December 23, 2018

Advent 4   December 23, 2018   Psalm 98, Isaiah 52:7-10, Hebrews 1:1-4,

Luke 2:1-20          How beautiful are the feet

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Long ago, the letter to the Hebrews reminds us, God spoke to us through the prophets. God still speaks through the prophets – especially, in this season of Advent, through the prophet Isaiah – whose scroll the early church sometimes called “the fifth gospel.” The prophet Isaiah proclaims “how beautiful are the feet of the messenger… who – announces peace – who brings good news – who announces salvation…”

But in these last days, Hebrews says, God has spoken to us by his Son – whom he has appointed heir of all things – through whom he has created all the worlds. Which is one very big download. No wonder sometimes we’re a little slow…in  figuring out how best to be messengers of… God’s stupendous grace…

It’s difficult to visualize God’s peace unfolding in this war-torn world. Hard to picture God’s good news triumphing over all the world’s bad news… God’s full salvation prevailing over the world’s despair…

Yet in this darkest time of the year we are reminded – God’s ways are different from our ways. As the Son of God Most High is born to a young unwed mother in the lowliest of circumstances. No room in Bethlehem for the Son of God to be born… except a stable. Where his mother lays him in a manger for his cradle. And… some time… late in the middle of that night…A band of shepherds, strangers to Mary and Joseph, glimpsing, perhaps, light shining dimly in the stable… Enter… and quietly draw near… to see this child wrapped in bands of cloth… lying in a manger…The child of whom they’ve heard angels speak… And sing…

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The Christmas story is still so very strange and beautiful…

But often the story gets so mixed together with the mythologies of the commercial Christmas season… that the story sounds either so long-ago-far-away… or so overly familiar in not-very-beautiful-ways… that the story becomes hard to hear…Hard to find our part in.

Unless – we’re young, pregnant, poor, about to give birth…

Or homeless, not sure where we’ll lay our head tonight…

Or accustomed to long, searching, silent conversation with God…

Or used to noticing the merest whisper of God’s Spirit…

Used to God leading us in strange directions…

If any of this is part of our experience… Maybe we can identify with Mary and Joseph…

Or…perhaps if we’re a night-shift worker used to being outside at night for long hours… A night watchman… a fishermen or sea-farer out at sea… a police man or woman on night patrol… Perhaps if we’re used to looking up in the night sky a lot… Listening… to every shift in wind and weather…

We can identify with the shepherds… Watching flocks by night.

But for most of us Christmas can be a difficult time to hear the genuine Christmas story… Unless some how the story catches us by surprise…

And we find ourselves… anew… caught up… in the story.

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I’ve prayed and read the Christmas story…Sung the songs of Christmas… many times these past few weeks getting ready… Still I’ve found myself far more often than I had hoped… suffering various forms of seasonally-affected-dysfunctionality.

Which is not a new problem for me. And fortunately, I’ve found places and routines where I can go for help…

Every day I walk and pray… And often I pull out again my copy of Thomas Merton’s book Raids on the Unspeakable, and turn to the chapter where it is written: “Into this world, this demented inn in which there is absolutely no room for him at all, Christ comes uninvited.”

Thank you Thomas Merton. I need to hear these words again, and be reminded – it’s just not my imagination. This world really is demented – and deeply inhospitable to Jesus and the Holy Family. And – I am a part of the world.

I need to hear Thomas Merton’s words again every year, to remind myself… I too, though by grace a child of God… am also still very much part of this dysfunctional broken world… in which there is no room for Christ…

And this is not at all a close comparison, but – I’ve been noticing – even the Holy Family needs to hear words of consolation and confirmation when they’re at risk of feeling out of place…

So God sends shepherds – to go and share the message that they’ve heard from angels on high… And let Mary and Joseph know… they are in the right place… doing the right thing…  And…

The shepherds fulfill their holy mission – as they tell Mary and Joseph – (and neighbors who also come to greet the baby) – this holy child is sent from God. Telling those gathered… all the angels have said to them about this child…

And even Mary, mother of Jesus, who has spoken with the angel Gabriel face-to-face and heard God’s angel assure her the child to be born to her will be holy… called the Son of God… Mary, who has also heard her Spirit-filled relative Elizabeth testify to Mary’s blessedness and faithfulness – even Mary, most favored among women, seems to need to hear yet again… that what she’s been going through and experiencing is not a dream… It’s real – and blessed, entirely, by God. And again, the echo of the analogy is to be heard only very faintly and from a great distance, spiritually, but…

This week I found myself close to breaking down with anger and irritation and tears one afternoon at Walmart… (a place I call ‘gateway to purgatory)…

Where, for what seemed like hours, I’d searched…and waited and waited… for a missing family member… lost somewhere in the holiday crowds… I had been hoping this stop would be short and we could get on to the next stop quickly; do our weekly shopping… and I could get home soon, out of the grip of the-industrial-Christmas-shopping-industry… But I kept waiting and waiting… Paging the missing one… Till finally… we found each other and we left and drove home… Where I dropped my better two-thirds off, and went on to Market Basket by myself… Tired and grumpy…

I completed the grocery shopping, finally….Then, at the check-out line, as my groceries were starting to move on the conveyor belt… The young woman (I’d guess 15 or 16 years old) working the cash register suddenly started singing aloud, full voice, with the ever-present seasonal Christmas-hyphenated-shopping music. Catching the attention of other staff and shoppers around her…

And thinking that she might be making fun of the song, I said “don’t you get tired of hearing the same music over and over again this time of year?” She said “that was actually the first time I heard that song today – and it was so good I couldn’t help but groove with it…” Then, while she was ringing up my purchases, she asked, as if she somehow already knew my story –  “so what’s been something good in your life today?”

And, only a little surprised, I said truthfully, “well, it’s been a grumpy day for me. The morning was fine…But I’ve had several small seasonal explosions this afternoon…over at Walmart, shopping with my family…  So I  decided I better do the rest of the shopping alone… But, hey, that’s done. And we’re all forgiven. And it will be fine by the time I get home.”

Then, after making my confession…and a little curious now, about how this conversation got started… I asked her, “So – what’s the best thing that’s happened to you today?” And she said “it’s been a good day for me…” And I said, “Ok – but I asked  – what’s the best thing that’s happened to you today?” And she said without missing a beat “having you in my line.”

I laughed aloud… And said…  “I bet you say that to all the guys.” Now we both laughed. But now… I felt better. Like – grace has been restored.

And sure enough there were hugs, warm greetings, and supper waiting when I got home… And next evening Rohi and I baked eight pans of dinner rolls together, an adventure that provoked many smiles, even some hilarious laughter…

As now I could begin imagining myself back into the story… As Zechariah, first, getting his voice back, after confirming his wife’s faithfulness… Identifying, now, even a little with Mary and Elizabeth, visiting together, in beloved community. Remembering that morning going with Reah and Rohi to Bourne Manor, meeting Joanne Jensen, our pianist there, for our monthly worship service. Remembering now many smiles as we read the Christmas story and sang Christmas songs…  and real joy in the eyes of those singing with us… Songs and story so familiar… Yet still new and beautiful…

Funny how even just one slightly silly but seriously sensitive word… can be enough… to get me back into the story… even retroactively… Remembering visits  at the Falmouth hospital and Royal Megansett nursing home…again singing Christmas carols and praying… Songs taking on new life now…

In one visit a parishioner was fast asleep… But it was almost lunch time…(and she’d been asleep the time before and she’s asleep a lot now… And for all I know, she may not wake up again… So I sang softly…. figuring she may hear the words and melody in her sleep… as she dreams with God…)

Another parishioner was awake but tired… as I sang… After a verse of three or four songs she slowly began to sing along… Gradually remembering more… and yet a little more… of the words of old familiar songs… By the time we got to O Little Town of Bethlehem… she was singing a little louder, remembering… more of the words… By the time we got to Joy to the World she knew nearly all the words… and was lifting up her voice…with joy beginning to show…

And I’m realizing now… I’ve learned to sing the songs patiently… because someone has sung them patiently to me…

So…often… when I’m tired, cranky, and feeling like a grinch… Our daughter will start singing Christmas songs… Once this week I heard her singing –

Thou didst leave Thy throne and Thy kingly crown – When Thou camest to earth for me; But in Bethlehem’s home was there found no room For Thy holy nativity.

O come to my heart Lord Jesus – there’s room in my heart for thee

And where there wasn’t any room a few minutes ago… Now there is…

How beautiful are the feet of the messengers who bring good news.

Thanks be to God. Amen.