Sunday, December 30, 2007

Christmas 1A

Isaiah 61:10-62:3; Psalm 147:13-21; Galatians 3:23-25; 4:4-7; John 1:1-18

It was uncommonly like Nothing. There were no stars. It was so dark that they couldn’t see one another at all and it made no difference whether you kept your eyes shut or opened. Under their feet there was a cool, flat something which might have been earth…The air was cold and dry and there was no wind.

In the middle of a chapter, in the middle of a book, in the middle of his beloved series, C.S. Lewis tells the story of the beginning of the land of Narnia. Two children, Digory and Polly, have found themselves in the middle of the darkness at the beginning of a world being made.

In the darkness something was happening at last. A voice had begun to sing…Sometimes it seemed to come from all directions at once. Sometimes [it seemed to come] out of the earth beneath them. Its lower notes were deep enough to be the voice of the earth herself. There were no words. There was hardly even a tune. But it was, beyond comparison, the most beautiful noise [Digory] had ever heard. It was so beautiful he could hardly bear it.

When last the Church gathered as communities of faith, in the star-bright darkness of Christmas Eve, we raised our voices to sing with angels and archangels and with all the company of heaven and earth, Joy to the world, the Lord is come! We rejoiced in the middle of the darkness at the beginning of a world being made new as a newborn baby on a silent and holy night.

Today we gather to continue our celebration of that blessed birth, to mark the midpoint of the season of Christmas, to keep singing the beautiful beyond comparison carols that let us adore him, to linger a little longer in the stable where good news of great joy awaits…

But there is no stable in the story we hear today. There are no shepherds, no swaddling clothes, no manger, no Mary. John’s gospel has no nativity. But it does have a beginning…

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. It doesn’t sound like the story pictured on greeting cards from friends, or presented by children in glitter and bathrobes, or portrayed by the family heirloom figurines of Mary and Joseph and all the rest. In this story, Jesus doesn’t look like a baby. It doesn’t feel like Christmas.

Instead, John invites us to go back to the beginning of the story, before there even were a heaven and nature to sing. The Church, by placing this gospel reading on the Sunday following Christmas, invites us to go back to that beginning from right here where we stand at the manger, gazing down at the child in whom is mingled divinity and DNA. For every twinkle in his dark eyes, every crease in his tiny fingers, every soft hair on his sweet head contains not only his human life but the life that is the light of all people. This little one who has come into being is the one through whom all things came into being. In the glow of a stable lamp lies the light that shines in the darkness, which the darkness did not overcome.

In the beginning was the Word…The Reverend Mary Morrison writes, “We are invited to let the words roll over us, like waves of music. We love to hear them, even though we may not be too sure about what they mean.” The beginning of John’s gospel is a song weaving together the ancient harmonies of creation with a new melody of incarnation. The words are not as simple as those we heard on Christmas Eve, To you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah. And this will be a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger. John’s words are not as simple, but as surely as Mary held her baby in her arms, so does John’s gospel hold the Word made flesh who lived among us, as one of us, so that we might learn to live with God.

And as the rest of John’s gospel, his telling of the story of the good news of Jesus Christ…as the rest of John’s gospel unfolds, it elaborates the theme and swells the sound of all that was said and done in the beginning. Frederick Buechner notes that the Hebrew word dabar means both “word” and “deed,” such that to say something really is to do something. When we speak, that which was contained, hidden, in our hearts and minds is given substance and released into the world, like stones thrown into a pool where the concentric circles lap out endlessly, he writes. Let there be light, God said, and there was light, rippling its way toward this very morning when the sun rose and our day began.

So it is with the Word who was with God, the Word who was God, the Word who became flesh and dwelled among us, full of grace and truth. In the vast and mysterious and wonderful and intimate stories of creation and of Christmas, the Word is not only God’s expression of light and life and love but also God’s active agent of light and life and love. No one has ever seen God, John wrote. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made God known.

Making God known to all the world was what the baby sleeping in Mary’s arms would grow up to do. Making God known to all the world was what he would ask those who believed in him to do. Making God known to all the world is what we are called to do, we who are the Body of Christ, we who through Christ are close to the Father’s heart. The light of life is kindled in us, so that we might shine in a world that is so often dark and cold and dry. The song of love is stirred in us, so that we might sing in a world that is so often deaf to compassion and mercy.

Then two wonders happened at once, C.S. Lewis continues with his story. One was that the voice was suddenly joined by other voices; more voices than you could possibly count. They were in harmony with it, but far higher up the scale: cold, tingling, silvery voices. The second wonder was that the blackness overhead, all at once, was blazing with stars. They didn’t come out gently, one by one, as they do on a summer evening. One moment there had been nothing but darkness; next moment a thousand, thousand points of light leaped out…If you had seen and heard it, as Digory did, you would have felt quite certain that it was the stars themselves who were singing, and that it was the First Voice, the deep one, which had made them appear and made them sing.

By the light that dawns in the newborn world of Narnia, Digory and Polly see such glory, as of a father’s only son. They see that the First Voice, the Singer of the song of creation, is none other than Aslan, the great lion whose presence at the beginning of all things brings light and life, whose sacrifice in the middle will demonstrate the depth to which love will go, and whose living again will make a new beginning of life and put an end to darkness.

This Christmas, for we are still gathered at the stable illumined by lamps and stars and the Light of the World, let us lend our voices to sing with those who tell the story of Emmanuel, God-with-us. May our song bring light where there is darkness, love where there is coldness, joy where there is silence. In the words of one of our beautiful beyond comparison Christmas carols:

Of the Father’s love begotten, ere the worlds began to be,
He is Alpha and Omega, he the source, the ending he,
Of the things that are, that have been, and that future years shall see,
Evermore and evermore.

Sunday, December 23, 2007

Advent 4A

Isaiah 7:10-17; Psalm 80:1-7, 16-18; Romans 1:1-7; Matthew 1:18-25

“I can’t believe that,” said Alice.

“Can’t you?” the Queen said in a pitying tone. “Try again: draw a long breath, and shut your eyes.”

Alice laughed. “There’s no use trying,” she said. “One can’t believe impossible things.”

“I daresay you haven’t had much practice,” said the Queen. “When I was your age, I always did it for half-an-hour a day. Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.”

Six impossible things before breakfast… It’s not such a stretch at this time a year, is it? We have to believe at least six impossible things each day just to make it through to the next day. I will get all the gifts wrapped in time, I will bake a batch of cookies that doesn’t burn on the bottom, I will get the house cleaned for our guests, I will remember all the groceries so I don’t have to go to the store on Christmas Eve…

It hardly seems possible, but Christmas is just two days away. Can you believe it? In just two days we will hear the angel choirs and smell the sweet hay and see the Savior of the world lying in a manger. In just two days we will gaze with Mary at the baby and ponder the words of the shepherds in our hearts. In just two days we will stand with Joseph and…well, stand there.

In just two days we will read again from the gospel of Luke that most familiar of Christmas stories, in which heavenly light shines on angels and shepherds and mothers and babies but never on Joseph. He is present only as a shadow might be present at the edge of the glory of God. He is in every scene, but with no speaking roles, unless he’s the one who asks if there is room for himself and his weary wife at the inn. And yet, none of the story would have been possible without him.

This morning we read from the gospel of Matthew a far less familiar Christmas story. Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way. In this story, heavenly light shines on Joseph alone, while Mary and an angel move in the shadows on the edge of his scenes. Suddenly, that figure from our nativity sets whom we usually mistake for another shepherd has a life and a spirit and a voice of his own – he still has no lines, but Joseph’s actions in this Christmas story speak volumes.

“I can’t believe that,” Joseph might have said to Mary, when she told him an impossible to believe tale about how she came to be pregnant. “Can’t you?” she might have responded, pleading. “Try again: draw a long breath and shut your eyes.” But then Joseph would only have sighed sadly and said, “There’s no use trying. One can’t believe impossible things.”

Joseph and Mary were betrothed to one another, a commitment that was far more legally significant than our engagements are today. Mary’s pregnancy, which Joseph only knew was not his doing, would have brought shame upon them both. Her family would not have accepted her back, forcing her to earn her living and raise her illegitimate child on the streets. And that was the best case scenario – according to the law, she might be stoned to death for her unfaithfulness.

What a mess. One day Joseph is happily going about his work as a carpenter, dreaming of the home he will build for his wife-to-be, dreaming of the life they will build together. When he wakes up the next day, she’s pregnant, his trust is betrayed, his name is ruined, his livelihood is threatened, his future is uncertain. Joseph has every right to cast Mary out into the street, but Matthew tells us he is a man of deep compassion, a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, and so he decides to divorce her quietly, to separate himself from the mess.

Joseph’s sleep must have been fitful that night, filled with dreams of shadows and stones. But as he tossed and turned, an angel appeared to him and whispered an earful of impossible things for him to practice believing before he ate breakfast. Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid. The baby she carries is of the Holy Spirit. You will name him Jesus, which means “God saves”. Your son will save people from their sins.

At the heart of Matthew’s Christmas story is a good man who wakes up to a wrecked life. He looks at the mess he had nothing to do with creating, and he must decide whether to believe his dreams, to believe his wife, to believe God. The Reverend Barbara Brown Taylor wonders, “Will he believe the impossible and give [the tiny, helpless, powerful, vulnerable Savior] a home, or will he stick with what makes sense and let the miracle go hungry?”

Things were a mess for King Ahaz in our reading from Isaiah. The kingdom of Judah was in imminent danger of being overtaken by the powerful Assyrian army. Other smaller nations were urging King Ahaz to join forces with them against the Assyrians, but Isaiah counseled him to have faith in God’s power to deliver Judah instead. In a rare move, God personally offers Ahaz a sign that all will be well – before a newborn baby grows old enough to eat solid foods, the kingdom of Judah will be safe.

It is true for all of us, isn’t it, that life can get terribly messy. Like Joseph and his wife Mary (who, remember, utters a bewildered “How can this be?” when an angel announces the role God hoped she would accept)…Like Joseph and Mary and King Ahaz, we are daily presented with circumstances beyond our control, lives we never would have chosen, messes we can’t possibly clean up alone. We need a helper. We need a cleaning service. We need a savior.

Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins. Six impossible things to believe before breakfast. It was going to get messier before it got any easier, if it would ever be easy at all to be the adopted father, the legal guardian of God. But Matthew tells us, When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took Mary as his wife…and she bore a son; and he named him Jesus. Jesus, the Greek translation of the Hebrew name Joshua, which means “God saves.”

In this season of expectation, of waiting for Emmanuel, God-with-us, of waiting for God to come into our messiness, we learn from prophets and angels and dreams, we learn from the stories of King Ahaz and Joseph, that God is already here. God is already here, strengthening, supporting, protecting, calling us to enter the mess faithfully, knowing that God is with us.

We also learn, though, that God comes to save us in, and not necessarily from, the messes that we make and that get made all around us. God saves us by calling us to believe the impossible – that God’s love is stronger than death, that God’s peace is more powerful than chaos, that God’s light shines in the darkness and the darkness will not overcome it.

In the messy Middle Ages, Julian of Norwich dreamed of God, and she wrote, “The words ‘You will not be overcome’ were said very sharply and very powerfully as a security and a comfort to be used in any tribulation that may come. God did not say, ‘You will not be troubled’ or ‘You will not have bitter labor’ or ‘You will have no discomfort,’ but ‘You will not be overcome.’ God wills that we pay attention to this word and that we be ever strong in faithful trust, in well-being and woe. For God loves us and delights in us, and wills that, in the same way, we love and delight and strongly trust in God – and all shall be well.”

The season of Advent all along has been about God coming to be with us, not just once wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger but every day of our lives, calling us to believe that with God, all things are possible, as Jesus told John the Baptist in our gospel reading last Sunday: the blind see, the deaf hear, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the dead are raised. With God all things are possible. Is it possible that we might say yes to God? That we might, like Joseph, have the courage to embrace the messiness of life, adopt it as our own, and rock it tenderly in our arms?

As we approach the little town of Bethlehem and make our way toward the stable, may we risk getting messy, may we believe the impossible, may we hold our dreams close, may we draw a long breath and shut our eyes and listen for the angels who whisper day and night in our ears, “Do not be afraid. God is here. It may not be the life you planned, but God may be born here, too, if you will permit it. And you will call his name Jesus, ‘God saves.’” Amen.

Sunday, December 02, 2007

Advent 1A, Part 2

On the real first Sunday in Advent, I preached at Episcopal Church of the Advent in Sumner. Little Charlie and I stayed Saturday night in Greenwood, where he treated Mary Dent and me to his own version of the Nutcracker. Of course, it consisted entirely of the battle between the Nutcracker and the Rat King.

Isaiah 2:1-5; Psalm 122; Romans 13:8-14; Matthew 24:37-44

Keep awake, therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming. Really, Jesus? We know exactly when you’re coming. Turn on the TV, open the newspaper, tune in the radio and it’s right there: “Only 22 shopping days left until Christmas!” We know exactly when you’re coming. Or is it when Santa is coming…

The shelves have been stocked with Santas and snowflakes and Christmas stars since, when, Labor Day? We’ve been surrounded by sleigh bells for so long that surely we’d have arrived at the stable by now. But when Advent finally arrives, the readings seem to lead us toward the parousia, the second coming of Christ in power and great glory, rather than toward his first coming at Bethlehem, in humility and deep darkness.

The Latin word adventus means “coming”. And yet, despite the calendars that mark the season, Advent is not at all about counting the days until the baby is born or counting the days until he returns. This briefest of seasons looks back (even as we are looking forward!) to God’s coming into the world to make a home here, and it also looks forward to God’s coming into the world to take us home. But the Latin, adventus, means more nearly a coming that is imminent than a coming that is 22 days away, let alone generations away. And so this season is mostly about the gazillion advents that take place between the beginning of the story of Emmanuel, God-with-us, and the end. It is about God coming into the world, into our lives, each and every day, in expected and unexpected ways, in anticipated and unanticipated moments.

My aunt tells about an airplane flight she took from Alaska back to her home in the southwest. It was dark when the flight took off, and she closed her eyes but found she couldn’t sleep. So she settled herself as best she could to see out the window, where a brilliant full moon was casting its light across the clouds. After a while, she looked across the row of seats to the window on the other side of the plane and saw something she did not expect. The light over there was purple and pink and orange and gold. The sun was rising. My aunt says she was filled with wonder at the possibility of being in that exact place where night and day meet, and that she wanted to run up and down the aisle and shout at everyone, “Wake up! Everyone, wake up! If you don’t wake up, you’ll miss this moment!”

Both Matthew and Paul were just as eager to shout, “Everyone, wake up!” at the believers in their communities. When Matthew was writing his account of the good news, the earliest Christians believed Jesus would return within their lifetime, and so they urged one another to be prepared. Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour. By the time Paul was corresponding with church communities throughout the Mediterranean, the urgency had begun to shift from expecting Christ’s imminent return to expecting a much longer wait in a world that seemed hostile toward hope. If Jesus had already come in humility and deep darkness, and was not coming back any time soon in power and great glory, what were the faithful to do?

They weren’t to count down the days. In the verses just before our gospel passage begins, Jesus says that not even he knows when he will return. Instead of counting, writes Paul, in this in-between time when the night is far gone and the day is near, we are to love one another. The coming of God into the world through the law could be summed up in the single commandment to love one another. What are the faithful to do while they wait for Christ to come? Now is the moment for you to wake from sleep…Let us then lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armor of light…Put on the Lord Jesus Christ, Love come down, Emmanuel, Love-with-us. Another preacher has said, “One does not have to wait for something out of the ordinary [like announcements from angels or airplane rides through daybreak]. The all-important thing is to keep your eyes on what comes from God [which is to say, Love] and to make way for it to come into being here on the earth.”

Light and darkness are familiar to us as images of Advent. We light candles in anticipation of the birth of a baby on a dark, silent night, the birth of light in a dark, noisy world. Darkness is something of an ambiguous image in this season – in it is danger and shelter, unease and stillness, anxiety and courage, death and newborn life. We are accustomed, exhausted, perhaps, from walking the Christmas aisles at Walmart, to settling gratefully under the mantle of Advent darkness to wait for the day of the Lord to come.

But today, on the first Sunday in Advent, Jesus calls us to wakefulness and action, to attentiveness and preparedness, to love. Not the sentiment of love that drops a few coins in the bell-ringer’s bucket, but, as my aunt says, a “steely, resolved love” that walks into the darkness with God, intent on illumination. Advent is the season in which we are called to live urgently as the church, practicing mercy and forgiveness and comfort and peace. To open our eyes in the darkness and see – and be – a great light. When we wait in this way, as the Body of Christ, walking the path of God’s vision for the world, we will find that God has already come. God has been here all along, coming into the world over and again in unexpected ways and at unexpected moments and through unexpected people, including us. And in all of those “advents”, those comings of Christ, from the day of Incarnation to this Sunday morning, from tomorrow straight through to the last day, the light steadily grows. There is still deep darkness, but Love like silver stars is enlightening, charting the way toward dawn.

Our readings today, then, are not about the first advent or the second advent of Christ, but rather they are about a God who comes. A God who loves. A God, our God, to whom darkness is not dark, to whom night is bright as day. When our consumer culture has us looking 22 days ahead, when our end of the year reports are looming, when exams are around the corner, when Christmas cards haven’t been sent, when travel plans haven’t been finalized, when bills are piling up, when calendars are overflowing with obligations, the season of Advent calls us to stop and be awake, to watch, to see how God comes into the world each day, as surely as the sun rises. The season of Advent calls us to love as God has loved us, enough to walk into the darkness bringing light.

Keep awake, therefore, for you do not know on which day your Lord is coming. Really, Jesus? We know exactly when you are coming. We know that you are here now, for you promise to come whenever two or three are gathered in your name. We know that you are here whenever we love one another, not the sentimental kind of love but that steely, resolved love that sees you in all people, especially the most unexpected. Besides this, we know what time it is, how it is now the moment for us to wake from sleep. Now is the time for us to go up and down the aisle, up and down the sidewalks, up and down the hallways and highways shouting to everyone, “Don’t miss it! Don’t sleep through, or shop through, or sorrow through, or skip through the marvelous moment of love when night meets day, when the light of the world comes upon a midnight clear.” Now is the time to watch for the ways God loves us and comes to us each and every day, and for the ways God comes to others through our love. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we became believers; the night is far gone, the day is near. Let us then lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armor of light.

O come, thou Dayspring from on high, and cheer us by thy drawing nigh. Disperse the gloomy clouds of night, and death’s dark shadow put to flight. Rejoice, rejoice, Emmanuel shall come to thee, O Israel!