Tuesday, December 25, 2012

God in Exile: A Christmas Eve Meditation


Scripture can be found here...

I want to welcome you. It gives me incredible joy to see you—all of you, those of you I see practically every week here at Union Presbyterian Church, as well as those of you who make this place your ‘home for the holidays.’ It gives me great joy to see you. Welcome.

But you know, if the angels are out and about and looking for a place to announce the birth of Christ, they probably won’t be coming here tonight.

Not that our hearts wouldn’t be open to that—they would! We would thrill, we would rejoice, we would sing louder and more passionately every last carol, and gaze into the flames of our candles and see with greater clarity than ever the mysteries of God’s love! How amazingly wonderful that would be!

But the angels probably won’t be coming here tonight. That’s because Christ is being born where he is needed the most.[i]

If we’re looking for an angelic announcement tonight, my bet is that it will come to someone sitting alone in a bar, or it will come to someone hanging out with a gang in some dark corner of a parking lot, or it will come to one sitting woodenly in a chair in a quiet and empty apartment, or maybe in a prison cell, where it’s never truly quiet. Christ is being born tonight where he is needed most.

On that first Christmas so long ago, the angels gave their announcement to the shepherds. Here’s the thing about shepherds. They were the ultimate outcasts in the ancient world—for all I know, in parts of the world that may still be true. If you were a shepherd, you came from the lowest rung of the social ladder. You were probably a youngest son, one with no other prospects, someone who couldn’t find any decent work. The people—the nice people, the kind of people who could go to services on the holy days and nights of the year—they, for the most part, thought of shepherds as thieves and thugs, liars and degenerates. Towns had ordinances preventing shepherds from coming within the city limits. The testimony of shepherds was inadmissible in court. Think of the last person you’d like to see walking into this sanctuary tonight. Be honest with yourself. On the night Jesus was born, that would have been a shepherd.

As for the professionally religious people, they didn’t let shepherds come anywhere near the holy places—shepherds’ work meant that they were in a perpetual state of ritual uncleanness, meaning they couldn’t get in to offer sacrifices or hear the scriptures proclaimed even if they wanted to.

But why would they want to? Every message they received—from good, decent, hardworking people—was that the world had given up on them. God had given up on them. So, it stands to reason that they had given up on God. Why wouldn’t they? As one pastor writes, “Spend enough time in the field, shunned by decent and religious folk, disappointed by God, or overwhelmed by grief, and we stop caring that we are outsiders. We give up trying to get inside religion, or even on God, to get on with life. But God does not give up on us. God sends angels to people who have given up on God.”Christ is being born where he is needed the most.

It’s practically a clichĂ©, but think with me, just a moment, about the movie “It’s a Wonderful Life.” The angel—the bumbling, adorable, wingless Clarence Oddbody, Angel Second Class—where does he shows up? He doesn’t show up at church, while the people are singing and praying. He doesn’t show up around a dinner table filled with loving people, friends and family come together for the holiday. He doesn’t even show up at the old Building and Loan. Clarence shows up on a bridge over a river, where a man at the end of his rope is ready to put an end to the terrible pain and humiliation he is enduring. Christ is being born where he is needed the most.

And Christ is leaving behind just about everything that makes God, God in order to do this astonishing thing. That’s why the story of the birth of Christ is a story of God going into exile. In Christ—this is the central affirmation of Christmas, this is why we are here tonight—God leaves behind the power and majesty and glory of being God, and takes on powerless, ordinary, unglamorous human life. And not even impressive human life. God does not come as a king or priest or ninja or something else that would make sense because of its awesomeness. God comes as a baby, utterly vulnerable, utterly dependent, frail, and fragile. And the ones God tells first, the ones who get that angelic announcement, complete with the heavens practically bursting into flames to get their attention, are the ones who have no earthly reason to think God cares for them at all. God goes into exile to save a people in exile.

We are exiled from God’s original plan for us, to love God and enjoy God forever while at the same time caring for God’s beautiful world. We are exiles—out of place, out of time, not where we should be, and that exile takes all kinds of forms. We are sinful and sorrowful. We are angry and filled with hate. We are numb and hopeless. Or even, we are distracted, removed, out of touch with God, our Creator, our first and perfect Parent, our divine Lover and Suitor, the one who is always doing all kinds of amazing things to get our attention, sunrises and snowflakes, to name just a few. We are a people in exile. Some of us—even some of us here, tonight, maybe—have given up on God.

But God does give up on us, any more than God gave up on the shepherds, outcast and exile though they surely were. God cared for them, and God cares for us, every last one of us. Those of us who are here completely confident that God will show up and those of us who have been dragged here because this is what the family does, and we think, it’s quaint, it’s picturesque, maybe it’s even a lovely tradition, but it’s not real. Take heart. Christ is being born tonight where he is needed the most. Maybe I was wrong. Maybe the angels will be here after all.

I read a story at 6:30 this morning—you know how you can subscribe to something, and they send you emails every day, and sometimes you think, agggh, enough with this, I’m going to unsubscribe. But you don’t, for whatever reason. Well, this is what I read in one of those emails at 6:30 this morning.

One time on Hollywood Boulevard I saw a young girl with a baby. It was a crisp winter morning and her hair shone dark purple in the sun. She was panhandling outside the Holiday Inn & the door clerk came out & told her to be on her way & I wondered if anyone would recognize the Christ child if they happened to meet. I remembered thinking it’s not like there are any published pictures & purple seemed like a good color for a Madonna so I gave her a dollar just in case.  
~ Brian Andreas, “Purple Madonna,” 2012.

We just don’t know. But we can trust. Christ will be born, is being born, precisely where he is most desperately needed tonight. That may well be in you, that may well be in me. So, eyes wide open. Ears cocked, like a donkey in a stable trying to figure out who’s at the door.  All is readiness for the marvelous birth that means we need live in exile no longer. And for that, all thanks be to God. Amen.

[i] This meditation owes its heart and soul to the reflection by Craig Satterlee at workingpreacher.org. My heartfelt thanks. Craig A. Satterlee, “Luke 2:1-14 (15-20), Commentary on Gospel,” WorkingPreacher.org: http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?lect_date=12/24/2012.

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