before Christmas, his father received word that he’d been severely wounded in battle. Overwhelmed by grief over this, as well as the death of his wife in a fire not long before, Longfellow sat down and wrote a poem that’s become fairly well known to us as the words to the Christmas carol “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day. Not all of the words of the poem made it into the lyrics of the carol, though; the original version of the poem began like this:

 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!

 And thought how, as the day had come,
The belfries of all Christendom
Had rolled along
The unbroken song
Of 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!

 Then from each black, accursed mouth
The cannon thundered in the South,
And with the sound
The carols drowned
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

 It was as if an earthquake rent
The hearth-stones of a continent,
And made forlorn
The households born
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

We may or may not have experienced the same kind of losses that Longfellow did. But there are times when it’s easy to share those feelings that there really is no peace on earth, that the whole idea seems like a cruel joke, when we experience the sorrow and unrest in our own lives, and when we look around us. When fundamentalist terrorists of one religion bomb busses and behead people and call for the death of all who don’t adhere to their version of their religion. When fundamentalist terrorists of another religion bomb federal buildings and murder abortion doctors and call for the death of all gays and lesbians as a way to end AIDS. When police harass a man standing on the street minding his own business, surrounding him like a pack of coyotes attacking an animal, and then dropping him with an illegal chokehold, ignoring his cries that he can’t breathe, failing to administer CPR, and then every single participant in this crime against God’s humanity walking away without so much as a slap on the wrist. When a twelve-year old boy is playing with a toy gun in a park, and police show up and shoot him dead within two seconds of arriving on the scene. Two seconds. Based on all the turmoil in this world, it’s easy to understand the disillusionment, the anger, sorrow, and cynicism that pours out of Longfellow’s heart as he continues to write:

 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!”

And yet, despite these things, this is the season that we set aside to recognize and honor the coming of Christ into our world, as a sign of God’s wishes for reconciliation with all people. As the sign of God proclaiming peace and good will to all of us, entering into our existence, knowing firsthand our hopes, our aspirations, our greatest joys and our deepest grief. And through that, showing us how we’re to love God, and how an important way of loving God is how we love others. I believe that’s the most significant aspect of why God chose to reconcile with us by becoming one of us, in the flesh – to truly be God with us, God among us, through Christ – to show us how we’re supposed to be the key agents of illustrating, and spreading, God’s peace on earth, and God’s good will to all people.

Today’s gospel reading is from Mark. It includes the title, the headline of the gospel: “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” Did you notice that this gospel isn’t titled, “The beginning of the story of Jesus Christ;” or even more significantly, it isn’t called “The whole story,” or “The beginning, middle, and end of the story?” What we read in Mark’s gospel is just the beginning of what God considers the good news, the tidings of great joy, of reconciliation, of true peace on earth and good will to all, that we receive in Jesus Christ. In other words, it’s an ongoing, unfinished story. This passage talks a bit about John the Baptizer. John is the preparation for the good news. In Jesus’ birth, we have the initiation of that news. In his life and teachings, we have the clarification of the good news. In his death and resurrection, we have God’s validation of the good news. And through the ongoing work of the Holy Spirit, joining us with Christ, we – we – are the continuation of the good news that God has proclaimed to the world through Jesus, beginning with the birth that we’re awaiting this season.

So we light this second candle of Advent, the candle that signifies peace. We light it realizing that much of our world, around us and within us, is not right; is not at peace. But in our hearts, we’re grateful for what God has done in us, and for us, and we’re grateful that God has called us to work to extend that peace to others in the world, by working for justice, in every way we possibly can. We light this candle because through the birth of the little one in the manger, we know that God is in control, and will ultimately establish peace and good will for all. With that knowledge in our heart, even aware of what’s wrong in the world, even if we have some measure of sadness and disillusionment in our hearts, we can still share the feelings that Longfellow put to words as he finished his poem:

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.”

 Thanks be to God.