Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Christ was born for this…a sermon on John 1:1-14

A. Hanson 2009
Preached at First Lutheran Church, St Peter, MN, on Christmas Morning, 2013.  

Grace, peace and mercy are yours from the incarnate God.  Amen. 

With the words of Luke’s account of Jesus’ birth still echoing in this space,
this reading from John’s Gospel feels particularly jarring on Christmas morning. But this Gospel text is itself a birth narrative as well.  It is the story of the birth of all of creation. It is the story of the birth of an entirely new thing, a God who loves creation so much that this God would literally take on human flesh and live among us.   The Christmas story is NOT just the celebration of a birth of a baby.  It is the story of our God who became human, incarnate literally means the putting on of flesh, in order to save us from ourselves, sin, and death.  This is not a necessarily the warm and happy image that we want to associate with Christmas.  This is not the stuff of Christmas carols or quaint nativity scenes.  But we can’t have the joy of Christmas without reflecting upon the significance of what it means that God would take on flesh and live among us.

The Christmas story is not just pure sentimentality.  I think that somehow along the way, we have lost sight of just how RADICAL the incarnation is.  It is the story of God coming down to us, God living among us, with all the messiness that comes along with being fully human.  God was born of the womb of an unwed teenage mother.  In a shack, somewhere in Bethlehem.  And this chain of events was set into motion by a God who loves us so much that this God would choose live among us, knowing that we would ultimately kill Him.  The incarnation forever changes God’s relationship to humanity and humanity’s relationship to God.  The incarnation means that we can see, hear, and know God in ways never before possible.  It is the moment when the Holy and the Ordinary collide and God breaks into our world.  And none of us will ever be the same again.  But by living among us, it also means that God suffers, that God knows pain, and even that God can die. 

When we read this Gospel text from John in light of the events of Holy Week and Easter, not only Christmas morning, the vulnerability of God coming to us as an infant takes on a whole new meaning.  The story of the incarnation is that Christ not only LIVED among us, but that he would die as well, and go on to live again.  To become flesh is to know joy, pain, suffering, and loss.  It is to love, to grieve, and someday, to die.

I struggle with the heart of this text, and perhaps you do too. Our world is so painful at times, that wouldn’t it be great to just set all of that aside for one day and just focus on the joy of Christmas…the birth of an innocent baby. But our lives with all their grief and stress and pain keep marching on, regardless of the day on the calendar. 

I think the real hope in Christmas is in knowing that Christ dwells in all the mess of what it is to be human.  For all the people for whom Christmas is not joyful and family togetherness is non-existent, Christ was born for this.  For all the young adults that went away to college and are returning home for the first time, to realize they no longer belong in their own lives, Christ was born for this.  For all the people who are spending this holiday sober or without a beloved partner, Christ was born for this.  For the children who are shuttled between their divorced parents on this day, Christ was born for this. For all the nations for whom peace on earth seems impossible, Christ was born for this too, and will continue to live there until swords are beaten into plowshares.  Christ was born for this…Christ was born for this.

I don’t want a God who is far removed from me and only knows a sort of existence that is bright and shiny and happy.  I want a God who is not afraid to sit next to my dying family member in a hospital bed.  Or accompany me through dark nights of the soul when it seems like there is nothing but darkness ahead.  Or who is not afraid to spend time with those who live on the margins of society, the homeless, the poor, and the drug addicts.  This is what it means to say that God became flesh and lived among us.   To acknowledge that God has lived the fullness of human experience, who knows the light but also the darkness. 

I need to hear…we need to hear…about a God who brings light into the darkness of this world.  Who is the light that dispels darkness of all the parts of our lives and our world that threaten to overcome us.  As part of the training to become a pastor, all seminarians spend time working as chaplains, I worked in a hospital for a summer.  One of my patients in the ICU was a man named Daniel. He was a middle-aged man, a former used car salesman, now homeless, an alcoholic and a drug addict, and in his last few weeks of life.  He was what the hospital called an “unbefriended” patient.  He had no family and no friends.  I met him on the day that he was given a terminal diagnosis and regularly visited him until his death.  Daniel was living in darkness. He never wanted the shades open or the lights on and he was afraid of dying.  Although Daniel went to church as a child, he told me that he was pretty sure that God didn’t want anything to do with people like him.   He asked me what I thought, and I said that I was pretty sure that God was right there in the ICU with us, in that dark room, amid the sounds of the hospital.  He had no reason to believe that this was true, except that we were two people speaking honestly about God in a place where only life and death matters.  I will never forget how Daniel’s face visibly relaxed then, it was as if light had come into his world.  God was not far away, God was right there. Daniel died a couple days later, on a sunny Monday afternoon with me and a nurse at his bedside. According to John, it is the light of Christ that shines in the darkness, as it did for Daniel, so it does for us. 

Christ as Light of the World is a beacon of light in interminable darkness of a broken world.   And as the cry of the newborn Christ shattered the quiet of the night, so too was the distance between God and God’s people broken forever.  This is the good news of the incarnation.  Thanks be to God.    


These are my sisters (Katie in the middle and Melissa on the right).  This was taken at Christmas last year and I love them.  I am holding Katie's two dogs, Meeko and Molly, Katie is holding Mom's dog Annabelle, and Melissa is holding her own dog, Cruz.

Tuesday, December 24, 2013


This is the window of the gathering space at my internship congregation.  Our holiday decorations are Moravian stars (several hundred of them) were folded by members of the congregation, and then hung them up with lights.  They look like falling snow.  The picture below is a larger version.  Both sides of the narthex are decorated and at night, it is absolutely breathtaking.

Monday, December 23, 2013


Credit Barb Regner for photograph
This is a picture from our church's Christmas Program  from last week.  There were some awesome shepherds.  As well as awesome angels, wise men, and the holy family.  This picture is missing a whole bunch of preschoolers dressed as animals.

Sunday, December 22, 2013


I think that animals are angels with fur.  They make us better people, they show unconditional love, and they remind us of what is important (loving your people, playing, eating well, and sleeping).

This is my friend Zacchaeus.  He is a Great Dane.  This picture was taken after he was so happy to see me that he literally danced around in a circle in the front yard. I love him.

Saturday, December 21, 2013


I am sometimes surprised and taken aback by unexpected gifts.  This gorgeous full moon was the first thing that I saw when I left confirmation class on Wednesday night.  It was also relatively warm (30 degrees) after weeks of single digit and sub-zero temps.  This was a very unexpected gift indeed.

Friday, December 20, 2013


So when I hear the word Proclaim, I think of preaching.  However, I do not have any pictures of myself preaching. So here is a picture that was taken after I preached last winter at HFASS.  This is some members of my Boulder, Colorado family, the Abelkis clan.  

Thursday, December 19, 2013


This is a cathedral in Paris. I was so incredibly struck by how the Light shone through these windows and danced across the ceiling.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013


Coffee from my french press in my bright and airy dining room in the Colorado Blvd apartment was my morning ritual to Awake.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013


This picture was taken the day of Grandma Amy's funeral.  This is all the grandchildren (plus spouses, which equals 13), and three great-grandchildren.  There are now eight great-grandchildren.  

Growing up, we would often gather at Grandma Amy's house in Ronan, MT for Thanksgiving.  At those gatherings, and really any subsequent gathering where we were all together, her favorite thing to do was have us line up by age.

Monday, December 16, 2013


A lot of towns in Europe have these signs.  As you are entering a town or village, there is a white sign without a red slash.  As you are leaving, there is a red slash through the sign.

Back in 2007, my friend Kaija and I got lost while walking around the city of Salzburg.  We ended up walking quite a long distance outside the city limits and we still laugh about it.

Where is this joy we keep hearing about? A sermon for the third Sunday of Advent

Grace, peace and mercy are yours from the Triune God.  Amen.
This time of year is often joyful and festive.  Everything is covered with pure white snow, ice crystals glitter by day, holiday lights glitter in the gathering darkness.  Our homes are filled with Christmas trees and decorations.  Our days are filled with holiday parties and children’s Christmas programs. It’s easy to get swept up in the flurries of the Christmas season in preparation for the birth of Jesus.
However, this time of year it is also easy to feel lonely and anything but joyful. When it seems like everyone around us is filled with joy and we are facing the holidays without a beloved spouse for the first time…or wondering how to pay the mortgage AND the heating bill this month…or when the dark veil of depression threatens to swallow us in the shortest days of the year. We want to shout, “God!  Where are you?!  Where is this joy that we keep hearing about?!”  But in a season of preparation and festivities, these cries are lost like words whispered in a blizzard.
Culturally, we tend to pass value judgments on ourselves and others if we don’t feel “all in” with Christmas spirit…whatever that is!  Suddenly you become a holiday Grinch or a Scrooge.  Someone whose actions and attitudes drain the joy right out of everyone else.   We pass judgment on others but we save the worst judgment for ourselves. Asking, “what’s wrong with me?”  “Why am I not happier that it is Christmas time?  “Why does the breaking in of God into my life feels like it means nothing?”  There is tremendous pressure to keep up an appearance of happiness lest you ruin the magic of the holidays for someone else.   We keep all of this to ourselves because we do not want to let people know that we are hurting in what is supposed to be the happiest time of the year. I suspect that every single one of us has these feelings in one way or another, so let’s agree to collectively let our guard down. This morning, let us take the time to hear these parts of ourselves that don’t feel ready to sing “Joy to the World, the Lord is Come.”  And look at the parts of ourselves that we leave at home, because they aren’t nice enough to bring along with us to church.   Or the parts of us that are exhausted and over-committed, overwhelmed, and wanting nothing more than to take a very long nap because the month of December is exhausting! We are surrounded by demands of “be joyful”, “praise God” and “count your blessings!” because Christmas is coming, and WHY AREN’T YOU FEELING HAPPIER ABOUT THAT!?!
        At first glance, the words we hear from the prophet Isaiah in today’s reading seem to be part of this same set of demands.   God provides, so we must be appropriately joyful and thankful.  We hear about a God who brings joy and abundance to a dry and desolate landscape.  The regions mentioned in this text, the lands of Lebanon, Carmel, and Sharon, were known for being among the most fertile and lush agricultural lands in the ancient world, and serve to show just how gracious God is and how the people should respond in praise.  The poet goes on to write, that streams of water will gush from the desert, burning sand will become a pool of cool water and the dry and desolate land of the scavengers will become a swamp overgrown with plants.  We hear these flowery words from the poetry of Isaiah and they might ring hollow for us because they sound like they belong anywhere else besides the real world.
        But it is a mistake to read this text from Isaiah at a superficial level , as merely a song of praise to God to celebrate the joy we anticipate with the coming birth of Jesus.  In fact, for any of us who are struggling with wanting to sing praise to God at all because we feel like we are living in hell, this text might come across as meaningless. However, there is a much deeper story behind this text and it merits deeper reflection.
If we look at this text from a historical perspective, it comes out of the first part of the book of Isaiah, which tells a story of political strife, war, and fear of the unknown.  The Israelites lived in fear of an invasion by the powerful kingdom of Assyria that would destroy their holy city, Jerusalem, and the stability of their kingdom, and separate them from everything they had known as they were thrown into exile. The chapter that we read today from Isaiah comes right in the middle of these accounts of war.   Fear was the norm, violence was a regular occurrence and hope was in short supply if not entirely non-existent.  The poem from Isaiah is NOT a song of praise for overwhelming blessings, but a description of who God is and a defiant statement of hope despite all evidence to the contrary.
To say that the desert would be like fertile land is to say that there is possibility for new life in the midst of what seems like a place where nothing grows at all.  Here in Minnesota, we certainly do not live in a desert, but we do know what it is like to be in a place that feels entirely devoid of life, the sub-zero temperatures of the last week have really made that clear for all of us.  But it is this imagery about the crocus that strikes me.  A crocus is a humble little flower, usually purple or yellow.  It is one of the first flowers that heralds the coming of spring and is often seen pushing through the snow.  It is a stubborn declaration of hope that says, “Something new is coming.”  When Isaiah uses this imagery of promise, it is a ray of life shining into a space of darkness and death.  It is a song of hope for the future.  
What does it look like to sing praise to God in the midst of what seems like overwhelming hopelessness? On July 20, 2012, a Friday, I was living in Denver, Colorado. So was a man who decided to bring a gun into a movie theater for the midnight showing of the newest Batman movie.  In the chaotic hours that followed the shooting, I would learn that several people that I knew were in that theater.  They were spared harm, but many others were not.  And in an instant, an entire city was forcefully thrown into the reality that violence is senseless, unpredictable, and can happen anywhere at any time.  We were scared, we were angry, we were not sure what to do with our overwhelming grief.
That evening my home congregation had a special event scheduled, Beer and Hymns, it’s where about 100 of us would cram into the basement of an Irish pub to…drink beer and sing hymns.  We debated for a time about whether or not to cancel this event.  Would it be disrespectful?  Would people be afraid to gather in a public place just hours after this tragedy?  After some discussion, we concluded that we would go on with Beer and Hymns as planned, because to change our plans would mean to give in to fear.  We also decided to close the night by singing Holden Evening Prayer together.  That night, the words of praise sung in the Magnificat, when we tell one another the story of the coming of Christ, took on a meaning of an entirely different level.  We sang them defiantly, in the face of fear.  In the face of grief.  In the face of darkness.  Stubborn hope. We were, and continue to be, a people who sing praise to God not as a way of saying, “Thank you God for allowing all these horrible things to happen, they sure test our faith and build our character” but rather a way of saying, “Evil does not have the last word.  God has the last word.”
Today’s text from Isaiah speaks that same sentiment into a time and place torn apart by violence and fear.  We have this text in Advent because it is a statement about who God is and what God does for us.  God comes into a broken world.  A world filled with fear and violence. We only need to turn on the news to get a sense of this. Yesterday marked the one year anniversary of the devastating school shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary and on Friday, horrific gun violence came once again to a school in Colorado.  This text from Isaiah is a statement of hope, saying, “Please God, let it be so.  We need you in this broken world.”

The fullness of the coming of the kingdom has nothing whatsoever to do with how we feel about it and if we are capable of summoning the right amount of enthusiasm.  This text tells us that there is hope and promise and new life in unimaginable grief and struggle.  That we are not in charge.  This is what it really means to confess that Jesus is Lord and is coming into our world. That God has the final word.  And when we hear these words with this spirit, we experience them as a statement about God’s activity in the world.  Like a crocus blooming in a barren desert, the hope that comes in Jesus for wholeness and life is stubborn and persistent. Evil does not have the last word.  Suffering does not have the last word.  Grief does not have the last word.  This is what we celebrate as we anticipate the birth of Christ. And THIS is the Gospel of our Lord.

Sunday, December 15, 2013


When I hear of the word prophet I think of "a voice crying in the wilderness", the image of John the Baptist as a prophet.

This picture is from the Spearfish Canyon in South Dakota.  It is a spring-fed pool called the Devil's Bathtub. The wind whips through this canyon and howls like a voice crying in the wilderness.

Saturday, December 14, 2013


It's Advent. This is an Advent wreath.  I made it.

Friday, December 13, 2013

Good News

The day that gay marriage was passed in the state of Minnesota was such good news and overwhelmingly joyful. I spent the entire day with these clergy women and it was beautiful.

Thursday, December 12, 2013


I took this picture in downtown Denver while I was stuck in bumper to bumper traffic after an overnight shift.  Talk about expectant waiting.  I wanted nothing more than to go home and go to bed.  And instead, I was awaiting the moving of traffic.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013


I am in my final year of seminary, and what an incredible journey it has been. My very first semester of grad school I spent hours upon hours studying Koine Greek.

The beginning of my seminary education started with Greek.  And it formed a foundation upon which the rest of my education has been built.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013


 What is more joyful than bright yellow flowers?  I cannot think of anything.  Rejoice!

Monday, December 09, 2013

Awe and Wonder

This is my friend Francis.  She is the daughter of my friends Margaret and Eileen.

I believe that this picture epitomizes awe and wonder.   Everything is new and exciting when you are a toddler.

Sunday, December 08, 2013


This stunning wild rose was in my backyard in Denver.  It's pure white color on a bush of pink roses caught my attention, as well as the gentle raindrops on its petals.

Saturday, December 07, 2013


This mosaic was made for me by my best friend Cristina.  Cristina made this out of broken bits of glass from the neighborhood in Denver called Five Points.  This piece of art is intended to signify that something profoundly beautiful can come out of brokenness.  And life comes from brokenness too.

Friday, December 06, 2013


This was taken at the train station in the Charles De Gaulle airport in Paris.  This particular travel day involved me leaving Denver in the afternoon.  Flying to DC.  Flying overnight to Paris.  Meeting up with a friend in the airport.  Catching a train from the airport that took us through the French countryside and into Belgium.  Changing trains.  Getting on another train to Amsterdam.  Making our way from the city center train station to our hostel.  Then collapsing into bed.  I was awake for something like 40 hours straight.  What an epic journey.

Thursday, December 05, 2013


My friend Matt from College is one of the wisest people that I know.  This picture is from his ordination in January 2012.

Matt is wicked smart, a gifted preacher and skilled pastor.  We call each other for advice all the time.

Wednesday, December 04, 2013


Patience is not something that I am naturally gifted with. It is very difficult for me to wait for anything.

This past summer I was living in St Paul, MN waiting impatiently to start my internship.  I was working very long hours at the Luther Seminary campus coffee shop and biding my time until I could move on to the next thing.

I spent a lot of my evenings walking in the neighborhoods around the campus.  I guess this could be considered outdoor, long distance pacing.  I would walk laps as I waited for the summer to pass. This was a park  in the neighborhood.  I am not clear if it has a name, but every once in awhile I would stop here to catch my breath and have some of the impatience dissipate.

Tuesday, December 03, 2013


Peace to me is generally associated with being outdoors.  Denver's City Park has long been a place where I feel at peace.  This picture was taken while I was running in a gentle rain around the lake. I fit this run in before I went on a two day silent retreat.  What a time of peace.

Gentle warm rain.  The lake to myself.  Peace.

Monday, December 02, 2013


This picture continues to remain one of my absolute favorites from all my travels.  This is from a prayer chapel in the Notre Dame Cathedral, taken during my visit to Paris in 2009.

Sunday, December 01, 2013


When it comes to preparation, I think of food.  And I think of the holy preparation of food to serve others.  Hospitality is a sacred activity.

In this season of preparation, may we all extend hospitality and grace to one another.