Darkest Before the Dawn.

Luke 2:1-20 

The Birth of Jesus

2 In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. 2 This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. 3 All went to their own towns to be registered. 4 Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. 5 He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. 6 While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. 7 And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.

The Shepherds and the Angels

8 In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. 9 Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. 10 But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: 11 to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah,[a] the Lord. 12 This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.” 13 And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host,[b] praising God and saying,


“Glory to God in the highest heaven,

    and on earth peace among those whom he favors!”[c]

15 When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.” 16 So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger. 17 When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child; 18 and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them. 19 But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart. 20 The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.


  • Luke 2:11 Or the Christ
  • Luke 2:13 Gk army
  • Luke 2:14 Other ancient authorities read peace, goodwill among people

Sermon Manuscript:

Here we are again friends.  Christmas Eve.  What a year we’ve had.  I know that for me, this year has been a time of tremendous growth.  Experiencing deep growth coming out of a year of birth pains in 2021.  As we come to the end of 2022, I love that we read this passage.  Really, we read this same passage almost every Christmas Eve.  It’s traditional, it’s the Christmas story…and it’s the promise of new birth coming to us in the darkest of nights, the darkest of days.

My dad would read this passage every Christmas Eve…from the King James Version no less.  He went to church every Sunday, was a church leader, but this was the only time I really ever remember him reading Scripture.  Yet, he did.  One thing about my dad, he was pretty consistent!  

I don’t know where we all are in our lives as we come to this night…maybe you feel stuck, a place that is dark, without hope.  Yet, if we allow the work of new birth to rise within us, and receive the gift that Christmas offers, of light in the midst of darkness, we can break out of being stuck in this loop.  

We have been through a lot these past couple of years, but tonight, here we are,  together in some way, whether here in the sanctuary, or on Zoom, Facebook, we have gathered to hear this story again!  

This year, many of us have had to ponder on a deeper level what Christmas is about, it’s about something new being birthed…in us and in the world around us.  Childbirth isn’t easy, it’s painful…yet, what do we call babies after they’ve arrived?  “Little bundles of Joy”.  Possibility, mystery, love, struggle, suffering, growth, and presence are all wrapped up into babies.

Babies grow into adulthood through the throes of life.  Our faith does as well.  Sometimes we have to remember that things are formed in dark places, like the womb.  Faith, also is birthed in darkness.  And, faith is not about certainty…it is simply believing, deeply, that you are not alone in this world…that there is a God who resides within you and all around you that is with you…a God who entered humanity, became human, in the form of Jesus.  

December 25 was decided by the early church, really our Germanic and Celtic ancestors, because it is close to the annual winter solstice.  It was actually a pre-Christian celebration, and our Christian ancestors borrowed a lot from their ancestors because it simply made sense with the story of the incarnation of Christ…which is a story that is also incarnated, birthed within us.  

The winter solstice is also known as the “longest night”.  It is the day of the year where it’s darkest the longest.  It is to remind us of the darkness of life.  And also that there is hope, because after the longest night, when it is the most dark, the light shines forth, dawn comes…and we can see what was birthed in the night more clearly.  

Uki MacIsaac says this:

The longest night of the year bears within itself the promise of the return of the light, the ‘rebirth’ of the sun. Thus, the Winter Solstice is a time to celebrate the darkness of the womb from which creation arises. We honor the cycles of life, death, and rebirth, the dark night of the soul and the rebirth of new hope and vision. When we move deeper into the darkness instead of avoiding it, we find the gifts the darkness holds. To some, that may mean moving into the shadow aspect of self. What needs to be released, to be brought into the light of our awareness? Even in our darkest moments we can find the seeds of growth and healing within.

…The journey into the darkness prepares the way for celebration: in gratitude we rejoice in the return of the light, the promise of the sun lighting our path, the promise of new beginnings.

The symbolism is great.  Throughout history, people and culture have known “dark times”.  Times when things are in upheaval.  Unless we aren’t paying attention, we must know that we are also in a time of great change and upheaval.  And, let’s be honest, all of us go through dark times in our lives.  The question is, are we going to try and ignore the darkness, or live into it and grow and find God in the depths of it?  

Friends, the reality is that the church has so often preached a message of hope, of joy, of peace, of love, and even a message of Jesus without the darkness that we see around and in us, without struggle…and God is saying to us on the symbolism of this night…to look into the darkness in order to see a candle, a flame, of love…of promise, of relationship, of incarnation…

Into this season, God has called and placed us.  We are asked to embrace the dark night, because in the darkness we can learn so much.  

In the darkness of Christmas night, there is a great stirring, movements towards hope and something new.  There are shepherds seeing and hearing miraculous news while dutifully minding their flocks.  There are wise men and women seeking knowledge and growth.  

The passage that we read tonight is full of subversive beauty!  Caesar August, the Roman emperor was the head of a political cult that set him up to be divine, a savior, the lord, one who didn’t have any failings, a winner at all costs…and he lived in imperial power exacting a census that was a sign of his authority and ability to collect taxes and contribute the wealth of Rome.  Yet, Jesus comes to us impoverished, on the run, and in a dirty stable.  His coming is announced to a group of outsiders, literally, shepherds and not some great proclamation to the entire empire, this proclamation came from the heavens to a few shepherds and wise men and women so that it can be carried to and for all of creation.  Amazing!

Into that dark night, a baby is born.  Emmanuel or “God with us”!  Jesus, Emmanuel, born to us, humanity.  God, entrusting God’s self to us, in darkness, and to a couple of teenagers who were still trying to figure things out!  God, who gives hospitality and relationship receives hospitality and relationship.  The “uncreated” creator giving over itself to its creation.

Into the night, a small light came on to the scene of history that grew to a blazing fire illuminating hope, peace, grace, friendship to ALL, welcoming the outsider, showing radical hospitality.  This Jesus that says he will be with us in the darkness birthing new life and possibility to us and to those around us!  We are becoming more and more radiant as we acknowledge the hard and struggle of life, share that life together, and look at each and see the “glory on each face”!  

One of our German Christian mystics from the 1400’s, Meister Eckhart, says this:  “The light is satisfied only in the innermost place, where no one dwells. It is within you even deeper than you are in yourself. It is the ground of simple silence that is motionless in itself. Yet from its stillness, all things move and all things receive their life, that they may live in accordance with this reason (vernunftecliche) and be conformed to it within themselves.”

We have opportunity after opportunity to meet God in the stillness of the night, this night and every night…really every moment in the deepest parts of our lives and in every life.  May we lean into the darkest places, the darkest night, and grow into people of radiance as we wait for the morning light!  

As we look into the darkest nights of our lives for the hope of Christ to be born again in us and around us…may we proclaim and rejoice in this king, this savior, this lord, this friend to us.  And, in this looking in, may we experience the birth of Christ that is happening within us, all of the time.  Friends, as we go into the night, here these words from Meister Eckhart:  

“This birth which takes place unceasingly in eternity is the very same birth which has taken place within human nature.” 

May the joy of the promise of new birth, the story of Christmas, be with you every day, every moment of your life.  Amen and Merry Christmas!


Matthew 1:18-25

The Birth of Jesus the Messiah

18 Now 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. 19 Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly. 20 But 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. 21 She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” 22 All 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.” 24 When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife, 25 but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son; and he named him Jesus.

I have not gone rock climbing in a while…I love it though.  There’s a sense of accomplishment and movement that’s amazing.  It’s also a risk.  Especially when climbing with someone and having to risk trusting them when they are belaying you.  Belaying means holding the rope as you climb and being able to stop your fall by putting tension on the rope while you climb.  I’ve had lots of belayers in my life, including my own kids!  

But, when being belayed, it is a risk of trusting with my life.  Here I am, so you can know that the trust has paid off!  

Friends, we are at a point in our church’s live where we are going to have to go deeper in our trust with one another as we are going to embark on some risks in the next 2-3 years! 

Our next congregational meeting in January will be exciting as we flesh this vision out even more.  I believe that meeting will be very encouraging to us as a congregation, and it will also mean some risk.  We all know that we need to take some risks, that’s the only way we grow in our faith…both in our personal lives as well as in our corporate life as a congregation.  That may cause all sorts of reactions, but if we trust one another and ourselves, as well as the Divine movement throughout, we may just grow in ways that we cannot imagine.  But, it does come at a cost and it will be a tad different and unexpected.  

As your pastor, in this season, I want to focus on three areas to give us a foundation for this new work as our council and action team work on specifics:  

Community Engagement

Congregation/Clergy Renewal

Congregation/Clergy Rest

All of these are important as we take risks moving into the future, while staying present with one another, and appreciating our past.  I know change brings some anxiety, but the Christmas story can bring us some hope.

As we listen closely to the gospel text this morning, we hear in Joseph’s voice some hesitation, maybe some panic.  His risk is in trusting God’s voice through the angel and trusting Mary is not without consequences.

Friends, this Christmas story is about birth…and that can be scary and disorienting!  Let’s dive in a bit more with this story.

Joseph was engaged to Mary.  In those times, engagement and marriage were pretty much one and the same.  When you were engaged, you didn’t just break it off if things weren’t going well.  You had to get a divorce.  But, this was a time of waiting, they had not been physically intimate.  Yet, Mary is pregnant.  By God’s Spirit.  There is all sorts of ways of looking at that, but God’s intimacy with her was greater than we could imagine.  God planted God’s very relational being within her.  That seed would be born into humanity through humanity and would be God with us, or Immanuel.  That seed would be called Jesus, which literally means the deliverer of salvation.  In other words, God’s presence, God’s being with us, gives us salvation.  

Now, that’s pretty amazing.  But, Joseph still has to deal with the society and norms in which he lives.  It is said that he was righteous, he was respected, he did the right things and folks knew him to be a good person.  The safe thing to do for his image, and the expected thing to do, would be to divorce Mary and make it known that he was innocent and not the father of her child.

Joseph struggled with this greatly.  So, he made a compromise, he’d break the engagement privately and spare Mary from public humiliation.

Decision made.  Move on.  But, God interrupts again.  God said that Joseph wasn’t alone.  That God was in the middle of all of this and Joseph needed to keep his commitment to Mary and marry her.  Even though Mary would still have the child, she needed community, she needed Joseph’s support.  It’s as if to say, God does great things, but God always does those things through community and in community with us.  

So, Joseph is emboldened, even as I’m sure he was still scared.  Maybe even more so after God’s angel reminds him that this baby would be called Jesus and that this Jesus would be the salvation of humanity.  Pretty heady stuff.  

Friends, I don’t know exactly where you are this morning in life.  But, God has given us Godself in Jesus.  We are not alone though.  Yes, we can try to make decisions on our own, or bargain with God, work on protecting our image, or try to live a safe life.  But, this God with us, Immanuel.  God calls us to risk trusting God, and in so doing, trusting one another.  Often we say NO to others or opportunities, we are risk averse in our lives and even collectively as the church.  Yet, God calls us to be willing to risk everything in order to bring the good news of God’s salvation, of God’s being with us, to the world around us.  WE have to say YES to more risk, to more opportunities to live out our lives in faithful response to Jesus’ love for us.  

God’s Spirit is with us, calling us out, calling us forward…loving us until what C. Baxter Kruger says in his book, The Shack Revisted, “…the whole cosmos is a living sacrament of the great dance of the triune God.”

I had a dream recently that our congregation was dancing through the neighborhood of Finneytown playing kazoos…not sure what that means, but it was interesting…I do think it has something to do with joining in relationship with one another and taking what may seem silly, or risky, and loving one another as we love this neighborhood, as messy as we are and as messy as the world is…

The Franciscan Sister Ilia Delio says this:  PP

“This God of love appears in Jesus of Nazareth, a God who gets radically involved in the messiness of the world to be God for us. . . .

To have faith in a God of unconditional love is to realize how intimately close God is. So close we forget God’s presence. In his own day Jesus was immersed in a violent culture, a culture of conflict and anxiety. But he also knew of the deeper truth hidden beneath the surface of human judgment, namely that this broken, anxious world is oozing with God. He asked us to have faith, to believe that the reign of God is among us and within us.”

Friends, this Christmas and every day of our lives, may we take the risks necessary to see God’s presence worked out in beautiful ways in the amazing paradox of our lives.  And have faith as join in the Dance!


Psalm 72:1-7

Prayer for Guidance and Support for the King

Of Solomon.

Give the king your justice, O God,
    and your righteousness to a king’s son.
May he judge your people with righteousness,
    and your poor with justice.
May the mountains yield prosperity for the people,
    and the hills, in righteousness.
May he defend the cause of the poor of the people,
    give deliverance to the needy,
    and crush the oppressor.

May he livewhile the sun endures,
    and as long as the moon, throughout all generations.
May he be like rain that falls on the mown grass,
    like showers that water the earth.
In his days may righteousness flourish
    and peace abound, until the moon is no more.

Psalm 72:18-19

18 Blessed be the Lord, the God of Israel,
    who alone does wondrous things.
19 Blessed be his glorious name forever;
    may his glory fill the whole earth.
Amen and Amen.

Today is the second Sunday of Advent, we celebrate peace.  Now, peace is not simply the absence of conflict, on the contrary, it is a calling out of injustice and a movement towards awareness and reconciliation…of healing, of being whole.  It is the good news that Jesus came to bring…like a voice crying out in the wilderness.  Hear this gospel lesson!  

Matthew 3:1-12

The Proclamation of John the Baptist

In those days John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”This is the one of whom the prophet Isaiah spoke when he said,

“The voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
‘Prepare the way of the Lord,
    make his paths straight.’”

Now John wore clothing of camel’s hair with a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey. Then the people of Jerusalem and all Judea were going out to him, and all the region along the Jordan, and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.

But when he saw many Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism, he said to them, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit worthy of repentance. Do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. 10 Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.

11 “I baptize you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. 12 His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”

Are you even impatient for something?  As a kid, I can remember the tough waiting for Christmas…and, I have to admit, it wasn’t waiting for Jesus to appear, but more so the toys under the tree.  Which, I know, is supposed to symbolize the gift of Jesus to humanity…but, not much in the thought patterns a 6 or 7 year old.  

But, even today, I can get impatient.  But its different than it was just a few years ago.  I used to want to move things, to get them done yesterday.  But, being at Fleming Road UCC, I’ve been able to rest more in who I am.  A sense of “re-membering”…becoming whole, being at peace if you will.  Don’t get me wrong though, I do love it when projects move forward and there is buy-in from others and a sense of unity, collaboration, and teamwork.  

I’ve come to realize over the years, that takes time and patience to move forward.  Which, again, has been something that I’ve been able to live more fully into at Fleming Road.  Which is a good thing.  And, waiting can produce character and other benefits.  

Advent is partially about waiting…and that doesn’t mean not finishing or moving something along.  There are markers, goals, and lists that can be checked off in moving towards the development of an idea or project.  

Our passage in Matthew finds John, the cousin of Jesus, waiting for the appearance of the Messiah, of the Son of Man.  John was looking forward to the day that Jesus would make his presence known as the promised one.  Really, before John was even on the scene, doing his thing of proclaiming Kingdom come and baptizing, the whole of Israel was hoping for the Messiah, their savior to come on to the scene and what the Messiah would do.

Hundreds of years before, in the book of Isaiah, this was said:

11 A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse,
    and a branch shall grow out of his roots.
The spirit of the Lord shall rest on him,
    the spirit of wisdom and understanding,
    the spirit of counsel and might,
    the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord.

This passage goes on to say that this Messiah would have good news for the poor, the oppressed, and would give release to those held in bondage, in captivity.

John comes along and begins his ministry.  John practiced what he preaches.  He wasn’t afraid.  He wore clothes made of camel hair, which was unusual and probably not a fashionable thing to wear, for any period of history.  He also ate locusts.  That sounds kind of gross, but in Levitical law, that was an accepted thing to eat, they were plentiful apparently and high in protein and nutrients…yet, still, not something that was common.

It’s as if John was making a statement, I will live a simple life in order to make my message heard and simple as possible:  Repent, have a change of heart and mind from the way you’ve always thought and lived.  Be baptized to symbolize that the old way of living is dead, be raised into new life in the way that God intended…living simply in love with others, serving all, especially those on the margins.  John also did his ministry outside of the temple, outside of institutional norms and processes.

And, the people came in droves to hear him and be baptized.  It’s as if they knew that they needed change.  Yes, they had hopes for a Messiah, they knew that John was pointing them towards someone to come…yet, they were also ready for a change.  A change that would include everyone, that would be both personal and communal.

Even the Pharisees and Sadducees came to hear John and to even be baptized.  John has some harsh words for them, calling them a brood of vipers.  Which, in that context meant that they were like serpents, feeling the flame of fire and trying to get away from it.  As I’ve said before, God’s love extends to all, even those on top of a religious and political system that oppresses folks and isn’t good for them.  

Now, God does call those systems into question…and God does separate the wheat from the chaff as the author goes on to say.  That doesn’t necessarily mean that the wicked folks will burn and the righteous folks live.  It means that actions done out of selfishness, need for control, anxiety…actions born of out of sin, out of missing the mark that God intends, will pass away, be consumed, forgotten.  But, righteous actions, actions done out of loving others, honoring one another, listening and not being condescending, but lifting others up.  Actions of inclusion and genuine friendship, those will produce good fruit and multiply and lead to real life.  

The religious leaders of that time felt like they had a birthright to live as they chose because of their identity as Children of Abraham, as descendants…and that God promised to bless Abraham’s descendants.  But, John is saying that’s not the case because they’ve forgotten the most important thing…it’s not about what you inherit, it’s what you do with the giver of the inheritance, how well you love.  

God’s wrath, or God’s desire for things to be in right relationship can bring an ax to cut down an unhealthy tree, in order for something new to grow.  And, yes, there will always be something new, and good, and bearing fruit to grow.

Friends, hear this clearly, John is reminding us that Jesus is coming, that this Jesus will show us how to love and will love us no matter what.  This Jesus will bring wholeness and peace that is real.  This Jesus is worth the wait, and while we are waiting, it’s a good thing to prepare by confessing our vulnerabilities and the ways that we have missed the mark of God’s loving intentions…and to prepare our hearts and minds to be receptive to God’s voice through Jesus in our lives.  

Something in us may need to die in order for us to hear God’s voice.  That also applies to us as a community.  God’s voice is rising up in us, what do we need to clear out of the way to hear what God is saying to us?  We cannot rest in our identity as part of the UCC or even as Christians, we have to ask ourselves what does it mean to receive grace and recognize what it means to live in Christ, and into our collective lives together as a church, as a part of the body of Christ.  

As we do that, may we be reminded that this Jesus gives us courage and voice to ask the hard questions, first with ourselves, then with each other.  This Jesus, in his life and even now, because we are his body, reminds us through the taking of the elements of communion that we shared last week, we are bound together in him and that the Christ is speaking deeply in and through us through the power of God’s Spirit, God is present with us!