Christmas Story #2

DISCLAIMER: I believe sermons are meant to be heard. They are the word proclaimed in a live exchange between God and the preacher, and the preacher and God, and the preacher and the people, and the people and the preacher, and the people and God, and God and the people. Typically set in the context of worship and always following the reading of scripture, sermons are about listening and speaking and hearing and heeding. At the risk of stepping outside such boundaries, I share sermons here — where the reader will have to wade through a manuscript that was created to be spoken word. Even if you don’t know the sound of my voice, let yourself hear as you read. Let your mind see as you hear. Let your life be opened to whatever response you begin to hear within you.

May the Spirit Speak to you!

21 December 2014 – 4th Sunday of Advent

Luke 1:1-2:40 (included below)

Two weeks ago we heard Christmas Story #1 as told according to the gospel of Matthew and today we’re on to Christmas Story #2: the telling of it all according to the gospel of Luke. While Christmas Story #1 in Matthew begins with that lengthy genealogy of who fathered who from the great father Abraham, to King David, through the deportation to Babylon, and all the way to Joseph, the husband of Mary who gave birth to Jesus, the Christ; at the same time, the gospel of Luke has its own very unique way of beginning to tell of the good news of God coming to live in Jesus as one of us. Listen for God’s word to us in the opening of the gospel of Luke:

“Since many have undertaken to set down an orderly account of the events that have been fulfilled among us, 2 just as they were handed on to us by those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and servants of the word, 3 I too decided, after investigating everything carefully from the very first, to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, 4 so that you may know the truth concerning the things about which you have been instructed.”

It’s probably important that we know that the gospel of Luke was composed somewhere around 80-90 CE. In other words, some 50-60 years after Jesus’ death and resurrection. . . . One thing jumps out in this introduction: the one for whom this gospel is written. Theo-philus. While our English versions capitalize the word as if it is a name, history has not proven the existence of one named Theophilus, whom the gospel of Luke sought to address. Theo-philus. Theo, meaning God in Greek. And philus coming from one of the Greek words translated love – like the kind of love between friends or brothers. We know it best in Philadelphia, the City of Brotherly Love. So: Theo-philus: God-lover. That’s the one to whom Christmas Story #2 is written: the beloved of God who themselves love God. In other words, regular people like you and me: the faithful who are seeking to love God more. It’s a very different way to begin a gospel and in fact, it seems Luke goes on to tell story after story of God-lovers who ended up knowing more of their beloved status, even as they fall more deeply in love with God – something hoped for everyone who hears this gospel. Listen to the likes of those who will be a part of this telling of Christ’s birth – not terrified Kings and outside seekers, as is emphasized in the gospel of Matthew. Rather lover-of-God after lover-of-God who behold this marvelous birth! Listen – especially to the parts of this story that rarely get read this time of the year:

5 “In the days of King Herod of Judea, there was a priest named Zechariah, who belonged to the priestly order of Abijah. His wife was a descendant of Aaron, and her name was Elizabeth. 6 Both of them were righteous before God, living blamelessly according to all the commandments and regulations of the Lord. 7 But they had no children, because Elizabeth was barren, and both were getting on in years. 8 Once when he was serving as priest before God and his section was on duty, 9 Zechariah was chosen by lot, according to the custom of the priesthood, to enter the sanctuary of the Lord and offer incense. 10 Now at the time of the incense offering, the whole assembly of the people was praying outside. 11 Then there appeared to him an angel of the Lord, standing at the right side of the altar of incense. 12 When Zechariah saw him, he was terrified; and fear overwhelmed him. 13 But the angel said to him, “Do not be afraid, Zechariah, for your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you will name him John. 14 You will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth, 15 for he will be great in the sight of the Lord. He must never drink wine or strong drink; (for) even before his birth he will be filled with the Holy Spirit. 16 He will turn many of the people of Israel to the Lord their God. 17 With the spirit and power of Elijah he will go before him, to turn the hearts of parents to their children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous, to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.” 18 Zechariah said to the angel, “How will I know that this is so? For I am an old man, and my wife is getting on in years.” 19 The angel replied, “I am Gabriel. I stand in the presence of God, and I have been sent to speak to you and to bring you this good news. 20 But now, because you did not believe my words, which will be fulfilled in their time, you will become mute, unable to speak, until the day these things occur.” 21 Meanwhile the people were waiting for Zechariah, and wondered at his delay in the sanctuary. 22 When he did come out, he could not speak to them, and they realized that he had seen a vision in the sanctuary. He kept motioning to them and remained unable to speak. 23 When his time of service was ended, he went to his home. 24 After those days his wife Elizabeth conceived, and for five months she remained in seclusion. She said, 25 “This is what the Lord has done for me when he looked favorably on me and took away the disgrace I have endured among my people.”

Here we have Luke’s first God-lovers: Two righteous people. A priest of Israel, no less, and his barren wife who just so happens to be a descendant of Israel’s first priest, Aaron. According to the gospel of Luke, Zechariah and Elizabeth are “living blamelessly according to all the commandments and regulations of the Lord” (Luke 1:6). And, at long last – like Sarah and father Abraham before them; like Hannah and her husband Elkanah – their prayers are answered. Too long have they born the shame of being childless among a people who believed your children gave witness to your favored status in the LORD’s eyes. After they’ve given up all hope on account of their old age, these two will be the parents of the one who will get everyone else ready for Jesus. It’s remarkable the way these God-lovers went about their duties. We have to wonder from Zechariah’s reaction if he was expecting much when the lot fell to him to go in and perform the incense offering. Because you see, the ironic thing is that the incense offering he was to carry out was the offering (according to Exodus) that God first commanded Aaron to perform on the altar in the place before the arc of the covenant and the mercy seat where God promised to meet with them (Exodus 30:1-10). It kinda begs the question if we too might be going through the motions. Going through the motions of weekly worship. Going through the motions of our daily prayers. Even going through the motions of these Advent weeks not really expecting God to show up. Though it seemed he no longer anticipated it, Zechariah was in for the most stupendous encounter with God that day as he went through the motions of his priestly duties. . . . It’s one of the beautiful messages of the gospel of Luke’s telling of Christ’s birth. Right after we hear of Zechariah and Elizabeth, Luke races into the next part of the story, which we all certainly know well: 26 “In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, 27 to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. 28 And he came to her and said, “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.”

From an elderly man to a young girl not yet a woman, God tears into the ordinary to say: “Greetings! I am about to do something remarkable! And, o, by the way: I need YOU in order to accomplish it!” Like it or not, it’s the way God chooses to work: through God’s people. The conversations between the messenger and Zechariah, and the messenger and Mary go almost exactly alike. Both, in fact, question how this can be. Zechariah will be turned mute for a while in order to finally understand. Perhaps to emphasis that sometimes we do far too much talking to God. How many of us don’t hem and haw around – offering all sorts of excellent excuses why we really can’t be the one to accomplish whatever it might be God wants to accomplish through us. Zechariah’s a good reminder that we need to be quiet to listen and then act. And what of Mary? I read a legend this week that offered the explanation that “Mary was not the first person asked to be the God-bearer, but rather she was the first person to say yes” (Feasting on the Gospels – Luke, Vol. 1; Luke 1:26-38, James R. Luke Jr.). We might not like that idea; perhaps because it strikes a little bit too close to home. Because, as one preacher has said: “What good is it to me if this eternal birth of the divine son takes places unceasingly but does not take place within me? And what good is it to me if Mary is full of grace, if I am not also full of grace?” (Barbara Brown Taylor, ????????) Isn’t it true that we each are the tabernacles, or containers, of the holy – God, in the Holy Spirit, living in us? Which also makes us “pregnant with divine possibilities” in order for God to give birth to what’s needed in our own time (Feasting on the Gospels – Luke, Vol. 1; Luke 1:26-38, James R. Luke Jr.). Mary: the God-bearer, and you and me likewise. Opening our lives to say: “Here we are, God, your daily servants. Let it be according to your desire!”

We’ve already heard this morning the song Mary sings when she joins Elizabeth. Picture those twin round bellies: two willing women, miraculously playing their part in God’s great plan to definitively show the world God’s goodwill towards all! What soul wouldn’t want to rejoice?! Luke moves from that beautiful song of Mary almost immediately into another one. After John’s birth and naming, his father’s tongue sings its second set of first words. Listen:

67 Then his father Zechariah was filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke this prophecy: 68 “Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for he has looked favorably on his people and redeemed them. 69 He has raised up a mighty savior for us in the house of his servant David, 70 as he spoke through the mouth of his holy prophets from of old, 71 that we would be saved from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us. 72 Thus God has shown the mercy promised to our ancestors, and has remembered his holy covenant, 73 the oath that he swore to our ancestor Abraham, to grant us 74 that we, being rescued from the hands of our enemies, might serve the LORD without fear, 75 in holiness and righteousness before him all our days. 76 And you, (my) child (John), will be called the prophet of the Most High; for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways, 77 to give knowledge of salvation to his people by the forgiveness of their sins. 78 By the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high will break upon us, 79 to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.”

Angels are going to announce almost the exact same thing at the next birth. And in the gospel of Luke, shepherds are the ones who come running to see: another set of characters Luke lifts up in order to set up the theme, as one commentator has said that: “The main actors in this drama will not be the rich and the powerful but, rather, those overlooked by the world. . . . barren older couples, unwed teenage mothers, and those relegated to caring for animals. The good news is that even they play a part in this drama of salvation. (Which means that) The terrifying news . . . is that even we (must) play a part in this drama of hope” (Feasting on the Gospels – Luke, Vol. 1; Luke 1:5-25, James R. Luke Jr.). But we’ll get to more of that on Christmas Eve!

The gospel of Luke picks up after all the details of that most holy of nights, with eight days later. In Israel faithful God-lovers were waiting and watching. When at last the holy child shows up for his first time in the Temple of Jerusalem, he’s taken from his mother’s arms as one looking forward to the dawning of Israel’s hope proclaims: 29 “Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace, according to your word; 30 for my eyes have seen your salvation, 31 which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, 32 a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel.” 33 The child’s father (Joseph) and mother (Mary) were amazed at what was being said about him. 34 Then Simeon blessed them and said to his mother Mary, “This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed 35 so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed—and a sword will pierce your own soul too.”

Imagine how much that must have hurt the heart of this new mother. He’s not even old enough yet to have gotten to that baby smiling stage when Mary is given a peek into what the future will be for her Son of the Most High, the One who will reign over the house of Jacob forever, whose kingdom shall have no end. How could she have known his miraculous birth would lead to a torturous death that would test her trust in the God for whom that messenger said nothing would be impossible? We can only hope that she can treasure these initial moments in her soul long enough to keep faith throughout all the days of his life, death, and God’s biggest surprise yet to come. It’s like the writer of Luke wants to get us ready from the start. To point out all the details of this amazing in-breaking of God in our world so that we won’t lose hope on the days when hope is not present. There will be days in this life when we will need to cling ever so tightly to the pronouncements made at this birth. For the darkness still surrounds.

The last lover of God to take the stage in Christmas Story #2 knew it well. Listen: 36 “There was also a prophet, Anna the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher. She was of a great age, having lived with her husband seven years after her marriage, 37 then as a widow to the age of eighty-four. She never left the temple but worshiped there with fasting and prayer night and day. 38 At that moment (when the Holy Family was there with Simeon) she came, and began to praise God and to speak about the child to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem.” (She’s one of the first to fulfill that command as she tells it on Zion’s mount.) Finally Luke records: 39 “When (the Holy Family) had finished everything required by the law of the LORD, they returned to Galilee, to their own town of Nazareth. 40 The child grew and became strong, filled with wisdom; and the favor of God was upon him.”

And so the drama of his life begins – though only that situation in the Temple at the age of his bar mitzvah (12 years old) will be mentioned between his birth and his baptism by John in the Jordan at 30 years of age. . . . With the regular God-lovers of the gospel of Luke’s Christmas Story, we’re invited to fall a little bit deeper in love with the God for whom nothing will be impossible – the God who seeks to ensure that everyone knows God’s favor rests upon us all. Peace is possible; for in Christ’s birth, we no longer have to wonder whether the Sovereign Maker of the universe hears our cries. We no longer have to get in line behind those of the world who think they matter more than any others. Our lives can be filled with the God-of-all-possibility’s hope! . . . Its mighty good news, most excellent God-lovers! Mighty good news! May it prepare our souls too to rejoice!

In the name of the life-giving Father, the life-redeeming Son, and the life-sustaining Spirit, Amen!

© Copyright JMN, 2014  (All rights reserved.)

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