Saturday, December 24, 2016

Let's Go Now!

Let’s Go Now!
2016 Christmas Eve Sermon
Luke 2:8-20

At the church-related elementary school I attended, the kindergarteners always acted out the Christmas story while the older classes narrated, reciting from the King James Version of Luke 2. At the appropriate time, the angels stepped onto a riser about the same height as the kneeling rail, so I suppose they were to appear as, in some sense, suspended in the air. The spotlight shone on them as the good news was pronounced to some poor shepherds down on the floor. The heavenly host consisted of 3 5-year-olds in converted white bed sheets with nylon wings and gold and silver garland halos. The year I was in kindergarten, my twin sister and I took our places on the riser, and the video evidence will forever show that my sister did not assume the appropriate cherubic posture quickly enough to suit me, which resulted in a swift elbowing from me and an emphatic show of standing the proper way. I am certainly thankful YouTube did not exist then!!
I wonder, what was it like when that first angel appeared to those unsuspecting shepherds? Was there any sort of warning? Did the hair on the back of their necks stand up, like when lightning is about to strike nearby? Did a vortex appear in the clouds, like in a science fiction movie? I imagine that when the heavenly host appeared to the shepherds, there was more coordination than 5-year-olds elbowing each other, jostling for the appropriate position. Though we think of angels as sweet and beautiful, with really nice singing voices, there must be something more to them than that: something very frightening. Perhaps you have seen the movie Dogma, a late-90s spoof on Catholicism, where an angel appears in bedrooms in the middle of the night, with a great deal of commotion, loud noise, a deep booming voice, and some fire and smoke. (You haven’t seen it? Well, don’t go rent it this holiday season…unless you already know who Jay and Silent Bob are and you like their movies…) While much of that movie is very irreverent, perhaps they are on to something with how angels appear: there must be something terrifying about a member of the heavenly host showing up on earth! There’s probably good reason the shepherds quaked, as the song says. Here was heaven, coming to earth suddenly, unstoppably, forcefully, even, as a whole host of them show up and start singing—singing not of their work but of what God has done, off yonder in a manger somewhere, a baby born to save the whole world. It was good news, but it sure was a surprise!
We don’t know much about the shepherds. Maybe they were outlaws. Maybe they actually owned their own sheep and were just working-class guys. Undoubtedly, they were smelly and dirty, and very unusual guests in a home in Bethlehem in the middle of the night (or did they arrive after daybreak—how long did it take to walk there?). No matter how much they might not have fit in there, though, they went—because when the heavens are torn open and God’s glory is revealed, you go—“Let’s go now,” they said. “Let’s go now and see it!” And they headed out, maybe still a bit scared, also very excited…and not skeptical. They didn’t say, “Let’s go see if this is really true. We’ve never seen angels before, so we don’t know if they’re really trustworthy…” Nope. They got themselves up off the ground and headed out: “Let’s go now to Bethlehem and see about what God has revealed to us!” And off they went!
Few people that I know of have ever seen anything like a messenger from heaven breaking through the atmosphere and setting up a racket to get their attention and sing about what God is up to. We’re just not that attuned to heaven coming near to earth—it seems a bit out of place, most of the time. We’re asked to believe a lot of things at this time of year. It seems that just the time some kind of feel-good story makes the news, someone’s questioning or debunking it. How much can we really believe? In our ordinary lives, angels don’t just interrupt our work or our sleep; bushes don’t burn without being consumed; donkeys don’t talk; the sun doesn’t stop in the sky. Though we may look for God in many places, so often we are attuned to how very “normal” our lives are. What is supernatural seems unlikely, maybe even unwelcome. What is not “normal” must have a scientific explanation. Everything can be explained. Everything.
But Christmas is a special time of year. Maybe we expect a random miracle, this time of year—or a brief glimpse of heavenly light, a faint sound of angel’s wings fluttering by. For all our explaining and planning and doing what we normally do, we stop at Christmas and expect something big to happen—maybe just because we know the story and we believe it, despite the skeptics. Hearing the Christmas story year after year makes space in our lives for the wonderful, the strange, the mysterious, the unexpected—the surprise of the supernatural—even despite ourselves, sometimes. One wonders if the angel tried to appear to shepherds in another field, but they were asleep or too busy to pay attention…not so for us, in this moment. In this moment, no matter how much we may have ignored it the rest of the year, we hear the angels; we know that heaven has touched earth. We may have been busy the whole rest of this season. Maybe Advent has come and gone and we hardly paid attention. But we’re here tonight. We have gathered expecting something. Finally, we have stopped and come to the place where we know heaven and earth meet because God is here. Though we may not expect God to show up anywhere else, we know for sure that God will be here, in church, especially on Christmas Eve. And we hear the good news now, too. With the shepherds, we see the angels show up—it’s scary and amazing and exciting, all at once! The news is that the world has been changed, that heaven has come down to earth, not just as angels breaking through the skies, but as a baby, placed in a manger, in some tucked away corner of Bethlehem, to some quiet, unknown parents (and they’re not even married yet!).
“Let’s go now,” the shepherds said. “Let’s go now and see about what God has revealed to us.” And after they went (with haste!) and saw, they told everyone there what they had seen and heard, and they left, praising and glorifying God. Once they saw the Savior of the world, they weren’t done being excited! They kept on praising God for this good news, even as they went back to the place they had come from—back to their normal lives, with smelly, dirty sheep…maybe checking the heavens every now and then, just in case…just in case…

Let’s go now. You and I. Let’s gather before the manger and see the creator of the universe, come as a helpless baby. Let’s gather and see the one who is able to redeem us, to make us spotless before God. Let’s gather at his table, hear the words of life and grace and love and peace we need to hear—not from angels but from the very Savior himself. And then, let’s go. Let’s go out into the world, glorifying and praising God, along with the shepherds…along with the blind who see and the deaf who hear and the lame who leap…along with the oppressed who are freed and the hungry who are fed…let’s go now, and share the grace and love of God. Love has come. Christ is born. Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors! Merry Christmas!

Darkness Will Fade

Darkness Will Fade
2016 Longest Night of the Year Sermon
December 21, 2016

Isaiah 9:2-7
The people walking in darkness have seen a great light.
    On those living in a pitch-dark land, light has dawned.
You have made the nation great;
    you have increased its joy.
They rejoiced before you as with joy at the harvest,
    as those who divide plunder rejoice.
As on the day of Midian, you’ve shattered the yoke that burdened them,
    the staff on their shoulders,
    and the rod of their oppressor.
Because every boot of the thundering warriors,
    and every garment rolled in blood
    will be burned, fuel for the fire.
A child is born to us, a son is given to us,
    and authority will be on his shoulders.
    He will be named
    Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
    Eternal Father, Prince of Peace.
There will be vast authority and endless peace
    for David’s throne and for his kingdom,
    establishing and sustaining it
    with justice and righteousness
    now and forever.
The zeal of the Lord of heavenly forces will do this.

To say that darkness has seeped in a bit this year would be an understatement. It seems the darkness has been busy extinguishing bits and pieces of light in my life for quite a while, and I hardly even noticed it until recently—kind of like when the light fixture in your den keeps having bulbs burn out and it’s not until you’re down to 2 and you can hardly see across the room that you realize just how dark it’s gotten in there. Sometimes, the invasion of darkness is quiet and slow and almost unrecognizable…
All of this makes me wonder if Isaiah’s “people who walked in darkness” even knew they were walking in darkness. It makes me think of my childish impressions of what people call “the dark ages”: Were there really no lights then? Did everyone just stumble around blindly, grasping for things? Did the sun not shine for a whole epoch of time?

That’s silly, but still I wonder: how do we know when we’re people who are walking in darkness? Maybe it’s not until we see the light that we realize how dark it’s gotten. Our bathroom light fixture has two bulbs in it; one had been out for quite some time—I had forgotten it was even there—and when the other one blew, we replaced both, and we were amazed at how bright it was! We could see ourselves in the mirror again!

Isaiah says,
“The people walking in darkness have seen a great light.
    On those living in a pitch-dark land, light has dawned.”

This time of year we don’t have to imagine what walking in darkness is like. As the literal darkness comes upon us, there are many who suffer mental and emotional distress just from the lack of daylight we experience. When we set our clocks back the first of last month, we may have been surprised by the darkness that seemed to come out of nowhere, but we’ve gotten used to it by now, most days.
But no, Isaiah’s people weren’t stuck without sunlight for years and years. They seemed without guidance, without one to lead them home, without the presence of the God they had had to leave behind in Jerusalem. They walked as though they couldn’t see where they were going because God seemed so far from them. They lived through war and political maneuvering that left them without much hope for the kind of life they felt promised by the scriptures they had always read, the God they had (almost) always worshiped.
If you haven’t stumbled around in the dark recently with the threat of stepping on Legos, I’d say you’re not missing much. Though many of us seem to have a knack for finding darkness on our own, its undeniable creep gets to us all, at times. Isaiah doesn’t promise that the darkness all goes away, but he does proclaim the arrival of a light that, at the very least, holds the darkness at bay. This light makes it possible to see where one is going, to have a sense of direction and purpose, to find hope even when much of life seems uncertain.
Isaiah speaks of one who is to come, who will be called Wonderful Counselor—that is, whose decisions will be wise; Mighty God—that is, a son of God; Eternal Father—that is, one who will care for the people of Israel; and Prince of Peace—that is, one who will no longer wage violence and war but a way of life that sustains the value of the people, rather than oppressing them. For Isaiah’s first listeners, this would have been a king—a real, true king, one of David’s line. This child who was born would be an earthly ruler anointed by God to shepherd the people Israel. So many years later, we hear these words differently…
In the midst of darkness, we await a Wonderful Counselor, whose wisdom will turn our hearts to the right and set us on paths that lead to life. We await a Mighty God, whose power will not be like the grasping, insecure power of rulers who seek to dominate and control others, but whose might will deliver us from the brokenness we continue to wage upon ourselves and each other. We await an Everlasting Father, who will care for us in ways an earthly father could never even imagine—one whose protection, nurture, support, and even discipline will be life-giving and life-changing. We await a Prince of Peace, whose peace will engender freedom and wholeness for all people. In the midst of darkness, we know with Isaiah the hope that darkness will fade, that one will again come into our lives who will brighten up all the darkest corners of us and turn the deepest midnight into light. Indeed, that one has come…and will come again!
If you find yourself in darkness this season…if the darkness has crept in, just a little bit, or overwhelmingly, take heart—have hope—a child is born to us, and he is everything we’ve been waiting for in the dark. And his light makes the darkness fade—sometimes slowly, as his love gently takes us back over from darkness; sometimes dramatically, as we see what has been hidden in plain view and turn back to his ways.

“The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness will not overcome it.” Thanks be to God. Amen.