Friday, December 25, 2009

See What Wonderful Things Come of It

Sermon preached on Christmas Eve at the Church of St. Luke & St. Simon Cyrene with St. Stephen's Church: Luke 2:1-20

I remember vividly when my sister had her first baby—my first nephew. I mentioned it briefly a few weeks ago but now I want to go into a little more detail.

There was a great deal of excitement and anticipation in the air. This was the first of the next generation on my mother’s side of the family. There were a dozen or so pretty keyed-up people in the waiting room.

It was a long, hard labor. After ten hours or so I was allowed to see my sister. I walked in the door and stopped short. She looked awful. I had a terrible flash back to a few years before when I had visited my dying grandmother for the last time. I was struck how giving birth could take one so close to death.

After eight or so more hours of trying, the baby was finally delivered by Cesarean section, to which my sister had reluctantly but enthusiastically succumbed. The new baby came down from the operating room to the nursery looking like c-section babies do, quite perfect, and he was howling at the top of his lungs, announcing for all the world to hear that he was alive.

Before I left the hospital, my mother and I went into the recovery room to see my sister. She was still very much out of it, looking worse than she had when I had seen her before. I must have looked worried because the nurse said to me, “She’ll be just fine.”

But I was wondering again about how such new life had come out of so much pain and a walk just this side of death.

We all come into the world with a loud cry. No doubt Jesus did as well. The verse of “Away in a Manger” that speculates that Jesus didn’t cry is just nonsense.

The actual birth of Jesus is not a part of the story we just heard. Did Mary have to do it alone, with only Joseph as her helper? Was he really no help at all as most men would have been in those days (and for the next 1970 or so years)? Did someone come from the Inn, perhaps the innkeeper’s wife, to encourage Mary through her pain and with her and Joseph and the animals of the shed hear the first cry of the newborn baby? How close to that line of death did Mary have to walk to bring her baby into the world?

These questions can be a point at which the birth of Jesus can get beyond a sweet story about which much sweet music has been written to meet our own lives and the world in which we live.

Yes, we all enter the world with a loud cry, and like my nephew Robbie, and Jesus born in a Bethlehem cowshed, and you and I, that cry echoes through our lives. Life gets better, but it also gets worse. The cry never stops altogether, and often we leave this world in the same way we entered it, with a loud cry. Jesus did.

That’s the reality that bumps up against the sweetness of this night. This world that Jesus entered, and in which we live, is a mixed bag. Life gets better, but it also gets worse.

So what’s the point? Eventually we all ask that question. Why was I born? Why am I me? What is my purpose? What is the purpose of life?

Most often we ask these questions when we are up against something about life that we cannot control. That’s a corollary to the statement “Life gets better but it also gets worse:” “There are a lot of thing about life you can choose, and a lot of things you can’t.”

And we know from the rest of the story of Jesus that he had moments like this too, moments he wondered “Why?” and cried out. The man in the Garden of Gethsemane facing his own death is not so far from the babe in the manger crying out his first breaths outside the safety and warmth of his mother’s womb.

The gospel writer Luke tells his story about Jesus’ birth so that the “Why?” can be answered. Why this birth? For what purpose? And, of course, he tells the beginning of Jesus’ story knowing full well how it ends. His answer to the “Why?” of Jesus’ birth is also an answer to the death of Jesus.

The answer comes most explicitly in the message of the angels to the shepherds. What is the purpose of this birth? “Glory to God in the highest heaven and on earth peace among those whom he favors!”

Glory for God. Peace for the earth. That is the purpose of his birth. And they are not two separate purposes. The rest of Jesus’ story will bear that out. God’s glory is peace among the people of the earth. Peace among us is God’s glory.

The Greek word we translate as “glory” (doxa) also means “honor” or even “reputation.” God’s honor is peace among us. God has a stake in our peace, in our salvation.

How so? And what is this peace of which the angels sing?

The answer to that can be found in the rest of what the angels sing, which has always given translators and interpreters a very difficult time. The translation we heard this evening is “On earth peace among those whom God favors.” Other translations say “among people of goodwill” or “among those with whom God is pleased.”

All those translations seem to leave open the possibility that God might choose not to give peace at least to some people, either those with whom God is not happy or those who are not of goodwill.

The Greek words, however, don’t really contain that sense of peace being conditional. And a conditional peace also doesn’t match the angel’s earlier saying, “I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people.” No conditional expression there.

The Greek word used in this difficult phrase is eudokias, among whose possible translations is “delights.” Peace on earth among those in whom God delights.[1]

This is the message of the birth at its very core. God delights in you, O people of the earth. The angels dancing in the heavens before the shepherds are just an extension of God’s dance of delight over the creation.

Peace is knowing and living within this delight of God for us. The purpose of our life is to bring delight to God. And how do we do that? Just by being, and especially by faith that this delight is true no matter the circumstances of our life. It is an objective, unconditional delight, so much so that Jesus, God incarnate, the one who fully reveals to us what God is like, was born and died with our same loud cry.

Can we this night catch a glimpse of the angels dancing around us, singing of the glory of God and the delight of God in us? Can we believe the power of this delight to bring us both gratitude in joyful times and hopefulness in our dark ones?

How can those things about which we justifiably cry out—even death—ever be anything but a temporary state of affairs, if God himself dances over us in delight? If God so delighted in human life that he choose to enter it himself? God will not let us go. God’s honor is at stake here and God’s attachment to us is not objective in the least. God is positively head-over-heels in love with you and me.

Can we believe it? And can it make a difference day by day in our life?

There is a scene from the movie Little Women in which one of the daughters has a “crying out” moment. She has been desperately seeking a man to ask her to marry him, but to no avail. She is troubled that she will never lead an “ordinary” life.

Her mother responds, “My daughter, you have such extraordinary gifts. How can you expect to ever lead an ordinary life? Go, embrace your liberty and see what wonderful things come of it.”

That’s a mother ahead of her time.

It is also the God of Jesus Christ.

Tonight we have been reminded that we have been given an extraordinary gift. It is not the babe in the manger, although we would be much less likely to know this gift without him. We have been given the extraordinary gift of God’s delight in us.

Embrace that gift tonight and don’t let it go. Leave with it taken within yourself in this Eucharist and see what wonderful things come of it.

Just don’t let it go. God delights in us, my sisters and brother. We are loved beyond our wildest imaginings. Happy Christmas!

[1] The translation of the Revised English Bible.

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