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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.”

“Living on God’s Clock”

Pastor Wilbert Miller’s Sermon
“Living on God’s Clock”
(Mark 13:24-37)
1st Sunday of Advent (December 3, 2017)
The Evangelical Lutheran Church of the Holy Trinity
New York City at Central Park

Advent comes from the Latin word adventus which means coming.  Jesus promised that he would come again but he left precious few particulars as to his exact time table. He did entrust us with this: “For you do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or a dawn.”

Funny thing: while we do not know when Jesus will come again, we continue to anticipate his return, lighting candles one-by-one on this ringed wreath, clothing the church in the dark blue bruise of the winter’s morning sky just before sunrise, and marking our waiting, day-by-day, with the lovely Holy Trinity Advent calendar of your prayerful making.

Admit it: waiting can be tough as darkness envelops us and scares us half to death.

Author Annie Proulx recently said at the National Book Awards ceremony: “We don’t live in the best of all possible worlds…The television sparkles with images of despicable political louts and sexual harassment reports. We cannot look away from the pictures of furious elements, hurricanes and fires, from the repetitive crowd murders by gunmen burning with rage. We are made more anxious by flickering threats of nuclear war.”

In spite of the dire circumstances that tempt us to surrender all hope, quaint communities of courage and confidence endure, doing our best to act as Jesus would have us: “Keep alert…Keep awake.”

We come here this morning in these days of despicableness, fury, and rage and still, somehow, someway, cry out, “Stir up your power, Lord Christ, and come.” We plead to heaven to spare us from surrendering to dark bruise of gloom.

Nevertheless, as I have said and as you well know, waiting is hard, excruciatingly so when we are waiting on someone else’s clock. Anthropologists claim that the most difficult thing for travelers visiting other countries, except for dealing with a foreign language, is coming to grips with how others keep time.

We actually do that this morning whether we realize it or not.   We the people of God are compelled to come to grips with the time-keeping of another strange and exotic country, the kingdom of God.  As we snuggle here in God’s lap, we catch ourselves fidgeting like rambunctious preschoolers, glancing at our watches and fiddling with our cellphones. We have places to go, things to do, people to see.  We are programmed to watch and wait for 58 minutes and 58 minutes only, the length of an episode of “Game of Thrones,” “Downton Abbey,” or “The Walking Dead.”  Watching and waiting beyond that, even here on God’s clock, can seem well-nigh impossible.

Rowan Williams, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, says that in our waiting, we all become Jews once more.  We, too, long for God to keep the promises made to our ancestors.  We yearn for God to surprise us, ambush us, and carry us off to the Promised Land; that yearning is magnified as we watch our world crumbling or when someone we love deeply does not love us back.  The wait can be terrible.  It is at the moment when there seems not an iota of hope remaining that we encourage one another to stay awake and be alert for Christ’s coming.  That is, of course, what it means that we all become Jews once more.

Oh yes, some of us are not so good at keeping alert and waiting.  We have been to the doctor’s office, anxious and on high alert.  We waited and waited for the doctor.  We got testy with the receptionist, showed no mercy toward the nurse’s apologies, and, when the doctor finally did appear, breathless from saving a life in the operating room, we shot him stares of chilly curtness.

When we get edgy and feel like we are the only ones who have ever faced perilous times, we do well to pray mightily that we might learn to live on God’s clock and not ours.  This is when we are enormously blessed if we try to emulate the time-keeping practices of our Jewish brothers and sisters, so many who live right here in our community and quite a few, by the way, who worship with us at Bach Vespers every Sunday evening.  They are the promised children of God, after all, who have been waiting for an unbearably long time since God’s first promises to Abraham and Sarah.  So much has happened since then: their blessed Jerusalem was overrun by outside conquerors and, so many years later, their loved ones were slaughtered in the Holocaust.  The Jewish people have been sorely tempted over the ages to surrender any hope that God will come to them; and yet, even when they have faced the unimaginable cruelties of countless maniacal despots, for centuries and centuries, they have trudged to their synagogues with their children and grandchildren in tow and believed that the Messiah will come.

Advent gives us a similar language of hope, an audacious language of longing amidst the wintery seasons of life where we live between our dreams and God making them come true.

The pastor Winn Collier says that “Advent provides an important corrective to the fables governing our lives.  We expect our starts to bolt from the gate.  Energy!  Exertion!  Strategic master plans!   But with Advent we start by waiting.  We Sabbath.”

It has been said that Advent is the best time to plant tulips, a strange thing to do as the days grow dark, the air becomes frosty, and the ground freezes.  Remarkably, the church invites us to plant tulips in our hearts during these darkest days of the year and then to wait patiently for God’s presence to sprout within us and around us.

And so, here we are again, awake and waiting.  Though perhaps lonely and ailing, unappreciated and shocked, we light candles nonetheless.  As the one little candle flickers in the howling wind, let us join hands and confidently pray, “Stir up your power, Lord Christ, and come.”

“Do Not Be Afraid of Tyrannosaurus Rexes and the Like”

Pastor Wilbert Miller’s Sermon
“Do Not Be Afraid of Tyrannosaurus Rexes and the Like”
Bach Vespers at Holy Trinity
24th Sunday after Pentecost (November 19, 2017)

The words “do not be afraid” appear in the Bible 365 times. I must confess I didn’t count them; I am accepting a popular contemporary theologian’s word on this matter. Whether 365 or 291 times, that’s a lot of “do not be afraids.” But, in all honesty, we probably all need about 365 “do not be afraids” to tote around with us as the shadows lengthen and the evening falls.

Have I told you that I detested setting my clock back two weeks ago? I hate looking out the parish house windows at 5 p.m. and seeing darkness. Are you like that?

As a kid, my worst fear was going down in the basement to get my mother canned tomatoes or strawberry jam. Parts of the basement were eerie, unfinished floor in some parts and exposed beams with aged wiring snaking around up above. I was petrified someone would turn off the lights and I would end up down there, all alone, suffocated by darkness.

Psychotherapists among us could likely lend me immeasurable help in exploring my fear of the dark (“Wilk, what causes you to take off running when the lights are turned off?). I suspect I am not the only one here tonight afraid of the creeping darkness and the ebbing light.

Think about it: why do we humans light candles when it gets dark? Is it just to create a mellow mood? Is it simply so we can see? Or is there something more profound afoot? Do we keep the candles aflame because we are petrified that lions, tigers, and tyrannosaurus rexes will burst into our caves any moment and gobble us up?

No sooner had we begun tonight’s evening prayer than I began chanting, “Blessed are you, O Lord our God, king of the universe, who led your people Israel…by a pillar of fire by night.” I pleaded to God on your behalf, “Enlighten our darkness by the light of your Christ; may his Word be a lamp to our feet and a light to our path.”

We censed the precious little light piercing the darkness on the high altar. And then we began to chant as the sweet smoke floated heavenwards: “O Lord, I call to you; come to me quickly; hear my voice when I cry to you.” We implored God to wrap this place’s deep darkness with holy candlelight.

Deep in our souls, we who are gathered here tonight long for light and we do our best to pass that light, one to another. We gathered here do the best we can, somehow, someway, singing and praying, “Do not be afraid.”

The Danish writer Karen Blixen, more commonly known by her pen name Isak Dinesen, once said, “Any sorrow can be borne if a story can be told about it.”

When the Antioch Chamber Ensemble sings Bach’s motet, “Fürchte dich nicht, ich bin bei dir” (“Be not afraid, I am beside you”), in a few moments, they will sing what Cantor Bach composed for a funeral in Leipzig. Bach’s deepest musical instincts, when death nipped at the heels of those he loved and served, was to start whistling. Don’t you whistle when it gets dark?

Our most profound human instinct when ol’ Tyrannosaurus Rex noses through our cave door, or at least when the doctor enters bearing a diagnosis that breaks our heart, is to beg someone to light a candle, tell a story, or sing a song. We sense this as tiny children when our parents tuck us into bed and turn off the lights; we beg them to tell us one more story.

We have grown older now but monsters still lurk amidst the dust balls beneath our beds. The monsters have different names now—cancer, divorce, alcoholism, loneliness, melancholy—but they are terrifying nonetheless.

When old Nebuchadnezzar’s henchmen hauled the Israelites off to Babylonian captivity, the prophet Isaiah started whistling. The accompanying words sounded something like this, “When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you.”

That was 2500 years ago. It has grown dark once again and we are afraid all over again. And so, we sing Isaiah’s song and pray and light candles and do our best to reassure one another, “Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine.”

“Pity the Bride…Is the Groom Coming or Not?”

Pastor Wilbert Miller’s Sermon
“Pity the Bride…Is the Groom Coming or Not?”
at Bach Vespers (J.S. Bach’s BWV 140 Wachet Auf)
November 12, 2017
The Evangelical Lutheran Church of the Holy Trinity
New York City at Central Park

Please forgive my arrogance, but I actually do believe I can improve on Jesus’ parable about the ten bridesmaids.  The tension could be dramatically heightened if the focus were placed on the bride and not the ten bridesmaids.   Honestly, who do you think was more jittery awaiting the groom’s belated arrival, the bridesmaids or the bride-to-be?

You know as well as I that the bride was the panicky one.  Come on, what did the bridesmaids care?  For them, the weekend wedding festivities were like one big Chi Omega sorority homecoming party.  The bridesmaids were decked out in silky green dresses, chic six-inch heels, and exquisite hairdos, and had already drunk way too many flutes of mimosas.  While they would never admit it publicly, they were going to have lots of fun whether the groom showed up or not. For better or worse, they would have a story to tell for a lifetime.  Why would the bridesmaids be nervous?

But pity the poor bride.  She pranced back and forth in the bridal room, tears making her dazzling makeup job look like a runny Rorschach ink blot test.  She hysterically asked the rabbi, not once but three times, “Has this ever happened to you before? Tell me the truth, rabbi, has it?”

All the while the organist was playing—ten minutes, twenty-two minutes, forty-six minutes.

The ushers were wondering where their pal was but they were chuckling under their breath.

The poor grandparents, this was their worst nightmare for their precious “little princess” as they nervously peeked at their watches.

And the guests were whispering, “He’s from too classy a family not to show, don’t you think?”

The identical thing happened to the early Christians.  They had placed their hopes on Jesus’ countless promises to come again.  Nevertheless, one year led to the next.  Fifty, sixty, seventy years after he died and rose and still no Jesus.

It was not just them.  The organist has been playing preludial music now, awaiting the bridegroom’s entrance, for two thousand years.  We cry out like the petrified bride, “Come, Lord Jesus, come, where in the world are you?”

That’s where the bridesmaids earned their beautiful bouquets and lodging in the elegant rooms of the manor house.  Their job, when the groom still hadn’t shown up, was to keep their lamps trimmed and burning so the bride’s spirits would not fade into the darkness.  While only five of the ten bridesmaids had enough oil left in their lamps when the groom finally did arrive, the truth is that all ten became drowsy and fell asleep.  Waiting is tough, especially when expectations are running high.

Have you ever had to wait, really wait, sometimes against all sensible hope?  Alexandre Dumas, the author of The Count of Monte Cristo and The Three Musketeers, writes, “All human wisdom is summed up in two words; wait and hope.”

And yet you all know how hard it is to hope deep into the night, singing all the while.  Much of the world has given up hope.  We continue to send our sons and daughters off to ferocious foreign wars; God’s planet is wheezing; homeless folks line our streets; and the guns, oh the guns—have we already lost track of the last mass murder at First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, Texas?  Will it ever end?  Better said, will Christ come again to save us from the wretched mess we have made?

If God calls us to do anything tonight, it is to encourage one another to keep hoping that Christ will keep his promises and come again.  We do all manner of hopeful things while we wait.  We forgive one another when forgiving seems well-nigh impossible.  We raise our voices a little louder when the poor are trampled by the oblivious rich and the arrogant powerful.  And we make music, yes, we make music, when far too many have hung their harps in the willows and forgotten the beloved songs of Zion.

Do you remember those old-fashioned weddings when the pastor asked, “If anyone can show just cause why they may not be lawfully joined together, let them speak now or forever hold their peace”?  That’s when it was good to have the bridesmaids dressed and ready.  If Uncle Ernie or Aunt Hildegard made a peep, the sisters of Chi Omega would shoot a wicked glance their way or even pounce!  They were all about hope…PERIOD.

That’s why we are here this evening.  Let us resume the breathtakingly beautiful music-making, in the darkness, with our lamps trimmed and burning.  Let us help each other hope that the groom, Christ our Lord, will come again and that peace will prevail for us and for this groaning world.