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On the Way to the Holy Night: For Yonder Breaks a New and Glorious Morn

(a sermon for December 22, 2019, the 4th Sunday of Advent; 3rd in a series, based on Isaiah 7:10-16 and Matthew 1:18-25)

If it could ever be said that there’s a “forgotten” cast member of the story of Christmas, I think that it would also have to be said that that role easily belongs to Joseph.

Not long ago I came across the work of a clergy colleague on-line who did a survey of all the words contained within the Advent and Christmas hymns included in his congregation’s hymnal.  And what he discovered is that in those songs there were, as one might expect, 309 references made to the Christ Child; also 48 mentions of angels, 31 references to Mary and 23 words about shepherds.  But quite interestingly, he found that in this particular hymnal was no reference at all made to Joseph; not a one!  Well, of course, that piqued my curiosity, so I did a very quick search of our “Chalice Hymnal” and found… only one mention of Joseph (it’s from “Angels We Have Heard on High,” by the way: “See within a manger laid, Christ whom choirs of angels praise; Mary, Joseph, lend your aid, while our hearts in love we raise.”); and even there, Joseph’s sort of an “add on” to the larger story!

Now, granted, if you dig a little deeper into the wealth of Christian hymnody there’s some wonderful music to be found in which Joseph figures prominently – “The Cherry Tree Carol” and “Joseph Dearest, Joseph Mine” for instance – and there’s also some wonderful contemporary music out there (“Joseph’s Lullaby” comes to mind) that beautifully seeks to tell the story from Joseph’s perspective.  But by and large, the music of this season tends to cast Joseph in much the same way we see him in the crèche: as a quiet, ever stalwart presence kneeling at the manger even as he’s overshadowed by the likes of shepherds, wise men and farm animals; just another supporting player in the nativity drama dwelling in the shadows of holy light.

And yet… I would submit to you that despite this, shall we say, subdued presence in the Christmas story, it is Joseph, this adoptive father of Jesus, who not only brings Mary and by extension, us, to the manger, but who also by his very example leads us “yonder” to what is beautifully sung in “O Holy Night” as “a new and glorious morn.”  Joseph, you see, is perhaps the singular figure within the nativity story who quite literally takes us to Bethlehem… and beyond!

Now, to understand this, we need to remember that Matthew’s account of Jesus’ birth, from which our text this morning is drawn, in terms of both narrative and tone, is most definitely different from that of Luke.  Luke’s story is filled with singing angels, adoring shepherds and the baby Jesus born in a stable.  Matthew’s version of events, however, is much more cut and dried, remarkably brief and arguably a far more somber account of things: to wit, after an entire first chapter listing off a genealogy that connects Abraham to Jesus, Matthew begins by simply saying, “Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way.”  No shepherds or angels on high, no “no room in the inn,” no manger, no swaddling clothes – in fact, the wise men don’t even show up until the second chapter – but what follows is, in fact, one of the most essential parts of the story and isn’t it interesting; it’s told from Joseph’s perspective.  And as such, if I might quote pastor and biblical scholar David Lose here, it’s not so much “a story of wonder [as it is] as story of heartache.”

Now, I know that to suggest such a thing runs headlong up against just about every image we’ve ever had about Christmas; make no mistake, there’s heartache in abundance here! Because as Lose also reminds us, Mary and Joseph were real people – very young people, in fact, not to mention impoverished and without any semblance of earthly privilege or power. “In our imagination,” Lose writes, “Jesus never cried, Mary looked more like a blushing young bride than someone who had just given birth, and Joseph is calm, protective and paternal.” And yes, that’s how we might prefer this story to go but in fact, as Matthew begins his version of the story, the whole event is bathed in… scandal.

To begin with, we’re immediately told by Matthew that “when [Jesus’] mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit.”  Understand that in first century Palestine, engagement was not viewed as it is today – as a romantic declaration of marital intent – but rather, engagement was considered to be “a legal contract, binding in every respect… [it] was essentially to be married with having consummated that marriage or even living together.”  So for Mary to be “with child” now would have been seen as sure and certain evidence that Mary had been unfaithful to Joseph; and, in full accordance with Jewish law, would have been punishable by Mary being dragged out to her father’s house to be publically disgraced and to face death by stoning.  And that, in and of itself, is about as disturbing a possibility as we can imagine; remember this is Mary, the mother of Jesus (!) we’re talking about here!  But even that very real and, yes, very legal possibility aside, imagine the kind of pain and anguish Joseph must certainly have felt at learning this news… once again, Mary and Joseph were real people with real feelings living in a real, not to mention harsh and judgmental world.  Mary already understood what was happening to her, that’s true; and yes, Mary must have worried about how this claim about the Holy Spirit was going to be received in and around the village of Nazareth.  But Joseph… we’ve got to imagine he’s devastated by this turn of events.

But we’re also told that Joseph is a “righteous” man.  In the Greek, the word is dikaios, which means “upright,” “virtuous,” or “just in the eyes of God;” and as such, one who sought to live wholly in accordance with the law set forth in the Torah.  In other words, once Joseph had received this news, according to the letter of the law, there could well have been a rush to judgment for Mary.  But “unwilling to expose her to public disgrace,” Joseph chose the second option, “to dismiss her quietly,” quickly and quietly breaking the marriage contract; in essence granting her a divorce without any public fuss.  So right away we have this new perspective on Joseph, as a man who despite what must certainly have been a deep sense of betrayal and suffering, immediately looks to what’s best for Mary… and that’s just the beginning.

Because just when Joseph is about to bring some closure to this situation, “an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, ‘Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit.”  She’s going to have a baby boy, Joseph, and you’re to give him the name of Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins; and the reason this is all happening this way is because of Isaiah’s prophecy that “a virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel.”  The upshot of all of this is that as soon as Joseph awakes from this strange yet familiar dream, he’s calmed down and we’re left to assume that he’s got some deeper sense of God’s intention with all of this.  And thanks be to God that he did: in the words of Leonard Sweet, at the moment the angel of the Lord appeared “the whole miracle of Christmas momentarily rested on Joseph’s shoulders, awaiting his freely chosen decision to either accept or reject the stunning news of an impending Messiah.”  The good news is that like Mary before him, Joseph said yes, and “did what the angel of the Lord commanded him.”

And a few months later, there’s that so-called registration in Bethlehem, which also not by coincidence was happening just about the same time as the baby was due; which meant that the city was crowded, the inns were full but maybe there’d be a stable out back… well, you know the story.  But first, to quote David Lose once more, “I think it’s safe to say that the months leading up to Christ’s birth was not one blissful baby-shower after another but were fraught with anxiety and concern and flights of emotion..” actually not unlike the kinds of struggle we all face, baby or no, along the journey of life.

Actually, given all of this backstory, I’d like to think that Joseph spent those months getting ready.  It’s been said, you know, that when a woman is expecting (or for that matter, as we’ve seen in our own extended family this year, in the process of preparing for an adoption) her maternal instincts kick in immediately; but for the father, it sometimes takes that singular moment of holding that child in his arms that he becomes a father!  But not so with Joseph: I have a sense that in those days leading up to manger of Bethlehem Joseph was likely spending every moment surveying the landscape, so to speak, getting ready for this momentous, life-changing, world-shifting act of God, all the while trying somehow to comprehend what being the earthly father of the Son of God would actually be for him!

There’s this wonderful moment in the film “The Nativity Story” in which Mary and Joseph are talking to each other about the same things that all new parents talk about: what it’ll be like to have this baby, and how they’ll manage to do everything that needs to be done with a baby; to take care of it, and feed it and clothe it and change it and bathe it.  And Joseph, at one point in this conversation, says, “I just wonder if I can teach him anything.”  That’s perfect, and might I add, a very legitimate fear; and yet, as this incredible story begins to unfold what we discover is that not only was Joseph prepared for the day of his birth he was ready for the next day as well.

In fact, I have to say that these days, when I think of Joseph, it’s not so much the “silent, holy night” in the manger that I envision… in truth, I’m thinking about the next morning as the sun is rising.  I mean, in those moments after the birth itself, after the infant Jesus was wrapped in those swaddling clothes and lying asleep in the manger; when the shepherds had come and gone and Mary was silently pondering in her heart all that happened that night; and when the animals had grown weary of all the excitement and had opted to get some sleep themselves.  I like to think that in those moments after the bright star of that holy night had begun to fade and a new day was beginning, there was Joseph, standing at the gateway of the stable and watching the sun rise over the streets of Bethlehem; just the same way it had done on countless days before, but now in a way unlike ever before in the history of God’s creation.

“A thrill of hope, the weary world rejoices for yonder breaks a new and glorious morn.”

There would be more to come:  the arrival, at some point soon, of magi from the East bringing expensive and very prophetic gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh; the news that Herod wanted to “pay homage” to the new born king even as his minions were seeking to slaughter any and all newborns that might fit the profile and provide a threat to his power; and then, yes, another angel’s message in a dream telling Joseph to get up and take the child and his mother to Egypt to keep them safe.

In other words, the story was just beginning; but in these wee hours of the morning, Joseph was ready for what was to come.

You see, that’s the thing about Christmas: so often, especially given that it comes at the end of a long Advent season of waiting and watch, we assume that the manger of Bethlehem represents the end of the story, when in fact it’s just the beginning of the story of Christ’s coming into the world… the story of light piercing through the darkness of life… of redeeming hope in a culture that seemingly thrives on the threat of hopelessness… of joy unending and triumphant… and of our lives, yours and mine, beloved, changing forever because of this one holy child who grew up to save us all from our sin.

So Merry Christmas, friends… and I hope and pray that it’s everything it should be for you and yours.  But remember this… after it’s all done, our time at the manger, that’s when the work of Christmas and faith really begins:  to, like Joseph before us, walk into the new and glorious morn of Jesus’ birth, and by his counsel start to change this world for the better, making our fervent hope of peace on earth and goodwill a reality for our lives and living here and now.

And in doing so, making sure that…

…our thanks be to God!

Amen and AMEN!

© 2019  Rev. Michael W. Lowry

 
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Posted by on December 22, 2019 in Advent, Christmas, Jesus, Old Testament, Sermon, Sermon Series

 

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Simeon’s Song: Worth the Wait

(a sermon for December 30, 2018, the 1st Sunday after Christmas; last in a series, based on  Luke 2:22-40)

Sometimes the only thing you can do is sing.

An old friend of mine from my seminary days, a bright and bubbly older lady who went by the name of “Mickey,” used to tell the story of how one snowy winter morning in Maine she’d decided to go cross-country skiing along a beautiful wooded trail that she knew, one that stretched far from any nearby roads, houses or people. The idea, she said, was for some spiritual solitude, but as fate would have it somewhere deep in the woods Mickey fell off her skis and managed to fracture her ankle; so now not only was she injured and unable to make her way home, but also, ironically enough, she was totally alone!

Now, given that this was a time long before cel phones and with no other way of calling out for help out there deep in the Maine woods, most people might have panicked under those circumstances; but not Mickey!  Surely, she reasoned, on this beautiful snowy morning someone else would be out skiing or snowshoeing and happen by, so she’d simply wait there in the snow until someone came by who could help her!  And that’s what she did; however, as the hours began to pass and the snow accumulated all around her Mickey started to wonder, however fleetingly, when or if help would ever come!

So she started to sing.

Actually, she started by reciting psalms and other passages of scripture she’d known from childhood (“I lift up my eyes to the hills – from where will my help come? My help comes from the LORD, who made heaven and earth.” [Psalm 121:1-2] Actually kind of fitting when you think about it, she said afterward) And then, it was Christmas songs, followed by verses from all the old hymns and snippets from choir anthems that she’d sung at one time or another and had always remembered. And as that long day went on Mickey just kept on singing, singing everything and anything she knew how to sing and even a few songs she didn’t!  She sang through her pain and she sang through her fear, and she even sang a bit through her doubt, but above all Mickey sang out of a faith-borne assuredness that the Lord was with her and that she would be alright!  And when eventually, just as darkness had begun to descend, another pair of skiers did happen by so to bring her to safety, they asked how she was doing and Mickey simply smiled and replied in very typical Mickey fashion, “Oh, I’m fine… I hadn’t run out of songs yet!”

Sometimes, you see, the only thing you can do is sing… but when singing is an act of faith, that may well be enough!

In our text for this morning, Luke’s gospel tells us that at the time of Jesus’ birth there was “a man in Jerusalem whose name was Simeon,” and Luke makes a point of letting us know that this Simeon was a good man, “righteous and devout,” and as The Message puts it, living “in the prayerful expectancy of help for Israel,” that is, waiting for the coming of the Lord’s Messiah.  We’re also supposed to surmise from this passage that Simeon was quite old and that he had been, in fact, waiting just about all his life for this singular event to take place; but, you see, that was alright. For as Luke tells the story, “the Holy Spirit rested” on Simeon and that same Spirit had “shown him that he would see this Messiah of God before he died.”  That’s it… no angel making an “annunciation,” as what was given unto Mary, nor even any heavenly rebuke as what happened to old Zechariah back at the temple; and as for that “heavenly host” that they’d heard about from a bunch of random shepherds?  There was certainly none of that for Simeon; no miracles or signs or wonder, just simply and profoundly this continued assurance from a truly Holy Spirit that this thing was going to happen, it would happen in Simeon’s lifetime… and it was definitely going to be worth the wait.  So keep the faith, Simeon… keep on singing and just wait for it.

So now it’s about 40 days after the child was born in the manger of Bethlehem; which means that Jesus was around a month and a half old and the time had come both for “their purification” (which actually had more to do with Mary than with Jesus, as it was required by every Jewish woman after childbirth) and for Mary and Joseph to come to the Temple and offer up a sacrifice (which because of their poverty, amounted to “a pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons”), so to consecrate their child to the Lord.  Understand this was a sacred ritual, a duty required and performed by all faithful Jews; and so you have to imagine, as David Lose puts it, that Mary and Joseph “must have been in a reverent, even solemn mood that day, the way many young parents in our congregations are when their first child is to baptized.”  So also imagine, then, how started, even frightened Mary and Joseph might have been when in the midst of this quiet procession into the holy courts of the Temple, here comes “Simeon, old beyond years and beaming with ecstatic revelation, coming up to them to touch the child,” and then, as if that weren’t enough, he starts singing!

You see, on that day of days Simeon was guided by the Holy Spirit to go – go now (!) – to the Temple because there at long last he would see the Messiah, the fulfillment of the Holy Spirit’s promise and the consolation of Israel.  And so, make no mistake, there’s absolutely no reluctance, hesitation or even any kind of appropriateness here on Simeon’s part; I mean, you don’t just run up to new parents and just pick up their baby, but here’s old Simeon fairly well running into the Temple and scooping up the baby Jesus away from Mary and Joseph, all so he can hold this child in his arms; and once Simeon’s seen that angelic little face, once he’s touched his little fingers, maybe counted his toes and then marveled how something so tiny and so delicate can be so… divine, that’s when Simeon’s song begins, a song of praise and thanksgiving for this child who was and is “a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel.”

In Latin, it’s referred to as the Nunc Dimittis, which means “now send away,” and it’s actually used today both during services of holy communion and as a funeral liturgy, for not only is this song this incredible proclamation of God’s salvation prepared for all people, it’s also Simeon’s joyous affirmation that now that the Spirit’s lifelong assurances of a Messiah had come to fruition Simeon himself could die in peace.  In other words, my waiting is over, your work is done, so as in the elegant words of the old King James Version of scripture, “Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace, according to thy word:  For mine eyes have seen thy salvation.”

There are some, you know, who tend to read the words of Simeon’s song as something rather morbid; I mean, why would he even want to talk about death and dying at a time like this, when the light and life of Christmas, to borrow a line from Jean Shepherd here, is at its zenith and all is right with the world?  But you see, Simeon knew that everything in his life had led up to this particular moment of this particular day, and that now that he’d literally seen and held God’s promise in his hands, “after touching and feeling the promise of life which God had granted to him through Christ…” (David Lose, again) then he could accept death “courageously and confidently in the light of God’s promised salvation.”  He could let go now, because the promise had been fulfilled and it had most definitely been worth the wait.

Of course, it needs to be said there that Simeon’s song wasn’t entirely one of joy and praise.  After he’d blessed this child and his parents, Simeon then looked to Mary, and as though to perhaps warn her of what was to come (?), he sings a second verse of his song, of how this child was to “be a sign that will be opposed,” – a “figure misunderstood and contradicted” – “so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed.”  And, oh yes, Mary, by the way?  “A sword will pierce your own soul, too.”

It turns out, you see, that there will be more to this story than merely a tale of angels and shepherds and Magi from the Far East bring gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.  This child, this baby whose is named Jesus, Emmanuel, Messiah, Christ the Lord… his story will continue; beginning with a baptism of repentance in the River Jordan through great acts of healing, miraculous signs, teachings that change lives and the world, and at the last a triumphal entry into Jerusalem that leads inescapably to the cross.

Even after the shepherds have gone back to their flock; even once the star overhead has faded to blend in with the rest of the night sky and the Magi have opted to go home another way; even after Mary and Joseph settle in to the business of raising an infant even as they’ve had to flee to Egypt as refugees, the story goes on. The baby Jesus, you see, grows up… and his journey, as well as ours, is just beginning.

You know, it’s always struck me as a bit odd that we inevitably end up viewing Christmas as an ending rather than really what it should be, a new beginning.  I realize that this comes in large part because since before Halloween (!) this world has been wholly focused on the run-up to everything surrounding the Christmas holiday, and so once December 26 comes along even the most ardent of Christmas elves are apt to breathe a sigh of relief!   And even here in the church, for over four weeks we’ve devoted ourselves to Advent waiting and watching for the coming of Christ; and so yes, I have to confess that there’s a palpable sense of conclusion in our finally arriving at the manger.  In other words, we’ve come to worship, we’ve sung all our songs and now it’s time, like the shepherds and wise men before us, to return to life and the world and business as usual.

But I ask you, is that actually the case? Is Christmas truly over?   Have we really run out of songs to sing?

Not yet.

Because despite whatever closure we have by our taking down decorations or switching to music other than the holiday variety (!), the fact our journey to Christmas has not so much ended as it is just beginning!

You might have noticed that our text this morning contains a bit of an epilogue to this story of Jesus’ presentation at the Temple and Simeon’s song of praise and glory.  It seems that there in the Temple was also “a prophet, Anna the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher.” Anna was an 84-year-old widow, and in fact pretty much lived at the temple, “worshipping night and day with her fastings and prayers,” [The Message] and we’re told that at the very same moment Simeon was offering up his tribute, Anna also showed up and “broke into an anthem” of her own, one of “praise to God,” and one that was apparently reprised again and again as she began “to speak about the child to all who were look for the redemption of Jerusalem.”

That’s the key, you know… that’s how Christmas becomes for us the starting place of our journey rather than its conclusion.  It’s in our proclaiming the good news of his coming; it’s about telling the story of his holy birth, yes, but it’s also continuing to tell of his presence and ministry among us and of the price he paid for our redemption before God.  It’s in the work of Christmas that we are called to do: in those powerful words of poet Howard Thurman:

“To find the lost,
To heal the broken,
To feed the hungry,
To release the prisoner,
To rebuild the nations,
To bring peace among others,
To make music in the heart.”

Yes, to “make music in the heart!”  Christmas is always about singing out our praises unto the Lord each and every day that we live and breathe; it’s about singing through our pain, and singing through our fear, and even at times singing through our doubt; but it’s ever and always singing out of that faith-borne and faith-full assuredness that the Lord is with us and that we will be alright!

Christmas is not over, beloved; in fact, it’s just getting started!

So let that journey of prayer and praising and service begin with us here and now… and let’s keep singing, because there are plenty of songs yet to sing!

Thanks be to God!

Amen and AMEN!

c. 2018  Rev. Michael W. Lowry

 
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Posted by on December 30, 2018 in Christmas, Jesus, Maine, Music, Sermon, Sermon Series, Worship

 

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Round About the Manger: The Ones Who Said Yes

(a sermon for December 24, 2017, the 4th Sunday of Advent; third in a series, based on  Luke 1:26-38 and Matthew 1:18-25)

In almost every nativity scene you’ll ever see they always look, well… perfect: Mary, all calm and bright, with nary a hair out of place and Joseph, looking properly prayerful and stalwart; dutifully, if quietly, about the business of being an earthly father. And then, of course, there’s the baby, all clean and white and bathed in the glow of a warm light that fairly well seems to shine from his bed of hay in the manger; all this as angels in bright raiment hover overhead, while shepherds and wise men come to call with farm animals quietly milling about.

Now tell the truth; isn’t that the image that always comes to mind when we’re telling this story? It’s a beautiful scene of utter simplicity and serenity; a uniquely holy birth amidst what can only be described as joy expressed in deep and resounding quiet, with a peace – heavenly peace – that could not possibly be contained within the stable, but simply had to overflow out into the dark, shining streets of Bethlehem and outward to all of the world.

At least that’s how I like to think of it!

Actually, I’ve always loved how Barbara Robinson, in her marvelous children’s story of The Best Christmas Pageant Ever, describes a Mary who is “just right” in our imagination: she’s “all pink and white and pure-looking, as if she never washed the dishes or cooked supper or did anything else except have Jesus on Christmas Eve.”  Any and all gender stereotypes aside (!), that does kind of express how we’ve come to view what happens “round about the manger,” as we gaze intently at this truly “Holy Family” – Mary and Joseph and their precious newborn – kneeling in the wonder, the splendor and the hay!

Of course, anyone who’s ever been involved in or present at the process of giving birth knows that most times it’s not like that at all!  Now, there’s no doubt that having a child is a beautiful and natural thing; but often it’s also a painful and exhausting thing; and hard work, most especially for the mother, but also in very real ways for the father and everybody else involved in the delivery (as the saying goes, they don’t call it labor for nothing!).  What’s more, childbirth is an experience that cannot help but create change in the persons involved in a variety of ways: physically, emotionally, and even spiritually. And the thing is that even though there are weeks and months of anticipation and preparation that lead up to the event, inevitably there comes this moment when the actual arrival of the child creates this new and utterly bewildering reality of life!   I remember this well with all three of our kids, but especially on the night that Jake, our firstborn, came into the world.  I’m holding him in my arms, I’m so full of joy and love and I’m feeling all this wonder in my heart; but all the while there’s this fleeting voice in the back of my head that’s asking, “OK, big shot, now what do you do?”

So can you imagine, then, what it must have been like for Mary and Joseph?  This sweet, romantic, bucolic image we have of them to the contrary, the truth is that here were two people who had a great deal working against them: to begin with, they were young (so very young; Mary was no more than 14 or 15 years old and Joseph only a year or two older than that); they were dirt poor and under the thumb of an oppressive Roman government; and not only that, they were engaged but unmarried and expecting, and thus facing the scandal that such a thing would create.  And add to all this that now, thanks to a government edict of taxation, they were both far from their home and trying in vain to find a place to stay in Bethlehem where Mary could have the baby in safety and perhaps some comfort, only to end up having it all happen in the squalor of a stable surrounded by farm animals.

Doesn’t sound quite so sweet or romantic when you think of it that way, does it?

But this was, in fact, the scene of his birth, the “little Lord Jesus” of whom we sing: a tiny, helpless child who was the very light of the universe all wrapped in human skin; ever surrounded by two altogether ordinary people (actually, from the world’s point of view, maybe less  than ordinary people!), two people in whom and through whom God was doing something extraordinary, even as they themselves must have wondered why they were there in the first place!

Max Lucado addresses this beautifully in his book In the Grip of Grace: “He whom angels worship nestled himself in the placenta of a peasant, was birthed into the cold night, and then slept on cow’s hay,” Lucado writes.  “Mary didn’t know whether to give him milk or give him praise, but she gave him both since he was, as near as she could figure, hungry and holy.  Joseph didn’t know whether to call him Junior or Father.  But in the end he called him Jesus, since that’s what the angel had said and since he didn’t have the faintest idea what to name a God he could cradle in his arms.”

“Don’t you think,” Lucado goes on to ask, “[that] their heads tilted and their minds wondered, ‘what in the world are you doing, God?’ Or better phrased, ‘God, what are you doing in the world?’”

Think of it, friends, as that same utterly bewildering reality of life that hits at every new parent sooner or later; but this time it’s hitting on a divine scale… which, when you think about it, pretty much what Christmas is!

For you see, within and beyond the beautiful and peaceful scene depicted at the crèche is this incredible story of God doing something that thoroughly confounds our human sensibilities; which was for the divine to come to us, and to be born and live among us just as any child would do… with everything that entails!    How incredibly wonderful and strange all at the same time that God would become a real, living and breathing, laughing and crying person; knowing every one of the joys we experience in life, but also willing to take on the hurt and the pain as well. What an amazing and yet bewildering thought that the almighty would even deem it suitable to step into the harsh realities of our lives and living, but in fact does it again and again, today, tomorrow and all through our lives, so to understand who we are and how it is that we feel!

But such is this divine love that comes to earth in the midst of a Bethlehem’s manger.  Incredible, isn’t it?  Incredible that out of the harsh reality of his birth a new reality in the world was created; incredible that this was the family that God chose to bring forth this child of love into the world and then to raise him up to be the man he would become; incredible that this one who was called “son of God and son of man” saving the world from its sin would be brought into the world by two young, impoverished and ultimately powerless people who literally had nothing else to give except to simply say, “Yes.”

But the good news is that that was more than enough.  Mary and Joseph said yes… yes to God!

Every year as I return to this nativity story, I’m newly amazed that even though at the very beginning she was no doubt confused and scared at what the angel is saying to her, and that she even dares to ask this heavenly visitor, “How can this be,” still Mary identifies herself as “the servant of the Lord,” saying “let it be with me according to your word!”  And not only that, what’s just about the next thing she does? She sings!  “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior!”  Mary sings with joy to overflowing for the blessings in her life and in her womb and in her world by the grace of God almighty!

And then there’s Joseph, who legally and socially had every right to turn away from Mary in this unexpected and life-changing situation, but who was not only, as scripture tells us, “a righteous man,” but also loving and compassionate, a “man of incredible faith” who paid attention to dreams and angels and did what needed to be done for the sake of Mary, the child and ultimately, the world.

We might well wonder as we look upon the nativity scene why it was that God chose this family to bring his only son into the world; what the criteria must have been for becoming the most significant foster parents in human history… well it seems to me that with Mary and Joseph, first and foremost it was that they said yes!

That’s important for us to know; especially now as on this Christmas Eve Day we draw ever close to the manger and the miracle of the holy birth; for you see, it turns out some of the most important lessons of this season come from those who were the first to say “yes” to that birth in the first place.

Friends, above and beyond everything else we bring to this time of the year, the whole point of Christmas is that God comes.   “To you is born this day… a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.”   That’s the promise of Christmas, a gift of God’s power and love that’s in fact every gift we will ever need to fulfill every longing we may ever have.  It’s the gift of forgiveness, and healing, and restoration and eternal life all wrapped up in the person of Jesus Christ.  As Jack Hayford has put it, “It will take a lifetime to unwrap the essentials [of this gift] for our present, and an eternity to unfold the glories for our future.”   But it starts now… by first saying an emphatic yes to the gift itself, letting our hearts embrace the Christ Child for today and letting him grow with us into the year ahead; accepting God’s presence in Jesus be the solid reality of our lives, and that place where all our hopes for tomorrow are placed and secured!

Think for a moment of the Christmas gift that goes unopened.  Think of the disappointment and sadness the refusal of that gift creates in the giver, and how much less the recipients are for not having had experienced the joy and the wonder that comes with the gift.  But think also of how much deeper the relationship between the giver and those who receive becomes when that gift is received with a whole heart and with great joy and thanksgiving; indeed, in the giving and the receiving there’s a relationship that cannot help but grow and deepen, and life – and the world – changes because of it!

Well, such is the gift of Christmas that’s now offered to us in Emmanuel, God With Us.   When that gift is not received by an open heart, then Christmas remains just another holiday, another opportunity for revelry and gift-giving that’s comes and goes with the 25th of December.  But… when we say “yes” to God’s gift to us of a Savior and Christ is born again in our hearts, then Christmas – true Christmas – becomes the centerpiece of each new day; a way of life and living that is forged in an ever deepening relationship with the Lord girded in love, and joy, and peace, and unending hope.

I hope and pray on this day before Christmas that in the same way that those two who first knelt before the manger bed, you also will say yes to God’s gift.  It’s still a gift, as much now as it was two millennia ago; and it’s still good news, as fresh and as real as the here and now in which we live.  For unto you is born this day is a Savior; one who comes to us so that he might lift the burden from off of our shoulders; one who comes to wipe the tears from our eyes; one who comes to assure us once and for all that we are not alone in this world, and that there is truly hope and joy unending.

And the beauty part?  All we have to do is say yes!!  So say it… Say yes!!   Let our souls this day magnify the Lord!  Let our spirits rejoice in God our Savior, for truly God has looked with favor upon us and has sent us a Savior!

Yes… Yes!   YES!

Merry Christmas, dear friends, Thanks be to God, and AMEN!

c. 2017  Rev. Michael W. Lowry

 
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Posted by on December 24, 2017 in Advent, Christmas, Jesus, Sermon, Sermon Series

 

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