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;[j] and he named him Jesus. (Matthew 1:18-25 NRSV)
Click on the player below to view Bishop Lowry's 2021 message for Christmas - his final as the episcopal leader of the Central Texas Conference. To download and share the video on your website, social media or elsewhere, visit the CTC's Vimeo page.
A transcript of Bishop Lowry's message is available below the video player.
Descend on Us We Pray - by Bishop Mike Lowry
Slightly more than 30 years ago, a dear friend from my days as a Camp Director up in New England visited our family just before Christmas. His name was Ingo Nakath and he came over from Germany on a business trip. He joined us for Thanksgiving and stayed the weekend. We put up our Christmas tree and decorated early so that he could share in some of our Christmas preparations and catch a glimpse of how we celebrated Christmas. In the midst of all the hustle and activity, our daughter Sarah (then a third grader) was telling Ingo about Christmas and Santa and her hopes and dreams. When she left the room, quietly Ingo leaned across the table and asked Jolynn and me, “Do the children still believe in Father Christmas?” In his kindness, he wanted to be careful that he didn’t spoil the joy of Christmas for them.
Ingo’s innocent, gentle question has stayed with me over the years. Like most of us, I have been fed a diet of television specials about Christmas in which the recurring theme is that of people discovering that Santa Claus is real – the “spirit of Christmas” is real. The Christian thinker in me hungers for a deeper truth and higher reality. The issue is not is Santa real; after all, the original Santa Claus, St. Nicholas, was a Christian bishop and martyr of the 4th century. The deeper question is, is Christmas real? Is the truth of this birth we are to celebrate to be believed?
We Need More
Not long ago I sang that beautiful hymn “O Little Town of Bethlehem” with the words caressing the soul.
“O holy Child of Bethlehem,
descend on us we pray;
cast out our sin, and enter in,
be born in us today.
We hear the Christmas angels
the great glad tidings tell;
O come to us, abide with us,
our Lord Emmanuel!”
(“O Little Town of Bethlehem,” The United Methodist Hymnal, No. 230, verse 4)
The words are a prayer in a week where COVID has ravaged our nation and world; violence has stalked the lives of many; racism and injustice are real; and human hurt is ever presence. Amidst all the songs and joy and movies, Santa somehow doesn’t make it all right. We need more, so much more! And so, we sing, “O come to us, abide with us, our Lord Emmanuel!”
The truth simply is that Christmas is the culmination of a long-kept promise of God. St. Matthew, the evangelist on reporting this reality, uses an economy of words near the close of the first chapter of his gospel by quoting Isaiah, “’Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel,’” and adds the Greek translation, “which means, ‘God is with us.’” (Matthew 1:23) On this verse, the author Donald E. Gowan writes,
“Why did [Matthew] do this? Surely because in Jesus, God’s old promise had come true again. It had come true in a way far surpassing all the fulfillments of the past. God was with Moses, with Gideon, with Jeremiah, [with Isaiah], giving them words to speak, the power to lead, the courage to face opposition. But when Jesus came, God was with us in the flesh, one of us, to share this life we lead and to leave us without any doubt that the promise is true.” (Donald E. Gowan, Proclaiming the Old Testament for the Christian Pulpit, p. 143)
The Incarnation. THE Miracle.
Every year, I come back to Martin Luther’s bold assertion that Immanuel – God with us – is the miracle of the Christian faith. “Christmas teaching” he said, “is that in Christ God became flesh. Compared with that, no particular miracle matters much. If one could but believe that God lay in the manger, one could let go the star and the angel’s song and yet keep the faith.” We call this doctrine, this teaching, the incarnation, the enfleshment, for it is the very heart of the Christian gospel, good news!
Back when our children were in grade school (admittedly about 30 years ago), a movie came out that captured the loneliness and lostness of children during World War II when their fathers were gone fighting the war. In it, a child is born while is father is away fighting the war. His mother tried to bridge the problem of this separation by practicing a little ritual each night as she put the child to bed. Each evening while putting on his pajamas, the child would kneel at the side of the bed and say his prayers, run over to a framed picture of his father on the bedside table, kiss the picture and then tumble into bed. This went on for almost three years – then the day came, and the father returned from the war. That night his father joined in the bedtime ritual. He helped him put on his pajamas, the little fellow then knelt for his prayers, and then his mother said, “Now you can kiss your father goodnight.” So, the little guy ran over to the nightstand, kissed his father’s framed picture and tumbled into bed – leaving his father standing with open, empty arms.” (Pulpit Resource, Vol. 17, No. 4, 1989, p. 44)
Something like this can happen to us at Christmas if we are not careful. We can keep the traditions – kiss the picture if you will – but fail to embrace the deeper reality and truth, Immanuel! God is with us!
The promise of God’s presence with us in the person of Jesus is not finished with the birth.
In his closing assignment to the disciples (that is to say, to us) Jesus said, “remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” (Matthew 28:20) Embrace this truth.
The Bible ends in Revelation with the triumphant claim “the dwelling place of God is with humans.” (Revelation 21:3) The Modern Affirmation Creed of the Church of Canada states rightly: “In life, in death, in life beyond death, God is with us, we are not alone. Thanks be to God!”
May this gospel, this stunning outrageous good news, be your hope and joy in all the days ahead.
“The people walking in darkness
have seen a great light;
on those living in the land of deep darkness
a light has dawned.
For to us a child is born,
to us a son is given,
and the government will be on his shoulders.
And he will be called
Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.” (Isaiah 9:2, 6)
Together, Jolynn and I wish you the true joy of the very presence of “Immanuel - God with us” in the presence and person of Jesus Christ in your life this Christmas and all the days ahead!