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Angels Round About the Manger

(A Meditation for Christmas Eve 2017, based on Luke 2:1-20)

The late Ann Weems, that wonderful Presbyterian poet and worship leader once wrote this little piece that has kept coming to my mind in this Advent and Christmas season:

“Wouldn’t it be grand to be an angel,” she wrote, “and have as your address ‘The Realms of the Glory of God’?  And swing on rainbows, and gather stars in your pockets, winging in and out of earth in a flurry of moondust with the messages of God?  Comforting the distressed, warning the righteous, delivering the just, [and] guarding little children?”

Now there you go!  Now isn’t that the perfect image of a Christmas angel?  Granted, it is a bit childlike in its description; but I don’t know about you, but I’m realizing that so much of how I think about the story of the first Christmas and those who were a part of it comes down to how I envisioned it when I was child!  For instance, I remember when I was very little having a picture book (it might well have been the “Little Golden Book” edition of The Littlest Angel, I’m not sure, because one of the angels in the story had a slingshot sticking out of his robe, which even then I thought was very impressive!); and I remember this one drawing in the book of all the angels in heaven gathering together to sing their alleluias to the newborn king.  And here they were, all the cherubim and seraphim singing and dancing, and holding; jumping and leaping from cloud to cloud and over one another leap frog style!  Basically what it was was the multitude of the heavenly host transformed into an elementary school playground!  Just a childhood fantasy, I know, but the thing is that image has always stuck with me even as an adult.  And by the way, why wouldn’t that wonderful moment of annunciation be filled with such ethereal joy and singing, and might I add, such a whole lot of fun as well?

That’s how I wanted to see it, anyway!

However… when you read the story from scripture,  what’s the first thing the angels say?  It’s “Do not be afraid!”   And understand, they say this not just on the hillside with the shepherds, but also in the moment when the angel comes to tell Mary that God had chosen her to bear the Christ child, and also when the angel appears to Joseph in a dream to tell him that this child of Mary’s was of the Holy Spirit; it’s always the same thing:  “Do not be afraid,” as though the angels’ presence had not inspired joy and celebration as much as fear and dread!

And that’s an interesting thing to think about!  For instance, it’s hard to imagine how these shepherds, who by virtue of their profession and their very nature had to have been quite tough and rough around the edges, could have been afraid of anything; and yet we’re told specifically that they were “terrified,” or in the language of the old King James translation, “sore afraid.” Perhaps the angels’ presence was so mysterious and overpowering that they might well have fled or panicked; maybe the bright radiance that suddenly cut through the night was such that for a time they were both blinded and bewildered by what was happening; or perhaps they sensed that this was a sign of some judgment, and like criminals who fear getting caught in the act, they suddenly felt the need to hide from sight!  Whatever the reason, there was fear in their hearts; for what was immediately clear, to the shepherds, as it had been to Mary and Joseph before them, was that this was no less than an appearance from a messenger of God!

So the first words of the angel needed to be one of assurance, to keep them from running away, something to help them to open their ears and their hearts to what God wanted to tell them; this amazing good news of a great joy which was for all the people, “born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord;” a baby, of all things, wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in the manger!   And then, as if to emphasize the the greatness of this news, there was a multitude of angels singing their praises to God, saying “Glory to God in the highest!” And as that was happening, something even more incredible than the angels’ singing began to take place: the shepherds’ fear was gone, and in its place there was wonder, and joy, and the power of God’s intervening love for his people!

And when it was all over and the angels had returned to heaven, remember that the shepherds did not take the time to think about how scared they had been, nor to reflect on what had happened to them.  No… the shepherds went, and with haste, “to see this thing which [had] happened,” that the Lord had made known to them.  Fear was gone, replaced by need to see the child and tell the good news to everyone, everywhere!

The truth is, of course, that like the shepherds, you and I are scared too.   If we’re honest, then we know that fear is all-too-much a part of our daily lives; fear over a great many things in life and death: the kind of fear that holds us back, the fear that keeps us from giving of ourselves, the fear that keeps us from loving others and offering forgiveness.  Indeed, fear paralyzes us, imprisons us and often haunts us.  But here’s the good news; just as the angels appeared to shepherds on that holy night, we too are given that truly blessed assurance that we do not have to fear.  For you see, that loving, forgiving and redeeming presence of God is always with us in the person of Jesus Christ born in the manger of Bethlehem!  He’s there with us and for us, waiting to erase our guilt, to replace our shame with joy, and to warm our hearts so that we might truly love our neighbors as ourselves and to do our own part bring peace on earth.  The glory of God that is Christmas is  always that God comes, and intervenes, and in the face of fear truly gives us tidings of comfort and joy!

Yes, beloved, the angels who were round about the manger on that holy night long ago are still with us today, telling us the good news of God’s love and urging us on this night to faith; faith in a God who loves us and walks with us in whatever we face in life, giving us the assurance of his peace that the world can neither give nor take away.

So watch the skies tonight, dear friends; keep your eyes cast toward the stars, and listen for the songs of heaven playing even now in your heart.  Have no fear; do not be afraid, for on this holy night divine, Christ is born in Bethlehem and good news is ours!

Thanks be to God for that perfect love that casts out fear . . .

And may God bless you on this Christmas night.

AMEN and AMEN!

c. 2017  Rev. Michael W. Lowry

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Child of Light, Child of Grace

christmas-eve-2016(A Meditation for Christmas Eve 2016, based on Isaiah 9:2-7 and Luke 2:1-20)

One of the things that I find most compelling and beautiful about the story of Christmas is how the deep mystery and profound wonder of it is found amidst the most basic and earthy things of life: in the mud and hay of a stable with the sound and smell of animals all around; in the cold dampness of a silent, winter night; and especially in the most natural and some might say commonplace event of human life, and yet one that at the same time is among its most powerful and unique experiences:  the birth of a child!

One night a few Christmases ago I was out on one last quick trip out to a store to do some shopping and found myself waiting in a very long checkout line with a young couple who had also been out shopping, but in the company of their newborn: a beautiful, bright-eyed little baby boy no more than a month or two old.  Now, these parents were as proud of – and as attentive to – this child as you would expect them to be; and if their shopping cart was any indication, that little one was going to have way more gifts than he would ever know what to do with!

But it was also getting late, and the baby was understandably getting a little fussy (hey, we were all getting a little fussy; that line was very long, indeed!), and Mommy and Daddy were doing everything they could to calm him down.  They passed him back and forth, they gave him a bottle and a pacifier, they even did what I used to call “the Daddy Shuffle,” but nothing was working!  So by the time we were getting near to the counter, Mom and Dad were working double time to get the shopping cart unloaded; but it was too late, and the baby started to cry!  And although his parents were doing a commendable job even now in trying to settle him down, it was clear that this child had a very powerful set of lungs!

As I watched this, it got me to remembering Lisa’s and my three children when they were newborns, and how we realized early on that the cry of a new born baby is one of the beautiful and most awful sounds in all the world!  On the one hand, that sound is filled with what Patricia DeJong has described as “the urgent, insistent power of new life,” but at the same time, anybody who cares for a baby can also tell you that it is also an equally urgent demand for satisfaction and immediate attention: this very basic, human need each one of us is born with to be fed, to be changed, or simply to be held and loved.

And I’m watching these new parents, and I’m thinking, “There you go (!); if you haven’t figured it out yet, this is just the beginning!  Everything you know is going to be turned upside down and inside out; you’re in for the biggest change of your lives, a reversal of life as you once knew it.  Your house, your eating habits, your ability to sleep, to be awake, to work and even to love all change simply by the virtue of this child coming into the world.”  It does seem like a monumental change, and it is: but as all this was going on in the checkout line, here was the thing that I couldn’t help noticing: that one look at these parents, and you knew they wouldn’t have it any other way.

Well, beloved, tonight there has been another birth: “a child has been born for us, a son given to us,” a child born in the manger of Bethlehem, surrounded only by his mother and his earthly father, along with assortment of farm animals and some visiting shepherds. Tonight we’ve happened upon a moment that’s utterly silent and filled with serenity, and notable for its incredible simplicity; but make no mistake, this is a birth that’s turning the world upside down and is about to disrupt everything we’ve ever held to be true about life, for the sake of making all things new!  For unto us this night is a child who brings good tidings to the afflicted and binds up the wounds of the broken hearted; this is a child who by his very being will bring forth gladness rather than mourning, and praise instead of a faint spirit; this is a child who heralds a new realm where love and justice will prevail, and where the peace we’ve longed for so long will finally come to pass.  This is the child who is named “Wonderful Counselor, Might God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.”  He is Jesus Christ, the Son of God, the Messiah, the Lord; the one who will grow to be prophet and teacher, healer and master and friend, the Savior of us all; but on this silent, holy night, he’s simply a baby, a newborn crying out in the night to be held, and to be fed and to be loved.

Throughout the weeks of Advent, we’ve talked a lot about waiting, watching and preparing for the moment of this birth. Some of that has involved getting ready for the big celebration of Christmas that has already begun; but it’s also been, and primarily so, about preparing our hearts spiritually for his coming.  And one of the most important parts of preparing is understanding that our coming to the manger tonight is not the end of the journey, but merely its beginning.  It’s the knowledge that now the baby grows up, and that now we are being called to walk with this child Jesus as he grows to adulthood, as he begins his ministry of salvation on the roads of Galilee, as he heals the sick and gives hope to those without hope.  It’s the realization that as eventually he turns his heart toward Jerusalem and finally to the cross of Golgotha, we will have to go with him. You see, as beautiful and joyous a thing it is for us to approach the manger tonight, you and I need to understand that this is the beginning of something more; something deeper; something wholly divine.  Friends, this silent, holy night as an affirmation that Jesus has come to change our world, to give us life, and in end of that life, as the song goes, “to take us to heaven and live with [him] there.”

This the journey that awaits us, beloved; but may I say here that it’s a journey that will wait till tomorrow?   Because tonight is a time for adoration; it’s our moment to come to the manger and gaze upon this “Child of Light” who lies sleeping there while angels keep glad watch from above.  Tonight is our night to be as the shepherds  who were compelled to come and see what God has done; tonight is our time to be as the magi, bringing the child our gifts of the heart that pay him homage.  Tomorrow the journey begins; but on this holy night, we come bringing praise and thanksgiving for the gift we have received of this “Child of Grace;” this little baby boy who with every breath, brings us closer and closer to the Almighty and his love.

Thanks be to God, who by grace and in the fullness of time, has sent his son to us bathed in his glorious light.

Merry Christmas, dear friends.

And AMEN!

c. 2016  Rev. Michael W. Lowry

 
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Posted by on December 24, 2016 in Christmas, Jesus, Joy, Sermon

 

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What Shall You Do With This Child?

christmas_nativity_at_sun_rise

(a meditation for Christmas Eve 2015, based on Isaiah 9:2-7 and Luke 2:1-20)

Christmas – true Christmas – is the divine expression of infinite love.  If there’s one message that each one of us takes from this place tonight, that should be it; for above and beyond everything else we attach to this season, first and foremost, Christmas is about God’s coming to us in the guise of a child.  The old and familiar story that we’ve told again tonight is no less than that of the heavenly God who bends low to the earth that he might truly dwell among us. And so Christmas is truly, and quite literally, a supernatural tale; and yet, it’s also a story that is wholly and, might I add, delightfully earthy and altogether human!

To begin with, it all unfolds in, of all places, a manger… a barn, really… what I remember one little boy in a Christmas Pageant years ago referring to (and quite disgustedly, I might add) as “a dirty, smelly old cow shack!”   It doesn’t get any earthier than that; and what a place for any baby to be born, much less the Son of God!  And then there’s Mary and Joseph: two people who were young, impoverished and in a very real sense, anonymous; not only in the sense that they were far from home, but also far removed from any kind of societal status or power prestige: these were two people who were pretty much the last ones you’d ever expect to bring forth a Messiah into the world.

And yet, here they are on a silent, holy night, looking on in awesome wonder as “Christ the Savior is Born.”

Actually, and I mean this in the most reverent way possible, I’m thinking this is where our manger scenes get it wrong.  I mean, most nativity displays usually have the baby Jesus lying at the center of a stable in a feed trough of hay, with Mary kneeling at one side of him with a look of saintly adoration on her face; very often with arms held up and palms uplifted in prayer.  And then there’s Joseph; looking all stalwart and dependable without much emotion at all!

It’s a wonderful, peaceful image, and I love it… but in truth of fact, anyone who has ever experienced or shared in the experience of childbirth will tell you it’s not like that at all!  Having a baby is this incredible mixture of exhaustion and exhilaration, abject fear and utter excitement; and you have to suspect what was happening with Mary and Joseph, at least at in those first few moments, was closer to breathless surprise than quiet adoration!  It really seems to me as though a more accurate depiction of the manger scene would be for a truly overwhelmed Mary to be holding this little baby in her arms and wondering aloud, “What Child Is This?” while a rather befuddled Joseph stands by with what can only be described as a “goofy, new father grin” on his face!

In fact, I suspect that what Mary and Joseph were doing on that first Christmas night was taking turns cuddling that baby!  They were doing all the things that new parents do; they were busy counting fingers and toes; marveling at the softness of his skin and just how very tiny Jesus was.  And therein lies the true miracle of Christmas: that Jesus was not simply a ceramic figure in a crèche; no mere representation of the divine.  Rather Jesus, God incarnate, was a real, live, crying, cooing, sleeping, eating baby; a tiny, helpless infant whose greatest need in those moments of his birth was simply to be held, and touched, and cared for, and loved.

And here’s the thing, friends; all of this?  Yes, it’s what makes this night and our worship together a truly “wonder-full” experience and it’s what draws us yet again to the manger; but it’s also an incredible reminder that this tale of Christmas is not only Mary and Joseph’s story but also ours.  As I said before, Christmas is the ultimate expression of the divine; love made manifest in the manger of Bethlehem.  But just as importantly, Christmas is also found in the receptive hearts of women, men and children who would receive that divine expression as their own.  For as the prophet Isaiah proclaimed in words that were both prophetic and utterly immediate: “Unto us a child is born, to us a Son is given.”

Unto us… unto you, and unto me… and the question becomes, what shall we do with this child? How shall we respond to the gift of a Son who is to be named “Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace,” and yet is still just a baby?   In a very real sense, friends, each one of us tonight are being asked to play the part of a Mary or a Joseph; in that we’re being called to birth and cradle the Christ Child in our own lives. It seems to me that like Mary and Joseph before us, each one of us has to give an answer to this gift; and how we answer determines whether what we recall tonight is simply an old story to be told once a year; or else a way of life and living that transcends each and every day!

Scripture tells us, of course, that Mary and Joseph had already said “yes” to the gift: Mary at the moment she was given the news from the angel Gabriel; Joseph later on in the aftermath of an angel coming to him in a dream. And they did so, admittedly, with only a glimmer of what saying “yes” would mean for them and the world.  They could have said no; as Madeline L’Engle has noted, Mary (and Joseph, too) “was free to do so.”  But they said Yes.  They were obedient; they listened.  And sometimes, writes L’Engle, and “when we listen, we are led into places we do not expect, into adventures we do not always understand.”

Well, the question for us tonight is if we’re listening for what God would say to us: and whether we’re ready to embrace all of what God has to give us in this gift of a Child.  On this night of nights, we joyfully refer to this Child as “Emmanuel;” meaning “God Is With Us.” It’s warm, and familiar to our ears; but the larger truth of that name is that in Jesus Christ, God is not going to keep us at arm’s length; what it means is that God coming to us that he might live beside us and with us, so that God might share in everything we know in this life; that he might experience every joy and every struggle that is ours. And when we say yes to that; when we open our arms to truly receive God in the guise of a child, then we also open ourselves to a relationship of abundant life and true love.

And who knows where that adventure will lead us?

For now, it is enough for us to pause in adoration of this wonderful baby born now amidst shepherds, magi and a few random farm animals.  We’ll sing songs with the angels, we’ll light candles, and then we’ll run from this place to tell good news of a “Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.”  And in and through it all, we’ll celebrate; and well we should!  But even as we do, beloved, the question remains:

What will you do about this child?  How will you receive him? Will you hold him in your arms?  Will you save and protect him?  Will you give him your heart?

I hope and pray that Jesus, our Emmanuel, might truly be born in each of our hearts this Christmas; for that will truly make every difference for our lives and for the world.

Merry Christmas, my dear friends; and thanks be to God!

Amen, and AMEN!

c. 2015  Rev. Michael W. Lowry

 
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Posted by on December 24, 2015 in Christmas, Jesus, Joy, Love, Sermon, Spiritual Truths

 

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