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Pondering at the Foot of the Manger: Christmas

Tuesday, December 24, 2019, 7:00 PM:
Isaiah 9:2-7
Titus 2:11-14
Luke 2:1-20

God of promise,
from ancient times you have sustained your people,
lifting up the lowly, and calling the powerful to account.
With Mary and Joseph,
teach us to treasure in our hearts the birth of Jesus,
and with shepherds and angels,
lead us to praise the holy Child of Bethlehem
in whose name we pray. Amen.
Revised Common Lectionary Prayers (2002) alt.

We’ve made it this far… We made it through the season of advertising that runs, depending on tradition, either from November 1st or November 12th through to the 24th of December. (Though in a few weeks, as mail comes in, we will reap what our credit cards have sown.)

And we’ve definitely made it through the storms. (Though I suspect in a couple weeks the magi will be trudging through snow as they make their way to offer their gifts at the stable.)

But then, of course, there are also the family dinners to be had. The reunions with our misfit cousins (and sometimes that’s us); awkward conversations around the table; or said — or unsaid — agreements not to talk about politics, at least during dinner proper, until sharp cutlery is tucked safely away.

But sometimes there’s beauty in the messiness of our relationships. It’s over meals that friends become like family, and family can become friends. Community is built when we share in the preparations: when together we set the table, pour the drinks, or bring something to share at the feast. Something deeper happens when you host someone, or are hosted yourself.

Have you ever had a houseguest? Someone who stays with you, maybe over a holiday, or maybe someone you’ve helped through a difficult time. Someone who takes up on the couch or in the guest room, and through that experience you find your relationship having deepened with them for the rest of your lives. Where you reach a level where the silences aren’t awkward anymore, and you don’t have to be continuously ‘on’ for each other.

I share this, not because I’m a sucker for holiday sentimentality, but because these examples express some of the Christian vision and values that we celebrate tonight. In the poetic words of scripture it’s put in different ways:

We heard tonight:

    • “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light.”
    • “The grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation to all.”
    • “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 Saviour, who is the Messiah, the Lord.”
    At tomorrow morning’s service we’ll read from the Letter to the Hebrews:
    • “Long ago God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways by the prophets, but in these last days God has spoken to us by a Son…”
    And we’ll conclude our service tonight pondering these words:
    • In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God…. And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.”

It’s a message that ‘someone is coming.’ Or rather, someone has already come. And that ‘someone’ is God. And in this visit — because of this visit — you’ll find that our awkward rigidness and discomfort with each other will dissipate; silences don’t have to be awkward; and we don’t have to stress out from always having to appear ‘on’ for the other. And the most obvious and certain theological truth there is — that there is an infinite distance between Creator and creation — this assumption gets tossed out the window.

“The Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory.” As some have heard me say before, the literal text here that seems so plain and simplistic is “The Word became flesh and pitched a tent among us.” An unexpected guest shows up. And stakes a claim. On us, and on our world.

The timeless spiritual devotional classic National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation understands this. Cousin Eddie shows up in his beat up Winnebago, and from the moment they answer the door, Clark and Ellen Griswold know that nothing is going to be the same, after this.

(The Christian story of course goes much further, with the bombshell that this rough-around-the-edges guest from the rural small town, is in fact, the Creator of the world. And so another assumption is upended: the guest is actually the host.)

I can’t help but think of a story, a true one, from our own day. And some folks from St. Andrew’s may have heard this before, but bear with me. It’s worth hearing again.

In Durham, North Carolina there’s a Christian community called Rutba House. This place just a few years ago was founded by a group of Baptists, Pentecostals, Methodists, Roman Catholics, and Anglicans (or Episcopalians, as they’re called in the States). These diverse people from different traditions wanted to worship together, care for each other, and serve their neighbours. They adopted the American Book of Common Prayer (basically the American equivalent of our green service book), because it worked for all of them. Nothing too off the wall, nothing ‘exclusively’ Anglican about it.

And these folks, they didn’t wait for their respective church bodies to solve all their differences first, before they moved in together. Instead, they did the reverse thing; they decided to live, and eat, and work, and pray together. And hope and, I think, assume, that the requisite unity would come, out of that.

One of the founders of this residence writes: “We don’t all agree on how to read the Bible, the relationship between church and state, sexual ethics or eschatology [end of life, end of time stuff]. We argue about these things, and we don’t anticipate any easy resolutions.

“We will, in the meantime, keep washing one another’s dishes.”

It’s a community that realized that their unity was not rooted in their shared likes or dislikes; their politics; or their denomination. Their unity was in Jesus. And it’s a gift from Jesus: ours to accept. The second reading, from the Letter to Titus puts it this way: “[W]hen the goodness and loving kindness of God our Saviour appeared, God saved us, not because of any works of righteousness that we had done, but according to God’s mercy, through the water of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit.”

Salvation comes to our world through the waters of birth. This is a God who came to us first — as vulnerable as a baby with “no crib for a bed.” And saves us. Doesn’t have us earning our salvation by narrowly thinking ‘this’ or doing ‘that.’ But by asking us if we are willing to respond in vulnerability to God’s vulnerability. God invites us, with the shepherds, to the stable. God creates a community that through its practices of fellowship, breaking bread, and praying together, has the capacity, with Mary, to ponder this, in our hearts. And that’s a deep word, isn’t it: to ponder?

I think we’re talking about something more than just ticking a box in our head concerning some abstract faith claim. Triumphantly agreeing with something, being happy with ourselves that we’re right, and looking down on everyone else that’s wrong.

Nor is it about grudgingly agreeing to some abstract faith claim, the way we quickly scroll to the bottom of a webpage and click ‘yes’ to the terms and conditions of some software program.

Instead, Mary, as the model of faith (which we might simply call a ‘response to God’), sets the example of one who ponders the experience of God’s surprising goodness in the Word becoming flesh and dwelling among us. It’s Mary who says “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” And so begins nine months, and then a whole lifetime, of being drawn into the mystery of God.

And her son too — he will spend about thirty years quietly dwelling among us, before he speaks and acts with authority. And when he does come on the scene in Luke’s Gospel he says:

“[The Lord] has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.”

Because the God who comes to creation with the vulnerability of a baby, laid on a bed of hay, challenges us to be changed by this. So that God’s ways become our ways. So that ‘laws’ are written not on a rigid tablet, bon on compassionate hearts.

And like Mary who said “let it be with me according to your word,” Jesus, much later, sweating blood and shaking at the thought of what’s about to happen to him, will say “not my will, but yours, be done.”

In our world so torn apart by partisanship and polemics, God comes to us, and shares our human nature — that which we all hold in common, and that which is deeper than our many, and yes, often real, differences. With the shepherds we’re invited to gaze at the manger. To see in it our origin. And our destiny. And the way for us to live in the ‘in between.’ And to be changed by this.

At the foot of the manger — like at the foot of the cross — there are no easy answers. There are no abstract ideologies. But what there is, is the mystery of divine and human life for us to ponder, and be changed by.

“We will, in the meantime, keep washing one another’s dishes.” That is one response to God’s goodness, from that Christian community in North Carolina. (Mary and Joseph, I imagine, might add, that there are diapers to be changed.)

This is how community is formed. This is the alternative kingdom that God plants in our world like a mustard seed. This is how God enacts the proclamation of Mary, when she said: “[God] has shown strength with his arm; has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. God has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly.”

God’s is the authority, and the Kingdom. It is not ours to bring in with force. It can not be bombed in, shouted in, or made viral through technology and media. It is nothing short of the transformation of our hearts through our free response to the gift of a child, uniting heaven and earth; collapsing the distance between Creator and creature; levelling every mountain; making plain the rough places. And the desert shall rejoice and blossom, as justice rolls down like waters, and righteousness like a mighty stream. For the Christian, the waters of this alternative Kingdom begin within Mary, the bearer of God, the one who brings Jesus into the world. And our commitment to this Way — our acceptance of this gift — is through our rebirth in the waters of baptism.

“For a child has been born for us… authority rests upon his shoulders; and he is named Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.”

© 2019 The Rev’d Matthew Kieswetter