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Sing We Now of Christmas: Glorious Now Behold Him Arise

magi(a sermon for January 4, 2015, the 2nd Sunday after Christmas; fifth in a series, based on Matthew 2:1-12 and “We Three Kings of Orient Are”)

The story goes that the little boy attending his first ever Christmas pageant was amazed by the beautiful story of Jesus’ birth and everything that goes with it: there were angels, shepherds, a stable with live animals; it was really quite a production, and the boy was clearly moved by the experience of seeing the nativity drama unfold.  But then, toward the end of the play the stage went dark and a spotlight shone toward the back of the church; and when the boy turned his head to see what was happening, he caught sight of the three royal looking figures entering the sanctuary from the rear.  “Don’t look now,” he whispered to his mother, “but I think God just got here… only I’m not sure which one he is!”

Actually, I’d have to say that was an easy mistake to make!   There’s just something about the arrival of those “three wise men” that brings any retelling of the Christmas story to a powerful, regal climax. I mean, up till now the story has been a rather quiet and earthy one, hasn’t it; the focus on two young parents, their new baby and the shepherds and animals who’d come to see.  But now, suddenly, there’s an air of worldly significance about what’s happening as these three visitor come from a faraway place bringing not only gifts of great value, but also some sense of validation as to the utter importance of this child in the scheme of things!  The kings’ arrival at the manger, with all of its flourish and drama, plays like the grand finale of the nativity story; and it’s no coincidence that John Henry Hopkins, who composed the song we’re looking at today (“We three Kings”), wrote it intending that it be performed at a Christmas pageant, and to that end, made sure that each of the three kings got his own solo verse in order to make a grand entrance!

And yet, who were they really?   We call them Kings; yet nowhere does Matthew refer to them as such.  Tradition has gone so far as to give each a name and a distinctive characteristic: Caspar (who is the oldest of the three, with a long, white beard), Melchior (who is African, black skinned with no beard, and the youngest), and Balthasar (who has Asian features and a black beard).  But the Bible says nothing of this; there are no names mentioned, nor of how many of them there were (some works of art that date back to the second century suggest that there may have been only two wise men, while there are some medieval resources that depict twelve gathered around the Christ child!).  They probably weren’t from the Orient, either; at least not the Orient as we think of it, that is, the Far East; moreover, their arrival was likely not on the night of the birth itself, but later on (that’s traditionally been depicted on the Christian calendar as happening on Epiphany, twelve days later – hence the “12 days of Christmas” – but some historians even suggest that they might have arrived up to two years later!).

We just don’t know for sure; basically, all we do know is that Matthew’s gospel refers to them as “wise men,” or “magi,” and that they were indeed “from the East,” probably Persia, where they most likely high priests of the Persian Empire who were often used as envoys for the Royal Family of Persia.  Thus after a fashion, they were royalty themselves, and carried power and influence that extended to courts of Herod the King, and beyond.   These Magi were, in fact, respected scientists, scholars and learned students of the stars and their movements in the night sky: astronomers, which would explain both their fascination and their utter diligence as regarded “the star they had seen at its rising.”  This in and of itself was enough to make Herod sit up and take notice, and such was the wisdom of the Magi that after they’d seen this child “who [had] been born king of the Jews,” they knew to take heed of a warning in a dream to go home to their own country “by another way.”

It’s a small verse there in Matthew, and marks the last we ever hear about the three wise men; but for me, it’s the verse that tells us everything. You see, this story of the magi comes down to more than simply their journey following the star or finding “the child with Mary his Mother,” more than even the gifts they brought of gold, frankincense and myrrh.  The importance of the magi has to do with what they knew to be true about this child and what he represented to the world.  And the beauty part is, they knew this even though they themselves were from away; and that, dear friends, is no small thing!

In my native state of Maine, of course, being “from away” is synonymous with being considered an outsider, apart from the dominant culture and out of touch with how things really are.  Maybe you’ve heard the story about the old-timer in town who finally passed away at 100-plus years old, and how the day after the funeral all the other old-timers in town were hashing over the deceased’s life and times.  One of them says, “You know, I thought that Enoch had lived here all his life, but I was shocked to learn in the obituary that in fact he was born in New Hampshire. He didn’t come to Maine till he was almost a year old!”  To which the other man says, “Ayuh… What a shame that he was from away!”  See, it didn’t matter if he’d lived in Maine for 99 and a half years; by that way of thinking, you’re either a native or you’re “from away,” and that forever rules your destiny!

Well, friends, there’s no denying the fact that the three wise men were people “from away!”  Not only did they dwell outside and away from Bethlehem, Jerusalem and all of Israel; but they also dwelt outside of the faith of Israel, apart, so to speak, from God’s covenant with Israel and the family of Abraham.  They were Gentiles, and thus outsiders; plain and simple as that.  And yet, who was it except for these very learned pilgrims from far away in the East who “observed the star at its rising,” who recognized it as a sign from God, and who then followed it!

They’d tracked the light of this star across vast stretches of desert and along mountain pathways that were arduous if not downright dangerous.  And yes, they’d also followed the star across national borders, amidst differing cultures that might well have viewed such phenomena with disdain and fear; and they probably kept going even in spite of their own particular brand of scholarly skepticism.  And they did so because… because, well, they knew. Somehow they just knew that this wasn’t an ordinary star shining above them, nor would this child be simply another newborn, but rather one unlike any they’d ever encountered before; this child that prophecy had foretold as “a ruler who is to shepherd my people Israel.”

Which makes it all the more moving that when they finally found the child, immediately they knelt down before him and “paid him homage,” which, more than merely giving the child some gifts, means that they made a pledge of allegiance to him, both spiritually and politically.  This, too, was because they knew, and even those oft-remembered gifts showed their understanding of who this child was and what he was to become: gold, representing wealth and royalty (a sign that he would be a king); frankincense, the incense burned daily in the temple of Jerusalem as a fragrant offering to God (which was a sign that he was holy); and myrrh, a bitter spice used to wrap the bodies of the dead (a sign that he was also destined to die).

Not bad for a trio of travelers who’d come “from away!”

And isn’t it interesting that for all the people that Herod the Great must have had around him to keep an eye on such matters as history and tradition and prophecy, it took those considered to be foreigners and strangers – people so out of the “loop,” so to speak, of proper society’s power and prestige – to recognize the truth of what God was doing in the world!

Throughout this sermon series, I’ve been commending to you the wonderful movie made a few years ago, “The Nativity Story.”  One of the many things I greatly love about this movie is that the three wise men are sort of there for comic relief (!): we see them several times throughout the course of the film, and they’re never exactly sure where they’re going and how they’re to get there; they bicker with one another the whole journey, and one of them is quite full of himself as to the level of his royal genius!  But what’s clear is they’re wise enough to know what they’re doing on that perilous journey from the east, and why. It’s what’s beautifully expressed in my favorite verse of the song we’re going to sing in just a few moments: 

“Glorious now behold him arise, King and God and Sacrifice; Alleluia, alleluia! Sounds through the earth and skies.”

The magi, you see, knew why they’d come; and moreover,  they knew why they then had to go home by another way… and friends, my hope and prayer this morning is that each one of us knows the same.

After all, in our own way these past few weeks of Advent and Christmas we’ve also made a pilgrimage to the manger; to pay our own homage to the child who lay there.  But now that Christmas is pretty much done for another year, we find ourselves back on the journey of life and living; trying so hard to take what we’ve received at Christmas so that we can “walk the walk” of  our Christian faith!  But sadly, ours is a pilgrimage that happens amidst a culture all too enamored of its own supposed wisdom and centered on skepticism, self-aggrandizement and pride.  And it would be so easy for us to just go back the way we came; to return literally and figuratively to “business as usual.”  But the thing is, once you’ve followed a star; once you’ve been to the manger, beheld the holy child and heard the alleulias that sound through earth and sky, how can you ever go back to the place you were before?

Once all that’s happened to you… what else will do except to go home by another way?

Beloved, with the coming of Epiphany in just a couple of days, we’ve reached the end of the Christmas season; and in terms of our worship, our reading of holy scripture and yes, even our singing, we’ve come to the end of the story of Christmas.  But make no mistake; the pilgrimage that brought us to manger has only just begun.  And while there may not be a grand and glorious star rising in the east to illumine our way as we set out on that “alternative route of life,” there is nonetheless a light; and it’s a light that shines further and brighter than any other into our hearts; and which spills abundantly outward along every pathway we travel.

It is the light that we’ve seen in Jesus Christ, our Emmanuel, and it is ours by God’s good grace.  May we be guided to that perfect light, beloved; and may our thanks be to God!

Thanks be to God!   Amen and AMEN!

c. 2015  Rev. Michael W. Lowry

 
 

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Sing We Now of Christmas: For Poor Ornery People Like You and Like I

I Wonder(a sermon for December 28, 2014, the 1st Sunday after Christmas; fourth in a series, based on Matthew 2:13-23 and “I Wonder as I Wander”)

“I wonder as I wander, out under the sky…”

In truth of fact, those words that open our carol for today say a great deal about how this particular song came to be: it’s actually a song that was “collected” by a man by the name of John Jacob Niles, a singer and composer of the classical, operatic tradition; but whose real passion was for folk music, particularly music from the Appalachian Mountains where he was raised.  Niles quite literally spent years, mostly throughout the 1920’s and 30’s, wandering through the hills of that region; traveling from town to town looking for undiscovered folk songs, making sure that those songs got written down or recorded before they or the traditions surrounding them were lost forever.

Probably the most well-known of those songs is the one we’ve just sung; and as the story goes, John Jacob Niles first heard “I Wonder as I Wander” in a backwoods village in rural North Carolina, sung by a little girl dressed in rags and sitting on a park bench.  It was 1933 in the midst of the Great Depression, and this was a town mired in the poverty of those times; in fact, Niles wrote later that it was as though the modern world had never even found this place.  Yet it was here and in the solitary voice of a child that he heard perhaps the most beautiful fragment of music he’d ever encountered; and he was immediately moved to walk up to this little girl and ask her to sing it again so he could get the words down on paper and learn the melody.

Of course, this was a young child singing and as was typical, she didn’t know every word of the song; in fact, there was a verse or two she really didn’t know at all!  Clearly it was a Christmas song; simple in form but deeply spiritual, and very thoughtful; but what impressed Niles the most was that not only did this song embrace the wonder of the nativity, it also seemed to linger on the image of the cross and of the sacrifice of a child grown to become a man who willingly died “for poor ornery people like you and like I.”  Niles noted later that this was a song in which “soaring happiness and unparalleled sorrow somehow mingled as one;” and as he heard this little girl singing it, it seemed as though the song had been written for her.

The truth, however, was that the little girl couldn’t even tell Niles where the song had come from; only that she’d heard her mother and her grandmother sing it.  John Jacob Niles spent most of the rest of his life trying to find exactly where that song had come from and to learn the rest of the words; but he never able to find the answer.  So in fact, the song that we sang today is actually made up of the fragments of words and melody that were sung by that little girl, with additions composed by Niles himself: his choral arrangement of this piece is one of the most beautiful and often performed choral works in the world.  Ultimately, however, it’s the message of the song that lingers; this is one of the relatively few Christmas songs that implores us to look beyond the manger, gazing ahead to the real reason for the child’s birth. This is a song that reminds us that though he shouldn’t have had to, this one who was born king of the Jews willingly ran headlong into the kings and kingdoms of our world and faced all the pain and blood and violence of this life; and did so for all of us “poor, ornery people” in the name of love.

And lest we forget, friends; or choose not to see it, this is a truth – a truth of Christmas and a truth of faith – that was revealed early on.

Even if you’re well versed in the whole gospel story, hearing this morning’s reading aloud does have kind of a jarring effect, doesn’t it?  I mean, for weeks now we’ve been immersed in the wonderfully sweet and idyllic details of the story of Christmas:  of the baby Jesus born in the manger, of sheep and shepherds hearing the songs of angels in the sky above them, of wise men bringing gold, frankincense and myrrh.  It’s the image of the crèche that we carry with us and the stuff of just about every Christmas Eve service of worship; and in all honesty, most of the time we leave the nativity at the point when Mary’s pondering, the shepherds are praising God and the wise men are returning home by another road!

The trouble is, it’s also at this point that the story of the birth of Jesus takes a rather grisly turn, one that we tend to forget, and perhaps even want to ignore, in the Christmas season: the part that tells of Joseph and Mary’s flight to Egypt with the child, along with the so-called “Slaughter of the Innocents,” in which Herod the Great, King of Judea, so threatened by the birth of a baby he feared would eventually seize his throne, dispatches his troops to murder all the children under the age of two in Bethlehem; all of this, as Matthew relates it, being the fulfillment of prophecy.  It’s a hard piece of scripture to hear, and an even harder one to read aloud; as quite literally one moment we’re hearing the beautiful songs of angels in heaven, and the next we’re subjected to the horrible, wailing sounds of mothers who have lost their children in the midst of unspeakable carnage.

Now at this point, it should be said that there are a great many biblical scholars and archeologists who debate whether this event actually took place; and who wonder if perhaps this was something that Matthew added to the story to pull all the prophetic words together; because frankly, there’s just not a lot of historical record regarding all of this.  We do know, however, that Herod was a bloodthirsty king who killed anyone – including members of his family and even at least three of own sons – whom he feared might someday challenge him.  It is said, in fact, that on the day that Herod died about two years later, he’d arranged for a large number of people to be rounded up in Jerusalem and summarily executed; so that even though he knew there’d be no one who would mourn his death, he could die knowing there would be mourning nevertheless.  In other words, Herod was an insanely jealous killer: even the emperor Caesar Augustus knew this, and said of Herod that being a pig in his house was safer than being one of his sons.

So the fact is, this slaughter of babies in Bethlehem would at the time have pretty much been seen as business as usual for Herod the Great, and most do agree that this almost certainly would have been his response to any infant born as “king of the Jews” who would eventually rise to power; and I suppose that’s what makes this part of the nativity story so horrifying and utterly unthinkable, to consider that this massacre of innocents came about as surely as the star’s light rested over the manger.

Which, when you think about it, is kind of the point, isn’t it?

The point is that it did happen, and just that way; and it happened for a reason!  You see, what Matthew does by including this account of Herod’s atrocities is not simply to connect the dots with biblical prophecy, but to offer up a very deliberate reminder of the kind of world into which Jesus was born.  The hard truth is that the brutal face of Herod hangs over the whole Christmas story like a funeral pall.  What we see in this monster of a man Herod is abject cruelty and an utter disregard for human life; which, if you follow the biblical story, is what’s revealed again and again throughout scripture, and truly, in and through all of human history!  What we have here is a very graphic reminder that the Christmas story does not, in fact, end with Mary and Joseph and the little baby Jesus going home to Nazareth to live happily ever after, but that the story merely begins with his birth; it’s the first part of larger story of who God sends this beautiful baby into a broken and merciless world, so that that world could be saved through him.

Admittedly, this is not how you and I would prefer to “wrap up” this story on the Sunday after Christmas, and I dare say it’s not anyone’s real idea of what the angels were proclaiming when they sang about “good news of a great joy that will come to all the people.”  But friends, I’m here to tell you that this morning’s gospel is good news indeed; for what it proclaims is that Christ has come to save us; that Jesus, our Emmanuel has been born in the midst of the real world: our real world.  And as Thomas Long has written, “not even evil in its most catastrophic form, evil as cold and merciless as the murderer of innocent children, can destroy God’s ability to save.”

To save “poor, ornery people like you and like I” was always God’s plan, beloved; it has been God’s purpose for us from the very time of creation: a plan and purpose fulfilled in a beautiful babe born into a shocking and violent world.  Christ was born and, quoting poet Ann Weems now, it happened “even in the face of hatred and warring – no atrocity too terrible to stop it, no Herod strong enough, no hurt deep enough, no curse shocking enough, no disaster shattering enough.”

Of course, our reading this morning ends on a somewhat happier note, with an angel coming to Joseph in Egypt after two years to tell him that since Herod had died, he should return with Mary and Jesus to Israel; though even then, you’ll notice that even then there’s the threat of Herod’s surviving son, Archelaus, and so the holy family ends up in Nazareth so not to call attention to themselves.  Just another reminder that there will always be Herods in this world; but this is why Christ has come, and in truth why even now Christ continues to enter into a world of tyrants and fear and of children consumed by war and poverty.  For it is still in God’s plan, still God’s purpose to give this hurting world LOVE… LOVE in the person of Jesus Christ… LOVE that sacrifices all to reconcile that world to its creator… LOVE for poor ornery people like you and like I.  It is the love of the cross; the very shadow of which is found in the manger, and which can be seen if you’ll only look for it there.

And it’s good news – the best – which needs to be proclaimed!

After speaking last week about roses blooming in the cold and dark of winter, I was reminded of another, similar holiday flower: the bloom on a Christmas cactus, a beautiful little flower that pops up amongst the thorns of a desert cactus, but for only a day or so once a year, or perhaps even only once in a lifetime; talk about a fleeting moment of wonder!  But it’s a flowering, you see, for which to truly rejoice; because even though the day after the flower goes away and the desert sun continues to burn, nonetheless the cactus remains; no less the wonder than it was before, with the richness of its life still dwelling within so it will bloom again.  Beloved, Christmas – true Christmas – is the same way; the true flowering of Christ’s coming goes on even though the season of our celebration is drawing to a close.  Indeed, the greatest beauty and wonder of Christmas is in Christ himself, and in the good news that is ours to receive and to share today as we wander along the varied journeys of our lives.

Yes, “I wonder as I wander out under the sky, how Jesus our Savior did come for to die, for poor ornery people like you and like I… I wonder as I wander out under the sky.”

There is so much wonder for us to behold, friends; may we continue to be filled with this wonder today and into the New Year, so much so that nothing less will do than for us to go tell it on the mountains, over the hills and everywhere!

Thanks be to God!

AMEN and AMEN!

c. 2014  Rev. Michael W. Lowry

 
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Posted by on December 28, 2014 in Christmas, Jesus, Love, Music, Sermon, Sermon Series

 

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Sing We Now of Christmas: To Show God’s Love Aright

rose-in-snow1(a sermon for December 14, 2014, the 3rd Sunday of Advent; third in a series, based on Isaiah 7:10-16, Matthew 1:18-25 and “Lo, How a Rose E’er Blooming”)

I suppose, if we’re going do this right, I should tell you up front that as beautiful as this song of Christmas is, in fact “Lo, How a Rose” is filled with errors; or if not errors, at least a fair number of uncertainties.  To begin with, biblically speaking the “rose” of this song is a reference to the “Rose of Sharon” from the Song of Solomon in the Old Testament; and while traditionally “the Rose of Sharon” is thought of as one name for the coming Christ (as is “the lily of the valley”), when you turn to the 2nd chapter of Song of Solomon it becomes very clear that the verses of scripture from which this comes is in fact a love song – a romantic love song (albeit a spiritual one!) – and what’s more, sung with the voice of a beautiful woman!

And then there’s the assertion that “Isaiah ‘twas foretold it, this rose I have in mind,” which is fine except that there is no mention anywhere in Isaiah of roses; and for the most part, when flowers are spoken of at all, it’s usually in the context of them perishing in the harsh sands of the desert, which is not exactly the image we have in mind!  The connection to Isaiah, of course, is the passage from the 11th chapter, in which “a shoot shall come out of the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of its roots;” and while that’s a powerful image in and of itself, a twig growing out of a stump is not quite the same thing as a rose blooming!

That aside, my real problem with this hymn is the very idea of it:  I mean, a rose blooming in the dead of winter?  It just doesn’t seem likely; at least not in this climate!  I’m no horticulturist but even I know what happens when plants get left out overnight in the frost; even the heartiest of flowers will succumb to the cold and darkness.  So to say of this rose that “it came, a floweret bright, amid the cold of winter when half-gone was the night;” blooming even given the harshness of the world around it; well, that would be… miraculous!

But that’s kind of the point, isn’t it; the spiritual truth of these familiar words we sing every Christmas season, a beautiful message of hope in the midst of a dark and cold winter.  For just as this flower, to quote words of the song that aren’t included in our hymnal, has “fragrance tender [that] with sweetness fills the air [and] dispels with glorious splendor the darkness everywhere,” so this “Rose of Sharon,” who is the light that shines in the darkness and is the true beauty of Christmas – this one who was “true man, yet very God” – saves us from sin and death, and lightens every burden we bear.

This rose that blooms – the evidence of spring arising out of the dead winter, with life bursting forth from the most unlikely of places – is a sign of God’s love and of the sure and certain hope he gives to us and to the world; but ultimately, you see, it’s a sign that points to something even more remarkable in God’s plan: and that was the birth of a baby; a baby born in, of all places, a stable somewhere in the shadows of some small backwater village; a birth attended by only a precious few, and which would happen, relatively unnoticed, amid the darkness of a silent, holy night; save, of course, for the light of a star overhead and the angels’ glorious proclamation to shepherds, and indeed, the whole world that this baby was, in fact, “the Messiah, the Lord.”

An unlikely happening?  Most certainly… not to mention a strange set of circumstances for a Savior to be born!   But that’s the funny thing about God’s signs; very often greatest ones of all are those that seem to us to be the least likely!

Consider our reading this morning from Isaiah.  We’re all familiar with the prophecy in this passage of a young woman bearing a son who shall be named Immanuel; but what we don’t often hear about in this passage is how Isaiah brought this prophecy to a weak and rather wicked king of Judah by the name of Ahaz.  You see, at this particular point in its history Judah was surrounded by foreign armies and was quite literally facing its own destruction;  and given all this Ahaz is worried, fearful and quite honestly, concerned for his own well-being, all of this despite the fact that Isaiah had already brought to him God’s assurance that his kingdom would prevail.  But in fact Ahaz is so unconvinced of this that God actually invites and encourages Ahaz to ask for a sign as to the certainty of the promise:  ask for anything, the Lord says, “Be extravagant.  Ask for the moon!” (The Messsage)

To his credit, Ahaz refuses to ask for a sign, not wanting to put the Lord to the test; but to God’s credit, he offers up a sign anyway; that of “a young woman [who] shall bear a son,” and of a child who will know “how to refuse the evil and choose the good.”  But even after this, Ahaz is skeptical; and we’re left with the sense that even with the incredible news of heaven and earth colliding, this king of Judah is far too wrapped up in worrying about what his enemies might be planning to even notice.

It seems short-sighted and more than a little self-serving, but friends, I have to say that I understand it. What we have here is a ruler wholly focused on worldly matters, fixated on his own struggles for power and of the very survival of his kingdom; here’s a man whose back is quite literally against the wall, and here comes Isaiah in the midst of all of this bringing the Lord’s word about… babies?  Frankly, I can understand why Ahaz might be less than enthusiastic; because this wasn’t the kind of sign he’d ever have anticipated; moreover, it didn’t seem to be the kind of Messiah the people of Israel should be looking for.  But this was the sign that God provided!

christthesaviormanger02Truth be told, sometimes I wonder if Joseph thought the same thing at first.  As the story is told in our reading this morning from Matthew, we already know that when Mary “was found to be with child” Joseph had resolved to “dismiss her quietly” so not to expose to public disgrace; but then, of course, the angel appeared to Joseph in his dream and all that changed.  Still, you still have to wonder if Joseph was asking what all of this really meant; not just to him and Mary, but also to the whole world.  Surely, his head must have been spinning to think of just how much was hinging on the two of them becoming parents to this tiny, helpless infant who was no less than God come to earth!

There’s this wonderful moment in the film “The Nativity Story” (one of the better film depictions of the Christmas story, in my estimation), 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; especially considering that Joseph has suddenly been cast into this role of an adoptive father charged with raising up the very son of God!  You have to wonder, even with all the prophecies and dreams and angels’ songs that had led him to this time, if Joseph didn’t wonder, why me?  Why us?  Why now?

Again, on the face of it, it all seems a pretty unlikely scenario, but therein lies the beauty and the purpose of God’s plan; that this child, this birth, this coming of this Messiah simply didn’t seem to make sense by the standards of the world.  That the whole of Israel’s history; that all the prophecies foretold from days of old; that the sum total of human history should all hinge on a young girl saying yes, she’ll be the handmaiden of the Lord, and on a husband who would not walk the other way; and on the chance that the two of them would find themselves in a dark, damp stable in Bethlehem on one particular holy night that divinely chosen from the foundation of the world (!)…

…well, we may still not wholly understand why, but it was, if I might draw from the words of our hymn again, truly “to show God’s love aright, [that] she bore to men a Savior when half-gone was the night.”

It was a sign; what you and I would a miracle: a miracle of divine proportion planned and laid out for centuries before it actually unfolded in all its glory.  That’s the thing we need to remember, you know, especially as we draw closer now to Christmas; that all those wonderful things that make the story what it is – the angels’ chorus; the shepherds out abiding in the fields; the shining of a star in at a unique place and at a preordained time; and the magi who traversed across the miles so to discover where that star would finally rest – none of it was happenstance.  It was all part of God’s plan and purpose; the miracle workings of a miraculous God.

It seems like every year about this time we’re presented with some newspaper or magazine article, or maybe a documentary on television that seeks to get to the “real story” of Christmas; and inevitably this will include some “expert” whose role it is to challenge the biblical account of the nativity; to give some sort of scientific rationale for the star shining over Bethlehem, for instance, or to call into question the possibility of a “virgin birth.”  But lest we think that this is something unique to our post-modern age, in truth this is nothing new: there have always been “King Ahazes” in the world, people who remain skeptical as to God and his promises, and who will do everything they can to analyze, disseminate and perhaps discredit any truth to the story; and again, truth be told, there are times that even we might count ourselves among the skeptical.

But friends, despite such intense scrutiny, the truth of our hope and our faith endures at Christmas and always; and our proof comes down to those incredible and world-bending signs that God has provided to show his love aright; in the assurance we’ve been given again and again throughout history and continuing throughout our very lives: that yes, in God all things are possible.

This needs to be our focus as we draw near to Christmas, as it should be always. As Walter Brueggemann has put it – quite beautifully, I think – the first thing we need to notice as we move in these last days to Christmas “is that the expectation of Jesus… is outside all of our normal categories.  Our business is not to explain this text [in Matthew, or Luke, or Isaiah, or anywhere else].  Our business is to be dazzled at Christmastime that something is happening beyond all of our calculations.  This is a baby and a wonder and a gift that is designed to move us beyond ourselves.”

Not a bad prayer for you and me today, beloved; that as God’s unlikely and miraculous signs of joy and love begin now to unfold, we may truly be dazzled by it all, and moved by the sheer divine determination of it. Indeed, in these next couple of weeks, let us pray that God might again richly bless us in showing “his love aright” by the birth of the child; in the multitude of the heavenly host singing his praises, as well as through the wonder of the shepherds as they fairly well run to see just what’s happened.  And let us pray (and sing!) that as “earth receive(s) her King,” we might wholly receive him as well; and that in this our joy will be “to the world,” because we know in all certainty that “the Lord is come.”

So “let heaven and nature sing…”and us along with it!

And thanks be to God!

Amen and AMEN!

c. 2014  Rev. Michael W. Lowry

 

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