December 19: Who's Missing at the Manger?
I love that we have a preschool at Derry. It’s a great example of a mission because through Derry Discovery Days we impact the lives of children and their families and connect people to the church, but we are impacted by them as well. The children share their gifts and they teach us. It’s a two-way street, which is how missions should work.
The preschool children taught me something last week when I was leading chapel time. We were exploring the story of Christmas together using a nativity scene. We were placing the different characters around the scene and talking about their role in the story. As we were nearing the end I asked, “Who else do we need at the manger?”
One of the children said, “Me!” Then all the other children chimed in and gathered around our nativity scene.
I hadn’t thought about that, but he is exactly right. God invites the shepherds and magi to see Jesus, but God also invites us. Just like the communion table, the manger is open to all. Christmas is God’s invitation to us to come to the manger and celebrate the birth of Christ and the birth of a new Kingdom.
Who’s missing at the manger? Let’s make sure it’s not us. Let’s come to the manger and celebrate Jesus with as much energy as those preschool students who shouted “Me!” and all gathered around Jesus.
That’s a picture of the Kingdom right there, and it’s a picture I’m thankful for.
In common calling,
Rev. Stephen McKinney-Whitaker
December 12: Hope in the Darkness
Last week, we lit the first candle of the Advent Wreath: the candle of Hope. What is hope?
According to Miroslav Wolf, hope in a Christian sense is “love stretching itself into the future.”
Hope is expecting something good in the future, but not something that would normally come about. Christian Hope is expecting something brand-new to come to us in the future, outside our normal cause and effect universe. Jurgen Moltmann calls this Adventus, the gift of something brand new. Hope is the expectation of good things that come as a gift from God -- like the promised birth of a child to an aged Sarah, like the promised birth of a Messiah, like the resurrection of the crucified Christ, like a new life when the old has passed away, like a new heaven and a new earth. Hope is belief that the good that seemed so impossible is not only possible but will become real.
We light the candle of Hope at Advent because we hope in the coming of a light in the darkness. We believe a light that the darkness cannot overcome is not only possible, but will become real. In a dark world, it seems impossible to banish the darkness. That is why we light a candle for Hope.
Hope is the perfect first light of Advent. We tend to think of Advent as a four-week dress rehearsal for a Christmas full of joy and light, but Advent is all about darkness. Advent speaks to the darkness we experience in our lives. The message of Advent is darkness, lots of it, with a dimly lit expectation of hope.
One tiny flicker.
That’s all we have to go on right now: one little light of hope in the darkness. One light that suggests the good future we long for is not only possible, it’s real. If there is ever a time for the world to understand Advent, it is now. The world needs hope, something new to break into our future. We need a powerful love to stretch itself into our future to bring a gift.
What gift do you need this year? What is your hope?
In the darkness of systematic racism that assures us it doesn’t exist, what new gift do we need?
In the darkness of extremist opinions that allow no room for compromise and nuanced thought, what new gift do we need?
In the darkness of sexual harassment and assault, what new gift do we need?
In the darkness of poverty that is handed down from generation to generation, what new gift do we need?
In your darkness, whatever that may be, what new gift do you need?
We light a candle for Hope. One Light. One possible and very real future awaits us. But it’s not here yet. It’s coming. We have to be ready, and so Advent teaches us to walk in the dark.
In common calling,
Rev. Dr. Stephen McKinney-Whitaker
December 5: Waiting for the Waiting
I typically hate waiting. I often dread going to amusement parks simply because I know most of my day will be spent waiting in lines. I hate waiting at the doctor’s office, the DMV, or in shopping lines. It feels like such a waste of time to have to wait. The absolute worst is traffic jams when you have some place to be but you end up crawling for two hours at five miles per hour if you are lucky. When I get an idea in my head I want to work on right away, it can almost physically make me sick if I have to wait to put it in action. I hate waiting.
But for some reason, this time of year is different. Frederick Buechner, a well-known preacher and writer, said about Christmas, “The extraordinary thing that is about to happen is matched only by the extraordinary moment just before it happens. Advent is the name of that moment.”
I love the moments before Christmas: decorating the house and tree, singing the multitude of Advent and Christmas carols at church, participating in meaningful events like caroling, looking at Christmas lights, and so much more. The climax of Advent for me is the Christmas Eve Candlelight service. I don’t find it hard to wait for Christmas because the preparation is just as special, meaningful, and fun.
At Christmas, we celebrate that God sent God’s son so that we might know God better and so Christ could show us and open the way to God’s Kingdom. We celebrate that Christ came and we celebrate that Christ still comes to us today and will return one day in the flesh. It is an important celebration, but the preparation, Advent, is important too. We remember why we need Christ. We are reminded what God has done in Christ and prepare our hearts once more to fully acknowledge God. We prepare for Christ’s coming again. The preparation is important, meaningful, and fun. For some reason we are all a little quicker to smile in Advent, quicker to lift a helping hand, and quicker to forgive. I think it is because we are all preparing for something special.
I hope you will join us for some of the many ways you can prepare at Derry Presbyterian Church. I encourage you to come to our Christmas concert on December 9 & 10 and of course our candlelight services at 3 pm, 5 pm and 7:30 pm on Christmas Eve. You can also participate in Christmas caroling on December 16 or help fill Blessing Baskets after worship on December 10. We also have our Longest Night service at 7 pm Tuesday, December 19 to help prepare for Christmas in a season of loss.
Christmas Day goes so quickly that before you know it, the dinner is done, the presents are unwrapped and you're left to pick up the pieces and close out the year, so enjoy the waiting now. Enjoy the preparation now. Tell the Christmas story to your children and act it out with your Nativity scene, look at the lights, go to a concert, gather your family for A Muppet Christmas Carol, bake cookies, ring a Salvation Army bell, or sing carols around your piano. It's Advent, after all. It's what I wait for all year long. For four weeks, we’re not waiting for the waiting.
In common calling,
Rev. Dr. Stephen McKinney-Whitaker