Last Tuesday night the folks who signed up for the Lenten Study gathered for our first meeting, an orientation to the bible study program we’ll be following throughout the weeks of Lent. Only Tuesday night technically wasn’t Lent yet, but the night when cities like New Orleans and Rio de Janeiro go wild with Marti Gras celebrations. In the spirit of carnival, I stopped at a bakery on the way to church to pick out a slightly-lopsided yet very delicious chocolate cake. Since a message in frosting came with the cost of the cake, I had the baker write “SBCC” across the top. At church, I joked with the bible study group that I’d considered having her write “Happy Lent,” but wasn’t sure how it would go over. Steve Cornwell commented that “Happy Lent” is an oxymoron, given that the 40 days before Easter are traditionally a time of penitence. I fired back some comment about how heartfelt penitence brings a joy deeper than happiness, and Steve jokingly accused me of sounding like SUCH a pastor. And that is how the title of this week’s message for the first Sunday of Lent came to be The “Joy” of Lent.
On the surface, Lent seems as far from joy as can be. There was a movie a few years ago called Chocolat that sharply lampooned dour, self-righteous expressions of Lenten piety. A woman moves into a small French village and opens a chocolate shop. This would seem harmless, but she is a stranger in a tight-knit community, and the grand opening of her confectionary coincided with Ash Wednesday. The village moralist is completely offended by her den of temptation, and tries everything in his power to stop the villagers from giving in to their chocolate cravings. To him, the greatest virtue is self-denial and the worst sin is pleasure.
I don’t think that’s what Lent is about. Yes, many folks give up chocolate for these forty days, but there is a deeper meaning to our discipline. Let’s turn to the scripture that is set forth as a framework, a guide for this season.
Today’s reading from the Gospel of Luke finds Jesus returning from the Jordan River. He has just been baptized by John. In his baptism these words descended from the heavens: “You are my Son, the Beloved, with you I am well pleased.”
He is full of the Holy Spirit, which I think is to say that the fibers of his being are woven so tightly with the fibers of God’s being that you couldn’t tell the one from the other. He is as holy as he is human, and the time has come for him to get started on his divine mission. He is thirty years old, still young enough to be suspect in the eyes of his elders. If you didn’t know the story by heart, you might think that after such an exhilarating baptismal experience, Jesus might walk straight out of the water and begin the work of preaching and healing and teaching before his hair even dries. Instead, the Spirit that’s gotten under his skin and into his bloodstream shoves him into the wilderness, for forty days of solitude, with no one but the devil to keep him company. It’s a text about temptation, yes, but it’s more than that.
Frederick Buechner writes that Jesus goes into the desert to figure out “what it meant to be Jesus.”
The adversary he meets in the wilderness offers up one fine illusion after another. In the midst of profound hunger, Jesus is dared to use his God-given power to transform stones into bread. It would have been a fancy magic trick, one completely within the realm of Jesus’ power, but he refuses to play the trick. He decides that being the Son of God means that he has to trust the One who created him. He decides that he would not substitute the bread of magic for the bread of life. Even as he is still racked with pangs of hunger, the devil tried another tack. Maybe it would be power that would cause the Son of God to crumble. All Jesus had to do was worship the corrupt spirit, and he would have what so many have thirsted for: the glory and fame of absolute power.
Jesus again resists, and we who know the whole story can smirk here, for we can follow this foreshadowing to the time when Jesus will reign in heaven over all the kingdoms of the world, only in God’s way and in God’s time.
Then there’s the third temptation, the one that on first glance is the least tempting. Bread, yes. Power, yes. But what’s so alluring about tossing oneself from the edge of a building? And yet, what a building it is. The devil, whose name in the original Greek means to “stir things up,” knows just what pot he’s stirring when he plants Jesus on the pinnacle of the temple. That’s the place where the tests of the devil will pale in comparison to the tests of humankind. That’s the place where Jesus will be rejected, where his ministry will collapse into a wall of fear, of distrust, of retribution.
It is the place where his dreadful walk to Calvary will begin, and here, buoyed by the promise written in the very scriptures Jesus honored, he could step into the arms of waiting angels and avoid all that suffering. But he knows the escape hatch is mere illusion, and passes his final test.
So what does that have to do with us, with our journey through these forty days of Lent? Why, as followers of Christ, must we follow him through the treacherous desert? Just as the desert was the place Jesus went to figure out what it meant to be Jesus, we must go through the same process to figure out what it means to be followers of Jesus—what it means to be human. Confronting the temptations is ultimately about honesty, about facing who we are and who God is.
Barbara Brown Taylor likens Lent to a sort of Outward Bound for the soul. Folks who go on Outward Bound excursions willingly follow wilderness guides into dangerous situations. They climb mountains and hike long distances.
After a few weeks of training they are left alone, for one full revolution of the earth. It’s out there in those desolate twenty four hours that people learn what they’re really hooked on, what comforts and security blankets they can hardly bear to live without. Taylor writes that “without those things they are suddenly exposed, like someone addicted to painkillers whose prescription has just run out. It is hard. It is awful. It is necessary, to encounter the world without anesthesia, to find out what life is like with no comfort but God. I am convinced,” she writes, “That 99 percent of us are addicted to something, whether it is eating, shopping, blaming, or taking care of other people. The simplest definition of an addiction is anything we use to fill the empty place inside of us that belongs to God alone.” And then Reverend Taylor pulls out all the stops with one of those lines that earned her a slot in the list of the best living preachers. She writes, “The hollowness we sometimes feel is not a sign of something gone wrong. It is the holy of holies inside of us, the uncluttered throne room of the Lord our God.”
Lent is spring cleaning. It’s recognizing that we may have let the holy of holies get cluttered with junk. It’s looking in the mirror and seeing that we’ve filled up that God-shaped space with our need to be safe, or liked, or comfortable. And it’s an invitation to begin the work of recovery, to be weaned from the pale substitutes we prop up on the throne set aside for the Lord.
No one claims that Jesus was having a good time in the wilderness. The work of resisting temptation was difficult, and the devil makes for terrible company. Yet the bread he tasted after the forty day fast was that much sweeter because it had not been baked from stones.
Lent is not about refusing the pleasures of being human; if anything, it is about become more fully human. In Lent, Jesus leads us to the bread that will truly nourish us, the Kingdom that will truly harbor us, and the arms that will truly save us. It’s a harder-won joy, but may the joy of Lent be yours.
There’s a trend in the Christian book market to publish books about how the gospel stories are revealed through various pop culture figures. If Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John don’t cut it for you, you can also read about the gospel according to Oprah, Harry Potter, or the Simpsons. And then there’s the Gospel according to Charles Shultz, the creator of Peanuts. Shultz was a deeply religious person, and he wove profound questions of faith into the simple stories of Charlie, Snoopy, and Peppermint Patty. In one comic strip, Snoopy is shown shivering in the doorway of his dog house, freezing in a snowstorm. It’s clearly Christmas, from the lights and decorations stapled to his roof. Charlie and Lucy pass by, shielded from the cold with warm coats and scarves. A cartoon bubble floats above Charlie’s head, filled with the words, “Be of good cheer, Snoopy.” Lucy repeats the same as they walk on by into the warmth of the house. The only thing that fills Snoopy’s cartoon bubble is more chattering of teeth. Charlie and Lucy meant well with their warm winter greeting—but what Snoopy needed more was a warm winter blanket. It’s a subtle jab – how easy it is to speak the words of compassion while failing to act compassionately.
Our gospel text for today is a difficult one. The images of Christ painted in this scripture are challenging—they seem to stretch our imaginations in opposite directions. There is Christ the mighty judge, who inspires fear in the hearts of the sheep and goats whose fates are determined by his holy rule. And then there is Christ as the one who is hungry, thirsty, alien, sick, imprisoned. Yet this Jesus who sits on a throne even as he inhabits the ghettos proclaims a message of justice and mercy. With a bit less subtlety than the cartoonist, the gospel of Matthew teaches the same lesson about the presence and absence of compassion.
I didn’t expect to work on my sermon while we were away, but the Holy Spirit sometimes has other ideas. One of the museums we toured while in Switzerland was the International Red Cross Museum. Situated in Geneva across from the headquarters of the United Nations and down the street from the World Council of Churches, the Red Cross museum communicates the history and purpose of the organization. Originally founded to provide medical care to wounded soldiers—regardless of nationality—the Red Cross has responded to natural and manmade disasters every year since its founding. But the first thing you see when you enter the exhibit is a dramatic presentation of holy scriptures from different religious traditions that inform the organization’s mission. Wisdom from Muslim, Jewish, Buddhist, and Christian holy scriptures each echo the same sacred responsibility to offer compassion to the stranger. The text chosen from the New Testament was none other than today’s passage from Matthew 25.
The matters of compassion and its sister, justice, are certainly one of the most universal of religious practices. And they are also some of the most common matters in the Holy Bible. Poverty and oppression—and our responses to them— are a big deal to God. Some biblical scholars have noted that only the issue of idolatry receives more attention in the Old Testament.
Rev. Jim Wallis tells a story about this. He and his friends did an experiment while they were in seminary. They found and documented every single biblical reference to the poor, to God’s love for the poor, to images of God as a deliverer of the oppressed. I don’t know how they had time for all this between classes and internships, but Rev. Wallis and his friends collected thousands of verses that related to poverty and oppression. They even did some mathematical equations to demonstrate their point. They found that one of every sixteen verses of the New Testament related to the poor. In the Gospel of Luke, the ratio reached one of every seven. You might have guessed that the reason the seminarians started this experiment is that they didn’t think that their wealthy American churches were taking God’s concern for the poor seriously enough. They wanted to challenge fellow Christians to realize the omission. It wasn’t long before one of the students decided to illustrate their point in a shocking way. Seminarians do tend to be pretty good at being shocking. The student took an old, beat-up copy of the Holy Bible and took a pair of scissors to it. He painstakingly snipped out every last verse on their list. Rev. Wallis recalls that “when he was through, the Bible was very different, because when he came to Amos and read the words, “Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream,” he just cut it out. When he got to Isaiah and heard the prophet say, “Is this not the fast that I choose: to bring the homeless poor into your home, to break the yoke and let the oppressed go free?” he just cut it right out. All those psalms that see God as a deliverer of the oppressed, they disappeared. In the gospels, he came to Mary’s wonderful song where she says, “The might will be put down from their thrones, the lowly exalted, the poor filled with good things and the rich sent away empty.” Matthew 25, gone. The beatitudes, gone. The Holy Bible was so filled with holes that it almost completely fell apart. The seminarians believed it was the gospel according to America, because those scriptures were the ones their churches were ignoring.
We are rooted in a very different tradition than Jim Wallis. He was brought up in the old fundamentalist church, which has focused heavily on personal salvation yet all but ignored gospel message of social justice. Many Disciples of Christ congregations have long been committed to participating in ministries of justice. Our history isn’t perfect, and our spiritual ancestors may have been goats as often as they were sheep. But our heritage includes Christians who challenged child labor, denounced slavery, and advocated for civil rights. These merciful actions, and so many more that don’t make the history books, are a faithful response to the gospel of grace. Just as Jesus was moved by compassion to heal the sick and befriend the outsiders, Christian men and women have healed and befriended Christ himself by responding to the cries of the needy.
I don’t think any other biblical text captures the miracle and mystery of the incarnation any more powerfully than the parable of the sheep and goats. We who welcomed Christ into this world as a wailing infant encounter him again and again in the faces of those who suffer. He turns up where we least expect him. The sheep aren’t rewarded for extending compassion toward the pretty and the powerful. It’s the ones who are in the margins of society, who can’t return favors. It’s the ones who may or may not have showered recently, who may or may not have good table manners, who may or may not have deserved the life sentence that has them locked up in prison. They are the ones in whom Jesus becomes most fully incarnate, and it is through serving the least that we are most able to be close to the one we call Lord and Savior.
Part of being in foreign countries was the constant struggle to translate what we were seeing and hearing. Usually it was a matter of language. We had to consult our travel books every time we ordered a sandwich or navigated a new place. But some of the translation was different. There was the time we walked into one of the gorgeous old Reformation churches to find a meal going on. Folks milling about, helping themselves to warmth and coffee and conversation. As we walked away, we translated: That’s like the Wednesday night meal at Shared Bread. That’s like when we serve breakfast every Sunday to whoever comes hungry. There was a lot of translation to do in the Red Cross museum. Learning about the compassionate work of that organization, I couldn’t help but think: that’s like how Week of Compassion funds have helped build a children’s ward in a hospital in Baghdad. That’s like how our donations and representatives have helped restore clean drinking water to the areas affected by the 2004 Tsunami. And that’s like how Week of Compassion is working with Church World Service to provide humanitarian care to the 2 million Sudanese refugees.
And the most challenging translation of all is that each one of those poor, hungry, wounded, and oppressed is like Christ, quietly hoping and praying that the gospel has transformed our hearts into gardens of compassion.
It is easy to talk, hard to act. There is so much in this world that can break our hearts that we might be tempted to avert our eyes from the pain. But in doing so, we avert our eyes from the cross. We deny the incarnation. We deny Jesus as surely as Peter denied him the night of his betrayal. Few scriptures are as damning as the parable of the sheep and goats. It has all the judgment but none of the triumphant vindication that makes the book of Revelation such a popular stop for apocalyptic enthusiasm. But we are not called to the life of Discipleship to figuratively—or literally—cut unpleasant scriptures from the canon.
None of us can respond to every need. But we can grow in our practice of compassion, as individuals and as the church. We can reflect God’s love for our families and communities by shaping our words and deeds according to the gospel. And we can reflect God’s love for this world by joining our gifts with many others to empower missionaries and relief organizations to reach the needs of those beyond our own reach. Through the practice of compassion, we can translate our blessings into blessings for all the world. May it be so. Amen.
I love music. There is no question that music is one of the things that gives me deep joy. I rarely go a full day without listening to music. I have a favorite band in particular. They are called Over the Rhine, named after a neighborhood in Cincinnati, Ohio. I love to tell the story of when I first discovered them—I was killing time in between classes at Kent State, spending some time in the student bookstore. Their most recent CD was set up at a listening booth, and I picked up the headphones at random. I listened to the first ten bars of the first song, and as the hair on the back of my neck stood up, I knew in an instant that I had discovered what would be my most favorite band for the rest of my life. I bought the CD—it wasn't even on sale, and I never buy anything that isn't on sale—and so far, my first impression has been true. I've seen them play nine times, I have accumulated every album they've released, and I could spend hours discussing their music and lyrics. In fact, I can get a little annoying when it comes to talking about Over the Rhine. Okay, I can get a lot annoying. But it's paid off. The weekend before I was ordained, I saw them play in Hollywood with a dozen or so friends from seminary, most of whom I'd introduced to the band. Even my parents, who generally don't care for pop music, have become fans.
You could say that I've been downright evangelical about Over the Rhine.
You could also say that I haven't been nearly as evangelical about my faith. I certainly have never invited a dozen folks to attend a worship service with me.
Why is it so easy to talk about some things, yet so hard to talk about our relationship with God? We talk up delicious recipes and pass along favorite books, but many Christians get their tongues tied up in a very tight knot when it comes to expressing what God has done in our lives.
It isn't that we aren't passionate about our faith. It isn't that we aren't interested in welcoming new members into the Body of Christ. We just tend to be very polite, and talking religion in mixed company doesn’t always make the etiquette cut.
But as followers of Christ, we are called to share the good news of what God has done—and continues to do—through Jesus Christ. If that calling makes you nervous, you're not alone. We live in a culture that is saturated with negative images of evangelists. Though many people—Christians and non Christians alike— have deep respect for Billy Graham, the same cannot be said for his colleagues. Whether or not the perception is true, evangelists are often seen as judgmental and pushy. And unfortunately, since Disciples and our brethren in the mainline Protestant traditions have been so quiet about our faith, there aren’t nearly as many public expressions of the Christian faith that reflect our witness and understanding of the gospel.
Now, I'm going to share a statistic with you. I've been waffling all week about whether or not I should include this statistic in the message today, because it's a humdinger. A study published this month contended that one half of one percent of mainline congregations are practicing effective evangelism. Ouch.
I don't share this statistic to make us feel badly. I think it helps to know that we aren't the only ones struggling to share our faith. But I also think it helps to get a wake-up call from time to time. I once heard someone say that mainline churches such as the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) are greatest commandment churches. We do a good job of loving God with all our hearts and loving our neighbors as ourselves. But the other part of the observation was the criticism that mainline congregations tend not to be great commission churches. We get to the end of the book of Matthew, where Jesus tells the eleven to make disciples of all nations, and we quickly turn the page and change the subject. Forty or fifty years ago, mainline churches could get away with that. Churches certainly engaged in intentional practices of evangelism, but simply opening the doors on a Sunday morning meant that people would come. People would hear the gospel, and people would become disciples of Christ. Our world has changed—and so our understanding and practice of evangelism needs to change.
The pastor and writer Brian McClaren suggests this vision of responding to the Great Commission. “Good evangelists… are people who engage others in good conversation about important and profound topics such as faith, values, hope, meaning, purpose, goodness, beauty, truth, life after death, life before death, and God. They do this not because they like to be experts and impose their views on others, but because they feel they are in fact sent by God to do so… Evangelists are people with a mission from God and a passion to love and serve their neighbors.” The portrait of an evangelist, according to Pastor McClaren, is less like a used-car salesman and more like a humble and loving spiritual friend.
It’s a powerful thing when people start talking about what really matters to them; sometimes sharing your story in a real and honest way offers a much-needed invitation for others to give voice to the depths of their own hearts. When you think about it, a whole lot of language is spent on things that aren’t about important and profound topics. Words are used to sell, to persuade, to pass the side dishes—but we can go days without telling our stories or expressing our spirits. Recently I was listening to NPR in the late afternoon, and it was one of those days where the news was just frustrating. Important issues were being politicized in a way that just amounted to a lot of empty spin doctoring. I was about to change the dial when the host announced the next segment: an installment of the ongoing NPR series “This I Believe.” If you haven’t heard it, the show “is based on a 1950s radio program of the same name, hosted by acclaimed journalist Edward R. Murrow. In creating This I Believe, Murrow said the program sought "to point to the common meeting grounds of beliefs, which is the essence of brotherhood and the floor of our civilization." For the next three minutes, I listened to a woman explain that she is the designated celebrator in her family, the one who makes sure everyone gets together for the holidays. She said, “I believe that in this world there is and always has been so much sadness and sorrow, so much uncertainty, that if we didn't set aside time for merriment, gifts, music and laughter with family and friends, we might just forget to celebrate all together. We'd just plod along in life.” As the woman explain her beliefs, I realized something I believe: We’d just plod along in life if all we talk about is work and weather. We need the language of grace. We need the language of confession. We need the language of discipleship, where our lives are shaped not by small talk but by the Word of God.
Evangelism can be scary and unpopular and impolite. But it can also be joyful and exciting and authentic. When we reveal our experience of God, sharing generously with our words and actions the grace that has been poured into our lives through Jesus Christ, we are a blessing. When we have the courage to start conversations with humility and respect, we are a blessing. When we provide the challenge and the care to assist the Holy Spirit in making disciples of all nations, we are a blessing. As the Catholic monk Thomas Merton says, “All the good you will do will come not from you but from the fact that you have allowed yourself, in the obedience of faith, to be used by God’s love.” May it be so. Amen.
Then Peter came and said to him, ‘Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?’ Jesus said to him, ‘Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.
The Parable of the Unforgiving Servant
‘For this reason the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his slaves. When he began the reckoning, one who owed him ten thousand talents was brought to him; and, as he could not pay, his lord ordered him to be sold, together with his wife and children and all his possessions, and payment to be made. So the slave fell on his knees before him, saying, “Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.” And out of pity for him, the lord of that slave released him and forgave him the debt. But that same slave, as he went out, came upon one of his fellow-slaves who owed him a hundred denarii; and seizing him by the throat, he said, “Pay what you owe.” Then his fellow-slave fell down and pleaded with him, “Have patience with me, and I will pay you.” But he refused; then he went and threw him into prison until he should pay the debt. When his fellow-slaves saw what had happened, they were greatly distressed, and they went and reported to their lord all that had taken place. Then his lord summoned him and said to him, “You wicked slave! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. Should you not have had mercy on your fellow-slave, as I had mercy on you?” And in anger his lord handed him over to be tortured until he should pay his entire debt. So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart.’ (NRSV)
Ever since the Sunday of Epiphany, we've been spending some time considering the central practices of the Christian faith. I'm a firm believer that being a Christian isn't just about having a moment of conversion. Being Christian means living our lives in response to God's grace revealed in the life and ministry of Jesus Christ. There are beliefs, for sure—the journey starts with the confession that Jesus is our Lord and Savior. But Jesus didn't leave the fishermen in their boats. He didn't leave them floating on the water with little more than a good story of encountering the Son of God. He challenged them to be his followers, his Disciples. Their lives would never be the same, not just because of the moment that Jesus called them, but because Jesus continued to call them in every moment that followed.
So in these weeks between the seasons of Christmas and Lent we're looking at the Holy Scriptures and church tradition that teach us how to respond to the call to discipleship. We're rehearsing what it means to live a Christian life. So far we've considered the practices of worship, healing, and hospitality, and we will yet ponder the work of evangelism and compassion. But today we wrestle with one of the most difficult Christian practices of all: forgiveness.
We're following Jesus up a steep slope today. Forgiveness is irrational. A psychologist will tell you that human beings aren't wired to forgive. When our loved ones or we are wronged, our impulses tend toward vengeance, bitterness, hatred. Mahatma Gandhi wisely observed that an "eye for an eye and soon the world is blind" – but the last time we think to quote Gandhi is when we've been wounded – intentionally or not —by another human being.
It may clash with our natural instincts, but forgiveness is fundamental to Christian spirituality. Each week we pray the words that Jesus taught us—forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors. There are records from a church council in sixteenth-century Switzerland that preserve the story of a man who took that prayer quite seriously— so seriously he pretended didn't know the words. He knew that if joined his congregation in speaking them, he would have to forgive the man who had swindled him at the marketplace.
We are a forgiven people called to be a forgiving people. When Jesus taught his followers to forgive—not seven times, but seventy times seven times—it wasn't a footnote to our salvation. Forgiveness is the heart of redemption. Instead of letting his beloved creation remain shackled and suffering, God acted. God poured himself into the person of Jesus Christ. Jesus revealed the mercy of God and absorbed the evil of the world. Instead of condemnation or punishment, Jesus preached the vastness of God's love – a love that overcomes sin in all its forms.
The forgiveness of God is paving the way to a reconciled and restored Creation, one sinner at a time. But when we accept the gift of God's forgiveness, we become beholden to grace. Like the slave whose debts were pardoned by the king in the parable, we must share the gift of forgiveness. It has been said that once we have received the grace of God, we no longer "live for [ourselves]. We live instead as God's servants on behalf of a world that lives too deeply in alienation, bitterness, and various states of war. At our best, we who make up Christ's body in this world offer to this world a new model of handling the sins that grow profusely as crabgrass."
We witnessed a Christian community at its best this past year—and in the midst of the worst this world has to offer. Most of us heard about the tragedy that occurred in Lancaster County Pennsylvania last October, when five schoolgirls were killed in a random and unthinkable act of violence.
Instead of responding in the language of retribution, the girls' Amish community quietly but firmly let it be known that they forgave the man who was responsible. They even made sure that the man's widow would receive a portion of the donations that poured in from sympathetic neighbors. Baffled reporters described their dignity and humanity, and many an editorial echoed the sentiment that the world would be a better place if only more communities could summon that spirit of goodwill.
Yet in the days after the incident, the Jewish writer John Podhoretz, argued that "anger can be as righteous as forgiveness." After all, God cares passionately for justice, too. Without justice, the damage of wrongdoings cannot be restored. But damage cannot be restored without forgiveness, too. Pursuing justice without practicing forgiveness puts us in danger of being overwhelmed by rage and consumed by bitterness. And then we are simply chained to whatever or whoever has hurt us, unable to heal or to imagine any other future but the one imposed by pain.
So I've managed to talk for some time about forgiveness without actually considering how we, as individuals and as a community, might practice forgiveness. We know it's the basis of our relationship with God, we know it is something we are called to do—but how? In my reading this week, I spent a lot of time with an article by L. Gregory Jones on the Christian practice of forgiveness. He manages to address all the complexity and impossibility of forgiveness yet is also practical and hopeful. I want to share some of his suggestions for practicing forgiveness when we have been wronged.
First, we have to become willing to speak truthfully and patiently about the conflict. Tertullian, an early Christian writer, called patience the "mother of mercy." Once we have that measure of calm, its time to acknowledge our anger. I think this is the difference between authentic forgiveness and sweeping transgressions under a rug.
It does no good to pretend that you aren't furious about a thoughtless remark or intentional cruelty. But in the work of forgiveness, the other side of recognizing anger and bitterness is desiring to overcome them. We have to want to let our animosity dissolve. The next piece is to accept that the person who has wronged us is a child of God. We cannot simply paint the ones who have hurt us as soulless enemies. God breathed his spirit into every one of us, even the most egregious sinners. As we consider that the one who has hurt is a beloved child of God, we must remember that we too are loved by God. We have received God's grace and forgiveness, and most likely continue to stand in need of mercy. Strengthened by the grace we ourselves have received, the practice of forgiveness calls us to make a commitment to struggle to change whatever caused the conflict or injury. I think this is where forgiveness makes true justice possible. Many victims become powerful advocates for change, channeling their pain into helping others.
It was only after I read this process of forgiveness a few times that I realized a familiar understanding of forgiveness was missing. Nowhere are we encouraged to "accept an apology." The practice of Christian forgiveness is rooted in God's love, not whether or not the one who has hurt us has repented. The condition for forgiveness is that God has forgiven us.
The reality is that this is profoundly difficult work. Sometimes all we can do is confess to God that we’re working on it, and keep praying that that He will keep working on us. Ultimately, forgiving isn’t something we do in a breath or a day. It’s a way of life that requires a whole lot of prayer. C.S. Lewis wrote this in his journal: “Last week, while at prayer, I suddenly discovered—or felt as if I did—that I had really forgiven someone I have been trying to forgive for over thirty years. Trying, and praying that I might.”
May God give us the strength, the honesty, the patience, and the mercy to be a forgiven and forgiving people. Amen.
A Girl Restored to Life and a Woman Healed
While he was saying these things to them, suddenly a leader of the synagogue came in and knelt before him, saying, ‘My daughter has just died; but come and lay your hand on her, and she will live.’ And Jesus got up and followed him, with his disciples. Then suddenly a woman who had been suffering from haemorrhages for twelve years came up behind him and touched the fringe of his cloak, for she said to herself, ‘If I only touch his cloak, I will be made well.’ Jesus turned, and seeing her he said, ‘Take heart, daughter; your faith has made you well.’ And instantly the woman was made well. When Jesus came to the leader’s house and saw the flute-players and the crowd making a commotion, he said, ‘Go away; for the girl is not dead but sleeping.’ And they laughed at him. But when the crowd had been put outside, he went in and took her by the hand, and the girl got up. And the report of this spread throughout that district. (NRSV)
What do you think of when you think of healing? Do you think of doctors and nurses? Their vocation is certainly about healing. In medical centers in our neighborhood and throughout the world, trained professionals diagnose sicknesses, treat injuries, research diseases, and work to prevent the onset of pain and illness. Whether in a state-of-the-art cardiac unit or a traveling free clinic, medical workers routinely participate in the physical healing of men, women, and children.
So what do you think of when you think of Christian healing? Does your mind automatically switch channels to the worst of what religious broadcasting has to offer? There are a lot of hucksters out there, dangling the promise of miraculous cures to those who would just summon the faith to buy them. There is never a lack of suffering in this world, and with the right balance of illusion and charisma, con artists can make big bucks by exploiting it.
There is a deep need for and interest in healing. You might even say that healing is one of the most relevant topics of the day. The airwaves are constantly full of talk about how to improve healthcare. The cost of insurance and prescription drugs is a hot-button issue. The AIDS pandemic in Africa is a medical and moral emergency. Our home, the earth, is bruised from centuries of misuse. And without a doubt, each and every one of us has longed for healing, for ourselves and for our families, our friends, and our neighbors—the ones that are right next door, and the ones that are on the other side of the world. John Koenig writes that "Though we sometimes try to deny it, illness, injury, and psychological distress dog virtually every step of our daily walk through life. They grip us and the people we love with pain, touching every thought and motion by their presence, often briefly but sometimes for years on end" (Practicing Our Faith, 149). We are hungry for healing.
Our culture is mostly comfortable defining healing as the work that happens in the operating room and the doctor's office. A healthy understanding of healing will include the gift of medical treatment. But for Christians, healing is also more than pills and procedures.
I want to talk about healing today— healing as it is practiced in our Christian tradition. But before we go any further, we have to recognize that healing as a Christian practice needs to be healed. I want to change the channel on the faith healers that do more harm than good to the hopeful believers who seek their services, pull the plug on the so-called healing that is all spectacle and corruption. Today we celebrate and explore the practice of healing that is sacred and compassionate and real.
At the heart of Christian healing is this simple truth: God wants us to be whole. God wants us to be restored, redeemed, reborn into the fullness of who He created us to be. God wants this for each of us, and God wants this for all of us, for all of Creation. We know this for the same reason we know who God is: because his Son, Jesus Christ, revealed it through his life and ministry.
Jesus was a preacher, a teacher, and a healer. Jesus challenged demons to flee and commanded wounds to close. He empowered the eyes of blind men to open and the skin of lepers to be restored. Jesus had a God-given authority to heal through words and touch, and for a very important reason. Though Jesus' reputation as a healer was like a magnet for the suffering people of Galilee, he resisted that easy fame.
Jesus healed for the same reason he shared parables with the people: he was showing them the nature of God's gracious Kingdom. Just as the Kingdom of Heaven is like the smallest seed that grows into the largest tree, so is the Kingdom of Heaven like a woman who touched the hem of Jesus' garment.
Jesus healed the woman. Or rather, her faith healed her. The blood that had flowed from her body for twelve years slowed and stopped, freeing her from a life of physical and social anemia. For the woman's affliction affected much more than her body. Her Jewish culture had strict guidelines for cleanliness. A bleeding woman was considered unclean. She could not participate in the religious life of her community. What's more, anyone who came into contact with her would also be considered ritualistically unclean.
She had been living in the margins for twelve years. Barred from religious expression, denied any human touch, and always on the brink of death, the chronic hemorrhage had literally drained the life of out of the woman. And then she was caught in a radical act: her hand reached out, clutching the edge of Jesus' cloak. Her bold move posed a terrible threat to Jesus. Because he had been touched by an untouchable, the very Son of God could be labeled unclean. But the power of the Holy Spirit flowed from him to her, and in the twinkling of an eye, the woman's life was saved. Jesus made her whole, restoring her body as well as her place within her community.
The Kingdom of Heaven is like a woman who touched the hem of Jesus' garment.
When theologians talk about the Kingdom of God, they often lament that it is "already but not yet." Through his life and ministry, Jesus planted seeds of God's reign and expected his followers to nurture those seeds. We see glimpses of the Kingdom of God in the scriptures, as Jesus moved among the people. We see glimpses of the Kingdom of God when faithful Disciples embody the compassionate wisdom of Christ. And we see glimpses of the Kingdom when we discern God's work in the world. Already, but not yet.
The promise of the gospels, the promise of this text witnessing to not one but two miraculous healings, is that we will be healed: body, mind, and spirit. The human community will be made whole. Suffering will cease, and sins will be wiped away. Creation will be restored to a realm of justice and beauty. This is the great work that God began through the incarnation of his Son, Christ Jesus. And in the fullness of time, this vision of shalom will be a reality.
As Christian people endeavoring to live a way of life shaped by our Savior, we have work to do. We are called to participate in the unfolding of God's great plan. We are called to be healers, even as we are still wounded by loss and pain ourselves.
The practice of Christian healing is not about magic. Not every disease can be cured. Not every life can be preserved. The kind of healing revealed by Jesus is bigger than life, and claims victory over death.
Healing isn't about cultivating false hope. One of the most humble healers I've ever encountered is a pediatrician at a local hospital whose specialty is hospice care for children. Every young patient he treats has been diagnosed with a terminal illness, and his job is to find ways to alleviate their physical pain.
It is grueling work that could easily scour away all hope. Yet even in a context where physical cures are out of the question, healing happens. Healing happens when a devastated mother witnesses her child's pain diminish long enough for him to enjoy a visit with his siblings.
Moments of healing take place every day, in ordinary and extraordinary ways. "When we embody God's healing presence to others through touch, concern, or liturgy, we take part in God's activity of healing the world" (quote from John Koenig: couldn't figure out how to acknowledge that without losing momentum). Sharing a plate of cookies with a grieving family. Listening to a stranger in crisis. Comforting a feverish grandchild. Praying for a friend fighting cancer. This is all holy work, healing work. And these healing ministries, woven with the power of the Holy Spirit, invite the Kingdom of Heaven to blossom in the soil of Creation.
When faced with the possibility of healing, the mourners gathered around the dead girl's house laughed. They laughed at Jesus. I can only think of one other time in the gospels when Jesus was so blatantly mocked—when he himself was on the edge of death, when his own body and spirit seemed a million miles from wholeness. And yet the wounds of the cross were healed. Jesus was made whole again, restored, resurrected into new life.
Our God is a lover of life. He will transform every tear of grief into a tear of joy. He will forge a new beginning out of every ending. The good news of Jesus Christ is that we will be redeemed, we will be saved, we will be healed. And so we must hope and pray and work for God’s gracious will to be done on earth as it is in the Kingdom of Heaven. Amen.
In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.” When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet: ‘And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who is to shepherd my people Israel.’” Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.” (NRSV)
When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.
Magi from the East came to Jerusalem. That little phrase has fertilized the imagination of the church ever since Matthew first jotted down his version of Jesus’ birth. The details we adore about this tale were mostly conjured up in the centuries to follow. Matthew doesn’t tell us how many Magi made the journey— but tradition has assigned one wise man to each of the three gifts presented to the Christ child. Directors of Christmas pageants doled out camels for them to ride, and the British poet, Longfellow, christened them Melchior, Gaspar, and Balthasar. It’s easy to forget which of these details are rooted in biblical text, and which were added by faithful storytellers who spun a more vibrant yarn about the great journey to Bethlehem. Indeed, when I went to find the particular bible translation that inspired the title of my sermon, Home by Another Way, my search led me not to the King James Version or the New International Version, but the gospel according to James Taylor, the folksinger. His song by the same name begins: “Those magic men the magi/ Some people call them wise/ Or oriental, even kings/ Well anyway, those guys/ They visited with jesus/ They sure enjoyed their stay/ Then warned in a dream of king herods scheme/ They went home by another way.” But I’m not so sure the difference between what is in the text and what we see in our mind’s eye when we hear this scripture is of much concern in this case. The songs and stories about the Three Kings of the Orient—fanciful though they may be— do a fine job of pointing to the path the Magi cleared. The path that leads us to Jesus.
The reason this story draws us in so very much is that it is so very rich. It is a true adventure story: a journey marked by danger, a tale of good and evil, a drama filled with magical stars, uncontainable joy, precious gifts, and profound worship. And it is a story marked by transformation, for the wise men go home by another way.
Today marks the first Sunday of a sermon series I have been working on for some time, a series based in the book of Matthew and focusing on the vital practices of the Christian faith, the way we live in response to God’s grace. The first practice is worship. The first act of the Magi upon encountering the Christ child was to worship him—to kneel and adore the gift of Light into the world.
In this and many stories, worship happens while on a journey. There’s the classic allegory Pilgrim’s Progress, in which a Christian suffers the distracting influence of characters such as Mr. Worldly Wiseman and Mr. Legality on his harrowing journey from a sin-sick world to the gates of the Celestial City. Even our ordinary Sunday worship begins with a little pilgrimage. What is the simple act of driving a car or walking a few blocks any other day of the week takes a different meaning on Sunday morning. For all our other reasons for showing up, our central purpose is to gather as a community to praise God, to rejoice in the light of Christ, to bask in the fellowship of the Holy Spirit— and that makes the simple act of walking out your front door the first step of a holy journey.
Of course, journeys toward worship can be much more roundabout. The first time I left home—really left home—for my freshman year of college was also the only year of my life that I did not regularly attend a worship service. I was there, but not, as a teenager, so when I had my first taste of freedom, the last thing on my mind was looking up a local congregation. But I was on a spiritual journey. That year I joined a student organization with a lofty title. We were the Spiritual Truth Seekers. Each week, we met up in the student lounge to talk about religion and philosophy. We also heard from different speakers. A faithful Unitarian. A convert to Buddhism. A Christian pastor who had lost his faith only to rediscover it in new and unexpected form. Our meetings were more about seeking than finding, though. I’m not sure we ever landed on the capital T truth we were searching for. But something shifted, something changed in me during that year I went to school in Northwest Ohio. I transferred to a university close to home, but I did not simply retrace my steps. I went home by another way, so that at my new school I didn’t join the philosophy club, but found myself at church every Sunday morning, worshipping. The journey had changed me from a person who wanted to search for truth to a person who wanted to stand in awe of it, and pray.
It has been said that the deep wisdom of the Magi is this: “The Magi represent forever and for all of us the wisdom that recognizes human life to be a journey taken in search of the One who calls us beyond ourselves and into faithful service—One before whom we are prepared to kneel, and to whom we offer the best of our gifts, flawed and unworthy though they may be.”*
Consider that. Your life is a journey. It is a mission to find God—just as the mystical Kings undertook their marathon trek across the desert to find the holy newborn. Though we seek God, it is God who is calling us to make the journey. It is God who forges the star that illuminates the path, a light so bright it cannot be ignored. And when you get to the place where God is calling you, the thing to do is worship.
I wonder if one of the Magi, tired and sore from days spent between the humps of a camel, turned back before they reached Jerusalem. Maybe an unmentioned fourth wise man wasn’t so wise after all, and decided against dirtying his tapestry cloak to honor the child of Jewish peasants. He probably went home the same way he came, as proud as ever. The true Magi were possessed of perfect vision and a willingness to act on what they saw. They saw the star, and followed. They saw the glory of the Lord hidden in the flesh of an infant, and they knelt in worship, offering their finest treasures. They saw murder in the eyes of King Herod, and resisted the call of darkness.
Even though a star doesn’t hang over this sanctuary to guide our steps here, this is the place that God has called us to look upon his Son and give thanks. Maybe our hearts do not throb and swell with joy every single Sunday, the way the prophet Isaiah proclaimed they would when we encountered God’s light. Maybe the gifts we give aren’t quite as valuable as gold. Maybe we feel like we don’t know what we’re doing, even though we’ve been doing it for years.
The living Christ, the Light of the World, is just as manifest here as he was in that ramshackle crib.
And we are called here to worship, to bend our hearts, if not our knees, into that curlicue position of prayer. What we are searching for has been searching for us, and we are found just in time to give ourselves away. From this sacred place, we go home by another way—the way of Christ, who is our light, and our truest home. Amen.
*Herbert O’Driskoll, Kingly Presence.
Now every year his parents went to
for the festival of the Passover. And when he was twelve years old, they went up as usual for the festival. When the festival was ended and they started to return, the boy Jesus stayed behind in Jerusalem , but his parents did not know it. Assuming that he was in the group of travelers, they went a day’s journey. Then they started to look for him among their relatives and friends. When they did not find him, they returned to Jerusalem to search for him. After three days they found him in the temple, sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions. And all who heard him were amazed at his understanding and his answers. When his parents saw him they were astonished; and his mother said to him, “Child, why have you treated us like this? Look, your father and I have been searching for you in great anxiety.” He said to them, “Why were you searching for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?” But they did not understand what he said to them. Then he went down with them and came to Jerusalem , and was obedient to them. His mother treasured all these things in her heart. And Jesus increased in wisdom and in years, and in divine and human favor. (NRSV) Nazareth
After the last candles were extinguished and the building was locked up tight on Christmas Eve, Ben and I headed north on the 5 to my sister's house in Mountain House, California. The big plan was to surprise my nieces, Gracie and Maddie, on Christmas morning. Even though we arrived well after midnight, I was so anxious to see the girls that I haven't woken up so early on Christmas in 20 years. When Maddie padded downstairs in her footie pjs and saw Uncle Ben's shoes, she thought they were Santa's. Mission accomplished. We had a wonderful visit, from start to finish. Just in the time since we saw them last, Gracie's learned hundreds of new words and developed an attention span long enough to listen to stacks of library books. Maddie easily works 100-piece puzzles and can totally outwit her Aunt Katherine at hide-and-go-seek. I looked for that child for a good fifteen minutes one morning, and she was right under my nose, quiet as a church mouse. The days when she would go hide only to jump out and shout "here I am" as soon as I started looking for her are over.
It is an amazing thing to watch children learn and grow. Ben and I have six nieces and nephews with another on the way, and witnessing their journey through childhood is a true gift.
The scripture we're pondering today is the only canonical account of Jesus as a child—the only such story that is included in our Holy Scriptures. Many, many more stories have been told about Jesus as a boy. The Infancy Gospel of Thomas, an ancient text that was written a couple centuries after the gospel of Luke, imagines the Savior accomplishing amazing feats while yet a child. And just last year, Anne Rice, formerly of vampire novels, wrote a book narrated by a twelve-year-old Jesus.
The impulse to imagine what Jesus was like as a boy is a strong one. As Christians, we believe that the babe born in Bethlehem was fully human and fully divine. We testify that his nativity in ancient Judea ushered in a new realm of God's reconciling work. We are here today because we have heard and responded to the call to follow in the footsteps of Jesus. It's only human that many Christians have wondered just how old Jesus was when he took his first step.
As much as we may wish for a chance to page through Mary's scrapbook of the early years of her holy son, we have instead the gospels. They are less interested in recording the childhood adventures of Jesus than in tapping into the meaning of his life and ministry. This episode from the Gospel of Luke, though cherished as one of the few windows into Jesus' early life, is included in scripture because of what it reveals about God.
The Jesus we encounter in this scripture is just like any adolescent. How many twelve-year-olds have made nervous wrecks of their parents by disappearing into a crowd? How many parents have been reduced to tears of angry relief when the lost child is found safe and sound? The story here, on one level, is as ordinary as any family lore. You can almost hear the echoes of its retelling around the holiday dinner table for years to come. The kid who worried everyone rolls his eyes and blushes while the family patriarch recounts the embarrassing highlights one more time.
And yet on another level, this story is anything but ordinary. The wayward child is not off fishing or making mischief in the marketplace. He has found his way to the center of his community's religious life and has astounded the learned rabbis with his articulate questions and wise observations. The boy in the temple is no run-of-the-mill spiritual prodigy, but the Son of God. He may have strayed from his earthly parents, but Jesus makes it clear that he had simply gone on furlough to his Heavenly Father's temple.
Luke recorded this story as a testimony to the paradox of Christmas. In this brief interlude between the birth of Christ and the inception of his ministry some thirty years later, we get a sense of what it meant for Jesus to be fully human and fully divine. The presence of God's Spirit in Jesus is clear. He doesn't simply have wisdom beyond his years; he has wisdom beyond the ages. And yet he is just a little boy, entrusted to the care of a mother and a father.
Our Lord wasn't deposited on earth as a full-grown man. He was born as any other, learned to walk and to speak as any other, and grew in his faith and understanding as any other. The Jesus we encounter in this text is actively engaged in the ordinary stuff of life. He practiced the Jewish faith, journeying with his family to the temple each year for Passover. He asked questions. As he increased in years he increased in wisdom, learning and growing into the one who would be our salvation.
Again, I say, we are here because we have heard and responded to the call to follow Jesus. We usually pay the most attention to his teachings and actions as an adult. But there is nothing that says we should not also follow the Jesus of this story. The path of growth and learning set forth here is not just for children and youth. The pattern for living culled from this text is a worthy way of life for God's children of all ages. Like Mary and Joseph, most of us have a hard time keeping up with Jesus. And yet keeping up with Jesus is what we are called to do as Christians.
We are on the edge of another new year. I usually am a bit of a cynic about New Years resolutions, having broken too many too count. But there is something so hopeful about turning the calendar page to a new year. There's a contemporary Christmas song that goes, "Maybe this Christmas will mean something more, Maybe this year love will appear, Deeper than ever before."
When I sang alone in the car this week, I changed the words to "new year." Maybe this New Year will mean something more. Maybe this will be the year when the long overdue change or the much-needed growth will take root and flourish.
In the Message bible, this passage concludes by saying that in the following years, Jesus grew up in both body and spirit. Other translations read that Jesus "increased in wisdom" as he increased in years. Maybe this New Year is the time to faithfully commit to growing up in spirit, to hold God's wisdom at the center of our lives if it hasn't already taken its rightful place there.
Jesus and his family made the pilgrimage to Jerusalem every year for Passover. Maybe this is the year you will make the pilgrimage to worship God every single Sunday of the year.
Jesus prayerfully studied the Holy Scriptures. Maybe this is the year you will join in on the ambitious project to read the whole bible in one year, or start attending Sunday School, or commit to participating in the Lenten Bible study a few months from now.
Jesus challenged tradition and asked probing questions. Maybe this is the year you will bravely work through your own questions of faith in the safe space of this Christian community.
Little Jesus got lost, but was found in his Father's house, doing his Father's work. Maybe this is the year we, too, will lose ourselves only to be found in God.
The Birth of Jesus
In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of
. All went to their own towns to be registered. Joseph also went from the town of Syria Nazarethin Galilee to Judea, to the city of Davidcalled , because he was descended from the house and family of David. He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn. Bethlehem
The Shepherds and the Angels
In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, ‘Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, who is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.’ And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying,
‘Glory to God in the highest heaven,
and on earth peace among those whom he favours!’
When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, ‘Let us go now to
and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.’ So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger. When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child; and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them. But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart. The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them. Bethlehem
The first time I ever paid attention in church was on Christmas Eve. I was ten or so, and while I liked the warmth and the candlelight of the evening service, I was anxious for the gifts and Christmas cookies that waited on the other side of the chilly trip home. I had no intention of listening to the preacher that night, but he startled me into really hearing the gospel for the first time. Standing behind the Communion table, the Reverend proclaimed in a passionate voice that the birth of Christ was meant for everyone. No matter if you were a thief, an adulterer, an alcoholic, a sexaholic. I remember being shocked, thinking that you weren't supposed to talk about those kinds of things at church. Especially not right there in front of the Holy Family. The words the pastor used seemed out of place amidst the pretty manger scene. They were words that spoke of the sorrow and sin of human life. It just didn't seem right to bring all that uncomfortable stuff up on a night that was supposed to be about God.
And yet this is the night that we celebrate that our God became human. The child we welcome with joyful hearts was born of flesh and blood, as weak and needy as any newborn baby. His blood may have been laced with divinity, but the child born in Bethlehem was as human as any.
The nativity of our Lord is a sight to behold in our faithful imaginations. Angels singing and shepherds praising in a festival of starlit adoration. But it didn't happen in a spiritual vacuum. It happened in a specific time and place, to a particular group of people. Every time we hear the Christmas story in the Gospel of Luke, whether it's read from the sanctuary pulpit or by Linus on the Charlie Brown Christmas Special, we are reminded of the very worldly context of Jesus' birth. We hear about Emperor Augustus and his ridiculous ambition to register the whole world. We hear that this happened when Quirinius was governor of Syria. And we hear of the journey required of Mary and Joseph, the long trip from Galilee to Judea.
The Gospel of Matthew also testifies to another circumstance of Christ's birth, the devastating violence that King Herod unleashed upon the families of Bethlehem in his attempt to defeat the newborn King before he even spoke his first word.
By all accounts, the Advent of our savior was littered with the uncomfortable stuff that goes along with being human. Messy stuff: childbirth, politics, injustice, poverty. The star shined brilliantly against the heavy darkness of Bethlehem. The angels' song was heightened by the anguished cries it displaced. The Lord of Love was born into a world polluted with hate. The miracle of the incarnation is that God poured his spirit into the humblest of creatures in the humblest of situations.
Last year, the worship leaders of a Baptist church not too far from here prayed their way into a serious question. Where would the Christ child be born today? They recognized that the nativity of Jesus emerged from a scene of desolation. And so when they set out to build a nativity scene to inhabit the nave of their sanctuary, they borrowed imagery from the newspaper. They constructed a meager shanty covered with a blue tarp, and surrounded it with rubble: cinderblocks and mortar, an old abandoned shopping cart, empty cans and jars, a couple sleeping bags. Hanging by the scene were spray-painted signs that echoed those that were posted on rooftops during the fatal 2005 hurricanes: Save Us. Need Water. Help. Their Advent wreath was an empty oil drum turned on its head. The candles of hope and peace and joy and love smoldered, the only source of heat for the residents of this haphazard refuge.
That scene was painful, not pretty. It preached a powerful message that our carols have long proclaimed: the Christ child was "born to ransom captive Israel." "With the poor, the scorned, the lowly, lived on earth our Savior holy." The hopes and fears met by the Christ child were on display, a silent witness to the depth of our need for Emmanuel, the God who saves us by being with us.
My friend who serves that congregation confessed that the crèche challenged her to "keep [her] eyes open to God's world, the world God loves." Not all of the members of her church responded that way. The first Sunday, my friend noted a "roaring silence about it all." The roaring silence reached a fever pitch as the Advent season trudged on. Some church members struggled with the contemporary reflection of the manger scene. They didn't want to be confronted by the same pain that was relentlessly broadcast on the news when they gathered to praise God.
I need to tell you that my friend is a really great pastor. She cares deeply about the members of her flock. She would not, could not, ignore that the manger's message had gotten lost in translation for some of her church. The nativity scene was meant to be a testimony to how Christ is born to save a suffering world, not to be a cause of suffering. Yet even as my friend recognized that her people needed comfort, she lamented. "Even if we do clean up the sanctuary, the world remains broken."
The church found a way to rejoice on Christmas Eve. Some of the symbols were taken away, and light of Christ filled the space they left behind. But that challenging nativity scene was deconstructed because women and men couldn't bear it, not because God couldn't bear it. The hope of the original nativity in Bethlehem, and the hope of every other nook and cranny in Creation, is that God can and does bear our suffering.
Tonight we celebrate the birth of God into this world. He showed up when we needed him most, and he has never left since. God is present, God is with us. Whether we are laughing at the church potluck or wringing our hands in the emergency room, the One who loves us most is here. The stuff we think we're supposed to leave at home—our rough edges, our skeletons, our insecurities, our broken-down world, is just the load to carry with us on this holy night. Here we meet the One who is ready to share the burden and show us another way, a way of forgiveness and love and justice. A way of salvation.
A story. The chaplain of a home for troubled children was preparing to lead the Christmas Eve service when one of the staff members informed him that one of the boys was hiding beneath his bed and refused to come out. The chaplain went to see if he might be able to convince the child to come out and join in on the Christmas festivities. He stood there in the dorm room and regaled the boy with the plans for the evening: the food, the gifts, the blinking lights on the tree, and so on. The boy didn't make a peep.
This went on for some time, and the chaplain began to worry that he really needed to ring the bell to gather the rest of the children for the carol service. With the boy looking so fearful, he didn't want to pull him out of his little blanketed cave by sheer force. So he did the only thing he could think to do: he got down on his stomach and wriggled partway under the bed, mussing up his clothes in the process. He kept talking to the boy, going on about the good things that waited if only he came out from under the bed. Finally, he was quiet, hoping that the smell of the fresh-baked gingerbread cookies or the laughter of the other kids would cast the boy's fear aside. Patient silence. And then it happened: the boy took the chaplain's hand crawled out from his safe haven and into the circle of celebration.
The miracle of Christmas, the mystery of incarnation, is right there if we're paying attention. God meets us where we are. If we are hiding under the bed, God will shimmy up alongside us and offer us an invitation to come into the light. Through Christ Jesus, God "came to dwell with us in our loneliness and alienation."
No sorrow is outside of his reach. No shame is beyond his forgiveness.
Tonight the angels are singing on high. The message is this: "Do not be afraid. I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord." Do not let the beauty of the candles and carols overshadow the radical hope that is cradled in that mangy manger. In Christ we are reconciled and redeemed. In Christ the love of God is offered to us not despite of—but because of—our needy broken selves. It is in that divine hope in the midst of human hopelessness that we find the fullness of our Christmas joy. In is in that good news we find the beauty of this night.
May you welcome the Christ with all that you have and all that you are. Hallelujah and amen.