Saturday, December 26, 2015

The Nativity of our Lord, Christmas Eve - December 24, 2015 (Isaiah 9:2-7 and Luke 2:1-20)

Tonight is a night of contrasts. It’s a night about things being put together that are total opposites, or that don’t really seem to match at all. They’re all over the place.

For example, everyone wants and almost needs tonight to be the same tonight as it is every year—the same old carols we sing in worship, the same old candles we light, the customary family recipes we’ve consumed before we got here. And yet we all also harbor an irrepressible sense that something unexpected is going to happen in the midst of it all, that there will be surprises beneath the tree tomorrow, new toys to play with, new toys to put together.

Tonight is all about contrasts. I’m talking about the fact that it is the dead of winter, we’ve been dreaming about a white Christmas for weeks now (or at least singing along with the radio about it). We’ll drink our Peppermint Lattes and our warm egg nogs, and yet here we are running the air conditioning and I’m wearing shorts under this robe. (OK…I’m kidding about the shorts).

Stark contrasts! You realize there are others, too, once you start thinking about it: like the fact that Christmas is touted over and over as the most wonderful time of the year, yet for many among us it is the loneliest, a time filled with sorrow and painful memories. Some of us claim we wish this night, this feeling, this spirit, could last a little longer, while others just want to get through it and hope it goes quickly.

The Annunciation to the Shepherds (Daniel Bonnell)
Tonight, though, all of those people are all in the same room together tonight to hear the same message. And it, too, is a message of contrasts, powerful, glaring contrasts. “The people who walked in darkness,” says the prophet Isaiah, “have seen a great light.” An Emperor takes an orderly census of his far-flung, mighty empire based in his thriving metropolis of Rome, and yet there is hardly room to squeeze in one more baby here on the fringes, in an old royal city that is now little more than a backwater. Shepherds, brown-collar workers ion one of the lowliest trades of the ancient era, quietly biding their night shift on the edge of town, suddenly find themselves surrounded by a huge choir of bright angels. A random field of sheep becomes the epicenter of the announcement that there will be peace on earth. And, of course, there is the greatest contrast of all: that the Lord of all, the Messiah, the King of Kings is nestled in a feedbox. It is a night of contrasts, and I’m not sure we can fully make sense of it. We are gathered here simply to marvel at it, worship it, and, like Mary, ponder them in our hearts.

It makes me ponder a particular contrast that caught my eye just the other day as I set up my sterling silver home communion set just inches away from a Chromebook laptop on a dresser top in the apartment room of one of our homebound members. What an altar to the Lord!  Granted, pastors are accustomed to these makeshift worship spaces when we make our visits, but the juxtaposition of these items really made me stop and think. We had just finished scrolling through photos on the Epiphany Facebook page she hadn’t seen before. I wasn’t sure what she’d think of them, but with each click her face would light up as if she were looking through a family photo album. On each photo she found one, two, sometimes three people she recognized.

“There’s Ken Reckenbeil…oh, and there’s Georgianna!...Is that really Taylor Williamson? She’s grown up so!”

“Yeah, she teaches Sunday School now,” I said.

After a few minutes of communing with the saints through digital media, she politely shut the computer down and asked for Communion of the sacramental kind. And seeming more like an angel to me, she then leaned in toward her stereo, which had been playing this whole time in the background, and turned up the volume. “For unto us a child is born. Unto us a Son is given…” I think we had reached one of her favorite parts of Handel’s Messiah, and soon the sounds of the London Philharmonic Orchestra and choir started to drown out the noisy dialogue and comings and goings of the people in the hall outside her room. She, the angel, and I, just a shepherd being visited…it occurred to me that beside this laptop and on top of this ordinary dresser is a perfectly suitable place to receive the Lord’s presence.

God apparently loves to work with contrasts. God is at home here, in our humble dwellings and our humble hearts, just has God was this night so long ago, gathering shepherds and angels, kings and mangers in one room. Things that we would never put together, especially in relationship with the divine, God is quite comfortable with.

However, the true message of this evening—the more important news of Christmas—is not that God simply likes contrasts or that God engineers these paradoxes all over the place. God goes one step further, beginning with this birth. God is going to switch places with these opposites. God isn’t just going to partner for a while with the lowly and the common. God is going to use them, infuse them, become them, be them, so that they may become like God.

The message of this night is that a great exchange is going to happen between the one who Created us and those he has created. Even though we are broken, even though we have taken what God has given and squandered it, even though we have misused our own lives and each other’s, God still decides to dwell among us and live alongside us. In Christ Jesus, God decides that humankind, in all its messiness, in all its tendencies to betray each other in all of it its fascination with other gods and other promises is worth saving and redeeming.

And to do so, God exchanges what we are for what God always is. “For to us a child is born,” Isaiah proclaims, “unto us a Son is given.” Not leant. Not just to look at. Not just to project our ideal selves upon, our dreams and hopes for the future. But, rather, given. Exchanged. Because God loves us. And in the end, the contrast of this exchange will humble us completely. For we will give him death. But in return he will give us life.

Maybe one of the best depictions of this Great Exchange, this great combining of contrasts, appears in “A Charlie Brown Christmas,” which turns 50 this year. The second-longest-running Christmas special of all-time, Charles Schutz’s Peanuts characters’ grappling with the commercialization of Christmas and the holiday’s true meaning broke barriers in 1965 just as it does today. Of course, a lot of attention gets placed on Linus’ famous speech where he boldly recites from the second chapter of Luke’s gospel, something unheard of on mainstream TV.

However, the scene that most vividly portrays the Christmas message, the length to which God will go to overcome the contrast between heaven and earth, comes right before the final credits roll. After the pageant ends, of course, Charlie Brown brings his little pathetic Christmas tree outside to decorate it, but stops in his tracks when he notices that Snoopy’s over-the-top, garish doghouse decorations have already claimed first place in a contest. Disgusted and defeated, Charlie Brown skulks away, leaving the tree standing cold in the snow. The contrast couldn’t be more obvious. Then the pageant gang appears and, in a surprise move, takes all the decorations from Snoopy’s house and places them on the small tree. It’s grand and glorious at that point, and Snoopy’s house stands in the background, stripped bare, reminding us somewhat of Calvary.

When Isaiah says that the Son is given to us, he means that we receive him and all that he is—his forgiveness, his mercy, his love—and that we give him our brokenness, our rudeness, our failures. It means God looks at us as the bare, scrawny trees that we are and yet still bestows first prize of heaven upon us, cloaking us with glory, all because of Jesus.

Tonight is all about contrasts, isn’t it, then? Communion with the holy in the surroundings of the ordinary. Shepherds and angels. “The people who walk in darkness have seen a great light.” Highest heaven and lowest earth. God is quite at ease here, in our land of scrawny trees. Perhaps, then, we can learn to be so, too: at ease because God is with us. I suppose then we can announce to one and to all, to those who seem like us and those with whom we always seem to contrast, to those who have stirrings of great joy and those who are in great grief, those who get a white Christmas, and those who have to settle for a wet one: “Glory to God in the highest heaven AND on earth peace among those whom he favors!”

The Annunciation to the Shepherds (Nicoleas Berchem)


Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

Sunday, December 20, 2015

The Fourth Sunday of Advent [Year C] - December 20, 2015 (Luke 1:39-55)

Where would we be without the faith of Mary and Elizabeth?

It’s hard to say.  I’m sure that God would have found another way for the good news to break into human history to bring about his kingdom, but God didn’t have to: Mary and Elizabeth come through. Mary and Elizabeth, in a day and age that so much of the time overlooked women become the people through whom the Lord of grace makes his entrance. In a day and age when women were often given little voice, Mary and Elizabeth shout and sing and become examples of the power in believing…in believing that God might be up to something new…in believing that the miraculous might happen.

fresco at the Church of St. George
in Kurbinovo, Macedonia
Where would we be without the faith of Mary and Elizabeth? To begin with, look at Mary! She takes off to see Elizabeth up in the Judean hill country all by herself. Who does she think she is? Most historians tell us that people didn’t just up and travel unless they had some compelling cultural reason. And women would almost never do something so bold, especially while carrying a child! By going onto something like secluded bedrest for five months, Elizabeth had done the more socially and medically expected thing. Clearly Mary believes she must be blessed, that the baby she carries in her womb can ward off danger on the road.

And then look at Elizabeth! Immediately upon seeing Mary, she shouts out in joy. The child in her own womb kicks right when Mary enters in the house. Elizabeth overflows in her blessing of Mary. We can just see them, can’t we, throwing their arms up in the air and hugging each other over and over, happy to see each other, happy for new beginnings. Elizabeth becomes the first person in the story of Luke to call Jesus “Lord,” which is, interestingly enough, what Jesus will mainly be called after his resurrection. Here, right at the beginning, just as he does after his resurrection, Jesus is already bringing signs of new life. And Elizabeth is the first to notice it.

And then there was Mary’s big “yes” to the angel Gabriel in the first place. That’s the truly astounding part of this, what gets the whole ball rolling. What would we do without it? In contrast to Elizabeth’s husband, the priest Zechariah, Mary believes the messenger’s news and consents to the miracle of Jesus’ birth.

a painting of the Visitation at the church of El Sitio
in Suchitoto, El Salvador
Martin Luther had a very interesting take on the annunciation to Mary. He said there were really three miracles present here. First, there is the miracle that God and humankind would be joined in a child in the first place. That’s pretty amazing. Second, there is the miracle that Mary should conceive before she is married. However, neither of those miracles, Luther said, were a big deal for God. The Creator is able to bring about whatever the Creator wants to bring about. The third miracle is that Mary ever consented to this plan, and that’s the one with which Luther was most impressed. “Most amazing of all,” he says, “is that this maiden should credit the announcement that she, rather than some other virgin, had been chosen as the mother of God.”[1]
The faith of Mary and Elizabeth is where it all begins for all of us. The angels will eventually sing about peace for the whole Earth, but only because these two women display peace with God. God’s kingdom will eventually take up residence within every nation on earth, but only because this lowly, vulnerable soul decides not to let the duty fall to “some other virgin” and first lets God take up residence in her body.

And in spite of the danger this whole condition might put her in, we see more of Mary’s faith and foresight in the song she sings after Elizabeth blesses her. It’s clear that she is beginning to understand how far-reaching her decision will be: down the road all generations, not just Elizabeth, will call her blessed, which is something I’m doing this morning.

She sees a world where God has put everything to rights, where the people who are proud and who have everything and who cling to power are removed from everyone’s list of role models and those who are humble, weak, and lowly are lifted up as the examples to follow. She sings of a world where the hungry and the needy are satisfied with more than leftovers and where those who have a lot finally learn to live with less. We don’t typically think of it as a Christmas carol, but in many ways is the first one, and maybe the most essential. And it all begins with her recognition that even her little lowly, easily forgotten, first-century Jewish female soul can magnify the Lord.

Earlier this week I was visiting one of our homebound members with Holy Communion and I had chosen this lesson for us to speak together like the verses of a song. This particular woman suffers from macular degeneration, making it difficult for her to see, and before she could participate, she had her husband fetch her magnifying glass so she could read it. There before me was this kind, older woman—maybe like an Elizabeth, warmly welcoming me into her home—too feeble to join in worshipping with the congregation she so loves. She was reading Mary’s song with a magnifying glass, and it drove the point home for me in a fresh new way. That is, when Mary says that her soul can magnify the Lord, it’s like she’s saying that the almighty Creator of the universe will use Mary as a magnifying glass so that the whole world can read and understand the gospel.

Where would we be without Mary? Where would any of us be without any of God’s little magnifying glasses all around—those who have shined with the power of faith in spite of the odds, those who have borne Christ to us and enabled us to read how much God loves us. More often than we’d probably care to admit, it is the faith and belief of the lowly and the humble—the ones we’d least expect, the ordinary, the unspectacular, the rough that surrounds the diamonds—that pops up out of nowhere and bowls us over with grace.

It may sound corny, but I’ve noticed that the truth of Mary’s faith and the echoes of her song show up even in almost all of the secular stories and movies of our culture at this time of year. In one after the other, power is spoken and transmitted through the weak and overlooked characters rather than the super-talented or the super-human. None of our favorite Christmas movies never feature people like Superman or Batman or even (dare I say it?) Luke Skywalker. No, it’s the likes of Tiny Tim, Cindy-Lou Who, Rudolph, George Bailey from “It’s A Wonderful Life," Buddy the Elf...even Macaulay Culkin's character in Home Alone...who save the day. All of them are just variations of Mary, examples of how in God’s plan, it is the meek and marginalized who, despite the odds, become the entry point for grace…who become the voices to help restore justice…who become the unlikely people who speak a new reality into existence. Where would our culture’s Christmas be without these little versions of Mary, the magnifier?

Where would the world be without Mary and Elizabeth? Eventually Mary’s faith and Elizabeth’s blessing draw a straight line to the cross, for this new world where the mighty are brought low and the lowly are lifted up will not fully be brought about until Jesus shows us just how low the Almighty God will go in order to bring us new life. There we witness the most amazing miracle of all: that God’s own Son will grow up and then offer himself up for us to remember the promise of mercy.

Where would any of us be without the faith of others who have borne God’s presence for us, who have, through humility and surprise, through calm words or persistent pestering built up our own trust in God and presented us with the joy in believing? Who has helped you remember the power in faith? Who has been that magnifying glass who’s been fetched from the side of the room that person, who has approached you through the treacherous hill country of Judea, who has unexpectedly allowed you to understand and experience God’s grace in Jesus? Because those folks around us even now, more often than we probably care to admit. They were here at Jim Anderson’s funeral yesterday, for sure, milling around in Price Hall, offering words of grace, giving hope to his family and congregational family.

And they’re around us now, these echoes of Mary, giving delivering the Lord once again, telling us that, in spite of all we see, God’s exciting new day is here and that you—even little you—can proclaim it.

Visitation (Fra Angelico, 1434)


Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

[1] Roland H. Bainton, ed., Martin Luther’s Christmas Book, Augsburg, MN, 1948 pp14-15