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18Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. 19Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly. 20But just when he had resolved to do this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. 21She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” 22All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet: 23“Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel,” which means, “God is with us.” 24When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife, 25but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son; and he named him Jesus. (Matthew 1:18-25, NRSV)

The paparazzi finally caught up with Lori and me, as well as our spouses, Colleen and Jacob. On November 26, the Long Island Life section of Newsday ran a story on transplants to Long Island, people like the four of us who came to New York from Tennessee, Texas, and Georgia. The story contained a picture of the four of us, as well as Aaron and Charlotte Burgess, with the church in the background. Our children were AWOL! There were some surprises when I read the piece. I learned that I attended seminary in Texas, though in real life I’ve never attended any school in the Lone Star State. I also learned that I earned a doctorate at Boston University, whereas in real life I only earned a second master’s degree. I was also surprised that the paper quoted “Jimmy Burgess” since in real life, he doesn’t exist. Talk about fake news!

The Christmas story in the Bible is full of surprises from start to finish. Joseph is a good example. I picture him emitting a sigh of relief as he walks through the door, placing his wood working tools on a bench. Ignoring his sore muscles, Joseph quickly eats dinner with one goal in mind—a nice, long, restful night’s sleep. It didn’t work out that way for two reasons. First, his beloved Mary, to whom he was engaged to be married, showed up with earth shaking news. She was having a baby. This woman whom Joseph assumed was virtuous, turned out to be someone else altogether. With such devastating news, Joseph’s heart must have broken into a million little pieces. Clearly the wedding was off. And now Mary was talking crazy, some grandiose fantasy about her pregnancy being a miracle from on high. Joseph had never thought of her as out of touch with reality, but now he did. Should he punish her? He could bring Mary before the religious hierarchy who had the power to sentence her to death by stoning. But he knew in his heart of hearts that he still loved her. He would not marry her, but he still had feelings for her despite her obvious infidelity. So instead of punishing Mary, Joseph decided to end the engagement quietly and go on with his life.

Finally she left, crying because he did not believe her. At last he crawled into bed with his eyes wide open in sad disbelief. It was a fitful night, Joseph tossing and turning, this way and that, unable to get comfortable. Late into the night, Joseph fell asleep. And then came the dream that seemed more than a dream even as it played out in his head, behind those sleepy eyes and restless slumber. He dreamed of an angel. He’d had lots of strange dreams, didn’t everybody? But this one was the most vivid dream of his life. It seemed so real. An angel. A message. A sign? Perhaps. In the dream the angel said to Joseph, “Do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins” (Matthew 1:20b-21, NRSV).

Then poof—the angel disappeared. Joseph woke up the angel’s words ringing in his ears. Only now something was different. He was different. He felt different. His sadness over Mary’s pregnancy—gone. His anger that she had betrayed him—gone. His broken heart—gone. But there was more to it than that, his disbelief was gone too. This crazy dream worked a number on him because now he believed Mary’s improbable story. Sure there were plenty of unanswered questions, but he knew in his heart that she was telling the truth. So now his life, his ordinary work-a-day existence of hammers and nails, busted thumbnails and callouses, changed in a moment. (To see the next chapter in Joseph and Mary’s life, join us tonight at our 5 PM Christmas Pageant…end of commercial.)

Sometimes life is like that. We have high hopes that unexpectedly disintegrate around us. But like the Phoenix, something in those ashes gives us a new lease on life. Poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, best known for his poem, “Paul Revere’s Ride,” had his share of surprises in life and not all of them good. I had my own Longfellow surprise last weekend when Alina and I road tripped to Massachusetts to see a production of the “Boston Revels” in Harvard’s Sanders Theatre. The cast included John Recroft, my nephew and Alina’s one and only cousin. Since we were going to be in the Boston area and I had decided to talk about Longfellow in today’s sermon, I wanted to visit Longfellow’s Cambridge home to better acquaint myself with the famed poet and professor. The surprise was mine, the day we intended to go I checked the website to find that Longfellow’s home was closed in the winter. I had an inkling of hope when I read the words “reservations can be made.” As I continued reading it explained that reservations could only be made for groups, and then two weeks in advance. My disappointment at not being able to visit the house was in fact a very happy surprise for Alina who responded to the news saying, “Yesssssssssssss!” Just ask and she’ll tell you that I have bored her with history from Jimmy Carter’s birthplace in Georgia to the Freedom Trail in Boston to St. Peter’s in Rome.

Despite not touring his house, I knew that Longfellow had suffered more than his share of unexpected tragedies. His first wife, Mary Storer Potter, had died following a miscarriage in 1835. His second wife, Frances Appleton, died from a fire in 1861 from which Longfellow tried to save her, unsuccessfully. To make matters worse, his face was burned and he could not even attend her funeral. For the rest of his life he wore a beard to cover the scars. Two years later, in 1863, his son, Charles Appleton Longfellow, shocked his father by joining the Union Army without his father’s consent. Though an ardent abolitionist, Longfellow could not imagine facing the tragedy of losing a child. Six months later, Longfellow received the news that Charles had been severely wounded. A broken man, Longfellow wasn’t sure he could go on when he received word that his son would live.[1]

In December, Charles was back in Cambridge convalescing under the watchful eye of his father. Shortly thereafter, Longfellow heard the bells, and yes it was on Christmas Day. In response, Longfellow quickly wrote a poem entitled, “Christmas Bells.”[2]

It was later set to music and renamed, “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day.” The lyrics recount his experience of tragedy, most recently his son’s near fatal injuries in the war. In words that are not a part of the song, Longfellow wrote about Charles’ time in Battery A of the 1st Massachusetts Artillery.

Then from each black, accursed mouth

The cannon thundered in the South,

And with the sound

The carols drowned

Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

It was as if an earthquake rent

The hearth-stones of a continent,

And made forlorn

The households born

Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

Then this familiar verse:

And in despair I bowed my head;

"There is no peace on earth," I said:

"For hate is strong,

And mocks the song

Of peace on earth, good-will to men!"

Longfellow then wrote the last verse, a verse of hope:

Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:

"God is not dead; nor doth he sleep!

The Wrong shall fail,

The Right prevail,

With peace on earth, good-will to men!"

These words encapsulate the hope that shines through the Christmas story. Israel was living under the thumb of the Roman army. These were dark days as the people asked themselves, “Where is God? Have we been forgotten or worse, abandoned?” The answer came in the angel’s surprising message first to Mary and then to Joseph. The answer came in the angels’ song which startled the sleepy shepherds. The answer came in a humble stable in the cries and coos of a newborn babe. The answer reminded humanity that regardless of Roman occupation or terrorist attacks or hurricanes or wildfires that,

"God is not dead; nor doth he sleep!

The Wrong shall fail,

The Right prevail,

With peace on earth, good-will to men"…and women! AMEN.

Written by Rev. Jimmy Only

Read by Rev. Lori Burgess

Christmas Eve Morning 2017


God of mystery and might, we praise and worship you. We remember how you came in silence, while all the world lay sleeping, to enter our world as a child of humble birth. We thank you for the hope of the prophets, the song of the angels, the wonder of the shepherds, and the gifts of the Magi. Mostly we give thanks that in Jesus Christ you became flesh and dwelt among us, sharing human hurts and human joys. On this blessed day, draw us into the mystery of your love. Join our voices with the heavenly host that we may sing your glory on high.

Thanks be to you eternal God for sending the greatest gift of all, your Son, Jesus, Emmanuel, God with us. AMEN.

Adapted from the Book of Common Worship, pp. 184-185.



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