Christmas Eve

Christmas Eve – December 24, 2019 – Luke 2:1-20 – Trinity, Winchester

Tonight, from the Gospel according to Luke, we hear the same familiar story that we hear each year on this night: the story of Jesus’ birth.

The story of the Word made flesh is the story of God infiltrating humanity. The creator unites with the created in a miraculous new way. Heaven and earth come together. God and humankind are made one.

Throughout Luke’s narrative we see humanity and divinity converging in surprising ways.

To begin with, it’s census time. Mary and Joseph are headed to Bethlehem, the City of David, to be counted. As obedient subjects of the empire, they have set out to do what their emperor has asked them to do.

All along the rough and rocky road from Galilee to Judea the flesh of God kicks, and squirms, and fidgets, and turns in the womb of the young bride-to-be of a poor stone cutter from Nazareth.

Luke sets the scene very carefully. Upon their arrival in the hometown of the much-storied Israelite king, David, Mary prepares to give birth to a long-prophesied heavenly king, Jesus.

By portraying Jesus as the Son of David (through Joseph’s lineage), and the Son of God (through the Holy Spirit’s intervention and Mary’s faithful willingness), Luke cements the union of kings mortal and immortal.

Royal though the baby may be, God has chosen for him a modest passage into the world, by way of an unassuming teenage girl. God comes to earth for the first time not “robed in dreadful majesty” but swaddled in strips of cloth.

It’s not at all what we might expect. Not only does God deign to become human, but he identifies with the underprivileged in the process. These two realities are at odds. The everlasting father of the creation meets transient children of the empire. The Prince of Peace meets poor Palestinian travelers.

The surprises don’t end there.

Next we hear of “shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night.” Going about their evening routine they find themselves suddenly surrounded by God’s glory, face to face with an angel of the Lord.

“Do not be afraid; for see—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 Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.” Once again polar opposites collide. Filthy, uneducated shepherds meet radiant, holy messengers who traffic in the very countenance of God.

The contrast between heavenly prophesy and earthly reality sharpens as angels relay the birth announcement of a pauper’s child. “You will find [him] wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.”

If God scandalizes us by becoming human, then he astounds us by becoming poverty-stricken in the process. Luke depicts God’s union with humanity by showing us that divine identification reaches to the lowest rung of the societal ladder.

This is clear: the revelatory new work that God is doing in Jesus happens even in the midst of the mundane and unflattering circumstances of human life. Jesus’ birth is proof positive that God wields his power for good in the places we least expect.

By offering such a vivid account of God’s impoverished entrance into the world, Luke enjoins us to fulfill our own role in bringing the redemptive love of Jesus to those who need it most.

God became one of us to redeem all of us. By virtue of that redemption, you are empowered to be an agent of God’s reconciliation; a participant in God’s unification of heaven and earth; a coworker in closing the gap between sin and grace.

The work of uniting humanity and divinity might sound intimidating, so it’s good to be clear. It’s not your job to bring heaven and earth together. God has already done that. But Christmas is your renewed opportunity to join in Jesus’ continuing ministry of reconciliation.

Christmas in your renewed opportunity to join God in uniting heavenly affection with human concern by calling on the ill and the grieving. Christmas in your renewed opportunity to join God in uniting holy food with hungry souls by feeding a stranger.

Christmas in your renewed opportunity to join God in uniting human action with heavenly righteousness by righting a wrong or correcting an injustice. Christmas in your renewed opportunity to join God in transforming fear into peace, doubt into hope, loneliness into relationship by lighting a candle in the darkness.

This is the joy of Christmas: to have the chance to join in God’s redeeming work. Our Advent anticipation is over. Christmas is here. The Lord has come. All you have left to do is to receive the joy.

So receive it, dear ones, and then get to work, not to earn your way into heaven, but to show your gratitude for the place that God has already prepared for you there.

Imagining eternal life

Sunday after All Saints’ Day – November 4, 2018 – Song of Solomon 3:1-9; Revelation 21:1-6a – Trinity Church, Winchester, TN

“Give us grace so to follow your blessed saints in all virtuous and godly living, that we may come to those ineffable joys that you have prepared for those who truly love you.” So says today’s collect. 

At Tuesday’s Bible study Geraldine asked, “Don’t you just love the word “ineffable?’”

Ineffable. Too great to be expressed in human words. More than magnificent. Surpassing sublime. Ineffable. 

That’s what the kingdom of heaven is. Ineffable. 

This portion of the collect is the petition and the reason–what we ask for and why we ask for it. It’s the meat of the thing: give us grace to follow the example of your saints already in glory, so that we may come to know that glory, too. That ineffable glory. That glory beyond description. That glory which we know not now, but which we hope for with with every fiber of our being. 

The feast of All Saints’ reminds us that this time of year is not about hiding from the reality of death, it is about embracing the hope of enteral life and the ineffable joy that awaits us all.  

Today we remember those whom the Church has set apart as particularly shining examples of life in Christ–our Saints. Apostles: Peter, James, John, and Bartholomew. Martyrs: Stephen, Paul, and Cyprian. Evangelists: Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. Even modern-day prophets like Martin Luther King, Jr. They offered their lives as a sacrifice to show us what Godly living looks like, some even unto the point of death. As we sang, “These, like priests, have watched and waited, offering up to Christ their will, soul and body consecrated, day and night they serve him still.” 

All Souls’ Day, November 2nd, is traditionally the day set aside to remember all of the faithful departed: each and every Christian who has gone to glory. Often, we conflate the two days. We tend to remember everyone who has gone before us, our mothers and fathers, aunts and uncles, on All Saints’.  Although that’s not technically the traditional intention, it’s not all bad. I’m certainly not trying to put parameters on who you remember today. After all, there is no hierarchy in heaven. 

The enteral life we celebrate on November 1st is the same eternal life we celebrate on November 2nd. Today, the Sunday after both of these important days, we gather to rejoice in the life of ineffable joy for which we all hope.

At least, I hope we hope for it. 

Sometimes, though, I think we are embarrassed of our Christian hope. Sometimes we make up excuses and invent distractions so that we can avoid hoping. This time of year, when we are reminded of death and dying, we tend play dress up instead of actually dealing with those hard realities. 

Don’t get me wrong, I think it’s fine to inject good humor into our lives–to pass out candy, put on a costume, or wear a mask. But we must be careful that whatever mask we wear–whether it’s Frankenstein or Richard Nixon–is not an attempt to disguise our mortality.

Our hope is often fragile, and never concrete, so sometimes we have to use our imagination to describe what it is we hope for. The authors of today’s scripture lessons are prime examples of this. 

The Song of Solomon says, “The souls of the righteous are in the hand of God.” “…Their departure was thought to be disaster, and their going from us to be their destruction; but they are at peace.” 

The prophet Isaiah, in the Old Testament option we did not read today, imagines this peace. He writes that on his mountain the Lord of hosts will make for all people a feast of rich food and well-aged wines.

I’ve heard people say that their number one vision of heaven is a banquet table. That makes sense, especially for Episcopalians who constantly gather at the table of the Lord, consuming bread and (not-so-well-aged) wine. 

Some of our best memories occur around the dinner table. Sunday afternoon with the whole family, or another weeknight, just you and a your spouse. Your guard is down, your mouth full of flavor, and your heart warm within you. That’s heaven alright. 

The author of the book of Revelation has a different vision for ineffable joy. “I saw a new heaven and a new earth . . . I saw the holy city, a new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God . . . and I heard a loud voice . . . saying . . . See, I am making all things new.” 

We know from history that the author of this book was living under Roman persecution. Perhaps his imagination was the only hope he had left. He knew there was a better life coming, so he tried to imagine what that would be like. This city will pass away, but the city of the Lord with come like a bride adorned for her husband. That’s heaven.

These are attempts to imagine ineffable joy.

Our tradition is filled with such imaginings, as well. In our sequence hymn today the saints in light are compared to stars who stand before God’s throne wearing crowns of gold. Is that what heaven will be like? Will we wear robes of purest whiteness, as the poet says? Or will heaven brighten like a golden evening where Saints like warriors finally find peace and rest? 

Well, we don’t know exactly, do we? It is beyond description. So, we use our imaginations. We imagine that which we cannot adequately describe but nonetheless know by promise.

This promise is perhaps best known to us through the covenant of our baptism. In just a few minutes we will renew our baptismal vows. This is an opportunity to recommit ourselves to doing Christ’s work in the world.

Our baptism is our initiation into a life of Christ, a life in which we are buried with Christ in his death, so that we can rise with him in eternal life. That eternal life is not conditional friends. Our baptism tells us that we have already entered into it. Eternal life begins at the font, not the grave. Even though we are not at rest, we are already participants in the life of Christ. So, let’s take a cue from our saints and act like it. 

What if people in our society used as much imagination envisioning the kingdom of God as they do planning their halloween costumes? 

And what if instead of denying death, we imagined eternal life? 

And what if our hope stretched beyond mortality? 

What if we imagined the glorious company prophets, apostles, and martyrs that awaits us?

What if our dreams were of saints and souls dwelling in “mystic sweet communion?”

What if what we know to be certain in this life, didn’t constrain our expectations of what is possible with God? 

What if our lives were infused with that kind of hope? 

What if we consider ineffable joy, an inevitable reality. 

What if? What if we did all those thing?

Well, then, I guess they’d call us Christians. Yes, they’d call us Christians.