Sunday, December 25, 2011

Christmas Day - December 25, 2011 (Isaiah 52:7-10 and John 1:1-14)

“How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of the messenger who announces peace, who brings good news!”

On the weeks leading up to Christmas we love the sound of the doorbell at our house. It doesn’t get rung too often during the rest of the year, but these days it’s more common, and the chime of the bell means one thing: the UPS delivery man has done it again. A messenger who brings good news: there is a package—or maybe more!—on our front step. No matter how quick we are to respond, the delivery man is usually already off the porch before we arrive at the door. We catch a glimpse of him scurrying back to his vehicle, bounding into the driver’s seat, on to the next stop, on to the next doorbell. In his wake, our excitement is just beginning. We bring them in, squirrel them away in secret, and wait for the proper time to wrap and then open them. The doorbell is kind of a fun by-product to on-line shopping.

And what a job: to deliver the presents, to deliver the news! Of course, if you are receiving a package from the Martin family this year, that doorbell will be ringing after Christmas since we were kind of behind the eight ball in that department lately. And with Christmas cards. But I digress. In any case, it will be a glad sound, and those are beautiful, parcel post feet.

The Epiphany Youth group spent some time this week as those “beautiful feet” on the front porches of several of our homebound members. The youth were not delivering any packages, per se, but they were delivering good news. They went, you see, to sing Christmas carols to them, and, so long as the Holy Spirit made it possible, to spread a bit of the cheer of that good news of Jesus’ birth. It was a wonderful evening. The weather cooperated nicely, and our caravan of about 10 vehicles managed to make it to three members’ homes before we had to come back here for supper. We learned, among other things, that not everyone knows all the words to “What Child is This?” by heart, but we managed to mutter through on the strength of a few clear voices. We also learned that they’d like us back more often. One gentleman, confined to his house by advanced Parkinsons’, stuck out a wavering arm and invited us to come again next week.

Singing Christmas carols to the homebound is actually something my own church youth group did when I was a kid. It was a yearly thing. We’d spend one night right before Christmas making the rounds, visiting different homes and assisted living facilities with our rusty-voiced Christmas cheer. Occasionally the person to whom we were caroling, although frail, would be able to make it to the door and join along in the singing. Sometimes, if it was too cold, they’d stand behind the window and peer out at us, our faces barely lit by the glow of the small candles we held in our hands. We never actually went in anyone’s house, however. It would have been too crowded, too much of an imposition.

One year, however, our pastor took us to sing at the home of Bob Snow, an elderly member who was in the final stages of cancer. And by “final” I mean the last few days. He was bedridden, already on a respirator or oxygen or some other apparatus to aid his breathing. An unused bedpan or two were stacked up on his nightstand. There was no other way to sing to Bob than by standing in his bed room. By his bed. Where he was dying. And so we all traipsed in there, well past the front porch, through the family room, and encircled his bed. The only lights in the room were provided by our candles.

The last we’d seen Mr. Snow in church was months before, and he looked much different now. He was wan and skeleton-like. His weak face, which was as white as his name, was already sunken in from the toll of the disease, and the whole scene made me, a middle-schooler, feel downright uncomfortable. I was barely at ease in my own skin in those days, and I didn’t know how to look at his. I remember elbowing my way back from the front row. “Why did his wife bring us in here?” I thought. “Surely he could have heard us from outside.” And there, in that room, as the breathing apparatus gurgled and hissed, we sang Christmas carols at death. We lifted up our candles, whose glimmer now reflected off the wet cheeks of his family members, and sang these happy songs—these songs of good news about someone’s birth—to some who was obviously dying.

Hark the Herald Angels Sing, glory to the newborn King!...Joy to the World! The Lord is come!...Silent Night!  Holy Night! All is calm, all is…bright?  Indeed, although maybe not in the way I could recognize.  “How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of the messenger of those who announces peace, who brings good news, who announces salvation, who says to Zion, ‘Your God reigns!’”

At that time, in those teenager days of robust health and raging hormones, it didn’t make much sense why we would do something like that, why we would make some of us so uncomfortable at such a joyous time of the year, why we would pull back the curtain that hid the dying from our light and think on such sad things. To sing songs of a birth while someone was dying? What kind of a cruel, insensitive endeavor is this?

But they—the wife, the sons, the pastor, and Mr. Snow, no doubt—were thinking about this: “And the Word became flesh and lived among us.” The good news that we were announcing—the good news that we have brought to us this great morning—is not simply that Jesus is born, but that Jesus is born to die. And if, as the prophet Isaiah says, our God reigns at all, it is because God has reigned in places like Bob Snow’s bedroom the week before he died.  When we say that the Word of God became flesh and dwelt among us, we mean that he lived the full extent of the human experience. He suffered what flesh suffers when it encounters the brokenness of creation. He endures what our flesh endures as it lives in a world prone to danger and disease. God has miraculously been wrapped in our skin, as wan and weak and pale as it can sometimes be. When we hear that God’s Word—God’s very essence and very happening—became flesh and lived among us, then we hear the length that God is willing to go bear his arm and make us his forever.  We hear of the lengths God will go to restore human dignity.  And that is precisely what Mr. Snow would need to hear.  As it turns out, maybe it is those lesser-known words of “What Child is This?” that say it best, and that bear being taken to heart:

“Nails, spear shall pierce him through

The cross be borne for me, for you.

Hail, hail the Word made flesh,

the babe, the Son of Mary.”

            Earlier this week, as my family sat down to eat our dinner, our five-year-old daughter requested to say the blessing. She said thanks for the food, but before she said “amen,” she inserted a final petition with the most serious inflection: “And God,” she said, “help us remember that we can’t open our presents until Christmas. Lord, Have mercy.  Hear our prayer.”

Well, it’s Christmas! No time for holding back! Ring the doorbell and rip open the gift, the gift of Jesus. Tell the good news…on the porch, at the table, at the bedside, in the tomb: Salvation has come. Our God reigns!

Orthodox icons of the Nativity of Jesus often depict his birthplace as a cave, evoking his place of burial.

Merry Christmas! 

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

The Fourth Sunday in Advent, Year B - December 18, 2011 (2 Samuel 7:1-11, 16 and Luke 1:26-38)

Melinda and I do not watch a whole lot of television, but if there is one show that can suck us both in like no other it is “Househunters International” on Home and Garden Television.  It only takes the opening five seconds of the program to get us hooked, and then we find we have to sit down and watch all thirty minutes, even if it keeps us up past our bedtime. 

For those of you who are unfamiliar with the program, the concept is very simple and can be explained in a matter of seconds.  Each episode features an individual, a couple, or a family who is in search of a new home in a new country.  A real estate agent takes stock of their purchasing price range and then shows them three potential properties.  As you can probably guess from its title, “Househunters International” tends to feature home searches of the cosmopolitan and well-to-do.  It may be a couple who made their living in London’s busy financial district who are now looking to retire to a farmhouse in the south of France.  Or maybe it’s a young urban professional who’s just been transferred from Seattle to Buenos Aires.  Whatever the case, the program begins with a discussion about the homebuyer’s wish list for their new property and ends with a build-up to the homebuyer’s final decision.  Along the way, the real estate agent showcases those three fascinating properties that contain any number of cool and unique characteristics.

What I think we find so compelling about this otherwise ordinary reality show is that each time the final decision manages to surprise us in some way.  The homebuyer always goes for the property we think they’d rate lowest, either because they discover new priorities along the journey, or because they become enchanted with some aspect of a house they hadn’t expected.  But, without fail, when the show is over, I feel I’ve wasted a valuable half-hour of my life, voyeuristically watching the deliberations of someone else’s luxury.

Despite that, I don’t think it’s too much of a stretch to say that this is not too different from what the people of God experience as they await their salvation from on high.  Will their God hunt a house among humankind?  If so, where might it be?  What, pray tell, is on that wish list?  And will this grand, sweeping episode of reality contain a surprise twist at the end?

detail, Michaelangelo's "David"
As you might imagine, the scope of Scripture’s witness contains many clues as to what God is looking for as God begins to imagine a home among mortals, and we are probably not surprised to learn that God is not in the market for a villa in the south of France or a flat in Buenos Aires, technically-speaking.  Then again, we wouldn’t exactly look first to the ancient kingdom of Israel, either—a wandering, hapless group of backwater tribes who had spent a great many years ranging around and attempting, with spotty success, to settle the land promised to their ancestors.  Yet there is God, hunting for his home among them, drifting from encampment to encampment in a temporary tabernacle that houses the Ark of the Covenant.  Before a simple shepherd named David rises to power as ancient Israel’s second king—which is sometime around a thousand years before Jesus is born—God’s people were nothing spectacular.  Often prone to internal fighting, they were not a military power.  With no merchant class or fertile regions for farming, they were not an economic power.  Lacking a major center of population or learning, they were not a cultural power.  They really had little going for them, but this David helps to change that.  Finding favor with God, he rises to the throne, unifies the people of Israel, and establishes a capital city by conquering the Jebusite stronghold of Jerusalem. 

This stronghold turns out to be as much of a curse as a blessing as history plays out, but for the time-being, the kingdom begins to flourish and expand.  Would God choose his home here?  While it may seem the most logical spot from our standpoint, it turns out that God has other priorities, other options to consider.  Even after David decides to bring Israel’s long days of wandering to an end by getting the ark out of the camps below and building it a permanent structure up in the city, God makes it clear that that’s not his vision. In a prophecy revealed to Nathan, David’s prophet, God explains that he was quite content going to and fro in that temporary tabernacle as Israel wandered in the wilderness: “Wherever I have moved about among all the people of Israel,” the word of the LORD says, “did I ever speak a word with any of the tribal leaders of Israel, ‘Why have you not built me a house of cedar?’”  In fact, God hadn’t asked for that.  Turning the tables somewhat, God explains further what he is looking for: David will not make a home for God, but God will make God’s house from David.  David will not be laying a foundation for God to dwell in Jerusalem, but God will be laying a foundation in David to dwell with the people of the earth.  No fancy flat or sun-drenched villa just yet—God’s wish list is looking a little different!

David's Jerusalem (ca. 1000 B.C.)
To that end, the LORD makes it clear that his home in David will contain these virtues.  First, it will provide a great name.  Second, it will entail a place where they can be planted to receive protection and refuge from their enemies and other evildoers.  Lastly, it will ensure an eternal relationship with God, one that is firm and solid and established forever.  That is God’s idea of a home, and a deluxe cedar suite in Jerusalem will not provide it.  Somehow David and David’s family will be that home, at least for now. Through this particular king and his rather ill-fated line of descendants in this particularly disorganized group of tribes God will seek out a great name, a place of sanctuary and a steadfast relationship with God’s people.

Interestingly, the intensity of God’s search for a home seems to go cold for a while.  King Solomon, David’s successor, does end up building a temple in Jerusalem.  It is a bejeweled, awe-inspiring edifice.  Israel’s worship and religious devotion becomes centered there, off and on, for about a thousand years.  Prophets come and prophets go.  Commercial breaks interrupt the drama here and there.  At one point the Temple gets destroyed and then rebuilt and eventually added onto. 

It would seem that God had almost settled on that structure in that city, but one day in a very remote small town far outside Jerusalem, God finds favor with someone else.  An real estate angel named Gabriel drops by the home of a young girl engaged to a man named Joseph, who happened to be a long, lost descendant of that ancient David.  The town is Nazareth, a place hardly on anyone’s radar.  And Gabriel’s message is something no one ever could have expected, a surprise twist that we never saw coming.  God will hunt his house in her womb.  If she consents—and she does—God will move in through a miracle of the Holy Spirit and become a resident of creation in a way only possible to a God whose love knows no bounds.  God turns down a house of cedar and temple of stone to live in a house of human skin and bones.
Try as we may, we cannot predict where or how God the Creator of heaven and earth will choose to reside with us, his creatures, just as David was unable to build a structure to house the LORD.  Try as we may, we could never foresee that God would choose something this risky, this unprecedented, this common—to take up shop as the quickening flesh of a young Jewish maid, to knock on the door of someone so seemingly insignificant.  Martin Luther says, in a sermon on the Annunciation, that “Mary was possibly doing housework when the angel Gabriel came to her.”  Kings and queens would have died for this kind of opportunity—provided they could keep it from upending their system of authority—but it comes to a woman who is put in an unlikely predicament.  David made an offer of cedar timbers to make way for such an arrival, but God puts himself at the mercy of a young unwed woman’s faith. It may seem like the whim of a finicky homebuyer to us, but God will always choose to interact with the world on God’s own terms, not ours.

"The Annunciation," Paolo de Matteis, 1712
And that wish list, as it turns out, is still valid.  It ends up being completely fulfilled through the womb of this Mary, once and for all.  The great name will be Jesus.  In Hebrew: The Savior of the people.  He will plant a place, on a hill right outside Jerusalem, in fact, where people will finally find refuge from their greatest enemies, sin and death.  And his life and death will establish an eternal relationship based on love and forgiveness between God and God’s people from now until the end of time.  As should be expected from a God as gracious as this one, those wishes on that original wish list shared with King David were not really wishes for God, but wishes for his people!  All of them, wrapped up in human flesh and growing, right now, in the womb of Mary.

For when it comes to taking up residence with us, God will call the shots.  God will order the world the way God wants to and cut his deals on his own terms.  And when that happens, a great name is given to a nothing people.  The proud get scattered and the lowly are uplifted.  The hungry get filled and the rich are sent away empty. A holy place is planted in the most vulgar of surroundings.  And the most insignificant, vulnerable soul, as it turns out, can magnify the LORD.  This is what happens when God makes his home among us.

At this time of the year, as we approach what is arguably culture’s biggest holiday, there is a lot of talk (and sometimes whining, especially among Christians), about finding and upholding what this season is really all about.  We lament the over-the-top commercialism and crumble under the weight of the busy holiday schedule.  We debate the difference between saying “Happy Holidays” and “Merry Christmas.”  All the while, we want to re-capture some elusive spirit or “true meaning of Christmas,” as if it’s something we can grasp with our hands.  Ironically, it is King David who inadvertently stumbles upon it one thousand years before the fact: that God’s grace it never something we can control or get a handle on.  It is not something we can conjure with any amount of doing good.  God’ grace just happens.  It hunts a home where we’d least expect it, entering at the corners, checking out property on the margins, turning down the fancy cedar gift in exchange for something more ordinary, more delicate…like human flesh.  Or bread and wine.  All it is looking for is that “Yes” so graciously modeled by Mary.  God’s is a rare grace that first hooks us and then promises a twist of surprise:  He is promised.  He is born.  His is crucified.  He is risen!

But be warned, you people of God, because this grace will suck you right in.  For thirty minutes…for thirty years…and if God finds favor, for the rest of your life.

Is it wasted time?  Nope.  It is nothing less than the beginning of it…
Mary, Theotokos (God-bearer)

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.