Thursday, December 24, 2015

And the Soul Felt It's Worth

A Sermon for Christmas Eve
Isaiah 9:2–7 • Psalm 96 • Titus 2:11–14 • Luke 2:1–14 (15–20)

Come, Holy Spirit, and kindle the fire that is in us.
Take our lips and speak through them.
Take our hearts and see through them.
Take our souls and set them on fire. Amen.

Tonight is a Holy Night. Tonight is the night that we’ve been waiting for; tonight is the night we’ve been anticipating. Tonight is a Holy Night because tonight—this very Eve—we enter the Mystery of Christmas.
     Some of us have been preparing for this Mystery; some of us have not. Some of us have been getting ready for four long weeks, some of us for two weeks, some of us for two days or two hours. And some of us, have made no preparations at all. Maybe we forgot to get ready, or maybe we didn’t know how to get ready. But on this Holy Night, it doesn’t matter because the Mystery of Christmas takes us all by surprise,… ready or not.
For nine months, Mary and Joseph knew what was coming. For nine months, they made preparations as best as they could. But anyone who has prepared for the birth of a child, not least their first child, knows that plans have a way of changing. {For example, your wife might go into labor on the morning of January first. And you might be living in Pasadena, California at the time. And the Rose Bowl parade might be happening. And the parade route, the six-mile-long parade route, just might be standing between you and Hunting Memorial Hospital. Yes, plans have a way of changing.}
     Mary and Joseph could not have predicted that Augustus would issue an edict “that all the world should be registered.” They could not have predicted that they would have to make a long, arduous journey, when Mary was full to bursting. Nevertheless, they had some idea of what was coming because an angel of the Lord had told them.
     The shepherds, however, had no idea what was coming. They were out watching their flocks by night. This is what they did every night. They watched on Monday night, they watched on Tuesday night, they watched on Wednesday night, and they watched on this Holy Night. Of course, it didn’t feel particularly holy or special. It felt like any other Thursday night in the fields... Until suddenly, they were taken by surprise when an angel of the Lord appeared. The angel told them all about the Mystery of Christmas and invited them to come and see it for themselves.
     Mary and Joseph were prepared; the shepherds weren’t. Yet both were invited by God to participate in the Mystery of Christmas. It is indeed a Holy Night for the grace of God abounds for the whole wide world, every single one of us.

A mystery is something unknown, something that has not yet been revealed. There are some mysteries that can be solved and some that can be explained. But there are some mysteries—especially those involving God—that can be neither explained nor solved. But… they can be discovered, they can be entered and explored.
     That’s why we are here on this Holy Night, because God has invited each one of us to come close to the Mystery of Christmas, to enter it and explore it for ourselves, to see it, touch it, hold it, and taste it.
     But what exactly is this Mystery that we call Christmas? Well there is much that could be said and there are so many ways of saying it, but the whole of the Mystery of Christmas is contained in this one simple truth: Jesus makes it safe for people to come close to God; Jesus makes it possible for people to be in God’s presence without being overwhelmed by shame or fear.
You see, ever since our Fall in the Garden of Eden, “our human instinct—when confronted by the presence of God—is to be afraid” (rob voyle); our instinct is to flee and hide ourselves from God’s presence. The biblical record is filled with such stories.
     In the Book of Exodus, after leading his chosen people out of Egypt, God brought them to Mt. Sinai. God drew close to his people, but they drew back. They trembled, and they stood at a distance. They said to Moses, “You speak to us, and we will listen; but do not let God speak to us, or we will die” (Exod 20:18–19).
     In the sixth chapter of Isaiah, the prophet is ushered into the heavenly throne room, where he sees God in all of his glory. But instead of rejoicing at the sight, Isaiah is overcome by a deep sense of guilt and shame. “Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips; yet my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!” (Isaiah 6). In short, Isaiah did not experience God’s presence as a blessing, but as a curse.
     This is our human condition, our human predicament. We are broken, and only God can fix us. We are in danger, and only God can save us. But when God draws near to rescue us and to heal us, we run away. We just can’t bear to be in God’s presence because it generates these overwhelming feelings of shame and fear. It triggers our own deep-seated sense of unworthiness. In God’s presence, we feel exposed, we feel naked and ashamed. So we try to cover ourselves and play hide and seek from the presence of the Lord, just as Adam and Eve did. Of course, our game is a bit more sophisticated than theirs was. After all, we live in a very different world from our first parents. We may not resort to sewing fig leaves or hiding in the bushes, but we know how to hide ourselves. We know how to conceal our failures, and more significantly, we know how to hide behind our successes.
     Of course, much of this is unconscious. We have been taught how to make ourselves presentable to the world, how to make ourselves worthy of love and acceptance. But we live in a constant state of dread, afraid that we will be found out. And this dread only increases when God gets too close. The Israelites experienced this fear; Isaiah experienced it. Even the shepherds experienced it in tonight’s story. Recall these words from St. Luke:
In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified” (LK 2:8–9).
When the shepherds were surrounded by God’s glory, when they were touched by God’s loving presence, they were terrified, or as the Old King James has it, “they were sore afraid.” God’s presence was not a comfort, but a source of anxiety.
But let’s jump ahead in the story. Having received the good news about the birth of the Messiah, the shepherds quickly make their way to Bethlehem. There they find Mary and Joseph, and the Mystery of Christmas lying in a manger. Now, do you know what’s so amazing about this scene? [pause… and then pause some more…]. The shepherds are not afraid. They see the child just as they were told, and they are not afraid. Not in the least.
But how is that a big deal? After all, what’s there to be afraid of? It’s just a baby. But that’s the point. It’s not just a baby; it is “God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God.” This child, wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger, is the Word made flesh, the incarnate Son of God, the one in whom all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell. This child is filled with the glory of God; this child is the glory of God in all its fullness. In other words, these shepherds are in the presence of God. They are as much in the presence of God in this stable, as Isaiah was, when he was in the heavenly throne room. Yet, unlike Isaiah, these lowly shepherds are not overwhelmed by guilt and shame.
     Why? Because when they come close to the Mystery of Christmas, their shame and guilt are removed—burned away like chaff—and they have nothing to fear. Because when they get close to Jesus, they begin to feel their worth. It’s just like the song says:
O, Holy Night, the stars are brightly shining,     it is the night of our dear Savior’s birth.Long lay the world in sin and error pining     Till he appeared and the soul felt its worth.
Hear that last line again
Long lay the world in sin and error pining     Till he appeared and the soul felt its worth.
The deepest longing of the human heart is for love and acceptance. That is why we spend so much time and energy trying to make ourselves worthy of love and acceptance, from others, from ourselves, and from God. But that’s a game we can’t win, because true love and acceptance is not the fruit of our worth, but its very ground. Let me say it this way. God’s love and acceptance is what makes us worthy of love and acceptance, and we can’t do anything to make ourselves worthy. We can’t do anything to make God love us more; and we can’t do anything to make God love us less. But this lesson—and the joy and freedom it brings—is not easily learned.

Come Closer to the Mystery of Christmas
And so, on this Holy Night, I invite you to come closer to the manger and the Mystery of Christmas. Even if you don’t feel completely safe in God’s presence, come closer. And if you feel any anxiety or fear, any shame or guilt, just come closer, and stay for as long as you like. For the closer you get to Jesus, the more your soul will feel its worth.

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