Merry Christmas everyone! As we approach the end of the year, I find myself overwhelmed. I am overwhelmed by how much has happened in a very short 12 months. And I am overwhelmed by the day to day stuff. It’s easy to be overwhelmed. In this year, we have witnessed extreme weather across the globe, we have witnessed the horror of mass shootings, race riots and brutality in our communities. In this year, we have wrestled with boundaries and borders and all sorts of things that lead us to a place of fear. Living in fear is an overwhelming experience, and one that I try really, really hard not to give into.
So I bet by now you’re thinking...wow...I should have gone to the earlier service. Where is she going with all this fear stuff? I thought it was Christmas.
Well friends, there is good news! Our gospel story for tonight is also situated in a time and place that was ruled by fear...and yet, God breaks in and changes everthing.
In the story from Luke, the gospel writer tells us that Mary & Joseph are on their way to Bethlehem for the census. They have to be accounted for by the government. Now, this isn’t a friendly neighborhood census kind of thing...you know like the form that we get in the mail every so many years. This is a taxation and representation kind of census headed up by the Roman officials who are occupying and oppressing the Jewish community. And here are Mary & Joseph traveling about 100 miles by foot and donkey to be counted. Can you even imagine?
When they arrive in Bethlehem, they are told there’s no room for them in the inn. And Mary is about to give birth. Fear is palpable in this moment.
I was talking to a friend of mine who is an expert in the economics of the this particular time period in Luke, and I asked him what his take was on this “no room at the inn” business. And this is what he told me: there are two things that the gospel writer is trying to convey--one is that if there’s no room at the inn, it means that someone more important was in town and two that no one offered hospitality to a couple in a fragile and precarious situation, which would not have been normative practice in these days. In other words, Mary & Joseph were looked down upon by this community. The doors were shut. There was no hope.
And yet! See this is what I love about Luke’s gospel, there’s always an “and yet” moment. And yet! The couple finds shelter “in a manager”--in other words, they find shelter in a barn or cave or some place where the animals were kept. This is part of the good news of this story...God breaks in at the most unexpected times and places! With God there is an “and yet!” hopefulness.
So while all of this is happening (and of course, Luke leaves out the chaos of the birthing experience, which is another sermon for another day), there are shepherds tending their flocks in the hill country. Now when we hear this part of the story, chances are we imagine these young men gently guiding fluffy white sheep through a pastoral setting of green hills and little creeks. But these men (and sometimes women) were the basically what we would consider “the working poor.” Their feet would have been dirty, their clothing perhaps tattered and worn, and they would have smelled...well, probably, like sheep...and not the cute, fluffy white sheep that we would like to imagine…
And it is to these people that the angels of God appear and announce “Do not be afraid! The Messiah has been born! Go and see!” Here again, Luke gives us another “and yet” moment. Those who were at the lowest in the economic system of the community are the first ones to be given the good news! And it’s not simple stuff, but the good news that the Kingdom of God is happening right now, in their midst, and they should go check it out. This is big stuff! These shepherds become the first witnesses of the incarnation of God made human.
Then they go and tell other people on their way and the gospel writer says that the people were amazed. Amazed! Can you imagine hearing something this incredible and believing it?! They were AMAZED! They were excited! Don’t you see...in the midst of fear, of occupation, of war, of hunger, God broke into the world in the form of a baby to people who had been rejected because someone MORE IMPORTANT was in town, and the “everyday” people--the shepherds and those they told--were excited and amazed. Something different was happening. It was an “and yet” moment that we still talk about and celebrate...even some 2000 years later.
The last couple of weeks the Bible study group and I have been studying the artwork of John August Swanson’s nativity paintings. If you haven’t heard of him, please google him...you won’t be disappointed, I promise. Anyway, in his painting of the announcement to the shepherds, he has all the shepherds and even the sheep looking up into the night sky as the chorus of angels give their pronouncement. And the angels are big and beautiful and smiling and singing and you just know that this is a wonderfully exciting moment. But then, if you look closely, you’ll notice that one shepherd has manage to sleep through the whole thing. He’s turned his back to the angels, his eyes are closed, and he is oblivious to what’s going on around him.
And that got me thinking...how often am I oblivious to the in-breaking of God? How often have my eyes been closed to the good news? How often?
I think in our “modern world” we are simultaneously more aware and more unaware of the world around us. Thanks to social media and 24 hour news stations, we are more aware and connected to the world around us than we have ever been. So it means that we are inundated by moments of great tragedy and fear unlike never before. And we become almost numb about it. So often we just roll over, close our eyes, and go to sleep---choosing to be oblivious. As a result, we miss those “and yet” moments. We miss the announcement of angels to not be afraid that good things are happening. We miss those moments of amazement. We miss the powerful moments when God shows up in the least expected places.
But tonight, we have a choice. Tonight we can wake up, look up, and listen for the good news. Tonight we can be AMAZED that God chose to come and be among us. Not as a powerful military ruler, but a baby born in a feeding trough in a town where his parents were unwelcome and shepherds were the first to celebrate.
Let us pray:
Almighty God, we confess that we have not been open to all that you have revealed to us in the nativity of your Son. You sent Christ to be born as a helpless child to a family that could find no room, but a stable. You sent your angels to announce his birth to lowly shepherds in fields at night. And yet, you invite us and free us for joyful compassion, that we may know Christ in serving others, welcoming the stranger and being amazed at good news. Amen.
(prayer adapted from Feasting the Word: Advent Companion)
Today we celebrate Gaudete Sunday...the third Sunday of Advent in which the theme is Joy and we are told to Rejoice! If you are following along at home with the lighting of the candles of your Advent wreath, you will light the pink one. The pink candle serves as a reminder that in the waiting for the Christ child, we are to rejoice in the grace so freely given by God our Creator. As I was reading through the lessons, immediately the hymn “Prepare the Way, O Zion” popped into my head. Some of the lyrics are:
Prepare the way O Zion, your Christ is drawing near
His rule is peace and freedom, and justice, truth and love
All lands will bow rejoicing, their adoration voicing
O blest is Christ who came in God’s most holy name.
At least for me, I read the passages from the prophets Zephaniah and Isaiah as being a reminder that the longed-for Messiah will be a peacemaker, even in the midst of oppression and captivity. Zephaniah’s prophecy is one that calls for all the outcasts to be gathered up in joy. Isaiah’s prophecy call for all those who have been in exile to be filled with the salvation of God’s love and grace. These are passages which tell me that no one will be left out of Kingdom. And for that, I rejoice and give thanks!
And even Paul, who I don’t always like, writing from prison, tells his friends to rejoice and to live without anxiety or fear. That they should rejoice in a “peace which passes understanding”. This isn’t “hippy dippy” peace and smiley faces...this is a deep peace, a sense of security when everything around you has fallen apart, a peace that resides deep within that only God can provide.
The peace that we are told about in today’s lessons that we should rejoice in is not a peace that’s created by walls and barriers of protection. It’s not a peace that we obtain from being “winners”. Even the best gadgets, toys and stuff won’t provide this peace. The peace that God gives us, the peace which passes understanding, can best be illustrated in the way we treat one another. Paul states, “Let your gentleness be known to everyone.” Another way to read this is “Let your consideration of others be known to everyone.” The peace of God is found in the communal and compassionate Christian community.
But here’s the thing...this kind of peace, well, it’s hard to live into. This kind of peace means we have to let go of being perfect, of trying to be “the best” or “right”. It means having to hear the words of John the Baptist. In our gospel text, John is confronting the “brood of vipers”...those who have had some kind of power or authority in the community. He is telling them they have to give to those who have none, and to only take what is necessary. And he tells them that they will be refined and winnowed by the Messiah. To be honest...none of that seems to match this theme of “rejoicing” that the previous lessons gave us. How on earth are we to rejoice when we’ve just been told that we have to give stuff away? How are we supposed to feel knowing that we will be cleared out (that’s what winnowing means by the way...the chaff or “bad stuff” will be cleared out)? Somehow, John’s message doesn’t sound like “rejoicing” to me.
But it’s in that giving away and being cleared out that we can rejoice. It’s hard work, but a good kind of hard work. You know?
A couple of weeks ago...the Sunday of our potluck before Advent...we had a guest here at St. Mark’s. His name is Larry. Larry has been an on-again off-again guest at the Warming Shelter for several seasons. He has troubles...both mental health and addiction issues. He’s been to jail a couple of times...nothing serious. He doesn’t have good boundaries...he calls the church office a lot. Sometimes, Larry is a real pain to deal with. But he always smiles and tells you that he loves you. So that Sunday before Advent, Larry showed up here. He walked right in through the side door and motioned for me to come talk to him. I told him to have a seat, that I’d be there in a minute. Marilyn was setting the altar for communion, ya’ll were singing, the ushers noticed something was going on though. Calvin, Chris and a few others helped out with getting Larry a cup of coffee and having conversation with him. Honestly, I was a bit unsettled by Larry’s presence. Why couldn’t he have just come in through the door, have a seat, and follow along? Why did he have to disrupt my peaceful presence before the altar? Why didn’t he behave the way I wanted him to?
When the service concluded and everyone else was enjoying Betty’s cinnamon rolls and Nick’s cheesy hashbrowns, I was outside talking to Larry in the freezing cold. He didn’t want to come in. He just needed some help and he’d be on his way. By the time I got back inside and the food was gone, I was pretty miffed. Larry had interrupted and ruined my day.
So I called my friend Andy to complain. Andy is a Mennonite pastor and my partner at the shelter. Andy is more patient than I will ever be. So he let me talk, and complain, and whine about not getting a cinnamon roll. And then he said, “Today you lived the gospel. You get that, right?”
Andy. I hate it when he says stuff like that.
He said, “Today you and your congregation gave Larry a sense of peace. The church welcomed him in, gave him a cup of coffee, treated him with respect, and let him talk about what was on his mind. Today you were Christ’s hands in the world.”
Dang it Andy. I just wanted to complain. I just wanted to be perfect. I just wanted to preach the love of God...not necessarily LIVE it that Sunday.
But I think that’s the peace of God and what John is preaching about to that brood of vipers. God’s peace surpasses our understanding. It calls in the outcast. It calls us to give away what we have. And it causes those parts of us that we don’t particularly like --the parts that whine when we don’t get what we want--to be winnowed away. The peace of God is an amazing thing to rejoice in.
So this morning I’m wondering if you’re ready to be winnowed by the peace of God? What are you rejoicing in? What are you letting go of? How are you preparing the way for Christ?
I don't know what the future of the church is, but I know that we will continue to be a place of sanctuary and hope, working towards healing in the world.