December 18, 2016 – A child has been born for us

Advent 4   December 18, 2016    Psalm 98, Isaiah 9:2-7, Luke 2:1-20  

A child has been born for us

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The Christmas story is so very familiar… we can sometimes need a little jolt… to be able to really hear it… (And this is part of the story…)

The angel Gabriel surprises the elderly priest Zechariah in the temple in the first scene of Luke’s gospel, saying “do not be afraid – I bring good news – a son’s on the way for you and your wife Elizabeth.’ Zechariah knows all the stories of what God can do. He’s been praying for a son for many years. But now he’s so terrified by the angel that he can’t believe the angel’s words.

Months later, the same angel Gabriel appears to Mary, a young woman in the small village of Nazareth, telling her she will be the mother of a child to be named Jesus, who will inherit the throne of his ancestor King David, and of his reign there will be no end. He will be called Son of God…And by the way, Mary – this will happen before you get married, through the power of God’s Holy Spirit… (And Mary is left to ponder the angel’s words…)

Sometime after this, in Matthew’s gospel, we’re told her fiancee Joseph has also been pondering… And now he’s about to call the whole thing off – when an angel appears to him in a dream-like-vision, telling him ‘not to worry – the child to be born of Mary is holy – go ahead and marry her.’ Which he does…

And I’m sometimes struck by how much the Christmas story depends on angels….As now a mighty angel appears to shepherds watching their flocks by night… giving the same “Do not be afraid” greeting the angel also gave Zechariah and Mary…

And all these scenes from the gospel story are so familiar… I seldom pause to consider: What happens to the story… if we don’t believe in angels?

I don’t think that was much of an issue for people in earlier times…. The reality of angels was not even regarded as a serious question… And perhaps angel appearances were more frequent… and more obvious… in days of old.

I still believe angels are real…But I certainly don’t claim to understand them well at all…But I do know the word “angel” is literally “messenger” in the Hebrew. And in both the Old and New Testaments, lines are sometimes a little blurry between human and divine messengers… The patriarch Jacob wrestles all night with somebody first called a man, then called God, then (in Hosea) called an angel. And the two dressed in dazzling white at the tomb of Jesus in Luke are called men first, then angels… (Many other examples come to mind, but…)

Remember, again the familiar setting of the Christmas story…

In the days when Augustus Caesar was Emperor, and Quirinius governor over the Roman province of Syria, a decree when out for all the world to be registered for taxation. Mary and Joseph then journey 70-some miles from their home in the northern village of Nazareth of Galilee, to Bethlehem, home town of King David of whom Joseph is descended, to be registered…

And the time came for Mary to give birth, and there was no room in the inn. And the child is born in a stable – probably the lower end of a crowded homestead, where animals bedded down. Baby Jesus wrapped in bands of cloth to keep warm, resting in the animal’s feeding trough…

The angel has told Mary her son would inherit the throne of his ancestor King David and rule over the house of Jacob forever…  But here’s royal David’s great-great-great grandson (a thousand years after David), born in a stable with no place to call home…

And there’s no palace press release for this royal birth. No pictures of this royal family on the front cover of People or Time.

But to certain poor shepherds in fields where they lay… The angel of the Lord appears.

And the shepherds are terrified…. Though perhaps after they’ve heard the angel say (yet again–) “Do not be afraid – for see, I bring good news of great joy for all the people – to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, the Messiah, the Lord…” perhaps fears subside. Perhaps now the angel speaks in a softer, gentler voice saying, “And this will the sign for you – you’ll find the baby wrapped in cloth, lying in a manger.” (Most babies were wrapped in cloth like this. That would not be unique. But probably not many were to be found lying in mangers…)

Then all the heavenly chorus of angels joins in, singing!  (The bible doesn’t say they were singing – but the angel message surely calls for singing:)  “Glory to God in the highest heaven and on earth peace among those whom he favors!” So I imagine angels we have heard on high singing – “Glooooooria… in excelcis deo…”

And shepherds sing back, “Hark! The herald angels sing, glory to the new born king.

And shepherds and angels sing together, “Peace on earth and mercy mild, God and sinners reconciled…”

And this is King David’s home town after all – these shepherds surely know David was a shepherd boy before he was a king. And they know they’re carrying on the line of work as their ancestors, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, all of them shepherds. So they know what’s expected when an angel of God speaks…

And they’re off, in a flash, to Bethlehem, to find the holy infant. (Which probably wasn’t hard to do in little Bethlehem – an ‘Our Town’ kind of small village where word travels very fast.) And when they find the holy family, and the babe lying in a manger– the shepherds understand – this is no time to be shy about sharing the good news. No time to worry about neighbors thinking we might be a little out of our mind. This is a time to do just exactly what the angels say – and spread the good news far and wide… Remembering the words of the prophet Isaiah:  For a child has been born for us.

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A child indeed has been born for us… People who have walked in darkness have seen a great light.

But we also know – many still walk in darkness today. Many still suffer horrific violence and terrible oppression. How then can we hear the good news of Christ’s birth today? How can we tell the story as good news?

And the word I’m hearing… is mostly about good listening…

Our daughter Rohi’s been taking piano lessons. She’ll be playing two Christmas songs in her teacher Tatsiana’s recital this afternoon. Part of her assignment’s been to give some background on the carols she’ll be playing. So I got to help her research It Came upon the Midnight Clear. Wherein I’ve been reminded – we’re not the first to ponder the paradox of malignant violence even among what have been considered Christian nations… There’s an original verse of the hymn, left out of our Methodist hymnal, that says it like this:

But with the woes of sin and strife – The world has suffered long;

Beneath the angel-strain have rolled – Two thousand years of wrong;

And man, at war with man, hears not – The love-song, which they bring:

O hush the noise, ye men of strife, And hear the angels sing!

Jesus and his family know the works of men of strife. Know the suffering of this world. King Herod tries to kill Jesus, soon after his birth. Joseph is told by an angel to flee to Egypt til Herod is dead. Jesus knows the suffering of refugees – caught between warring empires of this world…

And though the Prince of Peace’s reign of peace is clearly not all the way here yet… Still God sends angels of peace… Most of whom now seem to their work unseen, unheralded… Quietly bringing their songs and messages of peace… into the deep hidden depths of human life…

Now and then we may catch a glimpse…or hear a saving word.  If we’re listening.

I remember once, decades ago, sitting, talking in a bar with friends at

a farmers meeting… and a friend telling me, late at night, about a time when he was feeling very down… He’d gone through divorce, almost lost the farm. One night he put a gun to his mouth, and was about to squeeze the trigger… When, he said, “I heard a voice say, ‘Put the gun away.’ There was no one there. But the voice was clear as can be,” he said. And he did…

More recently I heard a story from a parishioner about a doctor, a friend, who as a young man had graduated at the top of his class in one of the nation’s best schools of medicine. He had his choice of any hospital in the country to intern in… He was trying to discern at the time whether to be a surgeon (more money and prestige) or a pediatrician. He chose to do his internship at one of the top hospitals in New York City….

He had a patient, a young girl, in very serious condition, with an infection that resisted all treatment… The young doctor tried everything. Senior doctors he consulted tried also. Nothing worked. The child’s system was shutting down…

He called the child’s parents and told them they should come very soon to  see their daughter. Things are not looking good. ‘Is it that serious doctor? Bad enough that we should call a priest? (They were Greek or Russian Orthodox, as I recall.) ‘Yes, call the priest,’ he said.

As he was about to doze off (interns famously work hundred-hour-weeks, he’d been sleepless for two nights) a man dressed in black, wearing a priest’s hat, with a big grey beard, looking the perfect image of an Orthodox priest, came in through the hospital doors, and asked “what room is she in?” The doctor and several nurses told him the room number… The man went to the room. The doctor dozed off…

Early in the morning the girl’s parents woke him with a phone call. “She’s sitting up crying because she’s hungry and she wants potato chips. Didn’t you said she was dying? You said she might not make it. She’s sitting up, crying… for potato chips…”

‘I don’t know what happened,’ the young doctor said. ‘The last I knew the priest you called was going in to see her.’

“But we didn’t call the priest…”

A review of the sign-in sheet at the front desk showed no names at the hour the man had entered… The video camera at the hospital entrance didn’t show the priest coming in… ‘If it was just me who had seen him,’ the doctor said, ‘I’d say I might have been dreaming – given my lack of sleep… But – the nurses saw him too…’

And the young doctor heard this as a sign. He became a pediatrician…not a surgeon. And yes, he’s a person of faith… and a research scientist with excellent credentials…

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Most of our angel visitations are not as dramatic as those of Mary and Joseph, Zechariah, and the shepherds. Or this doctor. Or my farmer friend…

But be very assured – God’s messengers are still on duty… Even if often unrecognized. (Often serving incognito.)

And God will keep his angels watching over us…

And we need to do our part. And like the shepherds, keep telling the story of the coming to birth of Jesus Christ… Keep telling the story with all the hope, faith, and love that reside deep in this story… till all the world will finally hear and heed…

And live according to the angel’s words –

Serving this holy child… Of whom the prophets speak…

Of whom the angels testify…

Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God… Prince of Peace…

Savior, Messiah, Lord…

Jesus Christ, Son of God, child of God, sent from God – born for us…

Thanks be to God. Amen.

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Call to Worship   Psalm 98

O sing to the Lord a new song, for he has done marvelous things.

His right hand and his holy arm have gotten him victory.

The Lord has made known his victory;

he has revealed his vindication in the sight of the nations.

He has remembered his steadfast love and faithfulness to the house of Israel.

All the ends of the earth have seen the victory of our God.

Make a joyful noise to the Lord, all the earth;

break forth into joyous song and sing praises.

Sing praises to the Lord with the lyre, with the lyre and the sound of melody.

With trumpets and the sound of the horn make a joyful noise before the King, the Lord.

Let the sea roar, and all that fills it; the world and those who live in it.

Let the floods clap their hands;

let the hills sing together for joy at the presence of the Lord,

for he is coming to judge the earth.

He will judge the world with righteousness, and the peoples with equity.

Isaiah 9:2-7

The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness— on them light has shined. You have multiplied the nation, you have increased its joy; they rejoice before you as with joy at the harvest, as people exult when dividing plunder. For the yoke of their burden, and the bar across their shoulders, the rod of their oppressor, you have broken as on the day of Midian. For all the boots of the tramping warriors and all the garments rolled in blood shall be burned as fuel for the fire. For a child has been born for us, a son given to us; authority rests upon his shoulders; and he is named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. His authority shall grow continually, and there shall be endless peace for the throne of David and his kingdom. He will establish and uphold it with justice and with righteousness from this time onward and forevermore. The zeal of the Lord of hosts will do this.

Luke 2:1-7

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 Syria. All went to their own towns to be registered. Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, 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.

Luke 2:8-20

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 Savior, 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 favors!”

When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go now to Bethlehem 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.