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“Glad Tidings of Great Joy”

Pastor Wilbert Miller’s Sermon
“Glad Tidings of Great Joy”
Luke 2: 1-20
Christmas Eve (December 24, 2017)
The Evangelical Lutheran Church of the Holy Trinity
New York City at Central Park

On behalf of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of the Holy Trinity, I wish you a very happy Christmas!  Your presence adds wonder to this holy night and we are thrilled that you are here!

Let me offer my sincerest apologies in advance with hopes that I don’t place a damper on this glorious Christmas evening.  Every preaching professor vehemently warns against what I am about to do.  But please bear with me as I tell you the truth this one time.

Over the past forty-one years, I have found preparing Christmas Eve sermons an excruciatingly grueling task and this one has been even more so. It isn’t because I began preparing yesterday at the last minute; oh no, I have pondered this sermon for months, meditating on Saint Luke’s Christmas gospel, reading sermons of the great preachers, and perusing my file of Christmas quotes stowed away just for this extraordinary evening.  I know you come with great anticipation: to behold stunning decorations, to sing glorious carols, and to be bathed in beautiful candlelight.  I suspect you even come with hopes of being transfixed by this sermon, or at the very least, hoping it will be mercifully brief.

That’s why I have toiled over this sermon.  I have stared into space for hours on end, frantically searching for a salutary word worth saying to you and just as quickly deleting each typed word as too mediocre and unfitting for a night such as this.  Some of our staff have peeked into my office and asked, “Is everything alright, Wilk?”  My best guess why it is so impossible to prepare this blasted thing is because I so desperately want it to be perfect for you and, as you have already surmised, perfection is beyond my grasp and, as you all know, that can be terribly discouraging.

The difficult part does not come in reflecting on that first Christmas 2000 years ago—that’s easy.  Mary and Joseph placing the Babe in a manger because there was no room in the inn, angels announcing “glad tidings of great joy” to the shepherds and the shepherds then running off to Bethlehem to see the great thing that had taken place—we love this story and are enchanted by the wonder of it all; it grows in every new telling in indescribable ways.

We also love embellishing the story, adding a little here, a bit there, trying to make it more perfect than it was the first time around.  Think of “Away in the Manger”: “The cattle are lowing; the baby awakes, but little Lord Jesus, no crying he makes…”  Really?  The Bible never mentions the baby Jesus not crying but we have romanticized his birth to make it flawless.  And that other carol, “Silent Night”: you will easily sing the words without the program in a few minutes, “All is calm, all is bright,” and tears will roll down your cheeks—I hate to disillusion you but my instincts suggest that Bethlehem, rather than being silent, was a raucous place with frazzled throngs dashing this way and that to sign up for Emperor Augustus’ exasperating registration.

We have even touched up the Christmas story in our northern climes to make it even more enchanting, adding ever-present Christmas trees no matter that the trees must be shipped in from Vermont and Pennsylvania and Quebec.  And then there is that dreaming of a white Christmas: did you know there is only a 22% chance of it ever snowing in New York City on Christmas Eve?  But I will confess, that part about hearing sleigh bells—perhaps no snow but if you wander over to Central Park following our Christmas Eve celebration you might hear the jingle, jingle of horse drawn carriages—exquisite but not quite perfect.

While the memories of yesteryear are enchanting, they can play tricks on us and haunt us pretty badly.  A baby that doesn’t cry, a silent night, sleigh bells in the snow—is it any wonder we never achieve perfection in our family gatherings and personal lives and even in the sermons we write and hear?  Is it surprising that some call Christmas “depression alley” as we stare idly into space, realizing we will never experience the perfection our memories and dreams create?

Oh, for sure, we should remember Mary and Joseph and the baby Jesus; we should fondly recall going to Christmas Eve Candlelight services with grandma and grandpa and mom and dad years ago.  And yet, the wonder of Christmas is not just that God came 2000 years ago but that God comes tonight and tells us, “For unto you is born this day a Savior.” God comes, not amidst the perfection we long for, but amidst our mixed-up lives, cockeyed country, and reeling world.  Think of Emperor Augustus and wicked Herod, the befuddled husband and the highly pregnant teenager on a sweaty donkey’s back about to give birth to the Son of God here on earth; ponder the stinking stable and the pushy crowds.  That’s how Christmas was the first time around and, dear friends, that is how it is tonight…Hardly perfect, but, then again, when God comes to town, Christmas is always perfect.  It is as if God says, “Perfect or not, here I come.”

I invite you in a few moments to cup your hands and watch mother Mary gently place her precious Child into the manger you have created; listen attentively as she lovingly says to you, “The body of the Christ Child given for you.”

I pray that in years to come you will have fond memories of worshiping here tonight and that those memories will help you discover the Christ Child wherever you may be and in whatever you face.  Even when all is not quite perfect—just like this sermon—may God come to you and proclaim glad tidings of great joy, “ For unto you is born this night a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord.”

“Pondering Heavenly Mystery”

Pastor Wilbert Miller’s Sermon
“Pondering Heavenly Mystery”
Fourth Sunday of Advent (December 24, 2017)
Luke 1: 26-38
The Evangelical Lutheran Church of the Holy Trinity
New York City at Central Park

In a few hours, multitudes will gather here to celebrate our dear Savior’s birth.  Many will come for the spectacle of decorations and candlelight and the magic of carols and hearing again the unforgettable story, “In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus…”  The only question will be: will the announcement of our dear Savior’s birth be wondrous news or ho-hum news for those who come?

For Jesus’ mother, the news of Christ’s coming birth was wondrous news; it was also inconceivable news. Not in a million years did Mary imagine she would become the Mother of God—that is the difference between God’s good news and our hackneyed news: God’s ways are not our ways and almost always set us on edge.

The Bible reports that when Mary heard, “The Lord is with you,” she “pondered what sort of greeting this might be.”  She was frightened and the angel had to reassure her, “Do not be afraid, Mary.”  Why would we be any different?

Sometimes, rather than delighting in the flabbergasting news that God did a new thing through Mary, we feel compelled to ask all manner of pigheaded questions, squeezing out every ounce of wonder from God’s coming to earth as a tiny baby. The operating principle seems to be: if the virgin birth makes no sense to me, it cannot be true.  Rather than lifting ourselves up to God’s marvelous ways, we try to drag God deep into the gutter of our humdrum understandings.

On Thursday evening, we went with our son, Caspar, to the Broadway musical, “The Book of Mormon.”  It is funny and quite profane.  It is a spoof on the Mormons but it could just as easily have been a spoof on Christians.  Beliefs like the virgin birth and the resurrection of Christ from the dead are also ripe for skeptics’ ridicule.  The things that really matter for us Christians, our central tenets, require a leap of faith that transcends how we typically think.  Without faith, our beliefs, especially Jesus being the Son of God and born of the Virgin Mary, are simply convenient material for Broadway scorn and frivolity.

We can do better…We must do better…The world craves better.  I’m not talking about the “Book of Mormon,” by the way, I’m taking about lifting up the central matters of our Christian faith.

While the Virgin Mary was flabbergasted by the angelic news that she was about to become the Mother of God, never once did she protest, “Angel Gabriel, your words are claptrap.”  Instead, she pondered how this could possibly be.  Even after her little baby boy was born and the shepherds had adored her precious little one, “Mary kept all these things, pondering them in her heart.”  She did her best to comprehend what God was up to.

I long for a community like Mary, one that finds its greatest joy in celebrating the deepest mysteries of life.  We can find mystery right here at baptism when plain old New York City tap water is stirred up with God’s word and a little baby becomes a child of God before our very eyes; we can find mystery this morning as the ordinary stuff of bread and wine become stunning gifts from heaven.  On our best days, we dig into our heart like Mary so we can proclaim with joy, “For with God nothing will be impossible.”

You have certainly noticed how young and old alike yearn for mystery and wonder.  Millions are standing in line to see the movie, “Star Wars: The Last Jedi.”  And it isn’t just at the movies.  Our elderly homebound members are enthralled as I read to them on your behalf, “For to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.”  We long for something beyond the drivel that our tiny minds can grasp, something that converts our ordinary routines into heavenly amazement.

Oh, to be a community that believes God can enter our mixed-up lives with mystery and wonder in inexplicable ways…and for the better!  Has this ever happened to you?  You drank ferociously for thirty-two years, consuming a fifth of bargain-basement vodka every day to numb your pain; your life was all but ruined.  You entered rehab but fell off the wagon, not once but repeatedly.  Then one day, mysteriously—was it God?—you poured a fine bottle of Grey Goose Vodka down the drain.  And that very evening, you sheepishly attended your first AA meeting in ages, in a dingy church basement with sputtering fluorescent lights.  You gawked at the floor and mumbled a few inaudible words but audible enough, “Hi, I’m Ralph and I’m an alcoholic.”  You haven’t had a drink since, 4,966 days and counting—but, hey, who’s counting?  As you look back, while it feels awkward to admit, you believe an angel—Gabriel perhaps?—landed on your shoulder that day and said, “Do not be afraid…For with God nothing will be impossible.’”

How astonishing that when the angel Gabriel told Mary that she was about to be the Mother of God, she realized she would be more than she could ever be on her own and she started singing, “My soul magnifies the Lord.”  She started imagining other things as well, that God would bring down the mighty from their thrones, exalt those of low degree, fill the hungry with good things, and even send the rich away empty.  Mary was given a vision far bigger than her own…mysterious, far-fetched, and breathtaking!

It has been 2,000 years now and we are still dreaming with Mary.  We can’t quite fathom how it will all unfold and yet, for some odd reason, we do not lose heart.

May your finest Christmas gift be the faith to trust that God can do the impossible for you and those you love.

“Swallow Some Darkness”

Swallow Some Darkness”
Pastor Wilbert Miller’s Sermon
(John 1: 6-8, 19-28)
December 17, 2017 (Third Sunday of Advent)
The Evangelical Lutheran Church of the Holy Trinity
New York City at Central Park

I can only assume if you are in charge of lighting at a Broadway show, your job is to make certain the spotlight shines on the star. I also assume, from time to time, unexpected actors come out of the blue and attract more light than was previously expected.

I remember that happening in the 1969 cult classic movie, “Easy Rider. ” Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper were longhaired hippies traveling across the United States on their souped up Harley Davidson choppers. Everyone knew these two, but the actor that mesmerized me was someone I had never heard of by the name of Jack Nicholson; he played a daffy lawyer who bailed Captain America and his pal Billy out of jail.

Some stars have the charisma to push themselves into the limelight. John the Baptist was such a character. The crowds flocked to him. And yet, he refused to let the light shine his way.

“Are you the Messiah?” the crowds breathlessly wondered. “No,” said John.

“Are you Elijah?” “I am not.”

“Are you the prophet?” “No.”

Why didn’t John grab some attention?

Most of us crave center stage with shining lights. We love being told how wonderful we are.

John refused such stardom: “I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord.’” These words were not even original to John; he copied them straight out of the prophet Isaiah.

John kept pointing beyond himself to the other one who, according to him, he was “not worthy to untie the thong of his sandal.”

Are you able to point the spotlights beyond yourself? Have you ever said, “I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandal” or, at least, “I don’t have all the answers”? It’s not an easy thing to do.

People often ask me obscure Bible questions about which I am clueless. It happened at our Wednesday evening Bible study when Damon Gray asked me about a Greek word in the Nativity story. I was tempted to offer a brilliant answer even though I was clueless. My hope was that no one would notice my dim-witted response and I would look none the worse for the wear. It is almost impossible for me to say, “I don’t have a clue.” I prefer to say, “Shine the light on me!”

You have witnessed the absurdity of people who cannot sit quietly and wait on the Lord or, more to the point, cannot shut up! I have seen it. I have been to countless synod assemblies of our Lutheran church, as have quite a few of you, where the same pastors and the same lay people feel compelled to stand up and offer their unparalleled wisdom on perplexing matters; apparently, in their minds, no one else possesses their matchless knowledge. Over and over again they go to the microphone; over and over again they babble on and on and on. And then there are the others folks, the ones who rarely—actually never—stand up to speak; they are the majestic ones who know they don’t have all the answers and realize it is best to sit still, remain quiet, and wait and listen.

John the Baptist had such majesty. Franciscan priest Richard Rohr writes: “John the Baptist does not have the ultimate or full message—but his glory and genius is that he knows that! He hands it over to the one who does” (Richard Rohr, From Wild Man to Wise Man, pg. 48).

Advent teaches us to wait for answers that are beyond our grasp but not beyond God’s. We wait between Jesus’ coming at Bethlehem and his coming again; we have no idea when or where or how he will return and any answer seems harebrained. Sometimes we do best to be still, remain quiet, and wait and listen.

A number of years ago, during the Iraq War, the then Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams was asked by a reporter whether he thought the war was immoral. He paused for twelve seconds, an interminably long time for live radio, and said, “‘Immoral’ is a short word for a very long discussion” (Rupert Short, Rowan’s Rule: The Biography of the Archbishop of Canterbury, pg. 289). Archbishop Williams did not rush to offer an answer to a monstrously difficult question. He allowed the question to hang silently in the air.

I increasingly am drawn to individuals and communities who resist the need to have all the answers when no easy ones seem apparent. My favorite theologian Douglas John Hall taught for many years at McGill University in Montreal. He has committed a lifetime to grappling with weighty and challenging theological matters. Like many brilliant people who realize there is so much more they do not know than what they do know, Dr. Hall says there are occasions when we must swallow some darkness.

I heard Dr. Hall deliver three substantial lectures a few years ago when he was 84 years old. During one of those lectures, which he delivered sitting down, he spoke of swallowing some darkness. One of his most brilliant students, married and the father of a small child, was struck down with leukemia. Dr. Hall told us that he had no answer why such a dreadful thing would happen to such a remarkable young man. It was at that moment of vulnerability that Dr. Hall seemed most brilliant to me and why I continue to like him very much and why I emailed this sermon to him immediately before worship began this morning.

Perhaps that is what it is to be Advent people, a humble people whose majesty comes not in having all the answers to life’s most nagging questions but rather the dignity to wait patiently, trusting that the good Lord will provide the finest answers in due time. That is why we wait like John the Baptist and let the stage lights shine on Jesus.

And, by the way, that is why fifty-two pink roses grace our sanctuary this Third Sunday of Advent, called Gaudete (“Joy Sunday”): their blooming joy reminds us that Christ’s promise to come again is with us throughout the year, even during our darkest days.

Wait, my dear friends, wait for the Lord.