Wednesday, December 25, 2013

What if God Was One of Us? Christmas Eve Meditation on Luke 2:1-20

Christmas Eve 2013 Photo by Mark DeLap

Scripture can be found here...

This is the hardest story.

Oh, it’s also the most beautiful, and the one we are told “never grows old,” even though it’s the “old, old story.”

But I believe it’s the hardest to hear really fresh. It’s the hardest to honestly open our hearts to, because our hearts actually have these very thick crusts around them, composed, roughly, of the following:

5 cups of exhaustion from cleaning, decorating, shopping, and/ or travel;
3 cups of anxiety from visiting and/or missing loved ones
1-1/2 cups of vague and confusing memories from the Christmas pageant you were in as a child, which seemed to feature a rubber chicken.
1 unwelcome annual visitation of a ghost of Christmas past
¼ cup of true grief
2 months of credit card debt
40 yards of wrapping paper
A sprig of holly
A bag of cranberries
And roughly 4-1/2 lbs of cookie dough.
Ok, and a partridge in a pear tree.

All this is baked in the furnace that is December, until it turns into a nice golden brown, almost impenetrable shell around our hearts. How could the story possibly get through?

Let us try.

Our storyteller, Luke, starts by telling us what the big people, the important people, are up to. These are the days when the Emperor, aka Caesar Augustus, exercises his divine right to move people around from here to there so that he can count them and tax them and figure out just how wealthy and powerful he really is. His minions, like Quirinius, make sure it happens, in hopes he will remember them with a fruitcake this year. Everyone is to be registered, which means, they all head to their hometowns. Because, there’s no place like home for the holidays.

Among the travelers is a couple, Joseph and Mary, and this cannot be an easy trip for them, for lots of reasons. For one thing, Mary is very, very pregnant, and this is a trip most people are taking on foot. Eighty miles from Nazareth to Bethlehem would be four days for someone who was reasonably fit and unencumbered. For a pregnant woman, even if she had the relative luxury of a donkey to ride, it was probably more like a week.  That’s one thing. For another thing, this couple didn’t follow the traditional pattern of dating, then engagement, then marriage, then baby; the timing on things was a little unconventional, and, honestly, for a while it wasn’t clear things were going to work out between them.  So, there’s that.

Once they arrive in Bethlehem, the young woman is in hard labor—the real deal, this baby is definitely coming. But Bethlehem is crowded, all the people have been coming from all over the place, and everyone’s in the same boat as our young couple. Because it’s Joseph’s hometown the usual plan would be to go ahead and stay with relatives, but apparently that is not even an option. What our translation calls “the inn” is really a kind of very basic guest room, probably in the house of one of those relatives. But it’s full. So this young first-time mother has to fend for herself in the area where the animals are kept. She doesn’t have her mother with her, or anyone else, as far as we can tell, except for her husband. And… this is not an era of prenatal classes for spouses. Even with the best of intentions, Joseph’s level of helpfulness is not likely to be high. Though we can always hope.

Are you starting to see what’s going on here? On the one hand, we have Caesar Augustus, waving a royal hand and sending the populace of more than a continent scurrying, because he can, because he has all the military might of the empire behind him. And on the other hand, we have this couple, these poor, road-weary nobodies in need of some hard-to-find hospitality and kindness. And, in the midst of their exhausting and stressful journey, a babe is born.

Where do you think we’ll find God in this story?

You know the answer. God is not with the mighty and powerful. God is not with the guy who has the backing of armies, unless you count armies of angels. God is nestled in the feedbox, swaddled in strips of cloth, the newborn clothes of choice for the poor and unimportant.

What if God was one of us? (In the words of the immortal Joan Osborne...)

This is what our storyteller is getting at.  What if God was one of us… the people who are not carried to royal events on the backs of slaves or in Hummer limos, but who toil along the weary road with painful steps and slow. What if God was one of us… the part of the population, who, rather than sleeping in silken sheets, can’t even manage to find a bed to give birth in? What if God was one of us?

And to put an even finer point on it, God has those armies of angels announce this birth, not to the Emperor, or his governors, or the local mayors or religious leaders… but to shepherds. Guys who are literally living in fields, doing the least prestigious, least lucrative, and most dangerous work there is.

What if God was one of us?

Our storyteller offers an answer to that question. God chose to be one of us. God chose to come, not as the five-star general of an army ready enact a scorched earth campaign, but as a tiny human, utterly dependent on others for his survival, ready to be raised by nobody parents from Nowheresville, Palestine. And Luke has the audacity to describe his birth using words typically appropriated by the Emperor. Words like, “Good news,” and “savior,” and “bringer of peace.” The angels tell the shepherds: You’ll know him by those fancy baby clothes he’s not wearing. He’ll be swaddled in bands of cloth, lying in a cow’s feedbox. Just like one of us might be.

It truly is the hardest story to take in: that God would choose to come among us, not in power, but in weakness; not in triumph, but humility bordering on humiliation; that God would come willing to literally get down in the dirt with humanity, not worried about the stains on the heavenly robes or smudges on halos. Because, yes, God is great, and yes, God is good. So very good, that God chooses to throw in the divine lot with the likes of us.

The heart of the story is clear, if we can get our hearts out from those Christmas-encased shells. It’s about God’s love for us, the ultimate ‘putting your money where your mouth is’ story. The hardest story. The old, old, story. The most beautiful story: the love story of the one who chose not to sit on a throne in the halls of the mighty, but to be enthroned in our loving hearts. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Light in Darkness: A Sermon on John 1:1-18

Scripture can be found here...

Last night was the longest night of the year.

Many of us toke note of it, some didn’t. But in another time, another age, everyone noticed. As winter came on, and the days grew shorter, people were filled with fear and dread that the sun was truly going away, never to return. They determined to woo the unseen forces whose hands ruled the universe by turning all their attention to the shortening days and slowing down, ceasing their work, and allowing daily activities to come to a standstill. They took the wheels off their carts and adorned them with greenery and candles, and brought them indoors (the precursor to our Advent wreath). The whole world held its breath.

Imagine that world. Imagine we are sitting in a very dark place—maybe a room in a house, maybe a field on a starless night, maybe a deep, deep cave, with the sound of drops of water echoing around us. And imagine we are shoulder to shoulder, gathered in a circle instead of spread out among these nice roomy pews. We are huddled together, not so that we feel squeezed or trapped; but so that we know we are not alone.

And imagine we are gathered together around a light. A candle. A campfire. Something which allows us to see one another’s faces, as well as the light itself. Something that kindles warmth, in our hands or in our hearts.

This is the truth. This is where we are. In this place. Around a great light. Hear it again:

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. [The Word] was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through [the Word], and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in [the Word] was life, and the life was the light of all people.  ~John 1:1-4

We’ve spent more than three months engaging with the story of God and God’s people as told in scripture, from the very beginning. And now, we gather together around the story of God’s love come down to earth in the flesh. Today we begin nearly four months of hearing the story of Jesus in the voice of the Gospel according to John.

All four gospels give us stories about the origins of Jesus. In the gospel of Mark, Jesus shows up as a fully-grown man, ready to be commissioned to action by being baptized in the Jordan River. In the gospels of Matthew and Luke, we hear stories of angel-announcements and Jesus’ birth, an extraordinary coming of God as a tiny, vulnerable baby.

John goes back even further in time, back to the very beginning, not just of Jesus, but of the entire creation. It’s no accident that this passage sounds so very much like those opening verses of Genesis—In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep… Then God said, “Let there be light”; and there was light [Genesis 1:1-3]. John wants us to make this connection. He deliberately sets out to evoke our memory of this story.

The story of Jesus is not just the story of a man. The story of Jesus is not just the story of a family, or even a baby. The story of Jesus is the story of God: of God’s loving acts of creation. In and through the coming of Jesus, God is creating again, something new, a new reality. The story of Jesus is a story as fundamental as darkness and light. It is as elemental as the turning of the planet, away from the sun, and then back again.

Imagine it again with me, the darkness. But this time… there is no light. There are no shoulders to lean against. It is just you, alone.

Full disclosure: I’m the kid whose parents grew accustomed to her knocking on the bedroom door in the middle of the night, who awakened every single night between ages 3 and 8 and found the familiar objects in my room had been transformed by the shadows into unnamable goblins that were out to get me. I’m the one whose mother finally purchased a plastic nightlight in the form of the Blessed Virgin, which, really, was a stroke of genius.  Actually, it was more than that. It was a stroke of Jesus.

What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it. ~John 1:3b-5

Now, before we go on, a word about darkness: We need certain kinds of darkness. In the darkness under the cold winter earth, seeds germinate. In the darkness after the factory lights have been extinguished, workers find their rest. In the darkness of the night, tender words and gestures are exchanged between lovers. Darkness can be a sweet and potent and beautiful thing. We 21st century Americans are among the most sleep-deprived people in the world, because we continue to expose our eyes to the light of computer screens and smartphones instead of yielding to the comfort and blessing of darkness and a good night’s sleep. Darkness can be good, in and of itself.

But we also need the light. The seed that has been germinating in the dark needs the sun so that the chlorophyll in its leaves can absorb and transform its energy, for its continued growth above ground. Every human being needs sunlight to boost our vitamin D, so that we can absorb our calcium, and have strong muscles and good immune systems. Even lovers need the clear light of day to shine on their relationships and help them to live and love in the real world of jobs, family obligations, budgets, and good citizenship.

A dance of light and darkness has been going on since the beginning of time, and the light is essential. In Jesus, a kind of light came into our world that can never be fully extinguished: the light of God’s love. The Advent of Jesus is at least a tiny little bit like my Mom’s decision to give me a Blessed Virgin nightlight: a powerful reminder that we are not, in fact, alone, but instead, that we are seen and valued, loved and cared for.

The light is God’s elemental message to us, God’s way of speaking to us on an almost sub-rational level, a level before language. But still: the human species is known as homo sapiens, Latin for “thinking man” or “wise man.” And so we deal in, and John speaks here about, not just our instinctive responses to things like light and dark, but also in words, thoughts, concepts.

And so, the first title given to Jesus in John’s gospel is “the Word.” Here’s what one seminary professor has to say about the Word. 

The term ‘Word’… sounds like a musical chord: you’re not just hearing a single note, you’re hearing multiple dimensions of sound all at once. When you hear the term ‘word’: well, a word is spoken… it’s a form of communication. What we’re doing is getting to the question, “How does God communicate with us?” It is really God’s story. How does God get through to us? How does God get through to [God’s] world? … [Jesus Christ] isn’t just our speculation about God; [in Christ we are] receiving what comes from God. And without God’s communication, there’s no possibility for existence, there’s no possibility for relationship. All that hinges upon God’s ‘Word.’

And you think about the Word, and think about the creation story, ‘Word’ is what brings life into being: God said…[“let there be light”], and there was [light]. And that’s true in John’s gospel as well: the Word is that which creates, that which gives life.

And to hear that term [the Word] is to hear both that sense of communication and that sense of creative power simultaneously, that the power to communicate is the power to give life. And that’s what God is… doing at the dawn of creation. That is emphatically what God is… doing in the story of Jesus.[i]

Jesus Christ is God’s Great Communication to us, God’s communication of light that does not go out, no matter what kind of darkness we find ourselves in. Jesus is God’s continuing act of creating, saying, “Let there be light.” And in Christ we learn what kind of light God wants to shine in God’s world, what kinds of light God continues creating in us, and through us.

Last night was the longest night of the year. The winter solstice took place yesterday afternoon at a few minutes past noon local time: the sun, at midday, was at its lowest point above the horizon. Yesterday was our shortest day, and last night was our longest night.

Many churches hold services on or around the longest night, to offer a place of sanctuary for those who, in this season that so emphasizes joy and merriment, find themselves nevertheless in a spiritual darkness because of grief or loss. Last night at a longest night service in New Jersey, a friend and colleague shared this poem:

Is no respecter of my time
Or my process
It sneaks up on me long after
I thought it was done
And perhaps we were not
Spared madness after all
Although we stumble on
Doing our best
To work around the scars.

On this longest night
I am keenly aware of

I wrap it around me like a blanket
In the cold
And I wait for the Sun

Last night was the longest night of the year. Today is the day when the ancient world let out its breath, in a collective sigh of recognition and relief that the light was returning, the light was coming once again. In that ancient world, as the solstice passed and the days began to grow longer again, the people held festivals and celebrations to mark the return of the sun. The Roman Festival took place on December 25. They called it Sol Invictus, the Birthday of the Unconquerable Sun (S-U-N).

We Jesus-followers have spent all Advent waiting for the light, pushing back against the darkness by lighting one more candle each week. As the physical world (or even maybe our own internal world) grew darker, still we have been insisting: here comes the Light, the Unvanquished Son of God, the Light of the World. God’s Great Communication that we are seen, we are loved. He is coming. He is nearly here. Thanks be to God. Amen.

[i] Craig Koester, in “I Love to Tell the Story”: Narrative Lectionary Podcast 106, “Word Made Flesh,” John 1:1-18.
[ii] Rev. Katie Mulligan, West Jersey Presbytery.