Archives for December 2005

Christmas Day (A,B,C) – 2005

December 25, 2005

(RCL) Isaiah 9:2-7; Psalm 96; Titus 2:11-14; Luke 2:1-14 (15-20)

“Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around the, and they were terrified.  But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for see – I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people.”

There is a clergy person who, like many others, makes a practice of visiting a nursing home in her community every week. In that nursing home there is a resident, a woman, whose mind is as sharp as anyone’s, but because of her illness, she can no longer walk or speak.  She communicates mostly by gestures, or by spelling words in her lap with her one good hand.  She and her clergy visitor have become good friends over the years they have known each other, and, as friends do, the clergy visitor occasionally runs little errands for her friend, small tasks that her friend can no longer do for herself.  A week or so ago she waved her visitor into her room with some sense of urgency.  There on her bed was a paper napkin with a picture drawn on it, and looking straight at her visitor, she pointed to that napkin over and over again.  It was obvious that this was something important.  Her clergy visitor looked closely, and there she saw her friend had sketched, as best she could, what appeared to be a flashlight.  “Is that a flashlight?” the visitor asked.  Her friend’s head nodded up and down, while she pointed first at the picture and then to herself.  The visitor laughed.  “You want a flashlight?”  The head nodded again.  “Whatever for?” the visitor asked.  But there was no deterring her.  In her own way she made it known that this was a matter of great concern and importance to her, and that was that.  So the clergy visitor agreed.

The next time the visitor went to the nursing home she made sure that she had the flashlight in hand.  She walked into her friend’s room, shining the light all over the walls.  A big smile crossed her friend’s face, and a look that could only be interpreted as relief.  “Please,” the visitor said, “tell me what this is all about.  Why do you need a flashlight?”  Her friend moved her wheelchair towards the door and indicated that her visitor was to follow.  Together they went down the hall to the nurse’s station, where one of the aides told the visitor that, a few weeks earlier, during a week of heavy rain and high winds, the power in the nursing home had gone out for a time.  Her friend had become frightened, and she wanted the assurance that if it happened again, she would have that small beam of light to shine in the darkness and ease her fears.

For all of us, there are always those times in our lives when fear and worry get the best of us.  To the rest of the world they may seem totally unfounded and even ridiculous, but to those who live in the midst of them, they can be very real and totally overwhelming.  Big or small, these fears can take over our lives so that they literally become who we are and what we do. There are many examples of these fears: fear of the unknown, fear of illness or loss of health, fear of waiting for the results of a medical test, fear of losing a job or fear of ever getting a new one.  There is also fear for our children and what the future will hold for them.  Every one of these powerful fears can send a stab through our hearts.

Blessedly for all of us, we have this glorious season of Christmas that comes again and again each and every year to remind us and to renew within us the realization of the wonderful gift to us from a loving God – a God who sent God’s only son into the world to take those very fears upon himself and replace them with the joyous Christmas message of light and love and hope.

In many of the Christmas stories that are read from Scripture during the weeks before Christmas, we hear of God’s messengers, the angels, delivering this very message.  Do not be afraid.  When the angel Gabriel appeared to Zechariah to announce that his wife Elizabeth would become the mother of John the Baptist, even in her old age, Gabriel’s first words to him were, “Do not be afraid, Zechariah, your prayer has been heard”.  Not long after, Gabriel appeared again, this time to Mary, to announce that she would be the mother of Jesus.  And again his first words were, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God”.  And an angel appeared to Joseph, too.  He was betrothed to Mary and it would have been understandable in those days if he had sent her away, but the angel said, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit”.  And finally, on Christmas Day, in glorious splendor and light, an angel appeared to the shepherds on a hillside while they were tending their sheep and said to them, “Fear not, I bring you good tidings of great joy which shall be to all people.  For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior who is Christ the Lord”.

All of these people were just ordinary folk who, each in their own way, were asked to overcome their fears and, in faith and obedience to a loving God, do improbable and difficult things.  Zechariah and Elizabeth were elderly and I’m sure many of their friends and neighbors had much to say as Elizabeth became obviously pregnant in her old age.  Mary, on the other hand, was just a child of perhaps fourteen or fifteen.  She was unmarried and so a disgrace to her family and to Joseph, her betrothed.  Everyone would have understood if Joseph had put her away from him.  According to the times, he could have had her stoned, but he did not.  Because of the angel’s words, he stood by her and held his head, and Mary’s, high.  As for the shepherds, they were the lowliest of the low.  Always smelly and dirty from herding their sheep, they lived apart from the other townspeople and were shunned by them.  And yet they were the first to hear the news of Jesus’ birth, and they went quickly to see the babe in the manger.

All of these people were asked to do difficult things, things that were totally out of character for them, and things we can be sure they never would have chosen for themselves.  It is obvious that they were afraid.  But Scripture tells us, too, that they were faithful people.  Not only did they believe in God, but they trusted in God and in God’s love.  They knew deep down in their hearts that if God asked something of them, God would also provide the strength and the courage and everything they needed to get the job done.

Now Christmas is here again for each and every one of us.  The gifts of that first Christmas are as true today as they were on the first Christmas more than 2,000 years ago.  Out of God’s constant and abiding love, God waits to give them to you through God’s best gift of all, the gift of God’s own Son, come to earth as a tiny babe born in a manger in Bethlehem.  May God fill your heart with his love this Christmas, and may that love overcome your fears and set you free to accept the gifts God came to bring to each of you, gifts of light and hope and peace.

— The Rev. Judith Carrick, a vocational deacon serving in the Diocese of Long Island, is currently assigned to St. Anselm’s Church in Shoreham, New York.

Christmas Eve (A,B,C) – 2005

December 24, 2005

(RCL) Isaiah 9:2-7; Psalm 96; Titus 2:11-14; Luke 2:1-14 (15-20)

The birth of the Messiah in a lowly stable is current news. Just a year ago Newsweek devoted a December issue to the topic. It was quite good! It talked about how modern scholarship attempts to unravel what happened or didn’t some 2,000 years ago. It leaves the reader with a lot of unanswered questions, and a feeling that the investigations into the historical background for the birth narratives of Jesus might just be a blind alley.

There has always been resistance to accepting the story of Mary, Joseph, the shepherds, and the babe in the manger. In fact, resistance has a lot to do with how anyone comes to terms with the Nativity. But did you ever wonder how it is that God’s way of working in the world is designed to minimize resistance? Had the announcement of the birth of Jesus been broadcast widely, the Roman Empire would have done everything possible to suppress the event. In fact Herod typifies the resistance. Though a Jew, he is so threatened by what he hears from the wise men, who are only asking for information about finding Jesus, that he sets out to destroy every male two years of age or less, just to be sure no usurper comes along to challenge his reign—as if God were interested in doing that.

In the science fiction stories about the Starship Voyageur, the Borg are creatures depicted assimilating every life form with which they come in contact. “Resistance is futile,” is their mantra. But in one episode one of the starship crew becomes part of the Borg and discovers that by not resisting actual liberation from them is possible. This is precisely what God chose to do.

We are all resistant to change, new ideas, even new ways of keeping house! “My mother always did it that way; don’t change it!” “This new plan by management will never work!” “We’ve never done it that way before!” Somehow we think resistance will win out over change. Sometimes it does, but rarely. At best it can delay things, even in Congress!

That is because in spite of our natural inclination to resist there is also a drive to move ahead, to open new frontiers and see things in a new light. God seems to work this way. Our God is not a God of tradition and unchanging revelation. Our God does new things.

The Birth of the Messiah had been “in the works” for a long time. In fact, the whole of Scripture up to the New Testament can be read as God’s preparation for this event, the birth of Jesus. And there was resistance. The people led by Moses were unruly, complaining, and disobedient. They preferred Egypt’s slavery to wandering in the desert. Many of the ancient kings of Israel turned against the ways of the Lord. The 8th Century BCE prophets were repudiated, even the greats like Amos and Hosea.

But the plan prevailed, and now comes the birth event itself. Yes, on this Holy Night we are all but there, “standing on the tiptoe of expectation,” as one Gospel writer puts it. But that’s because we know the story. The actual birth of Jesus was a quiet, unheralded event except for a few motley shepherds, the Holy Family and some seers from the East.

And that’s the point. God chose a path to be born into humanity that would encounter little resistance because God wanted to join the resistance, not provoke it. The author, Rick Maurer, in his book entitled Beyond the Wall of Resistance: Unconventional Strategies that Build Support for Change, writes about the phenomenon of resistance and how one overcomes it by actually joining it. Well, God knew about this before Mr. Maurer did! God joined the resistance, if you will, by choosing to be born into it, lowly and quietly in a backwater region of the Roman Empire through the biological birth process of a young girl, probably 14 or so.

It is this method of God’s, taking the path of joining the resistance, that makes the Christmas story believable. If Luke had chosen to depict Jesus’ birth in terms of cosmic, earth-shaking conquests, if Luke had portrayed dominions and powers being toppled, it would never have worked. Few people approach the Messiah as conquering king. Most of us come to the crib, gaze into it and wonder, wonder if the light of the Christ Child is really strong enough to overcome the great resistance of the darkness.

And so far, it seems, that is exactly what happens. Slowly, deliberately, and with apparent failures and setbacks, the plan of salvation unfolds. It’s not a smoothly rising road, but a journey with rocks and deserts in the way for most of us. But this crib is the starting place, and it teaches us all something profound about God’s nature. God does not choose to use power to overwhelm us; rather God uses the most compelling possible strategy, being born as a human being, to lead us back to our loving creator. Nothing else would have or could have worked. The writers of the Gospel saw that, and used the birth narrative to illustrate this truth. True, they each wrote about it from different perspectives, but the account of Joseph, Mary, the shepherds and the wise men is more than a charming story.

How do you measure resistance to God? America is still a church-going nation, but if you came from another planet and read newspapers or watched the six o’clock news you would never know it. The resistance is in full swing every day. Good news is hard to find. It always has been. It doesn’t make good copy.

Luke is not interested in any of this. As a writer, as a believer, he wants one thing to be clear: God came and was born among us, quietly but with every intention of joining the resistance and conquering it, one soul at a time. That is the miracle, the Good News prevailing. This is the night when we can shed our resistance anew, and find that simple things like a birth in a manger matter more than anything.

This is the night when heaven and earth are joined in a glorious way, with human beings at the center of the joint. This is the night when “the hopes and fears of all the years” are resolved by a stable and a star. This is the night when we can truly sleep in heavenly peace, because we know that God has entered our world to reclaim it forever.

— The Rev. Ben Helmer is staff officer for congregational development, rural and small church communities, at the Episcopal Church Center.