Filed under: Uncategorized | Tags: angels, Christmas, Jesus, manger, salvation, shepherds
Tonight we gather in darkness, after four weeks of anticipation and promise. Tonight we declare that God has sent light into the darkness. God has come to and for us. Jesus Christ, our Savior, has been born in Bethlehem. Because of this birth, we are welcomed, claimed, loved, and forgiven by God today.
God comes into our world in a new and complete way in Jesus Christ. Picture a new young family, an infant’s first screaming breaths, a crowded town and a tiny room housing this family as well as livestock. This is the picture of God come to us.
God took great risks to come to us in Jesus. God set aside the power and glory belonging to divinity and put on the frailty and humility belonging to humanity. In God’s coming to us, God is working towards the promise of a healed and whole creation. Instead of using power to accomplish this, as God did in the flood, to drown the sin of the world and begin again with the one family spared: Noah and his sons, God uses a relinquishing, a giving up, of power to bring salvation to the world, to save us.
The risks in this plan of incarnation, the Word of God taking on flesh, being born a fragile infant, were many. The great plan of salvation could have been derailed by any of the dangers of being an infant among an occupied people. The greatest risk God took was in the very source of the good news: in coming to be fully among the people who most longed for a savior: the oppressed, impoverished, and outcast. The risk in the incarnation is that no one would recognize that it truly is God who has come in this unexpected way, and that no one would trust this good news, spoken on the lips of the untrustworthy.
Tonight, we hear the familiar Christmas story from the Gospel of Luke. As we enter this familiar story, I invite you to hear again the great risk God has taken in these events. God chooses a particular way to enter this world, and particular people to be witnesses to this great event. God’s risky, unexpected actions reveal God’s favor extending beyond our boundaries.
The story opens by placing Jesus’ birth at the same time as the rule of the Emperor Augustus, the ruler who claimed to bring peace. The Roman empire is requiring all the ruled peoples to return to their hometowns for a census. So Joseph and pregnant Mary go to Bethlehem. Although we would assume all of Joseph’s extended family traveled to Bethlehem, and that many still lived there, they have not been welcomed anywhere. Could you imagine returning to Ayr/Page after a time away, pregnant, and being turned away as you looked for a place to rest? Mary’s premarital pregnancy has strained Joseph’s family relationships. The young family are even pushed out of an inn. Unexpectedly, God has chosen to be born into an estranged family. Jesus is born in a room shared with livestock, the divine birthed in a room fit only for a peasant.
The scene shifts and we find ourselves among the shepherds, watching their flock. Our image of shepherds is not the same as that truly felt during the time of Jesus’ birth. Shepherds were not welcome people. They were seen as wandering thieves, dishonest, and immoral. Yet it is to these outcasts that the messengers of God appear. These men are the first to hear God’s good news: “to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the messiah, the Lord.”(11). They hear a whole multitude of angels singing God’s praise. They follow the angel’s news to the manger, where they find all as God said it would be. There, in front of them, crowded in with animals and people, was the baby Jesus, the one born for them. God chose to reveal the good news of Jesus’ birth with the most unlikely crowd. Shepherds were unlikely witnesses because they were labeled liars.
One advent, I heard a college professor sharing at chapel. She was a professor of classical languages, and shared of her surprise and dismay when she first translated these verses from Luke. Unlike the holiday cards emblazoned with “peace on earth and good will to all”, the words of the Gospel record the angels declaring “on earth peace among those whom God favors.” She felt this was a limitation of God’s bringing of peace, given only to the few who please God. But I would say that Luke’s Gospel expands God’s good will and peace to more than a generic “all.” Luke helps us understand that God doesn’t just act for the bland “all,” but especially for those we’d prefer to leave out of that all.
The whole Gospel of Luke declares to us that God will upend our expectations about how God will act and whom God favors. The Gospel opens with births to a barren woman and to a virgin. Jesus is born into an estranged, working class family, whose people are under occupation. The first witnesses are unreliable shepherds. In adulthood, Jesus ministers not only to the likely, but to the unlikely. He eats with tax collectors and sinners, calling one among them to be in his trusted circle of twelve disciples. He calls blessed those the world rejects. He not only lets a sinful woman touch him, but grants her forgiveness. He dies as an enemy of the state, hung between two criminals. After the crucifixion, God chooses more unlikely witnesses. It is a group of women who first encounter the good news that God has raised Jesus from the dead. Two angels appear to these women at Jesus’ tomb, declaring, “Jesus is not here, but has risen.” The women run to the other disciples to witness to this good news, “but these words seemed to them an idle tale, and they did not believe them.” (24:11).
At two central points, at Jesus’ birth and at his resurrection, God takes the risk of entrusting the good news to witnesses the world would not believe. Because other people couldn’t recognize that God’s priorities were other than their own, this good news was almost lost. But that very risk was at the center of the whole point of the incarnation, of Jesus’ birth. Jesus has come to not only declare but to enact God’s favor not only upon those the world favors, but upon those the world does not favor. God’s love is for all people. God is so concerned with making sure that love and favor are for the outsider that God is willing to risk the entire message rather than have love and favor be declared only to those who are assumed to be loved and favored by God.
God takes a great risk in love- entrusting the good news and God’s favor to those the world doesn’t believe or favor- because this news is first and foremost for them.
God has come, in unexpected ways that turn on its head our expectations about who it is whom God favors.
On this special night, it is with great joy that we welcome Bode into the promise of God in baptism. In this sacrament, Bode will be united with Jesus and sealed with the Holy Spirit and the sign of the cross. God claims Bode as God’s own child, today, in his infancy, before Bode’s shown any sign of commitment or holiness. God promises to always be with him, to have already given him the gift of resurrected, eternal life. This sacrament is yet another way that God takes a great risk in gifting love, declaring favor to one who has not shown any sign of deserving it.
The baby Jesus has been born so that you, no matter how far you find yourselves estranged, how many wrong decisions you have made in your lives, you are favored, you are loved by God. It doesn’t matter if other people judge you as worthy of this good news, God has declared that it is for you. Jesus was born for you, Jesus has died for you, Jesus was raised for the dead for you, and Jesus will come again, for you, so that each of you would know that you are most favored by God.
Filed under: Uncategorized | Tags: advent, Baptism, Christmas, gospel, Jesus, mark
“Once upon a time…”
“It was a dark and stormy night…”
“In a galaxy far, far away…”
The most important words of any good story are the very first ones. They transport the listener to a new place and time, opening her mind to experiencing something new, created by the words and the story they conjure. Any good writer knows that a beginning either hooks in a reader, or loses him.
Today we hear: “The beginning…”
And we are at the edge of our seats, waiting to hear how the great story of our salvation unfolds.
The Gospel of Mark opens, “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” And then, rather than pulling the curtain back on a manger scene, Mark continues by going all the way back to the Old Testament Prophet Isaiah. Right away we have a disorienting setting shift. Just as we might have been settling back into our cozy chair, we’re startled into sitting up straight, ears wide open. The authors says, “Ah, you thought you knew how this story goes, that you could skim through it all, but pay attention, there’s more to the story!”
The “beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ” doesn’t begin with Jesus’ incarnation, its beginning is located even farther back. Mark writes, “As it is written in the prophet Isaiah, ‘See I am sending my messenger who will prepare your way.’” Mark casts our search for the true beginning all the way back to Isaiah. God’s work was at hand hundreds of generations before.
But now we’re awake, on the lookout for the deeper story behind these words. Being wiser from Mark’s gotcha moment, we wonder if there might be even more to the beginning than Isaiah. Does the “beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God” start even further back?
Where does this good news really begin?
Mark sends us searching: What other beginnings does this Holy Book offer? I go all the way back to the very beginning, Genesis, which literally means “coming into being, beginning, or birth.” Book 1, chapter 1, verse 1: “In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters.”
In the beginning was God. There was nothing else, nothing other than God’s presence. Nothing was separate from God. Then God created. Molded, breathed into, spoken over: creation came into being from God’s presence.
This sounds like the real beginning!
At the very beginning, there was only God. There was nothing without God. Nothing waited for God’s coming. God acted, God brought forth, God made possible all of creation’s coming.
The beginning of the good news goes all the way back to “The Beginning” when God first chose to form and breath life into creation. There is good news for us of God having a special relationship with the human creatures God formed in God’s own image. God entered into promise-relationship, covenant, with certain people, blessing, teaching, guiding, and protecting them. Generations witness to the power of God in the midst: their stories fill up our Old Testament.
Mark launches us to find the beginning of the “good news” and we are cast all the way back to the very, very beginning, but Mark’s witness reminds us that this good news finds its central moment at the incarnation, when God took on flesh, when Jesus was born among us, as one of us. The separations that split God and creation as a result of sin begin to be sewn closed.
The good news of God’s coming is centered in Jesus Christ. In Jesus, God fully comes into creation. Jesus embraces all of creation, embraces us. Jesus’ incarnation and Jesus’ teaching are vital to the story of God’s work among us. But Jesus’ death on the cross is the most important.
The cross stands as the center of all time. It is the most decisive moment of God’s revelation and action for us. There God comes into all creation- entering even what was not part of the original creation: death and suffering. The cross changes all our assumptions about God and our lives. Jesus’ actions on the cross reveal a God who chooses to act in faithfulness and love for you. You can do nothing more evil than what was done by those who betrayed, scorned, rejected, and killed the Son of God. Yet Jesus will do for you as he does for those, Jesus forgives. Jesus loves. Jesus reaches out to embrace and drawn in to God’s embrace those who have turned their backs on him.
Jesus’ action on the cross and God’s affirmation in Jesus’ resurrection propels us and this good news story on into the future. As Jesus reaches out and holds onto all creation, Jesus will restore and renew all things. As Jesus rose from the dead, Jesus will raise all who have died. The story of the good news of Jesus Christ will end with a glorious healing of all hurts, an exchange of tears for laughter, and life in the presence of God forever.
I know there are some people, even some among us, who don’t read a story in the order you’re supposed to read a story. They don’t start with that opening line and follow along through the pages one by one until they reach the back cover. Some people read that opening line and then flip to the very end and read the last! They read the beginning, and then the ending, and then if it’s good enough, they read everything in between.
As we prepare for Christmas, many people are reminded of the baby Jesus. It might be that the images of a baby in a manger and hope of heaven is all people really know about Christianity. As much as a static manger scenes might depict otherwise, God’s coming is not a one-time-event, not a historical moment to be written and the book closed. It’s not as if the world was devoid of God’s presence before Jesus’ birth, and now, after his death, resurrection, and ascension into heaven, is without his presence once again until some future return.
Baby Jesus and heaven might be the book ends people think the most about. But there is more to the story than a historical moment and a future hope. Those who focus on the two ends are missing out! This story of the good news is being told right now.
We live this middle part of the story today. We enter this story in the waters of our baptism. We call the water of the font storied water, because it carries the promise of God. It is steeped in the witness of the generations who have experienced God’s fulfilling of promises: to give life, forgiveness, and a future. We are carried by this water into God’s promises: the good news. It becomes our life narrative. Our story. The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ is the beginning of the good news that is for you! God created for you, God became incarnate for you, God acts in mercy and love for you!
We both proclaim and take on authorship of this story today. It is our story, and so we are called to share it. We live in the love of God, and it is our joy to share this love. As our world celebrates this season, we are given the opportunity to name the author of the good news which causes us to celebrate. Wish people a Merry Christmas, and be open to explaining what Christmas means for you: a God who comes into our world, who works for peace and life, and who promises to heal all hurts.
Mark’s opening launches us not only into the book of Mark, but into the big book, the whole story, of “good news.” From cover to cover, beginning to end, embodied in us: the story of the good news of God’s action in Jesus Christ is proclaimed. This Advent, celebrate God’s coming for you: at creation, at Jesus’ incarnation, and at the present and future: as the dawn breaking on the horizon to bring the new day of wholeness and peace. Mark’s beginning might be the hook that pulls us in, but once drawn in, we find ourselves immersed in a story that had been going on for generations, all the way back since creation, and continues on in us today.