Sunday, December 24, 2000

Christmas Presence (1)

Asbury First United Methodist Church


Text: Luke 2:1-20

You may think you have heard the Christmas Gospel before. Have you? Faith comes by hearing. When you have heard, your life is changed, transformed into a part of the New Creation which is God's invasion of this dark world, in the Presence of Jesus Christ.

Listen again, with the soul alive to God. You are saved as the one story of your life is carried off into the Great Story of Christ Jesus.

a. "In those days, a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be enrolled…"

Jesus is born in the midst of a great governmental count. This was the first count, not the second, not the hand recount, just a simple little census of the whole inhabited world - at least that governed by Rome.

He is conceived in one place, Nazareth, and born in another, Bethlehem. So it is with your life. Great love may be conceived in one place, only surprisingly to be born in another. Your pet project conceived at your desk? The vice-president gave it birth in the annual report, page 9. Your desire that the church have a cosmic vision, as you conceived it 30 years ago? Some youngster gives it birth two generations later, without even a footnote. Your young conception of what married life could be? At last, doddering, you see a little of it born in a grandchild's home. Great love may be conceived here in Nazareth only to be born there in Bethlehem. Let it go. We are all just traveling around a swirl of counts and recounts anyway. Life is short. Learn early to love: yourself, others, your community, your God.

b. "And while they were there, the time came for her to be delivered….there was no place for them in the inn."

Have you truly, simply, connected your heart with the saving story? I do not think we have, yet.

The Christmas Presence, Jesus in mud and straw, arrives outside. Others swing easily through life, held in a golden bubble of mirth and confidence. You stand at the holiday party, unhappy and alone, on the outs. Others are the in crowd. You are outside. Others have the cocksure, rockhard certainty of religion—JESUS, WORD, SALVATION. To you it sounds vaguely sickening, and utterly false, and you are outside the religious inn. Your family hates you, because you have had the courage to cut the Gordian knot and live outside that dysfunctional mess. You are living on the dark side of the moon in your work, outside in the cold.

You are outside. Jesus is born outside. To the manger He brings his saving presence.

Have you heard the story?

Once you do, then, gradually, you will have daily and disciplined sympathy for the outside. You will tithe, not out of duty, but for the excitement of connection by giving with others who are outside. You will be in church on Sunday, not driving to watch the Buffalo Bills or driving to the Eastern View Mall to shop, not out of duty, but for the excitement of listening for the army's advance into the outside. You will keep faith by loving those closest to you, not out of duty, but for the excitement, the glow in the dark manger, that comes with love in the cold, outsider to outsider. The person next to you in the pew is just as anxious, hurting, ashamed, and fearful as you are.

Let's get with it: tithe, worship, help.

c. "And in that region there were shepherds…and an angel of the Lord appeared to them."

But, you complain, angels do not appear to me. I have never seen one either, and I do not expect to in this lifetime. You listen to this as if it were the children's time, Mr. Rogers in a clerical collar. But this is apocalypse. What other language would you suggest, though, by which to convey the splintering of time and the tearing of eternity? What other imagery would you propose to describe the wrenching birth stretch of the Invading Holy One, set upon taking back the creation, which had been stolen by sin and death and the threat of meaninglessness?

Look again at the paintings of the shepherds, given to us through the ages. Look again, for one, at El Greco, and his rendering of the bony cheeked, long limbed, fine fingered fear of the shepherds, who know enough to know enough.

Now there is Presence, a real and lasting and good and demanding Presence. The doxa kupiou, the glory of the Lord.

"Not everything can be said easily, except claims of absolute affirmation or denial. In time, most things can be said clearly, at least. And some of these things are so important that we should do everything we can to make them clear. Presence is one of those things. It is not a word that we should allow anyone to rule out of our vocabulary." (Ralph Harper, 120)

Blaise Pascal: "We never keep to the present…We anticipate the future as if we found it too slow in coming and were trying to hurry it up, or we recall the past as if to stay its too rapid flight. We are so unwise that we wander about in times that do not belong to us, and do not think of the only one that does. Thus we never actually live, but only hope to live."

Pursue Presence this year, work out your salvation in fear and trembling, come alive. My God, every breath is a miracle! And you, each of you, has the makings of an angel, some more than others.

St. Augustine leans out a window, speaking to his mother, "There we talked together, she and I, in deep joy, and while we were talking of His Wisdom and panting for it, with all the effort of our heart we did for one instant touch it."

Alain-Fournier casts the net of another phrase over the same elusive moment, calling what they shared, "a secret understanding."

Cathy and Heathcliff, knowing each other so well, experience a "shared understanding, an emotion they could not have defined, an extraordinary sense of well-being, an almost intoxicating serenity, the certitude that the goal was in sight, and that they had nothing but happiness to look forward to."

John Wesley, more deeply insightful than we admit, weeping over and admiring his poor Methodists, of whom he said, "They are happy in God."

I saw one once, one of these Methodists happy in God. She was playing the organ, and I could see that "imperious radiance of sheer presence." It was falling from her fingers, and streaming from her cheeks, and resonating all around in sound. Why, I think some of you were there, as Marion Craighead played. The sermon that day explored Psalm 16. She said, later, "it is my favorite." And I perceive why it was her favorite, for it ends with an angel voice, "in Thy presence is fullness of joy." In thy presence is fullness of joy. In thy presence…

d. "Behold I bring you good news of a great joy, which will come to all the people."

Have we heard the Gospel? To all people. Including those who do not acclaim a born again experience. Including those who are political conservatives. Including those who come to church on Christmas and Easter only. Including those who enter the church for daycare but not for Sunday School. Including those who eat our dining center meals to save money. Including those who hear the Gospel only during the glorious singing here of Handel's Messiah. Including those who will not accept the insensitivities and injustices of any religious organization. Including poorly educated, barely employed, simple shepherds.

The church comes alive when it ceases to be religion and becomes instead the invasion of the New Creation, bursting into the world around and transforming the culture around into the good news of great joy, which shall be to all people.

The announcement was not made in the temple. The announcement was made in the field.

Thank goodness we have the 21st century, again to move toward what Bonhoeffer probingly called "religionless christianity", what Paul called "faith working through love", and what Asbury First can become - the heart and soul of this county.

e. "Glory to God in the Highest, and on earth peace…"

We have come full circle. On earth, peace. In the world of Caesar Augustus - and Bush and Gore, in the world of Quirinius - and Bill and Hillary, in the world of Bethlehem - and Rochester. Have we listened? In our world, fraught with endless contention and intractable difference. What it takes, finally, to bring peace on such an earth will take a whole Gospel to tell. By the way, that includes miracles unappreciated, messages unattended, parables unaccepted, instruction unlearned, and then, suddenly, a bloodstained cross, a hasty burial, and a cold tomb. This is the way of peace, down the path of unearned suffering.

Behold the Christmas Presence, hidden underneath His opposite. Birth amid death, joy amid poverty, divinity in straw and mud, angels serenading sheep, the all-powerful God embodied in a sucking infant, the universe's King made to sleep outdoors in the winter.

Have we heard the Gospel?

If so, we shall have no longer any single ordinary day, any single ordinary encounter, any single ordinary relationship, any single ordinary task, any single ordinary moment. All, by Jesus, are shot through with Presence.

As G.K. Chesterton said, "the world does not lack for wonders, but only for a sense of wonder."

Behold the Christmas Presence!

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