Sunday, December 23, 2018
Full Service Audio
I think there are two iconic images that all of us have had in our minds from the past year. One of them was a moment of great triumph; the other a moment of sadness, tragedy, and loss. The first refers to the events of July, when for eighteen days we sat on the edge of our collective seats wanting to know if young boys in Tham Luang Nang Non in Chang Rai, Thailand would emerge from a cave. We prayed for them right here in this church, and notwithstanding the fact that a Mr. Kunan, a former navy seal who died returning to a staging base after delivering supplies of air for rescue the boys, it was a story of triumph, joy and exultation. Remember when they emerged from the cave? Remember when they went and sat in the stands of Old Trafford and watched Manchester United play! Remember the exultation? The world was relieved. The boys were saved. It was glorious! We needed it, because just a few months earlier, on April 6th, in Armley, Saskatchewan, the Humboldt Broncos bus was hit by a tractor trailer. Sixteen bright young hockey players died and thirteen were injured. Many more were traumatized. There was this collective image, was there not, of those green bags strewn across the road, as the bus lay on its side. Every Canadian felt the loss. Hockey sticks were placed outside front doors, players in Scotiabank arena wore green. It was a tragedy, our hearts were broken, and we remember them.
Triumph and tragedy rolled into one year. The highs, the glory, the Alleluias; the loneliness, the pain, and the sorrow. If ever there was a story of anything profound and meaningful that grasped the reality of both the highs and the lows of the human experience it is the story in today’s passage from Luke’s Gospel. You have probably heard it read as many years as you exist, and it may seem like it has been re-trodden over and over again, it is so familiar. Yet, despite its familiarity, it never loses its impact, because it speaks of the tremendous power, wisdom, and grace of Almighty God. It speaks of the loneliness, the humility, and the suffering of God. It speaks of the very most triumphant, and in some ways the tragic. Written originally by Luke for a man called Theophilus for the purpose of demonstrating the expanse of the reign of Christ, this magnificent Gospel begins with a very small portion of the Christmas story, Jesus of Nazareth in Bethlehem.
Now of course, the Gospel itself is written in its entirety. Theophilus would have known not only the story of the birth, but all the stories that came afterwards. Nevertheless, Luke wants to begin at the beginning, when he tells the story of the birth of Jesus of Nazareth. He does so to demonstrate the very universal nature of Jesus himself. It is no coincidence that Luke spends a lot of time concentrating on the context in which this story was told. The story took place during the Roman Empire, an empire of power, and of people, and in the story of Christ, of peace. It starts out with power. Luke tells us that Rome ordered a census, and that this was for what was known then as the oikumene, the whole known inhabited world. Now, it wasn’t the whole world, nevertheless the expanse of the Roman Empire went from Portugal in the west to Armenia, as we would now know it, in the east. It went from Britain in the north to North Africa in the south. It was all around the Mediterranean, but at that time the known world. There were other worlds of course, but the Pax Romana, as it was known controlled everything. The census was to control people by getting them to pay their taxes. It was also used to conscript people to become part of the Roman military. The only exemption was given to Israel, which I have often thought quite ironic. The Roman power was there: massive borders; power; control. This was a universal empire in nearly every sense of the word.
Into the midst of this all-consuming empire, came a child. For Luke, this child was not subservient to the power of the Roman world, but greater than it. Why? Because, as he goes on to say, there was “Good News” for all people! Not just for the Roman Empire, but for all people. The Greek word that is used is laos – laity, ordinary people, but all of the people, not some of the people. Jesus did not come to be the Messiah of only the Jews. He did not come in one historical situation in one land; he came as the Lord of the Universe to reveal the power of God, to bring Heaven to Earth, to show humanity the very purpose and will and love of God. Jesus was not then just a parochial, religious leader, nor was he simply a mythological figure like so many others had been. He came incarnate, in the flesh, into life, but he came as the Lord of the Universe. Oftentimes, I feel in our very parochial world, where we break people up into races or classes or into various groups, we forget that there is One who is universal, who is greater than, who is above and more glorious than all the ways that we construct ourselves. There is the Lord of the Universe who has come for all people.
He has also come in peace: “Glory to God in the Highest, the Heavenly Host proclaimed” – a great and glorious message – but “peace on Earth”, on Earth not in one corner, but Earth. The word that is used for “peace” is eirene, and eirene is not an emotion, it is not a feeling of peacefulness; it is a state of being. When Christ came, he changed the world. He reconciled the world between God Almighty and simple humanity. He reconciled the brokenness between sinful humans and other sinful humans. He restores the very power of creation itself. This is the Lord, and his peace has no end. Yet, in the midst of all of this, and even since his very birth we have seen the fragmentation and the brokenness and the absence of his peace, but when it breaks in, it is powerful.
Last month, we celebrated one of the most emotional services that I have ever attended in my life here: the 100th anniversary of the Armistice. I don’t think there are any of us who left that day without feeling different. Well, I couldn’t help but think of a story that is told from 1914, and it is one that you might have read somewhere else before, but maybe not in its fullness. It was the story of how on Christmas in 1914, after five months of terrible fighting, some of the British troops decided they were going to put signs up wishing everyone a Merry Christmas in the trenches in France – an absurd thing! As they did this, word got out to the people on the other side. The Germans saw it, the French with whom they were fighting saw it, and then there were signs back to them – “Merry Christmas” in German! Then, there was recognition that there needed to be a time of peace, a momentary armistice. The soldiers actually got up from their trenches and met one another in the battlefield, as if it was a hockey game, and exchanged cigars and sweets, the two things that they had, with each other. They sang some carols and then went back to their trenches. A day later the strife began again. But, for a moment, the world grasped the power of the peace of Christ! What is often not told, and this is the sad part, is that the orders were that if they did not go back into combat, they would be shot for treason.
This is so often how we treat the peace of Christ, as temporary, a moment in time, maybe a nice Sunday like this, a moment where we stop and we are at peace,, Yet Christ came as the Universal Lord to introduce that very notion of peace to us and to demonstrate it by his very presence, not as a feeling, not as an emotion, but as a state of being, a state for which ultimately in its fulfillment we all wait. The Lord of Life, the Lord of Peace, the Lord had come: “Glory to God in the Highest and on Earth peace.” The story is also a low story, a moment of Christ at his most humble. It is no coincidence that Luke goes to great lengths to tell us the history of the moment. He wanted Theophilus to know that Caesar Augustus was in power; that Quirinius was the Governor of Syria – although historians tell us he was ten years out in that. Nevertheless, he paints a picture of Mary and Joseph, a stable, and a manger. Here we have this humble story that is earthly and real, concrete and in time. It is incarnate. It is history. But more than that: It is God’s very presence with us. In that manger was not just a child, but the Child of the Universe, the Child from Heaven, the Child of God. He came and dwelt amongst us, identified with us, and he shares with us his love and his grace.
Many years ago, when I was beginning my ministry, I was a student minister in River John, Nova Scotia. My mother-in-law, who is here today, will remember this. Maybe not this story though. On the eve of Christmas, I received a telephone call. To put it in context, I had a very good relationship with the Anglican priest and the Presbyterian minister. The Anglican priest was older and nearing retirement. The Presbyterian minister was newly ordained, with a young family. I was the student in the United Church – by far the lesser of the three! I received a telephone call from the Anglican priest. Les said to me, “Andrew, I have a problem! In our manger scene in the church someone has taken away the Baby Jesus.”
I said, “Les, what do you mean?”
He said, “Well someone has taken the doll that was the Baby Jesus. Would you happen to have a spare Baby Jesus hanging around your manse?”
I said, “Well Les, I am sorry I don’t have another Baby Jesus. We don’t have back-up Jesus! I am sorry! Have you called John (the Presbyterian minister)?”
He said, “No, I will try John. John is busy right now, but I will try him.”
He phoned John and he got the same answer: “Sorry, there is no spare Jesus in the Presbyterian manse either.”
Les was frantic and didn’t know what he was going to do, because he had this manger, and it was a big one, and he didn’t know how he was going to have a manger without Jesus. So, some hours went by and it was getting close to the time of the service, and Les phoned me again. He said, “Andrew, I have come up with an idea, but I want to know whether it is theologically correct.”
(I am thinking: “Oh great, an Anglican asking a United Church person something theological!”)
I said, “Okay, what are you thinking of doing?”
He said, “I was thinking of inviting every child in my church to come up and to sit in the manger, one at a time. Would this be theologically correct?”
Well, I thought for a moment “Is he trying to trick me here?” And then, I said, “Les, do it! Do it!” And, he did!
I told him why he should do it. I quoted from the great Saint Athanasius, who wrote: “God became what we are so he might make us what he is.” In other words, Jesus of Nazareth did not just come and lie in a manger. Jesus wasn’t just the incarnate Son of God.
Jesus came for us. In that manger all of humanity lay in all its vulnerability, in all its meekness, in all its potential for suffering. The Son of God came and dwelt amongst us in a manger.
That is where you are, and that is where I am, because of Him. The more I think about it, the more I think about those parents who lost their sons in Humboldt, Saskatchewan. I am sure many of them will have asked this question to God over the last few months: “Oh God, do you know what it is like to lose a son? Do you know?”
God would answer, “I do! I placed him in a manger, and they crucified him! I understand. I know! I know!”
This is the power of Christmas, because not only was that child crucified, not only was he buried, but he was raised from the dead. When we wonder whether the world will be a better place, and where Christ is in the brokenness of this world, we see him in a manger. We see him at Christmas, and we sing “Good News” and “Glory” and “Alleluia”: God has become one with us, and we, through Him, have become one with God.
I think the greatest of the poets, and I show my bias, is the great Alfred, Lord Tennyson. In his poem The Larger Hope, he has this hope for a restored and a reconciled world. Notice how it ends.
Oh yet we trust that somehow good
Will be the final goal of ill,
To pangs of nature, sins of will,
Defects of doubt, and taints of blood;
That nothing walks with aimless feet;
That not one life will be destroy’d,
Or cast as rubbish to the void,
When God hath made the pile complete;
That not a worm is cloven in vain;
That not a moth with vain desire
Is shrivell’d in a fruitless fire,
Or but subserves another gain.
Behold, we know not anything;
I can but trust that good shall fall
At last – far off – at last to all,
And every winter change to spring.
So runs my dream; but who am I?
An infant crying in the night;
An infant crying for the light,
And with no language, but a cry.
The Lord of the universe became a child and changed us! Amen.