Tag Archives: Immanuel

Birth of Jesus (Nativity of Our Lord) – December 24, 2015

Thursday’s Reading:
Luke 2:1-20

+ Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, in the unity of the Holy Spirit. Amen. +

Earlier this week, as I was preparing for tonight’s sermon – and by preparing I mean, of course, procrastinating, because like all of you I had ten thousand other things to do and I wasn’t yet ready to handle the big thing at the top of my list – a video came across my Facebook feed that stopped me in my tracks. Perhaps you’ve seen it, too. It was a presentation of a Christmas pageant that purported to be a realistic account of the nativity of our Lord, and it started out the way that many other Christmas pageants do. Mary and Joseph enter the stage and ask an innkeeper if there is any place that they can stay the night, because they expect the baby to be born at any moment. The innkeeper, of course, tells them that there is no room, and at that very moment the scene is rent by cries of pain from the young girl playing Mary. She is ready to deliver the baby, and the rest of the characters jump into action, spouting medical jargon that would be very familiar to anyone who has been in a birthing suite during childbirth. Concerns about hygiene and warmth and all manner of other things crop up over the remainder of the pageant, things that very infrequently make it into our presentations of that night, and frankly, the whole thing seems a little bit irreverent.

But why? Why does presenting this story in a way that more closely mirrors reality produce that kind of reaction in us? Why are we so averse to having that “Silent Night” disturbed by Mary’s pain or Joseph’s panic or the child’s cries? I don’t know for sure, but I have some guesses. One of them is that we have been raised singing songs that sanitize the night of our Lord’s birth. Our memories of this celebration are tied up with the sweet melodies of carols, and the beautiful words that attempt to describe an event that is so incredible that we continue to have trouble wrapping our minds around it. Another is that we have become so caught up in the trappings of the season and our own hectic lives that we yearn for a time of peace and quiet and calm, and the celebration of Christmas is perhaps the one time of year that our culture allows us to muse on those realities without mockery. The last, and perhaps the most significant, is that we seem to have this idea that because God’s ways are higher than our ways, the incarnation couldn’t possible have been as messy as our lives actually are.

If God chose to be born in our world, then it couldn’t have looked the same way as it did when ordinary folks like you and me were born. It’s inconceivable that Christ could have chosen such a birth, a birth that was accompanied by the fear or the anguish or the anticipation or the messiness of human existence. And yet, that’s precisely what happened, and that’s precisely what this event is all about. It’s about God making the choice to fully enter into our world, to leave the place where “all is calm and all is bright” to be present in a world weighed down by “the hopes and fears of all the years”.

That’s not to say that we shouldn’t sing our carols. I love “Silent Night” as much as the next guy, and I look forward to singing it by candlelight later in this evening’s service and adding another beautiful memory of this celebration to the ones of years past. But as a father of three young girls who has been kept up many a night by the cries of a sick or scared or restless child, I’m convinced that Christmas is about something more. It’s about the birth of God in Jesus, and the knowledge that Christ is just as present to us in all our not-so-silent days and nights as in those fleeting moments of peace and calm that sometimes descend upon our world. It’s about the birth of God in Jesus, and the conviction that the Christ who was attended by angels and shepherds is attended in our own day by the lonely and marginalized and hurting people of our world. It’s about the birth of God in Jesus, and the promise that in Christ the song of the angels continues to reverberate through our world, cutting into the songs of fear and anger and hostility that are playing on loop around us to sound a note of hope and joy.

Brothers and sisters, my prayer for you this night and throughout the season to come is that you would know once more the joy of Christ’s presence in your midst. May your gatherings be illuminated by the sun of righteousness. May your relationships be leavened by the peace that passes all understanding. May your travels be safe and your homecomings restful. But more than that, may you be reminded all year of God’s grace and love for you and for our broken world, grace and love that flow in and through us, so that every silent night and crazy day will find a measure of hope and peace. Thanks be to God, and Merry Christmas to you and your and to our whole world! Amen.

 

Flight to Egypt (Second Sunday of Christmas) – Sunday, January 4, 2015 (NL Week 18)

Sunday’s Readings:
Complementary Text – Psalm 11:1-3
Preaching Text – Matthew 2:13-23

+ Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, in the unity of the Holy Spirit. Amen. +

We gather for worship as the Christmas season is drawing to an end. Today is, in fact, the eleventh day of Christmas, and if you had a mind to do so, you could continue loudly and proudly singing your favorite carols for another couple of days, secure in the knowledge that the celebration of Christ’s birth is still ongoing across the world. I would venture to guess, however, that you could search high and low through your stacks of Christmas music and find virtually nothing that touches on the deeply disturbing text that has been set before us today.

The truth is, the story that confronts us this morning is – as one of my professors in seminary was apt to say in reflecting on this text – the dark side of Christmas. It is a story that seems to come out of nowhere, a story that startles us with its sparse description of an unfathomably brutal order from a heartless tyrant. There’s no way to tell what the magi knew about Herod the Great when they were warned in a dream to return to the East by a different road, but we have the witness of history to tell us just what kind of king he was. According to one of the prominent historians of the time, Herod was widely known to be paranoid about his position as king. He was constantly on guard against perceived threats to his power and authority – so much so, in fact, that he is said to have killed three of his sons and his wife because he was convinced that they were conspiring to unseat him and take his place as king. The arrival of the magi and their request to meet the newborn King of the Jews were events that could not go unanswered, and the decision to send a detachment of soldiers to eliminate a challenger to his throne would not have surprised many people who knew Herod at all.

What makes this story even more chilling, however, is that as much as we’d like to look at it in isolation, as much as we’d like to believe that Herod was a singularly depraved monster, we know that this kind of evil is all too commonplace. A couple of weeks ago, the world learned of the prolonged terrorist attack on a school in Peshawar, Pakistan, that led to the deaths of over 130 students whose only crime was being related to members of the Pakistani military. Last spring, we watched and prayed with families in Nigeria after the terrorist group Boko Haram kidnapped 276 girls from their school building and held them for ransom. The list goes on and on: Thousands of children feeling violence and crime in South and Central America over the last several years; 26 people, including 20 children, shot at Sandy Hook Elementary in Connecticut in 2012; 85 teenagers gunned down at a youth summer camp in Norway in 2011; in every corner of the world (and far too often) the angry and fearful lash out against the innocent in displays of violence and brutality that leave us shocked and saddened.

Why bring up these terrible tragedies in the midst of this Christmas season? Because it was into this broken world that Christ was born. It was this world – shattered by violence and hatred and grief – that God visited in the person of Jesus Christ. It was this world – where might makes right and the powerful rule with fear and oppression – that received the Word made Flesh and then deprived him and his family of home and country like the estimated 50 million people worldwide who live as refugees today. It was this world – so desperately in need of hope for a different kind of future – that was given the gift of a Savior.

The story of the flight to Egypt and the death of the Holy Innocents is the story of how the powers-that-be rage against any challenge to their authority, any conceivable threat to the status quo, any inkling that the world might change in such a way that they might be removed from their place. It is the story of how God took on the risk of challenging those powers anyway by becoming one of us, experiencing firsthand the terror of an occupying army, the desperate search for safety, the yearning for home, the uncertainty of being a stranger in a strange land. As the story unfolds, we will see how God in Christ confronts those powers head-on, entering the very halls of power to declare the beginning of the end for business as usual and announcing a new reign of hope for a world groaning under the weight of sin, death, and the fury of hell. But for now, brothers and sisters, we wrestle with the story that is before us today. If the wonder of Christmas is to endure, then it must be remembered in all its fullness. The wonder of the magi’s visit is tempered by the knowledge that those visitors from the east had to leave by another road because of the brutal king who awaited their return. The song of the angels is nothing more or less than an affront to those who rest securely in their power and status and influence and forget that the good news for our world is that their reign is coming to an end. The peace of the baby sleeping in the stall is soon shattered by the sound of Rachel weeping for her children and the image of the Holy Family racing for refuge from the brutal tyrant who wants them gone for good. This is not the stuff of Christmas carols, and yet these events give those carols their potency and their relevance, for they remind us that the one who was born for us and given to us has also lived as we have lived, that his presence with us in the midst of this world’s sorrow and pain and grief are our strength as we face all that has been and all that will be, and that his promised coming will bring a brighter day to a world in need of hope and renewal. May it be so. Amen.