Thursday, December 12, 2013

God still comes. Christ is born. - a sermon for Advent 2, 2013

As young children, the task of setting up the family’s creche would often fall to my brother and I. I remember carefully arranging Mary and Joseph in the manger and setting out the sheep and the cow. My brother would hide the baby Jesus somewhere memorable and then he’d move it – everyday so that I couldn’t find it. I’d set the shepherd and the three kings off at a distance from the whole scene, moving them just a little closer as the days passed. Now the task of setting the creche has fallen to my own children who do it with as much care as I did. But it takes them quite a bit longer. Indeed, our creche at home has expanded from the traditional Mary, Joseph, a shepherd, and some kings to include quite a few characters I’m pretty sure aren’t in the story – at least in the one told by Luke and Matthew. Yes, my most generous mother-in-law adds to the scene every year on my wife’s birthday. So now we have the woman at the well, the boy playing his flute, and an oasis. The kings acquired some camels and the shepherds were hard-pressed to tend a flock of just one sheep and one goat. Then there are the chickens, the dog, and the cats. The tabletop on which the figures stood grew to small so now the scene is set atop the piano.
It’s quite the scene and well worth the investment of time to set up. It really does tell a grand story. However, when we examine the biblical story as told to us by Matthew and Luke the scene described is fairly plain and somewhat empty. There really aren’t that many folks around. Today we invited you to bring your babies Jesus from your home nativity scenes for a blessing. We’ll do that in just a few minutes. I’d like to take just a few moments to now to look briefly at the characters that are found in the stories of Matthew and Luke. Who are they? What are they doing just prior to and at the birth of Jesus?
Let’s start with the obvious. After reconciling over Mary’s unplanned pregnancy, being reassured by the Holy Spirit through the Angel Gabriel, Joseph and Mary are wed. They have to travel, almost immediately, to Bethlehem from their home in Nazareth in order to register for the census. When they arrive in Bethlehem, Mary can tell that it is almost time for her to give birth.  They are in an unfamiliar place with no family ties and no friends to stay with. And of course, there is no room at the inn.  They end up in a stable out back.
In both gospel stories, we hear very little about the birth itself. It just happens as all mothers will attest is how it goes (J LOL). We hear that angels are off putting on concerts for shepherds and that a star has appeared in the sky to guide some wise men from the east. But we aren’t told of any angels coming to visit Mary and Joseph to reassure them and to guide them at this most anxious moment.
Mary and Joseph are often held up as paeans of trust and acceptance. Mary’s “Yes” to God and Joseph’s obedience are indeed models of faithful servanthood. When Joseph awoke from his dream, he “did as the angel of the Lord commanded him.” And Mary’s simple response to Gabriel revelation was “Let it be with me according to your word.” Both Joseph and Mary show tremendous courage and deep faith.
But I can’t help but wonder if on that night – that night they wondered into Bethlehem as strangers with no place to go except the home of an old cow (at least according to my childhood creche), as Mary and Joseph awaited the child’s arrival, did they start to have some misgivings. Mary is preparing for the birth of her first child. And Joseph has a new wife and a coming child to look after. This must surely have been anxiety producing enough without also having to worry about a roof over their heads, food to eat, and strangers coming to visit. And who will they call if something goes wrong?
If Mary and Joseph were at all human, they must surely have had some doubts, some fears, some misgivings. At the very least, they must surely have wondered how all this is going to work out. But Christ was coming into the world whether they were ready or not.
What about other characters in the story? Where were they? What were they up to? The innkeeper is a much maligned character but I think he was probably just a pragmatist.  A pregnant couple shows up on his doorstep. There are already too many folks spending the night. But he comes up with the best solution he can on this busy night of the census. “I’ll let them use the stable. It’s easier for me and it bothers no one except perhaps the old cow. At least it’s a roof and out of the wind. Surely she won’t give birth tonight.”
The shepherds are generally unaware of what’s happening in town. They have been out with the flocks for weeks, fending of wolves, herding the lazy sheep, rounding up the few that wandered away, and fighting of the cold night air. And then they are visited, not just by one angel, but by a whole multitude of the heavenly host who bring them “good news of great joy for all the people. “A little dramatic to tell us we can go home,” they might have thought. But they listen to the announcement that a savior has been born – the long expected Messiah, the Lord. They have to go see for themselves. And so they go. They hear the promise and they search it out, not resting until they have seen the child. These strangers with their sheep show up at the birth. What must Mary have thought. And did Joseph try to keep them away.
The magi show up a few days later bearing gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. Led by a star, they came from great distances to pay the baby homage and to lay a treasure at his feet. Did Mary know that her son would be priest and king? What must she thought of the myrrh – an oil to embalm the dead? 
So we’ve got Mary and Joseph, an innkeeper, some shepherds, some magi, and, perhaps, one temporarily homeless old cow. These folks lived so long ago. What can we take away from their stories? How does that night connect to our Christmas night?
Well, from the start Mary shows us that it takes only one person’s “Yes” to create a space for God in this world. Mary says “Yes,” and suddenly there’s a possibility where there wasn’t before.
And then, even for those who aren’t so sure: God still comes. Christ is born.
The shepherds were just minding their own business but when they heard they went. The shepherds were willing to heed the proclamation and suddenly there was possibility where there wasn’t before.
And then, even for those who aren’t so sure: God still comes. Christ is born.
The magi were in the east and saw with clear eyes the coming star. They saw because they were ready to see. And when they saw they went on a journey and suddenly there was possibility where there wasn’t before.
And then, even for those who aren’t so sure: God still comes. Christ is born.
The innkeeper was to full of too full of customers. Maybe he offered the best he had but he seems rushed to me. There is always possibility to see and find those who are looking for mercy on an uncertain night.
And then, even for those who aren’t so sure: God still comes. Christ is born.
Christ is born in the midst of the lost and the rejected. Christ is born in the midst of the poor and the lonely. Christ is born in the midst of the wandering foreigner and the distracted businessman.
Christ was born to those who had no family and friends to stay with – who couldn’t find room at the inn. They’re in the stable out back. And then, even for those who aren’t so sure: God still comes. Christ is born.
Joseph and Mary don’t quite have things sorted out. The innkeeper is woefully ill informed about the arrival of the son of God. The shepherds don’t even have time to bathe and the magi were twelve days late. But God still comes. Christ is born.
Do we see ourselves in any these characters? Are we Mary, who is ready and willing to embrace all that God has planned, though maybe not just yet? Are we Joseph, with our own misgivings, but trying to be supportive for a spouse or other loved one who has a sense of God’s plan? Are we the shepherds, awaiting for the dramatic – choirs of angels to point the way and announce his birth? Are we the magi, still some ways off but making our way the best we can? Are we the innkeeper who is too busy with appointments or errands or commitments to be bothered by the poor, young pregnant couple in our midst. Or are we someone else tonight?
Whoever we are, God still comes. Christ is born.
And that, I think, is the fundamental lesson of Christmastide: Christ is born. Christ comes in the innkeeper’s back yard, in the cow’s stable, in the territory ruled by the oppressor. Christ comes in the midst of our work though we might not know it apart from an angelic proclamation. Christ comes, in spite of Mary’s and Joseph’s anxieties and misgivings. Christ comes in spite of our anxieties and misgivings. No matter who we are in this story, Christ comes.
Christ comes and is born among us.  The Word, present at creation of is cradled in a mother’s arms. Christ comes and sleeps and cries.  That is what we celebrate with carols and pageants. That is what we celebrate with presents and cookies. Christ comes!  Christ comes and shows how ordinary lives can be made holy. Christ comes and works our lives into his unfolding story of redemption. Christ comes as a child, born under a star, the light that shines in the darkness, and the darkness cannot overcome it.

Christ comes.

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