The Birthplace of Joy, Creativity, Belonging, of Love: a sermon for Christmas Eve 2014

This sermon, offered on December 24th, 2014 at Saint Andrew’s Episcopal Church in Madison Wisconsin is based on the Readings for Christmas I in the Revised Common Lectionary.

You can find those readings here

 

Standing there in a small cave, on the slopes outside Bethlehem, our instructor asked us to imagine that we had seen something compelling enough to cause us to leave our sheep, or to leave them in the care of the junior shepherds, and to make the trip into Bethlehem in search of a newborn child.

Something compelling?  seriously?

You mean something compelling like a light unlike any we had ever seen, an angel of the Lord speaking to us, a host of angels praising God and saying,

“Glory to God in the highest heaven and peace on earth to those whom he favors…”

It’s hard to imagine what that might have looked like. It’s hard to imagine what that must have felt like. But it’s not hard to imagine that it would have been pretty compelling. Once our hearts stop pounding, our knees stop shaking, as the adrenaline begins to settle into our bellies we are on our way, heading into Bethlehem, the sheep and all else forgotten in our excitement and anticipation.

And it’s not just the special effects, the heavenly host and the light show that have us taking to the road here in the middle of the night. As the darkness settled back in, as we have relived that spectacular and terrifying moment, the words that the angel spoke have begun to resonate in our heads…

“Do not be afraid; for see– I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.”

Those shepherds, living in the fields, keeping watch over their sheep that night,

anyone who was hearing or reading Luke’s account of this moment,

and we sitting here this evening

all recognize in the Angel’s proclamation a promise of freedom, redemption, and salvation:

 

“For a child has been born for us,

a son given to us;

authority rests upon his shoulders;

and he is named

Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,

Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.

His authority shall grow continually,

and there shall be endless peace

for the throne of David and his kingdom.

He will establish and uphold it

with justice and with righteousness

from this time onward and forevermore.

The zeal of the LORD of hosts will do this.”

Endless peace, justice and righteousness from this time onward and forevermore… No wonder we are on the move, gathering here around the manger, daring to hope that this is the one who has been promised from of old… The

“Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,

Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.”

 

But you know… now that we are here I just have to ask the question… is this the right place, the right child, the son we have been waiting for? I know that the angel said we would find him in a manger… maybe in our excitement we sort of glossed over that one detail… but I just don’t see how this could be right…

“Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,

Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.”

Those words, words that have been so important to us, words that have given us hope and comfort, those words evoke

power,

majesty,

might!

Authority is supposed to rest upon his shoulders and grow continually…

But this child, this son, has been born among the animals, wrapped in rags, and laid in a manger filled with hay. How can this child hope to restore the nation? Do we dare rest our hopes and dreams on him, on one born in such mean estate… where ox and ass are feeding?

 

Luke tells us that after they saw Jesus and told their story to Mary and Joseph,

“The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.”

 

I don’t know… Clearly they were convinced… But I think I would feel much better about it would feel about the hopes and fears of all the years being met in a child destined to become the

 “Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,

Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace…”

…if that child had arrived with just a little more power… majesty… and might…

Resting our hopes and fears on this vulnerable little child feels too risky. It leaves us feeling vulnerable too. So how could those shepherds come away from their encounter with a child born among the animals, wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger so ecstatic, so sure of what they had seen? Perhaps in that encounter they had discovered something about vulnerability that has been lost on us today.

Power, majesty, and might sound attractive when we are desperate for relief, when we long for an intervention that will make all things right, that will restore order and justice, and return us to our proper place in the world.

But power, majesty, and might are difficult things to manage in a relationship. They create an imbalance, diminish mutuality, and make love difficult, suspect, maybe even impossible. Power, majesty, and might almost always come across as saying, “I own you. Bend your knee to me.”

We don’t have to look far to see how this plays itself out… the news is filled with people who can’t seem to risk being wrong, who don’t want to risk the possibility that they might learn something from someone else, who don’t want to risk having to change… All of that risk leaves them feeling much too vulnerable. So they assume a position of power, majesty, and might… trying to force their opinion on others and demonizing anyone who disagrees with them or challenges their authority.

We don’t have to dig very deep to understand how a fear of risk and an aversion to vulnerability impact our personal lives. The fear of rejection, the fear of not measuring up, the fear of being laughed at keep us from risking, keep us from allowing ourselves to become vulnerable to another. We hide our true selves so that we won’t get hurt. The fear of risk, an aversion to feeling vulnerable leaves us estranged from one another, cut off, from the people and the world around us.

Three days ago, at the Sunday Forum we watched a TED Talk by Brene Brown, whom Wikipedia calls a scholar, author, and public speaker but who prefers to call herself a “researcher story teller.” In her research she has found that people who express a true sense of connection with the people and the world around them are people who embrace vulnerability. They believe that what makes them vulnerable also makes them beautiful. They are willing to risk, “To do something where there are no guarantees. To invest in a relationship that may not work out. To say ‘I love you’ first.” Taking risks, making ourselves vulnerable may, at times, leave us hurt or wounded but, according to Brown, “it is also the birthplace of joy, creativity, of belonging, of love…”

Hear that again… “Vulnerability is the birthplace of joy, creativity, belonging, of love.”

Those shepherds who came to the manger expecting to meet the son who was promised from of old, the “Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace…” were folk who lived pretty close to the bottom of the social order. They were looked down upon, not welcomed among polite company. It’s easy to imagine how their lives might have left them risk averse, unwilling to reveal themselves to another, avoiding moments, situations, and relationships where they might be vulnerable to more hurt, rejection, or shame…

So I am guessing that when they found the little Lord Jesus asleep on the hay, they were startled, that they were confused, maybe even a little disappointed at first. They came looking for someone with power, majesty, and might to intervene on their behalf.

And then the dawn began to break upon them…

If what the angels had told them was true, if this is indeed is indeed the one who was promised, the one who would become the “Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace…” then God has chosen to begin that work by risking, by daring to become vulnerable to and for us. In coming to us as a defenseless, dependent baby, born in a stable and laid in a manger God has risked doing “something where there are no guarantees,” Has risked “investing in a relationship that might not work out.”

No wonder we will all go home tonight glorifying and praising God for all that we had heard and seen. Gathered here at the manger we have experienced an incredible revelation of God’s nature and purpose among us.

God doesn’t come to us and speak from a position of power, majesty and might, to say “I own you,” to demand that we bend our knee…

God comes to us in the cry of a baby, holding out its arms, dependent upon us, exposed, unguarded, vulnerable, willing to be the first to say “I love you,” and to invite us into “the birthplace of joy, creativity, belonging, of love!”

“Do not be afraid; for see– I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.”

Amen

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