Open the Gift of Family – Pastor Robert’s sermon for Sunday, December 17

 I would guess that many of us have already opened at least one Christmas present even though Christmas is still over a week away.  Our church has been opening Christmas presents together during this Season of Advent.

     We started this two weeks ago when we first opened the gift of expectation.  Advent is a season of expectation.  It’s a season for us to expect and anticipate the new thing that God is going to do through us.  Mary, the mother of Jesus is the symbol for this gift of expectation.

     What is the new way that God is going to help us experience the celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ this year?  What is the new way that God is going to help us share God’s love with the people around us?

     Last Sunday, we opened the gift of acceptance. Joseph from the crèche scene is a symbol of this Christmas gift. Joseph was presented with an unbelievable situation to accept or not accept the news that Mary was with child by the Holy Spirit.

     He could have walked away from the situation since it didn’t make sense, but he chose to accept this new way that God was breaking into the world to be our Savior. We too, have a choice this Christmas to accept or not accept this surprising and life changing news.

     So let’s see what early Christmas present God wants us to receive on this third Sunday of Advent.  Let’s have a volunteer come forward and open the Christmas box. Today, we open up the gift of the shepherds!  The shepherds symbolize the gift of family.

     To help illustrate what I mean by the gift of family.  I want to share with you a picture of the McDowell family one year when we were all able to be together for Christmas.  At this family Christmas, my mom, my brother, my two sisters, a brother-in-law, nieces, a nephew, Penny, me, a friend of the family are all together for this Christmas family photo.  This is a fairly typical Christmas family photo, right?

     Now, in contrast, take a look at this family Christmas photo from 2,000 years ago.  There’s Mary, Joseph, and their newborn, Jesus.  That makes sense.  But who are these other guys?  They have no connection with the Mary and Joseph family. Before that holy night of Jesus’ birth, they had never even met.  What are they doing in this Christmas photo album?

     Well, we know them as the shepherds who on the night of Jesus’ birth were watching the flocks at night.  And while they were out shepherding, some angels came and told them about the birth of a Savior in the town of Bethlehem.  With great haste, they hurried to Bethlehem and found the holy family and baby Jesus lying in a manger.

     I wonder what that must have been like for Mary and Joseph.  While they were trying to have a special moment with their newborn, these shepherds barge in and just kind of make themselves at home.

     This reminds me of a time when I made a pastoral visit at the local hospital in the community that I was serving at the time.  This hospital had a really good system to help you know who from your church is in the hospital.

     You give them your church code, and they will tell you if anyone from your church is in the hospital.  When you’re admitted as a patient, you have the option of including the name of your church, if you want your church and your pastor to know.

     So anyway, the person at the desk gave me some names and I didn’t recognize one of the names, but I figured she had some connection with my church.  She was a patient in one of the maternity rooms.  So I knock and go into the room and I meet the proud new father.  And I ask how everybody is doing.  He says, “We’re doing fine.”  His wife was not in the room at the time so just the two of us spoke.

     He was so excited to tell me about their little baby boy that was born earlier that morning.  He told me the first and middle names and how big he was.  And in the middle of our conversation, a look of confusion came to this father’s face and he asked me, “Now, who are you?”

     I had shared my name at the door before coming in but I don’t think he had heard me.  So I said my name and the name of the church.  And now, he looked even more confused.  I asked him if he was connected to our church and he said, “Uh, no.”  It was that awkward moment, you know, when you realize that you’ve invaded someone’s space.

     So I told him that the people down at the desk had their name connected with our church which was why I came to their room.  I asked him if they had a church home and he said that they didn’t.  And so I invited them to visit our church sometime and that we were running a special on baptisms if they were interested.  At least I didn’t hand him a box of offering envelopes!

     But this new father was so nice.  Even though there were those few seconds of awkwardness, he thanked me for stopping by.  And that made me feel so much better.  So, I offered to say a prayer for the gift of his baby son and he was very grateful.

     For a moment there, I felt like one of the shepherds, uninvited, but present with this new father on the occasion of the birth of their first child. I left there with a smile on my face as this was yet another example of how God brings people together to celebrate holy moments in surprising ways.

     What makes the holy family Christmas photo amazing to me is that not only that there are strangers in this picture, but that these strangers are shepherds.  In Jesus’ day, the shepherds were the equivalent of transient drifters and street people.  How incredible to think that these are the folks who appeared at that first Christmas scene!

     This is why the shepherds represent the gift of family during this Christmas season.  God’s idea of family includes more people than we can ever imagine.  God has a way of breaking down the artificial barriers that we so often create in our world.

     Notice that the shepherds were invited guests to the manger scene.  God sent angels who appeared to them and invited them to be part of this holy moment in Bethlehem.

     Have you ever noticed that God is always inviting people who are on the outside to come in and be family?  God has a special concern for the dispossessed, the marginalized, the poor, and the forgotten.

     At the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, he gave us his mission statement in which he quoted from the prophet, Isaiah, our Old Testament reading, “The spirit of the Lord is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners.”  Jesus’ ministry was one of including more and more people in the family of God.

     Who in our families, in our church, in our schools, and in our neighborhoods are forgotten people?  Who has been pushed aside to the edges of society?  How do we respond?

     I have a new hero in my life. His name is Keaton Jones, who is a student at Horace Maynard Middle School in Tennessee. Maybe you saw his video this past week which his mother recorded while sitting in their car after she had to pick him up during lunch time at the school because he was afraid of being bullied again.

On the video, Keaton with tears in his eyes says, “People that are different don’t need to be criticized about it. It’s not their fault. But if you are made fun of, just don’t let it bother you. Stay strong I guess. It’s hard. But it’ll probably get better one day.”

His video which was shared on social media last weekend has gone viral. Many celebrities have watched the video and have responded by joining Keaton in condemning bullying, sharing their own experiences of being bullied, and praising Keaton for his willingness to speak out against bullying.

How awesome that this one Middle School student has been able to capture the attention of our nation and raise awareness about the problem of bullying.

Keaton Jones has opened the gift of family where all people are welcomed, valued, and respected and is calling us to do the same.

     Keaton Jones, my new hero.

     Doylestown United Methodist Church here in Ohio has a ministry that helps more and more people feel included in God’s family.  Let’s watch.

     When we open up the Christmas gift of family, we leave behind the comfortable and the familiar so that we can venture to places that are new to us.  God calls us individually and as a congregation to reach out to more and more people with the love of Jesus Christ.

     We reach out with God’s love, compassion, and concern.  We reach out and witness to the birth of Christ again, again, and again.

     I look around and I see so many examples of where we are inviting more and more people to be part of the manger scene.  I see greeters on Sunday mornings, welcoming people into this place.  I see people serving home cooked meals to folks in our fellowship hall every Monday of the year.  I see people who are new to our church family because you invited them to worship.

     This past summer, my brother shared with me about an unexpected holy moment that happened in his church during worship one Sunday morning. It was time for the children’s sermon, and like we do here, all the children were invited to come forward.

     The children made it to the front and sat down by the person who was to give the children’s message. But my brother said there was a child who was a little late in coming forward and so the person waited for him to find a seat with the rest of the children.

     As this child got closer to the front, and to everyone’s surprise, he veered off to the side at the last second, quickly darting out of the sanctuary before anybody could catch him!

     The congregation started chuckling over this because it was funny that this little boy evidently saw this as a way to escape the sanctuary.

     The parents of this little boy got up, left the sanctuary and ran down the hallway after him. A minute or two later, their son reentered the sanctuary, this time, pulling his younger 3 year old brother by the arm. They found a couple of spaces by some other children and there they sat down. The congregation broke out in applause!

     My brother said that this five-year old boy wanted to make sure that his little brother didn’t miss the children’s sermon, and that’s why he had left the sanctuary, to go to the nursery and break his baby brother out of nursery prison.

     The person who was giving the children’s sermon didn’t miss out on this spontaneous spiritual teaching moment. He looked at the congregation and said, “May God help all of us to be more like this little boy and invite others to come to church with us.”

     Who is God calling us to include in the Christmas story this year?

     This season, let’s remember the shepherds, the forgotten ones, the people who are often on the fringe.  All are welcome to the manger scene.  We are all God’s special and honored guests.  God cares for all people. Nobody is left out.

     Open the Christmas gift of family. 

Open the Gift of Family

Discussion Questions

Isaiah 61:1-4 & John 1:6-8, 19-28

December 17, 2017

During this season of Advent, we are opening a new Christmas present each week. For the 1st Sunday of Advent, we opened the gift of expectation which is symbolized by Mary’s openness to the new thing that God was about to do through her in sending Jesus to be the Savior of the world. Last Sunday, the gift was acceptance which is symbolized by Joseph’s willingness to accept the challenging but also exciting good news that Mary would give birth to the Savior of the world.

Share a particular way that you are seeking to continue to open these important gifts of expectation and acceptance as we approach Christmas.

This week’s gift is family, symbolized by the shepherds. The shepherds during the time of the bible were known as outsiders. It’s important to note that they were some of the first people to hear about Christ’s birth in Bethlehem. By including the shepherds at the manger scene, God is expanding our understanding of the word, “family.” In God’s family, everyone is invited. In the sermon, Pastor Robert asked us to think about these questions:

Who in our families, in our church, in our schools, and in our neighborhoods are forgotten people?  Who has been pushed aside to the edges of society?  How do we respond?

Pastor Robert talked about Keaton Jones, a middle schooler in Tennessee who has been bullied at school and who decided to speak out against bullying. His video has been shared through social media. Celebrities have thanked him for being so brave and for shining a spotlight on this problem in our society. Keaton Jones is opening the gift of family by speaking out against bullying.

Share another example of someone who went out of their way to bravely welcome someone or a group of people who were shunned just because they were different.

Studies show that most people attend a church because of a personal invitation. Advent and Christmas Eve are especially great times to invite people to church. 

Pair up with someone in your small group. Think of someone you might invite to church. Share the first names of the persons with each other and take turns saying a simple prayer for God to open up an opportunity to personally invite them to church.