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“The Perfect Gift”

Pastor Wilbert Miller’s Sermon
“The Perfect Gift”
Luke 2: 22-40
First Sunday of Christmas (December 31, 2017)
The Evangelical Lutheran Church of the Holy Trinity
New York City at Central Park

Every Christmas, one of my biggest thrills, next to hauling home our tree blocks on end and celebrating our dear Savior’s birth with you, is contemplating the fantasy gifts in the annual Neiman Marcus Christmas catalogue.  A few years ago, I so wanted to give Dagmar Neiman Marcus’ dancing fountains created by the folks who did the ones outside the Bellagio in Las Vegas; we could have had those fountains in our back yard, choreographed to music of our choosing (thank heavens I didn’t give Dagmar the fountains because moving them from San Diego to Manhattan would have been a bear and putting them on Holy Trinity’s rooftop would have been virtually impossible).

This year’s Neiman Marcus gifts were more practical.  There was the pair of Rolls-Royces, one blue, one orange, for the paltry sum of $885,375. I didn’t spring for the set because I couldn’t afford the parking costs after splurging on the autos.  The more charming gift was the one Dagmar and I contemplated giving you: instead of squeezing into our apartment following today’s Mass for the 2nd Annual Miller’s New Year’s Eve Sherry Hour, we could have had 150 rooms at the Knickerbocker Hotel in Times Square, tonight, New Year’s Eve!  Imagine if we had purchased that gift: we would all soon be off for a Times Square rooftop extravaganza with food, drinks, DJ, killer view of the ball drop, and rooms for each of you. All for $1.6 million!

It is never easy to give the perfect gift.  There was that one, the one wrapped up at the Presentation of Our Lord in Jerusalem.  Mary and Joseph took their first born to the Temple and did as God’s law to Moses stipulated: they were purified after childbirth and they consecrated their first-born to God and offered a pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons.

One of the people awaiting the perfect gift was old Simeon.  He had been at the temple for years, hoping the gift would bring his salvation and the salvation of the entire world.  You can imagine Simeon’s delight as Mary and Joseph placed their tiny child into his gnarled hands; you can see his cloudy eyes sparkle as he lifted this perfect gift heavenwards and proclaimed: “Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace, according to thy word; for mine eyes have seen thy salvation, which thou hast prepared in the presence of all peoples.”  He could shut his weary eyes anytime now for he had finally received what he had been awaiting, God’s little Son.

Only moments after Simeon lifted the Babe of Bethlehem, Anna, who had spent her widowhood at the temple, night and day, fasting and praying, also savored this heavenly gift.

We Lutherans are particularly fond of Anna and Simeon. In what is perhaps most unique to our Lutheran tradition, we sing Simeon’s gorgeous Nunc Dimittis after receiving Holy Communion: “Now, let your servant go in peace…My own eyes have seen the salvation…”

The one holy catholic and apostolic church adores singing Simeon’s song at Compline, our final night prayer before closing our eyes at the end of day.  We are like children praying, “Now I lay me down to sleep, I pray the Lord my soul to keep.  If I should die before I wake, I pray the Lord my soul to take.”  Along with Simeon, we close our eyes in stillness, confident that God protects us as darkness settles in.

We sing Simeon’s song one more time, at the close of the funeral liturgy, when our loved ones have closed their eyes the final time this side of the kingdom come.  Immediately after we have heard the pastor say, “Receive your servant into the arms of your mercy, into the blessed rest of everlasting peace, and into the glorious company of the saints in light,” with tears streaming down our faces, we join Simeon in song, “Lord, now let your servant go in peace.”

Simeon and Anna, though in their autumn years, were crammed with vigorous hope. They gathered at their beloved temple and reminisced about the past but also dreamed of the future.  The past summoned them into the future; they were confident that their and our future is in God’s hands.

We are called to be Simeon and Anna here at Holy Trinity.  Beginning tomorrow, we will spend a year reminiscing about 150 years of exemplary ministry in this place.  We will recall the saints who have lifted up the Christ Child for the salvation of the world.  We will do more than look backward and reminisce, however.  Like Anna and Simeon, we will also hope.  We will sing stunning music, hear the Lutheran church’s finest preachers.  Our calling has been and will continue to be to wait for our salvation to come to this great city of New York as a vulnerable and loving child, Jesus Christ our Lord, and then to tell the world what we have heard and seen and tasted.

The Christ Child is the perfect gift for a time such as this, for us, for those we love, and for those we are called to serve.  Happy New Year and Happy 150th, in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

“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.