Sermon
December 31, 2000
First Congregational Church, 36 Main Street, New Milford, Ct  06776
Rev. Michael Moran
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Scripture Readings

Luke 2:41-52

Now every year his parents went to Jerusalem for the festival of the

Passover. And when he was twelve years old, they went up as usual for the

festival. When the festival was ended and they started to return, the boy

Jesus stayed behind in Jerusalem, but his parents did not know it.

Assuming that he was in the group of travelers, they went a day’s journey.

Then they started to look for him among their relatives and friends. When

they did not find him, they returned to Jerusalem to search for him. After

three days they found him in the temple, sitting among the teachers,

listening to them and asking them questions. And all who heard him were

amazed at his understanding and his answers. When his parents saw him they

were astonished; and his mother said to him, "Child, why have you treated us

like this? Look, your father and I have been searching for you in great

anxiety." He said to them, "Why were you searching for me? Did you not

know that I must be in my Father’s house?" But they did not understand

what he said to them. Then he went down with them and came to Nazareth,

and was obedient to them. His mother treasured all these things in her

heart.

And Jesus increased in wisdom and in years, and in divine and human

favor.

Luke 5:27-38

After this he went out and saw a tax collector named Levi, sitting at the

tax booth; and he said to him, "Follow me."

And he got up, left everything, and followed him.

Then Levi gave a great banquet for him in his house; and there was a

large crowd of tax collectors and others sitting at the table with them.

The Pharisees and their scribes were complaining to his disciples,

saying, "Why do you eat and drink with tax collectors and sinners?"

Jesus answered, "Those who are well have no need of a physician, but

those who are sick;

I have come to call not the righteous but sinners to repentance."

Then they said to him, "John's disciples, like the disciples of the

Pharisees, frequently fast and pray, but your disciples eat and drink.

Jesus said to them, "You cannot make wedding guests fast while the

bridegroom is with them, can you?

The days will come when the bridegroom will be taken away from them, and

then they will fast in those days."

He also told them a parable: "No one tears a piece from a new garment

and sews it on an old garment; otherwise the new will be torn, and the piece

from the new will not match the old.

And no one puts new wine into old wineskins; otherwise the new wine will

burst the skins and will be spilled, and the skins will be destroyed.

But new wine must be put into fresh wineskins. (NRSV)

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Sermon - Ring out the old

I never heard my father speak of it, I never heard my brother speak of it,

but my childhood pastor told me that during the Vietnam war my father called

him on the phone in a mood of deep despair. My brother, an airborne ranger

serving in Vietnam in the Army Corp of Engineers, had not be heard from for

some time. With our family, no news was often bad news, and, in fact, my

brother had been hurt by a land mine and had requested that his injury be

kept confidential. But my father had a feeling, and he called our minister

and made a very unusual request - unusual at least for my father. He asked

for prayers for my brother - not on Sunday, but right then and there on the

phone.

Parents of a solider in danger have tremendous burden to bear. Forces over

which they have no control wrap up their whole lives. Certainly they must

rely on the mercy of the One to whom they offer prayer and supplication, for

where else can they turn? Such must have been the state of mind of Henry

Wadsworth Longfellow when the wrote the poem which now we know as the carol,

"I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day."

This carol was written on December 25, 1863, when the American Civil War was

at its height. Longfellow was saddened by the horrors of this conflict, for

"hate seemed overstrong at the moment." His son, who was serving as

lieutenant in the Union Army at the time, had been wounded.

When Longfellow heard the Christmas bells chiming out, he came to the

realization, from the depths of his despair that "God is not dead, nor doth

He sleep!"

He believed that God is powerful enough to overcome the world's strife, and

to bring peace and good will to Earth. And in ending each stanza, the poet

stresses this idea with the phrase, "Of peace on Earth, good will to men."

Let me read the whole poem to you, including verses that are now generally

omitted:

I heard the bells on Christmas Day

Their old familiar carols play,

And wild and sweet

The words repeat

Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

And thought how, as the day had come,

The belfries of all Christendom

Had rolled along

The unbroken song

Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

Till, ringing, singing on its way,

The world revolved from night to day,

A voice, a chime

A chant sublime

Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

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!

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!"

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!"

The original title of Longfellow’s poem was Christmas Bells, and I would

like to take a few minutes to consider the message brought to us by both

elements of that title - the message of bells and the message of Christmas.

Thomas Merton wrote that church bells

…are meant to remind us that God alone is good, that we belong to Him, that

we are not living for this world. They break in upon our cares in order to

remind us that all things pass away… They speak to us of our freedom; They

are the voice of our alliance with the God of heaven. They call us to peace

with Him within ourselves.

The bells say: Rest in God and rejoice, for this world is only the figure

and the promise of a world to come, and only those who are detached from

transient things can possess the substance of an eternal promise.

The bells say: we have spoken for centuries from the towers of great

churches. We ring out: Christ is born, Christ has died, Christ is risen!

God is good! His love is our salvation!

Now Merton offers no proof for these claims about the bells, but the funny

thing is that his words depict with great accuracy the experience that

Longfellow describes in his poem. The church bells liberate Longfellow out

of his worry for his son and his despair about the violence that stalks his

American homeland. The bells draw him to reflect on the eternal power of

God and to recollect the promise God has made sure in Jesus Christ - of

peace and good will on earth.

Merton’s words also echo my own experience, and I’m sure I’m not alone in

this. You can be walking down the street when over the sounds of

conversation or the noise of the cars and trucks you hear the bells ringing

from the steeple. Maybe it’s tolling the hour or maybe it’s playing a hymn

whose words are familiar. In either case, it causes a moment of

recollection and recognition - the lifting up of the ears, the eyes, and the

heart to some bigger picture of things, some different perspective.

For the person of faith, that perspective is as Merton described it - a

reminder that God is good, that we belong to Him, that we are not living for

this world. They call us to peace with Him within ourselves. The bells say:

Christ is born, Christ has died, Christ is risen!

While that is true of bells at any time of year, but Longfellow is writing

specifically of Christmas bells - bells that play out the old familiar

carols, carols that enhance our sense as Christmas as a time of tradition,

of well-worn rituals and a renewal of our connection with years gone by.

Some of you may have seen the local access television show I was on last

week where for two hours we took phone calls and heard people speak about

the traditions of their holiday celebrations. Actually, we didn’t take that

many phone calls because, being local access TV, the phone was not

functioning properly and there were probably only a few dozen viewers to

begin with.

I didn’t say this on the show, because it didn’t seem like the right place,

but I would like to say it here: there is an irony that Christmas is such a

season of tradition and nostalgia because the spiritual core of the holiday

is all about a radical break with the past.

God is born into human history to initiate something new, something out of

continuity with the what has gone before, something unimagined, unforeseen,

unexpected, unbounded and undetermined by what has gone before. A new thing

brought about in a new way announced to a new audience creating a new

community.

The order of cause and effect is broken, that is the meaning of the virgin

birth, for God is doing a new thing for the sake of his children whom he

loves. And God’s children must not cling to the past if they are to realize

their freedom and receive this gift.

As our second lesson stated in terms of a parable: no one puts new wine into

old wineskins; otherwise the new wine will burst the skins and will be

spilled, and the skins will be destroyed. But new wine must be put into

fresh wineskins.

Wrapping Christmas up in tradition and nostalgia may be a little like

putting new wine in old wineskins.

And this message of new wine is not peripheral to the meaning of Christmas.

It is the foundation for the hope of Christmas, the hope of new

possibilities, of escaping from the heavy load of the past, from the

animosity over ancient wrongs that turns nation against nation, from the

difficult circumstances of childhood that threaten to cripple the adult now

free of them, from the personal mistakes, failures, and sins that need to be

forgiven if we are to find a wholesome future.

The new wine of Christmas the proclamation of new possibilities, new

beginnings, new life for the human family and for us, the members of that

family and of God’s family now as well.

It’s fortunate that this year we celebrate the first Sunday of Christmas on

New Year’s Eve - and not just any New Year’s Eve, but the eve of a new

century and a new millennium. May this happy coincidence help us associate

Christmas with ringing out the old and ringing in the new. For it is the

bells of Christmas, when God acted on our behalf, that truly sound out the

joy of a new day.

Merry Christmas.  Amen

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