Thursday, December 25, 2014

The Nativity of Our Lord, Christmas Eve - December 24, 2014 (Luke 2:1-20)

The angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people.”

There it is, shining out in the darkness like one of Richmond’s world-famous tacky-light displays: joy.

The first word—the first thought, the first idea, the first commentary—associated with the message about Jesus’ arrival is…joy. It is not some theological term like “salvation.” It is not a moral term like forgiveness or holiness. It is not even love. It is joy. And, in fact, it is not just any old joy. The angel said, “I am bringing you good news of GREAT joy.” In the Greek: mega joy.

The baby is birthed in a crude stable area, wrapped up tightly in bands of cloth that happen to be lying around laid in a manger with all that straw and—who knows?—maybe even some leftover animal slobber. Most of us would probably put ourselves in that situation and think, aghast, “Oh, NO!” but the instead heaven opens up and the messenger says “Oh yes, yes YES! Mega joy!”

"The Angel Appearing to the Shepherds" Thomas Cole (1833-34)
The centuries upon centuries that the world has waited for a Savior are finally over, and it seems as if his grand entrance is getting a little botched. The shepherds are afraid, and they’re not exactly the right kind of people anyway. Many of us would cry, “Cut, cut cut! This isn’t right!” But instead the cameras keep rolling and out of heaven spills mega joy anyway.

It seems so basic, but then again, think of how often we end up centering the news of Christmas on something other than joy! Think of how often followers of Christ, when given the chance, lead off with some other concept or doctrine or belief or emotion when presenting their faith in speech or action!

Pope Francis is onto it. In his annual Christmas address to Vatican City insiders this week, he named 15 “ailments” that can plague people of faith, especially religious leaders. One of them he termed “the illness of the funeral face,” which he went on to define as that spiritual illness displayed by “those who believe that in order to be serious it is necessary to paint their faces with melancholy and severity and to treat others—especially those they consider inferior—with rigidity, harshness, and arrogance.”[1]

It’s no wonder that all our best Christmas villains—Ebenezer Scrooge, the Grinch—are noted most for their severity and melancholy. That is, they’re joyless! The angels say to the shepherds, No Funeral Faces tonight, boys! A Savior is born. For you!

Years ago in another congregation I had a co-worker from the United Kingdom who, I eventually learned, had not been raised in a churched family and who had not identified as Christian until his college years. Many admired him for his confident but calm witness. Intrigued, I asked him once what had led him to faith as a young adult, especially in the midst of a such a pluralistic university environment. He replied, “I got to know a small group of people who identified as Christian and they seemed to have something I didn’t. As I thought about it, I realized it was joy. It wasn’t necessarily because I thought they were right. I just wanted to be a part of them because I wanted to have that joy.”

And so tonight we gather once again to be reminded of the joy. Tonight we come together to hear again or maybe for the first time that at the heart of the angel’s message lies the amazing news that we have been given a Son. Amid the candlelight and carols, and amid the claims that Caesars the world over make on their people…amid the harmony of the choirs, and amid the clashes of racial tension and religion-inspired violence…amid the unwrapping of presents and amid the heartbreak of loved ones’ absence…we are assembled to hear that the world’s long wait for redemption is over. To us is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. Mega joy.

But, just to be clear, the joy that this message brings is no artificial, fabricated joy. It is not a joy that comes from hoping that for one day each year we get to escape from our sorrows or tinsel over them, to recreate the glory of Christmases of years past. It is a joy that comes from believing that with Jesus’s birth, God has now entered each of our sorrows and leads us forward into a future of new life. It is the joy that takes root when one realizes that this isn’t news simply of a birth…but a birth that will lead to a particular death for the sins of the world.

That’s what the “To you is born” part of this really means. It means the “you” that is burdened by the worries of the world, the “you” that is tired and weary, the “you” that feels unworthy or unloved. It the “you” of a whole world that has really gone astray, a world which gropes in the darkness and lurches about looking for meaning, a “you” that will understand in due time that its Creator is not distant or indifferent but willing to suffer and join in with the lurching and meet it in the dark.

It is against this backdrop of darkness and thinking about the Pope’s warning against funeral face, about joy and gifts and wonder and grace, that I begin to remember the particular face I have come to most associate with the angel’s message on Christmas Eve. It was the face of Mrs. Rohrbaugh, a member of the congregation of my childhood. Mrs. Rohrbaugh was a fairly regular worshipper, but on Christmas Eve every year, without fail, she sat in the front pew of our sanctuary. I sat much farther back, nestled with three generations of my family in one pew.

In most normal circumstances a person wouldn’t be able to see the faces of those who sit in front of them, but in our congregation on Christmas Eve, we would all file out, pew by pew, during the final carol in order to gather for the Christmas blessing on the church steps and sidewalk. As a result, you watched people pass you, their faces illuminated by their candles’ glow. Because of where she sat, Mrs. Rohrbaugh was one of the first, to round the bend and approach my pew, And although I could tell she wasn’t trying to be seen, the bright glistening of her cheeks were unmistakable. Tears were smeared across her face reflecting the light. The corners of her mouth bent slightly downward in sadness, but her lips were open wide, mouthing boldly the words of “Silent Night, Holy Night.” And past she went into the night with us all.

That’s an image that a small child doesn’t forget: someone sobbing on Christmas Eve, when all childish senses are focused instead on the presents that will be unwrapped in the morning. It was not until I was older and another adult in the congregation filled me in on the painful and difficult stories behind Mrs. Rohrbaugh’s tears on that front pew: the early death of a first, beloved husband, followed by the cruel abandonment by a second one directly following the birth of a child with acute special needs.

Who knows what all was behind that expression, but hers was certainly not funeral face. But it clearly wasn’t happy, either. It may at the time have seemed out of place, but what a gift Mrs. Rohrbaugh gave me those Christmas Eves—what a gift she gave all of us—a glimpse of someone who was truly receiving the gift of a Savior who suffers, the expression of someone who had heard that because of Jesus, lying in the manger—and later hanging from a cross—God had met her in her darkness. I think we can say hers was the face of unbridled joy, a face that knew the hopes and fears of all her years were going to be met when the angels showed up to announce, once again, that there is good news of great joy—for to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ, the Lord.

I suspect there are Mrs. Rohrbaughs here tonight, sitting among us, and Mr. Rohrbaugh’s, too…just as there are little childhood “me’s,” nestled in cozily with their kin. There are those like the shepherds who reside on the fringes, too, but then strangely pulled in. There are those who are wondering, those who are pondering the truth, those who are simply amazed. There’s even a pastor here who’s prone to funeral face from time to time. Well here’s something: the Savior is born for all the people.

As we gather at the manger, may God’s Spirit build in and among us such a sense of community that others will see us and say, “Oh yes, yes YES…I want to be a have some of that mega joy.”

Adoration of the Shepherds (pupil of Rembrandt, 1646)


The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

[1] “The Fifteen Ailments of the Vatican Curia,” Abby Ohlheiser, The Washington Post, Dec 22, 2014

Sunday, December 14, 2014

The Third Sunday of Advent [Year B] - December 14, 2014 (John 1:6-8, 19-28 and Psalm 126)

To a large degree in our culture—at least for many adults—any sense of really waiting for Christmas has long been done away with. It could be that I’m just projecting my own feelings of frustration here, but as I listen to others and their long do-do lists, as I observe the ever-increasing stream of traffic around shopping areas, as I fret about deadlines for having things ordered so they’ll ship in time, it occurs to me that there is no waiting anymore. Young children, I’d bet, still feel that agonizing tension of expectation, but for so many of us, the primary feeling of Advent is not “When, oh, when will the day get here?” but, rather, “Oh, sweet Jesus, it’s barreling right at me!”

Memorial angels for the fallen in Newtown
I read a blog entry this week of one of the mothers who lost a child in the Sandy Hook shootings in Newtown, CT, which happened exactly two years ago, today. It was a moving post, difficult to read. She wrote movingly about how much that day has permanently affected her, how it effectively divided her life into time before Sandy Hook and time after Sandy Hook. She lamented the loss of her old, optimistic personality, wondering if it would ever return. Towards the end of the woman’s post, she allowed that she was beginning to see glimmers of that joy, but was clearly eager to have it increase and take over again. Now that, I thought to myself, is waiting. That is the agonizing tension of expectation.

When we take modern-day Christmas out of the equation, that’s the kind of waiting that Advent wants us to ponder. If we were to take Christmas out of the equation—I know it’s hard to, but just for a minute—I think we’d realize that that kind of waiting permeates all our lives, to one degree or another. It’s the kind of waiting that pervades this entire “benighted sphere,” as the old Swedish hymn calls the planet Earth. In all the slums and cities and suburbs the world over people, each in his or her own way, are racked by grief, by boredom, by the curse of sin, and they are wondering if the joy will return. “Those who go out weeping, carrying the seed,” go the words of today’s psalm, “will come again with joy, shouldering their sheaves.” We want that to be true. We want to shoulder the sheaves of joy.

It is into that kind of waiting—that agonizing tension when joy seems to be so delayed—that John the Baptist appears. In first century Israel, everyone seemed to be waiting and wondering whether God’s time would come. God’s rule would be marked by the return of a prophet, or the anointing of a Messiah, a savior, and just about everyone was on edge with that expectation.

John the Baptist suggested that it was near at hand, and his appearance out in the wilderness, near the small town of Bethany, rather than within the halls of power in the city, captured the imagination and hope of the people. Out in the wilderness their ancestors’ dreams had been honed with a time of expectation. This voice made sense to them, booming as it was. It evoked promise, sounding as if he had been sent from God as a witness. It reminded them that God most often acts at the margins (how could they have forgotten?), at the bottom of society first, and so they flock to see him, to be cleaned with baptismal waters and be ready because that which they were waiting for was here.

Even the powers-that-be from way up at the Jerusalem Temple show up to check John out, sending their representatives to interrogate him. Granted, at any given time back then there were probably a number of people claiming to be prophets like John, but John gets their attention. He might be stirring something up.

What grabs your attention these days? What commotions and disturbances out there on the edges of your life do you think deserve a closer look?

St. John the Baptist (Barbieri Giovanni Francesco)
What the people find when they finally reach John might surprise them. John, you see, wastes no time pointing away from himself to someone else, someone greater. He, after all, is to be a witness, not the subject himself. He is not the one everyone has been waiting for. That one, in fact, stands among them now. John’s role is only to help prepare people for his arrival, to carry the seed and toss it out into the soil, to remind people that they have the chance to receive him. John understands he’s not the light, but he will testify to the light. John knows he is not the Promised One, but is one who speaks of the Promise. John is not the answer to the eternal question if God loves us, but because John speaks of Jesus, John is the witness to the answer.

I caught a part of a radio broadcast the other day where people were calling in to the D.J. explaining their favorite Christmas song. One person called in to say that “The Little Drummer Boy” was most meaningful to her because she felt that song somehow placed her in the manger scene, sharing her humble gifts with Jesus. Might I suggest this morning the message is that we are not to be Little Drummer Boys, but little John the Baptists? It is good to share our gifts with Jesus, but we are also to testify to him, to point to him, to help the world notice, in humble ways, that joy has arrived…that, at least as far as wondering whether God loves us and remembers us, the wait is over.

Often without being aware of it, we followers of Christ can often take on the tone that we are the answer to the world’s problems. Without realizing the sanctimoniousness of our actions, we burst onto the scene, into the neighborhood, into the village, into the political debate with the attitude that now that we’ve arrived, things will start looking up for everyone.

Hand-carved wooden crosses
The reality is that Jesus is God’s response to the sin in the world, to the agonizing tension of expectation. Jesus is the one who proclaims the year of the Lord’s favor. Jesus is the one who brings liberty to the captives, who binds up the brokenhearted, in Newtown and elsewhere. It is Jesus who is born to bring justice, who makes his way from the murky waters of the River Jordan to the cross on Golgotha.

Those who testify to him, therefore, must walk that fine line between being those who, like John, may know about the light and even attract people because they stand so close to it, but yet who always remember the importance of pointing away from ourselves to that light. It is striking the balance between humbly trusting we have a claim on the truth, and knowing, more importantly, that the truth has a claim on us.

And that truth stands in our midst.  We are not worthy to untie his sandals, and yet he still comes to tell the world with his life and death that its agonizing wait is over.

Last Sunday evening the congregation celebrated its Consecration Sunday dinner in order to tally and announce the financial commitments for the coming year and enjoy some congregational fellowship. As is the custom, once the dinner was over, we put on our coats and traipsed outside in the cold to the front yard of our church for the Grand Illumination of our little town of Bethlehem Christmas display. Earlier in the week, a team of volunteer men, led by a master electrician, had rigged the large star and the angels high above us, and all the electrical switches and cords were in order. We tested it. We were ready, yet for some unknown reason when the time came to flip the switch, the lights flickered for a second, and then immediately went out. That left us in the pitch-black dark, for whatever went wrong had also knocked out the power to the large flood light that had been focused on the manger.

We all stood there for a second, wondering what to do. The person at the switchboard flipped the switch again, and then the lights came on…and then went out again. This on-then-off happened about two more times before we finally had to call it quits. The crowd took the incident really well. I don’t think anyone was really that let down, and, in fact, it gave a few people the chance to chortle out some lines from a movie with Clark Griswold. Another person later said that with our crescendo-ing and descrescendo-ing voices we sounded like people watching a firework display: “Ahhh…. ohhh… AAAAHHH….ohhhh.”

Looking back, I wonder what the people thought who happened to be sitting at the stoplight at Horsepen and Monument, the people who happened to be driving by at that precise moment. Did they catch what happened? Did they chuckle, too, or have pity on us for our mishap? Or did they perchance catch that when the lights on the Christmas star and the angels go out, what is left is the cross? Did they see, then, a bunch of women and men and children looking up at this sign of ultimate love in our midst and going, Ahhh…oohhhh…ahhhh?

I’d like to think that’s what they really could have seen: a people who were clearly waiting for something spectacular, but ended up looking in wonder at the cross. I hope that’s what we really are—a community of disciples who witness in that way, not drawing attention to ourselves and our own dazzling displays of faith, not attracting seekers and guests merely so that they may be a part of “us,” but a people who testify in word and deed in such a way that they are drawn in to see this light with us, even if it means we have to stand in the dark every once in a while.

I pray, too, that this is what we continue to become—a gathering in the cold dark night of the world that is inviting others to trust alongside of us that the agonizing wait is over. At long last we are beginning to shoulder sheaves. The Promised One has come and we may receive him in joy as far as the curse is found.

Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.