Christmas Eve, Year A, 2016

Sometimes, when I am feeling overwhelmed and trying to get some perspective, I just imagine where I stand in the universe. I stand on a patch of ground maybe a square foot large. I am one of seven billion people working and loving and playing on our planet. Our planet is this tiny speck in our galaxy, which is just a speck of a galaxy among billions of other galaxies. Human beings are very, very small if you stack us up next to all of the rest of creation. We are part of something much larger than ourselves, a universe filled with wonder and beauty and a wild order.

You would think the God of the universe wouldn’t give us much of a second thought, since creation is so vast. There are literally infinite numbers of places in space God could spend his time and attention.   And when you do zoom into Earth, and see the rubble and despair in Aleppo, the corruption in governments, and all the ways we hurt each other, you might think God would rather birth a new star or throw rocks into black holes rather than spend time with us.

And yet, knowing full well who we are, God decided to join us. God saw our brokenness and was not repelled, but was drawn toward us. He saw our pain and suffering, he saw our beauty and love and decided to break the barriers he had established between creation and heaven. Centuries of war and slavery did not keep him from us. Even first century sin did not change his mind. Corruption in the Temple could not keep him away. Herod, who wanted to kill him immediately, could not keep him from us. He chose to enter our world, as it is, as it continues to be, beautiful and broken.

In Luke’s Gospel, heaven first crashed through our atmosphere in the form of angels. Gabriel appeared to Mary. The Angel of the Lord appeared to the shepherds. God used his messengers to wake up his people, to prepare us for what was to come. These angels appeared to ordinary people, a young girl, a group of shepherds. These were not the elite, just ordinary people going about their business.

But angels are just messengers. They come and go. And God wanted to stay with us. So, with Mary’s cooperation, the God of the Universe became a tiny, vulnerable infant. The Divine took human form and stayed.

In the incarnation, God inhabited our lives. He learned what it meant to not be able to move without another human carrying you around. He learned what it meant to have bodies that hurt. He learned what it meant to be dependent. He learned what it meant to be poor. He learned what it meant to see the world through a limited perspective. He gave our ordinary lives dignity, even holiness by living them alongside of us.

And he gave us an image for this abstract God we had been worshiping. Jesus continued to reach out to real, complicated human beings. He pursued ordinary workers, the oppressed and the oppressors, the grieving, the sick, the mentally ill, women with bad reputations, women with great reputations, children. No one was too insignificant for Jesus to bless with his attention. And no one was so powerful they could intimidate Jesus. He was completely sure of himself, but only because he was so connected to his Father. His strength came from a deep knowledge of his Father’s love for him, and that love poured out of him affecting everyone around him.

The same God who is so infinite that he exists outside of time, chose to make himself specific. And when we follow him, we worship him in all his infinite wonder, but we care about the specific. We contemplate his majesty while we help the poor. We contemplate his divinity, when we see the divine in each person we meet. We contemplate his power as we seek to heal the ill. God’s experience as Jesus changes us and shapes how we understand what it means to be a human being.

We understand now that being human means staying connected to the God that created and loves us. It truly does not matter how much money we make or whether we are respected or successful. If we are connected to God, and learning how much God loves us and how much God loves those around us, then we are pleasing to God.

There is enormous suffering in our world, even 2000 years after Jesus’ birth. We can find ourselves overwhelmed, eager to turn away from the pain of others. Jesus was often surrounded by others’ pain—crowds of needy people followed him wherever he went. He healed whom he could, but he also took breaks. He retreated not to watch TV and numb the pain, but to pray and draw strength from his Father.

We too, are called to care for those who suffer, whether in Aleppo or in our neighborhoods. But we cannot care for them alone. We need the strength of our God, and we need each other. Knowing that each human being is made in God’s image is a huge responsibility. But it is not “us” who are privileged and “they” who suffer. Christians are all around. The Presbyterian Church in Aleppo this week released a statement that read in part,

In this Christmas season, we promise to continue our ministry as a Synod and as a church to be a sign of hope in this despairing time. We will try to plant joy into the life of the society. We will never cease to dedicate our effort to bring love and peace into the city of Aleppo. We will continue our worship services (200 people), ladies meeting (60 ladies), Sunday school (125 children with 18 leaders). Greeting to all of our partners hoping that they will pray for us this Christmas in Aleppo in order that we will meet the needs of marginalized people.

These brothers and sisters remind us that this incredible gift of Jesus’ birth is life changing whether you are surrounded by a beautiful home and lavish presents or whether you are desperately worried as bombs fall on your community. Jesus’ birth to a young woman is not just a sweet story we tell once a year, it the foundation of what makes our lives meaningful. It is the strength to get us through impossibly difficult situations. It is the courage to stand up for what is right and good.  It is the compassion that helps us look up and out and care for those around us.

Jesus may have ascended after his resurrection, but he sent his Holy Spirit so that we would never again be parted from God. At the moment of our baptism that presence of Christ takes up root in our heart and will never leave us. Jesus came to live among us and he still does. You may think you are far from God or don’t know God, but he is closer to you than your own breath. He is with you now, in this moment, ready to give your life meaning, ready to give you courage, ready to give you compassion. You are loved as much as the most complex galaxy in the universe. Jesus has crashed through our atmosphere. And he’s not going back.

Amen.

Advent 3, Year C, 2009

Rejoice in the Lord Always!  You brood of vipers! Let your gentleness be known to everyone.  Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Do not worry about anything.  The chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.

Our Epistle and Gospel readings are having a strange conversation today, aren’t they?

On one hand, we have the Apostle Paul telling the Philippians to relax, rejoice, not to worry! On the other hand, we have John the Baptist screaming “You brood of vipers!” at the crowds of ordinary people following him around. Nothing says Christmas Spirit like a bearded man in a hair shirt screaming insults at you!

At first glance, these readings may appear to have nothing to say to one another.  But, when we dig a little deeper, we can see that they are really dealing with the tensions and the hopes of living in a world in which the Kingdom of God is not fully manifested.

Our culture tells us the season leading up to Christmas is a fun, happy, kitchy time of the year to decorate wildly, eat foods we wouldn’t otherwise allow ourselves, and shop for gifts to demonstrate our love for others.  But we all know that Christmas is more complicated than that.  Christmas can also be filled with longing, regret, and grief.  Even the first Christmas story, THE Christmas story, had its own ambiguities.

The birth of Christ came out of great pain, pain that goes well beyond any discomfort Mary might have experienced, or the humiliation of being born in a stable.  Christ came into the world in God’s radical attempt to save humanity from the pain of its own brokenness.  People had longed to be saved from the war and heartbreak and frailty of the human condition as long as they had a concept for God.  Without that pain and alienation, there would have been no need for the birth of Christ in the first place.

The crowds that followed John around hungered for connection to God.  They longed to be liberated from cycles of brokenness in their lives.  Why else would they follow this strange locust-eating man around the wilderness? But that kind of liberation, that kind of connection to God, has a cost.

Prophets throughout the Scriptures have had the job of shaking humanity by the scruff of the neck and John the Baptist is no different. Inertia is a powerful force in the lives of human beings, and John’s job is to disrupt the lives of his followers so they can break free of that inertia and prepare themselves to receive the incredibly good news of God’s incarnation.

John the Baptist’s first words are harsh.  He calls the crowd vipers and tells them they cannot rely on their identity as descendents of Abraham to be saved.  He’s alerting the crowd that they will not be able to encounter God without experiencing some kind of change.  His words are so strong that his crowd is left very worried about what advice might follow.

Will John the Baptist ask them to sacrifice everything in their lives to encounter God?  Will they have to live extremely ascetic existences?  Will they have to join John as he wanders through the wilderness eating honey-dipped locusts?

John’s audience is alert, holding their collective breath, ready to hear John’s advice.

John’s advice is comically simple.   John tells a tax collector not to steal money.  He tells a soldier not to extort money.  He tells others in the crowd to share their cloaks if they meet someone who is cold.

John the Baptist doesn’t tell the soldier that he needs to leave the military.  He doesn’t tell the tax collector he needs to resign from his post.  He does not demand that these employees of the Roman state abandon their professional lives and their ties to the Roman government.  John the Baptist makes it clear that Jesus is coming for all people, wherever they are.  The members of the crowd surrounding John the Baptist are challenged to get their ethical houses in order, but they aren’t asked to abandon their lives.

So, although John the Baptist probably smelled funny and was definitely rude, he brought good news about the Kingdom of God to his followers.  Jesus’ coming into the world was not just for priests and rabbis and scribes.  Jesus’ coming was for all humanity-tax collectors and soldiers and every day people.  This news is joyful.  And this is where our Gospel and Epistle readings intersect.

When the Apostle Paul tells the community of Philippi to rejoice, he’s not chirping empty-headed platitudes.  Paul has been through hell.  He has been traveling for years, been ship wrecked, and now is arrested and in prison.  The people of Philippi are on edge because Christians at the time were a persecuted people.  They are afraid because their faith puts them in danger. Paul is speaking of a joy, and gratitude, and a sense of peace that is not bound by circumstances.  Paul is speaking of joy, and gratitude, and peace that come hand in hand with the kind of challenges and pain life brings us.

The joy of Advent is not an empty-headed happiness because we get to eat more sugar cookies than usual.  The joy of Advent is a joy that acknowledges the pain of our broken world while still rejoicing in the wonder of Christ coming into the world for even the most humble person.

The joy of Advent invites us to believe God will show up in our lives even when we are at our worst or experiencing our deepest pain.

In my last parish, the adult son of a parishioner died unexpectedly and suddenly. The funeral was very sad and very beautiful.  The family chose a Celtic service and hundreds of white candles illuminated the sanctuary.  After the funeral, several people came up to me and mentioned how moved they were by the hope in the mother’s eyes as she went to communion.  She was not happy, she was hopeful.  She grieved the death of her son, but she had confidence that somehow God was still with her and still with her son.  Even though her world had shattered, she had the expectation that one day she and her son would be reunited in the Kingdom of God, one day she would feel Christ’s peace.

Life is full of pain and disappointment, even in the happiest lives.  Christ reaches out to us, even in the midst of that pain.  Even when we’ve been betrayed or lost our jobs or have a child we cannot reach, Christ extends himself to us, just as he did 2000 years ago.

You do not have to leave your job or your marriage or this town to experience the joy of the incarnation.  You don’t have to go on pilgrimage or pray for a week straight or fast for a month for Jesus to find you.  Jesus calls each of us, wherever we are.  He calls us to prepare ourselves, but always in ways that are accessible to us.  As counterintuitive as it may seem, the God who created the entire Universe wants to be in relationship with us.  God wants to be in relationship with the brood of vipers right here in this room.

And because God reached through time and space to bring Christ to us, and because Christ continually reaches out to us, inviting us into relationship with his Father and our Creator, we join the Apostle Paul and we rejoice in the Lord, we pray with thanksgiving, and we welcome the Peace of Christ into our hearts.

Amen.