Sermon for December 29th, 2019

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WHERE DID EVERYBODY GO? Three times in the past month, I've stood at the front of the sanctuary of First Presbyterian church in front of a packed house, a church filled with people. The first time was at our Community Christmas Concert, which featured performances from our various FPC communities--scouts, preschoolers, homeschoolers, choir, kids n co performers, zumba-ers, among others. The community really came out for that event and filled the sanctuary. The second time was the Preschool Christmas pageant, which actually filled the sanctuary so full we had to add 300 chairs, and there were still people standing at the back. And the third time was just a few nights ago on Christmas eve for our candlelight service. If you attended any of those three events, this morning you might be looking around and thinking to yourself, "Where did everybody go??" You wouldn't be alone in asking that question. In churches across the nation, this morning marks an event that has a name, although you won't find it on any official church calendar: The Sunday after Christmas is often referred to as "Low Sunday." As in, "low attendance" Sunday. Among pastors, this Sunday is sometimes called "Associate Pastor Sunday," or "Guest Preacher Sunday," reflecting the fact that often even the pastor doesn't show up on this day! I have to admit, I was a little bit tempted. But here I am, and here you are, and I think there's a very, very good reason for that. I'll come back to that later. But first, I can understand why attendance usually drops off the chart on Low Sunday — If you're a football fan, the season leading up to Christmas is kind of like "playoff season" in the church. Events like the Christmas Program and the Preschool Pageant are sort of like our Superbowl. The Christmas Eve service is like the "All Star Game." (pun intended—get it? All "STAR", Star of Bethlehem? I know that was bad).

But with events like that, by the time Christmas rolls around, the congregation—especially its leaders—are just worn out on worship services. Then you add to that mix the self-induced craziness of our consumer-shopping-cookie-baking-gift-wrapping-photo-taking-wallet-breaking-picture-perfect Christmas culture, and no wonder EVERYONE is exhausted by now, and nobody wants to go to church. Of course, the irony here is that after the presents are all unwrapped Christmas morning, most people in our culture think that Christmas is over. Time to relax and take a break from our Christmas break. But on the church calendar (unlike the shopping calendar), December 25th doesn't mark the end of the Christmas season—it actually marks the beginning!

Now, I've often heard it said that attendance is low this time of year because people are out of town, visiting family in other places. That's a bunch of baloney! Because if people leave this town, they're still in some other town, and surely some people from those other towns come here to visit family—so attendance should in theory balance out, with attendance down from members, but up from visitors. By the way—if you are one of those out-of-town visitors with us today, welcome! You get a gold-star and some cookies after the service for being so faithful. But whatever the reasons, good or bad, the Sunday after Christmas remains one of the most poorly attended Sundays of the year. Low Sunday. So. Look around are the few, the proud, the real "Christmas Christians." I'll come back to this idea of Low Sunday in just a bit, but first I want to backtrack through today's scripture reading in the Psalms. Today is kind of an in-between Sunday in many ways, but as far as the sermon goes, that's because we're in between two different sermon series'. We just wrapped up a sermon series on the Christmas story told from the perspective of the "Friendly Beasts," the animals in the Christmas Story, and next Sunday we're going to begin our annual sermon series on Faith and Film, exploring some of the best films of 2019 through the lens of our Christian faith. So what do you do with those in-between Sundays? Well, whenever I have the opportunity, I love to go back to the Psalms. We spend a lot of time on the Psalms every summer, but for those of you who are joining us more recently than that, I love going back to the Psalms because they are a daily devotional guide right there inside the Bible. You can read just about any one single psalm in less than a minute (although if you have five minutes, it's good to read slowly and let each line sink in). If you read more than a few psalms, you will eventually come across one that speaks with your own voice, echoing the deepest thoughts of your own heart. So if you've always wanted to read the Bible (or at least some of it) and you're not sure where to start, try the Psalms. If you're in between meetings, school semesters, calendar years, or sermon series' and not sure where to go, you can always go back to the Psalms, and find something inspiring, interesting, or...highly unusual. Psalm 148, as it turns out, is all about sea monsters, fruit trees, and cows praising God. So I thought, "Why not? Let's run with that one! In addition to those things, you also have sun, moon, stars, water, wind, snow, frost, fire, mountains, and hills praising the Lord. All inanimate objects. How does a hill praise God, I wonder? For your homework assignment, I want you to go home, find a hill, watch it very carefully for a few hours, and let me know. If people think you're weird, tell them it's just a Presbyterian thing. They already think we're weird, so it won't change anything. If you add to that list wild animals, creeping things, flying birds, and angels—we still have a lot of non-human entities praising God. In fact, only two little verses toward the end mention kings, princes, rulers, young men and women, old and young alike: Let them Praise the name of the Lord, too. I mean, they might as well. After all, everyone else is doing it. But you see, we humans are a *minority* in this Psalm of praise to God. And in a Bible so predominantly focused on people and nations, that seems a bit odd, don't you think? So, a few weeks ago, I put this Psalm (with all its inanimate objects and animals) on the shelf in my brain, and went about the business of getting ready for my own season of self-induced Christmas Craziness, which, this year mostly revolved around me trying to get rid of my cell phone once and for all. I failed, incidentally, and ended up with four cell phones and a smart watch. But that's another story for another time. Somewhere about halfway through my 4th time singing "Joy to the World" in one of the many Christmas services I attended in the past few weeks, it hit me: Where is the other big place you see a lot of inanimate things praising God, along with farm animals and celestial beings? Christmas Carols!

  1. Fields and floods, rocks, hills, and plains, repeat the sounding joy, repeat the sounding joy...and heaven and nature sing, and heaven and nature sing...
  2. Ox and ass before him bow, and he is in the manger now.
  3. The stars in the sky look down where he lay, the little Lord Jesus asleep on the hay
  4. Do you See what I see? A star, a star, dancing in the night. Do you hear what I hear? A song, a song, high above the trees with a voice as big as the sea.
  5. Sing choirs of angels, sing in exultation, sing all ye citizens of heaven above
  6. Angels we have heard on high, sweetly singing o'er the plains, and the...[pause]...MOUNTAINS in reply, echoing their joyous strains.

The list goes on and on. Humans, of course, do feature in Christmas Hymns too, but often the non-humans are already praising God, while the hymn is pleading with humans to join in: "Joyful, all ye nations rise, Join the triumph of the skies, With the angelic host proclaim: Christ is born in Bethlehem." In other words, what the hymn is acknowledging is the fact that for the most part, humans are not praising God on that first Christmas morning, even though they should, and the person writing the hymn really wants them to be. So the Son of God, the High King of Heaven—the long awaited messiah—comes at last to earth, and if there's ever a time for a full orchestra, brass section, and welcoming crowds of people, this is it! What does he get instead? Well, a handful of shepherds (who likely wouldn't be there if not for angels scaring the you-know-what out of them), Mary and Joseph, and that's it for the human contingent! The three wise men don't actually show up until a few weeks later. Even if we're generous and assume 10 or 12 shepherds, that leaves us with a total worship attendance of of about 14. So don't feel bad about the empty pews today. That very first Christmas in Bethlehem was the original "Low Sunday." If you were planning that very first worship service 2,000 years ago, what would you do? Postpone the birth of Christ until people get back from out of town? Shut the doors of the stable and call the whole thing off? I know, maybe what the first Christmas needed was a better marketing strategy. A better website. Or maybe...maybe a Christmas Committee to pull the whole thing together. But there's no room at the inn, and there's no room in the budget, either. So maybe we need a really big fundraiser first and THEN we can have the first Christmas the way it's supposed to be. It's a good thing God doesn't seem to worry about the same sorts of things we worry about. God doesn't focus on what's missing, what might have been, or what the world thinks is necessary — the God of Psalm 148 says, "I made everything. So what've we got? Let's roll...with that." We got some livestock? Let them praise the Lord! We got a really bright star? Praise the Lord! We got angels? Praise the Lord! We got a mountain? Let it echo the angels! We got some frightened shepherds who don't quite know which end is up? Then let them praise the Lord! Because a thousand years from now, when the rest of the humans have finally caught on and realized the divine significance of this will be those lowly shepherds, that humble cow and donkey, the rocks, the hills and the plains — not the kings and committees, not the masses or the megachurches — just these precious few, that had the once-in-history opportunity to welcome the savior of the universe and praise his holy name for the very first time! So. Look around you, "Low Sunday Christians" and see the faces of the ones God is ready to Because it is precisely in the bleak mid-winter that hope comes to the faithful. It is precisely on Low Sundays like this one that that the Creator of the Universe loves to show up. And if God can use rocks and cows and shepherds to praise the birth of the messiah, then God can use those few of us gathered here today to begin something new and something wonderful in the life of 1st Presbyterian Church, and in the city of El Paso — Praise the name of the Lord! God can use the very pews upon which you sit — and those no one sits upon — the rafters in the roof, and every brick in every wall of this place to praise the name of the Lord! God can even use rookie pastors, associate pastors, out-of-town visitors, and people who just barely made it out the door today! So *especially* on a day like "Low Sunday," as the Christmas season of the world comes to an end, let OUR Christmas season begin. Let God use you. Why? Because you came. Who? Just you. Just you humble few. How? Just with three small words. We are not called to solve all the problems of the church or the world (at least not by ourselves). We are not called to worry about the future, or to dwell on the past. We are not even called to understand the complexities of a God who sends a baby to do what kings and kingdoms could not. We are called to do the one thing that all creation does in Psalm 148. We are called to do the one thing asked of us by countless Christmas hymns. We are called to do the one thing done by shepherds and animals and angels on the low and lonely day Christ came into the world. I believe that if we get this one thing right, the rest falls into place. If you would let God use you today and in the Christmas season to come, then it starts right here with those few gathered today. It starts with three words. Do you know what they are yet? PRAISE THE LORD!