Monday, December 25, 2017

The Essential Good News

PROPERS:         CHRISTMAS DAY I            
TEXT:                 LUKE 2:1-14 (15-20)

ONE SENTENCE:        The Christmas story needs no elaboration; it is, for Christians, the pivot point of our lives.       

            As I prepared to preach this evening, I was mindful of two thoughts.

            First, is the popular definition of good preaching.  It goes like this: “Good sermons have a good beginning and a good ending.  And those two parts should be as close as possible.”

            The other is from a parish Nora and I used to attend.  The Rector – not a great preacher – stepped to the middle aisle, as he normally did, to preach his sermon on Christmas Eve.  The church was packed. It was a ripe opportunity to share the Christian message.

The sum total of his sermon that evening was, “It is all true.”  Then he sat down.

            One can carry a definition too far.  Yet, I am aware that never, in my 30 years of ordained ministry, has anyone stood up at the end of a sermon and shouted, “More! More!”

            But I know this:  There are many here, within the sound of my voice, who do not attend worship services regularly.  And it is important for me to share why this night is so special.

            The story we just read – from the second chapter of Luke – is at its core euangelion.  That is the Greek word for gospel, and from an old English word, godspell.  It means good news. It is good news, indeed.

            All of us are somewhat familiar with Luke’s account of the nativity.  We hear it each year at this time.  In my own family, as a child, I read this story to my siblings, my parents and my grandparents. It helps frame this most festive of holidays. It provides the narrative.

            It is the primary account of Jesus’ birth.  The gospels of Mark and John do not have birth narratives.  Matthew’s reference to the birth is passing.

It is Luke’s account which tells us of the historic context. Luke tells us of the birth in a stable, due to there being no room at the inn.  Luke tells us also of the manger for a cradle, and of the angels’ appearance to the shepherds, and of their devotion there, in the stable.

            The Wise Men are not mentioned in Luke. They come later – and in another gospel, Matthew.

            This basic story – the story from Luke – needs no elaboration.  To do so would be gilding the lily.  But it does deserve some emphasis.

            And that emphasis is this:  This gospel tells us that at a certain point in history – in a particular time and place, under a specific ruler – the creator of all that is moved in history and took on human form.

            We Christians call that the Incarnation. As John’s gospel says of that epochal event, “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory.” The God who created the world, breathed life into human beings, spoke from a burning bush, and parted the Red Sea became a tiny infant, resting in an animal’s feeding trough.

            In our technological world, we are hard-to-impress.  But the Incarnation is something of a different magnitude which transcends everything else we will know in our lifetimes.  I dare say that nothing which happens within our lives will be commemorated in 2,000 years, nor will it cause hearts to melt and lives to be transformed.

            The birth of Jesus is a sign beyond all others of the deep love of God for all his children.

            That is the unvarnished message of this night:  That God loves you so much that he was willing to fully enter into our lost and broken world in order that we might know that love.

            And that love is extended most especially to the downtrodden, the broken, the grieving, the lonely, the hungry, the thirsty, prisoners, and those who have committed egregious sins.

            All of us.  We are the people of his pasture and the sheep of his hand.

            As Rabbis used to say in other settings, “Everything else is commentary.”

The Roots of an Amazing Change

PROPERS:          ADVENT 4, YEAR B   
TEXT:                 LUKE 1:26-38

ONE SENTENCE:        Great movements may have surprising and humble beginnings, and such is the story of Jesus.   

            The modern city of Nazareth is a bustling, teeming city of 115,000 residents. 

            It is built on hills – some gently rolling, some sharply climbing.  Streets are narrow. Traffic is congested.  The city is a typically crowded, compact Middle Eastern town.  The streets are lined with small Arab shops, with most displaying their wares on the sidewalks in front of their stores.

            Today, Nazareth is predominantly Muslim.  The next largest portion of the city is Jewish.  A smaller segment is Christian.

            A pilgrim travels upward in the city, ascending the hills toward the city’s apex.  There, at the peak of the city, a traveler finds some of the holiest ground in all of Christianity – the Basilica of the Annunciation.  Immediately adjacent, but a separate church, is St. Joseph’s Chapel.  They are both Roman Catholic Churches.

            Each has breathtaking places within.

            The Basilica of the Annunciation is a beautiful church.  It was built in the 20th century and has three public levels.  The visitor enters on the middle level, where the work of numerous artists depicts the annunciation by the angel Gabriel to the young woman, Mary.  The works of art are representative of the many contributing nations from around the world.

            The upper level is the primary worship space.  There are three large chancels – side-by-side – with altars in each.  Smaller, side chapels are along the side walls of the nave.  Above the three main altars are spectacular mosaics – depicting the Trinity, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

            But the heart of this beautiful church is on the lower level.  There, behind an ornate gate, is a grotto – the cave in which tradition holds Mary experienced the visit of the angel Gabriel.

            The cave is believed to be the place of the annunciation.

+ + +

            In that day, 2000 years ago, Nazareth was nothing like it is today.

            It was a tiny, rural village in a backwater part of Israel known as The Galilee.  No more than a few dozen people lived there – and their living conditions were quite primitive.  Archeologists have uncovered the remains of the ancient village, and their entirety is within the borders of the church property.

            One needs only to visit the adjacent St. Joseph’s Chapel to see origins of the town up-close. Entering that church, the visitor goes down a flight of steps into the undercroft.  It is in the undercroft that you can look back 2,000 years to see the caves – yes, caves -- in which the people of Nazareth lived.

            That church marks the place which tradition holds was Joseph’s carpentry shop and home.  It was within those hard-hewn rock corridors that Joseph worked, Jesus played and grew, Mary guided him, and Jesus grew into the man we know.

            And it all began in a small, rural village – thousands of miles away.

+ + +

            Anthropologist Margaret Mead once said, “Never doubt the ability of a small group of committed people to change the world.  Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”

            Great movements have humble beginnings.  In no circumstance is that saying more true than the story of Jesus.  The story begins with a young woman alone in a tiny village.  She has a mystical religious experience that is remembered in our gospel lesson today.

            It is absolutely amazing that we are commemorating that moment 2,000 years, several cultures, and thousands of miles removed.  All over the Christian world that moment is being relived today.

            It is meaningful in this season to hold in-mind these realities:

·      -- A young woman, living in a remote village, experienced a vision that changed the world.

·      -- That a birth of a child ensued nine-months later – once again, in a small village south of Jerusalem.

·      -- Thirty years later, that child – now a man – began an itinerant ministry in that rural area in which he lived.

·      -- A small band of followers went with him, each step, as he preached, taught, and healed.

·      -- He died a criminal’s death, hanging from a Roman cross.

·      -- He overcame death and appeared to that group of followers, who had previously scattered for fear of their lives.

·      -- Over the next several decades, the number of his followers grew – and his life and resulting teachings were memorialized in books and letters.

·      -- The followers refused to recant their beliefs, even at the pain of death.

·      -- And in the ensuing 18 centuries, the world has been transformed by that moment in a cave, the faith of a young woman, and the life which resulted.

It was not at all what was expected in the coming of the Messiah.  The most common expectation of that era was that the Messiah would be a great warrior, a powerful general, to lead the Jewish forces against Rome.

The Messiah would be an offspring of the great King David – 1,000 years after his reign.  The Messiah’s reign would be modeled on that of David, and his son Solomon – the only time in history that all Jewish people had been under the rule of a single king.

But, as the old camp song goes, “Surprise, surprise, God is a surprise.  Right before your eyes.  It’s baffling to the wise.  Open up your eyes and see.”

The history of the world pivoted. It all began so humbly… so inconspicuously… so many years ago.  And we and the world still need to hear and be surprised by that unexpected good news today.