Monday, December 31, 2018

12-30-18 “Is Born”

12-30-18  “Is Born”

(This message is adapted from the work of Marcia McFee and the Worship Design Studio) 

   The scripture reading for today implores us to understand that the overarching story continues beyond the nativity. Even though we feel as if the Christmas "season" is over (it actually has only just begun) and the tree is quick to come down, the real story begins again in the renewal of our very souls as God nudges us toward new life and new possibilities in a new year. 
What is being born within us?
   In reading this passage from Revelation for this last Sunday in our series, I wanted to connect our journey into the birth of peace, joy, love, and hope in the presence of Jesus Christ with the vision of the new heaven and new earth being birthed in us for the new year.
   All along in our series, the children’s worship scripts focused on a crying baby and how we are called to be those who soothe and calm that baby. 
Now we jump right into that metaphor to understand that our own birthing, or rebirthing, might come with some crying. In one of my favorite movies, Under the Tuscan Sun, we hear this line:
  “In Italian, ‘to give birth,’ ‘dare a la luce,’ (pronounced DAH-ray ah lah LOO-chay), means ‘to give way to the light.” Indeed, those Italians are incredibly poetic to describe the baby bursting into the world as “giving way to the light.” The baby comes out of the dark warmth of the womb into the light of the world and what does it do? It cries!
   Jesus tells his disciples that they must be born again... they must be made new. This, like the Revelation text is in alignment with ancient wisdom and teachings. The prophet Isaiah (where we started this Advent/Christmas journey) proclaims a new heaven and earth in chapter 65. Paul says to the Corinthians in the fifth chapter of his second letter to them that “everything has become new.” It is in John’s Gospel that Jesus tells Nicodemus that he must be born anew. But what does it mean to be born anew? While many mainline denominations steer away from the stereotypical translations of being “born again,” we can find some powerful insight as we consider what happens as we hit the light of a new day. 
What will we do when, like a child first emerging from the darkness of the womb, we encounter the light of new life in Christ?
    Some babies have to be encouraged to cry. They need to fill their lungs with air to survive and so they need, “encouragement,” if you will, in the form of a swat on their behind. Sometimes life gives us a swat, or a “wake up call,” and we realize that we are barely breathing. New life invites us to new gulps of breath. “Spirare,”  the Greek root of the words “spirit,” “breath,” and “inspire,” is essential if we are to live to full capacity.
   Some babies need to have their eyes cleared so they can open them and see. What might we be hiding from, needing to “take the wool out from over our eyes” and face the things we need to change in order to grow into what and who God created us to be? How are we insulated from the light through denial or dread, by fear, by anger, by hate? God’s presence and strength are with us; it is time to step into that “glorious” light-filled existence with confidence.
   And perhaps if we come through the present darkness, take a big breath, open our eyes to see, have a good cry to find our voice in this world, the silence that follows is not just calm and settled silence, it is anticipatory silence like breath held in expectation. What will the next sound be? How will we fill the silence? What will we say? How will we now be the ones, made in the image of the Light of Life and following in the footsteps of the One whose Star shone on humankind, how will we bring “peace on earth, goodwill to ALL creation,” so that a new heaven comes to this new earth?
   It is no coincidence that the new year in the Christian calendar begins, not on January 1st, but with the first Sunday in Advent. Advent, in a way, becomes the gestation period for our own rebirth. 
It is in that season that we are invited to shed those things which hold us in darkness and begin to renew and refresh our lives in the anticipation and the light of the birth of Jesus Christ. It is only when we’ve had the chance to step back, reconsider Christ’s birth in light of our own rebirth, renewal, and rejuvenation, that we are ready to move from Christmas to the Epiphany - the celebration of Christ’s light in the world. 
   So today as the Chancel Choir brings the music of the season, let it flow through you, over you, and around you, that these songs might shine a light for you, not only on the reason of the season, but for the gift of birth and rebirth that is given to us in this season. 
“Silent Night, Holy Night,” ends with the words, 
“Christ the Savior is Born.” 

May he born in you, and may you be born anew in him. That, my friends, is the Glory of Christmas! Amen. 

Wednesday, December 26, 2018

12-24-18 Christmas Eve Message - “Calm and Bright”

12-24-18 Christmas Eve Message -   “Calm and Bright”

   Throughout this Advent season, this season of waiting, of anticipating, we have explored the reason for the season through the lens of the song, “Silent Night, Holy Night.” Each week, we looked at one verse of the song and how that verse shared the Christmas Gospel, the Christmas Good News, for those who would hear it. On week one, it was an exploration of peace, through verse one:

Silent night, holy night
All is calm, all is bright
Round yon Virgin, Mother and Child
Holy Infant so tender and mild
Sleep in heavenly peace
Sleep in heavenly peace

   Peace is the way of God, we discovered through the words of the prophet Isaiah, who warned that the way of war is the way of darkness, saying,

The people who walked in darkness
    have seen a great light;
those who lived in a land of deep darkness—
    on them light has shined…
For a child has been born for us,
    a son given to us;

And Isaiah prophesied that those who walk in the light, rather that in the darkness, 
they shall beat their swords into plowshares,
    and their spears into pruning hooks;
nation shall not lift up sword against nation,
    neither shall they learn war any more.

   We remembered the Christmas truce that occurred on Christmas Eve, 1914, when, in the midst of World War I, German and British troops, hunkered down in their trenches in opposing battle lines, heard the other side singing, in their own language, “Silent Night, Holy Night, all is calm, all is bright…” and joined in the singing.  For a day, they put down their weapons, set aside their hostilities, came out of the darkness and exchanged greetings and gifts. Trading swords for plowshares, they shared in God’s great light, if for only a day.And with them, we learned that humanity is the holy infant for whom God so desires a heavenly peace, and that it IS possible to bring calm and bright to our own corners of this world.

Verse 2
Silent night, holy night!
Shepherds quake at the sight, 
Glories stream from heaven afar, 
Heavenly hosts sing “Alleluia"! 
Christ, the Savior is born, 
Christ, the Savior is born

   In week two our journey was towards JOY. 
And while that word, JOY, is not found in the second verse of the song, we shared how, when the “Glories stream from heaven afar,” and “heavenly hosts sing “Alleluia!” that that response IS the response of Joy to the light of God streaming with the Good News that “Christ the Savior is born.”
   The passage from the gospel that week was of the angels proclaiming to the shepherds, “Look! I bring good news to you - wonderful, joyous news for all people.” That good news was that God had been born in flesh, in human flesh. And the good news didn’t stop there. That God chose to become one of us, even as God is one with us, is God’s good news message to us that our humanity is important, that our humanity matters - it matters in general and it matters specifically to God. More than just a birth announcement, this proclamation is a life announcement to those who hear it. When we know that God is present with us AND in us, then we can see glories streaming every day, if we have eyes to see. And when we live our lives through that lens of wonder and joy, we wonder how our lives might be renewed? How might our joy be made full? The incarnation, God in the flesh in Jesus Christ, says as much about who WE are as it does about who God is. Which leads us to verse 3. 

Verse 3 LOVE
Silent night, holy night, 
Son of God, love's pure light, 
Radiant beams from Thy holy face, 
With the dawn of redeeming grace, 
Jesus, Lord, at Thy birth, 
Jesus, Lord, at Thy birth

   The presence of God in human form is the "dawn" of redeeming grace, says the hymn's third verse. Grace is God’s love for us and for all of creation. God IS love, and God is light. God so desired to be "up close and personal" that God came to live, breathe, feel, teach, touch, and love. Made in the image of God, we are called to nurture relationships that birth, multiply and radiate grace, God’s love, in the world.
  And how do we do that, we asked in week 3? By following the teachings of Jesus. It’s not enough to simply “believe in” God, to “believe in” Jesus - even the demons did that, Jesus said. No, we are called to be followers, to be Christ’s light in the world, to be God’s hands and feet. God became one of us that we might know that God is with us, and has been with us since before Creation…In the beginning. On this night, the star, the songs, the lights, all invite us to ask, even to dream, what would the world be like if “love’s pure light” was at the center. Before it can be at the center of the world, it must become the center of our hearts and our lives.

Verse 4
Silent night! Holy night!
Wondrous star, lend thy light; 
with the angels let us sing, 
"Alleluia" to our King: 
“Christ the Savior is born! 
Christ the Savior is born.”

   The last verse of the hymn is what we would have shared in worship yesterday. This verse invites us to lift our voices in singing alleluias to the one who is "King." 
This descriptor was more radical for the people of Jesus' time than it seems in our own, as it resisted the powers of empire that threatened "the least of these" that Jesus came to serve. Kings are largely meaningless to us today, in our western democracies, but to declare a non-royal as “king,” was to name them as a rival, an enemy. To declare Jesus as king, meant that Caesar was not. That was treasonous. To declare Jesus as Lord, another title used for Caesar, was again to proclaim an alternative loyalty, another act of treason. 
   So as we follow the star, the wondrous light as it’s called in the song, that led magi to this new king, we’re challenged to proclaim whether Christ as king, Christ as Lord, is just something we say when we’re in church, or if it’s how we live our lives. Are those words just something sprayed in glitter across the Christmas cards we mail to one another, or are they words that shape our life in such a way that our response is to sing with the angels, “Alleluia!” ?
   That challenge is something we are directly confronted with in the aftermath of yesterday’s accident. Grace, love, living Christ-like lives are easy things to lift up in church, easy to proclaim in song, but much harder to carry out in real life when made more specific by events that cause injury, harm, and destruction. 
Our first response in situations like the one we find ourselves in now can easily be one of anger, of finger-pointing and blaming. It requires no self-discipline, no self-restraint on our parts to begin casting “shouldas” all over the place. But we should be careful, lest we “shoulda” all over ourselves. I know that the bruises are still fresh, the abrasions still tender, the shock of the trauma still raw, but it was when his body hurt the most, when his emotions had been stripped to their last nerve, that Jesus the adult modeled grace and forgiveness for us. 
He never cast blame on his betrayer, he never pointed fingers at his betrayer - on the contrary, he offered grace to them and to those who would hammer the nails into his hands and feet and forgiveness to the bearer of the spear that pierced his side. In the moments of his death, Christ modeled for us the love of God in human form. Is it possible for us, in the moment of his birth, to do the same?
   We are reminded by this seemingly benign and sweet song that whenever there is injustice in this world, we are to look to the one whose power is love. 
How might this increase our hope for the future? So, in our reading tonight, the Gospel writer Luke wants, I think, to make sure we realize that it is not just human flesh ‘in general’ that God takes on in Christ; it is our flesh -  yours and mine. And it is not simply history ‘in general’ that God enters via this birth, it is our history and our very lives to which God is committed, not in some distant, hoped for future or afterlife, but here and now.
   So if there is only one thing that we hear this Christmas Eve, perhaps it should be that this story of long ago is not only about angels and shepherds, a mother and her newborn. It’s also about us, all of us gathered amid the candles and readings, carols and prayers.It’s about us, gathered in the fellowship hall on metal folding chairs rather in the comfort of the sanctuary and our pews.As the crash occurred yesterday we were about to sing “Come, Thou Long Expected Jesus.” Now, I’m not suggesting that Jesus was behind the wheel of that Toyota yesterday, or that Jesus makes himself known in that way. But I do believe Jesus was present yesterday. That situation was bad, there’s no doubt about that, but it could have been so much worse. God was with us - all of us - as together we faced a situation that was unexpected and shocking to us. I will never doubt that God kept this ordeal from becoming a tragedy.  
   Two thousand years ago, God came at Christmas for us, that we might have hope and courage amid the dark and dangerous times and places of our lives. 
This, in the end, regardless of the location, is why we gather, so that as God entered into time and history so long ago through the Word made flesh, God might also enter our lives here and now through the Word proclaimed in Scripture, song, and sermon. No wonder we grow quiet! We need a silent night in here.

Well it is a Silent Night, and most certainly a Holy Night. Thank God it is so. Amen.

Sunday, December 16, 2018

12-16-18 “Redeeming Grace” (LOVE)

   It was Christmas Eve in the Austrian Alps. At the Church of St. Nicholas in Oberndorf, a village near Salzburg, Father Joseph Mohr prepared for the midnight service. He was distraught because the church organ was broken, ruining prospects for that evening’s carefully planned music. Without the organ it would indeed be a silent night. But Father Joseph was about to learn that scripture’s lesson - that all things work together for good for those who love God - was in fact true. Suddenly inspired, Father Joseph wrote a new song, 
one that needed no organ. Hastily, he wrote the words, “Silent night, holy night, all is calm, all is bright…” Taking the text to his organist, Franz Gruber, he asked Franz to compose a simple tune.
   That night, December 24, 1818, “Silent Night” was sung for the first time as a duet accompanied by a guitar at the aptly named Church of St. Nicholas in Oberndorf, a model of which we have on the altar thanks to Roberta and Dick Driscoll. Were it not for a broken organ, we would not have “Silent Night.”
   So as we continue our celebration and exploration of the song, we find beautiful symbolism in this third verse that we spoke in hushed tones earlier. 
We’ve talked before in this series about light being symbolic of God and God’s presence. We talked last week about the incarnation and that God’s becoming flesh means not only that God is with us, but that in becoming one of us - one with us - God is saying that being human, being flesh, is an important thing, a blessed and holy thing. Verse three of the hymn then, after the opening “Silent night, holy night,” builds on that theme, completing the couplet with the line, “Son of God, love’s pure light.” 
   Scripture tells us that Jesus is both Son of God and Son of Man - fully human and fully divine; God in the flesh. Emmanuel, God with us. Scripture also reminds us that not only is God light, but that God is love. So in this verse, in that single line, all of that language, all of that imagery, is brought together succinctly - “Son of God, love’s pure light.” The image is made more real as we picture this baby in a manger - swaddled, innocent, vulnerable, helpless, yet the full revelation of the God of Creation, with “radiant beams” that come forth, streaming like the “glories” of the previous verse, from the “holy face.” If you try, you can see that image, Hallmark cards and Gerber baby food images aside. 
We know the face of a newborn baby; we know the glow, the radiance of new life, of new birth. 
   Our reading today comes from John’s gospel, the fourth accounting of the good news. And each of the four tells the Jesus story differently; each account beginning in different ways. Mark introduces Jesus as an adult - no birth story provided. Whether those stories hadn’t circulated yet when Mark’s gospel was written, or whether Mark just thought them unimportant to the message he sought to convey, we don’t know. Matthew and Luke tell similar - but not identical - stories, each shaping their renderings to the audiences to which they wrote. John, on the other hand, goes full on symbolic. The last of the gospels written, the one we call “John” takes all that was written before, all of the historical accounts, and seeks to help us understand what they mean, what they point towards. 

   So when we consider these two together, the lyrics of “Silent Night” and the wording of this first chapter of John, we get an intermingling of words, phrases, images, and ideas that are a sign for us of what Christmas is all about.

Silent Night, holy night
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…

Son of God, love’s pure light
What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people

Radiant beams from Thy holy face…
And the Word became flesh and lived among us,                 and we have seen his glory… full of grace and truth

With the dawn of redeeming grace…
From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace. The law indeed was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.

Jesus, Lord, at Thy birth; Jesus, Lord, at Thy birth

   Love and grace go hand-in-hand, and the Gospel of John begins with four mentions of that word, grace, and then doesn’t mention it again the entire rest of the book. As one commentator put it, “the entirety of the Gospel will show what grace looks like, tastes like, smells like, sounds like, and feels like…For John, God in becoming flesh in Jesus has committed God’s self not only to revealing what God’s grace looks like, but that God wants to know it and feel it as well.”
   Marcia McFee points out that, “God’s face in Jesus Christ has entered the world where it will be kissed by mother Mary, cradled in Joseph’s rough carpenter-hands, and washed after the feeding and burping. This is real human life, full humanity wrapped around love’s pure light that will shine in a way remembered ever since. It is a love that “redeems” us– that makes good on God’s promise to be with us always.
   And she goes on, “The beauty of the hymn’s poetry in this verse speaks of light as a ‘dawning’ as well. Dawn rises up, dawn pierces the dark night, transforming it. From the earliest human ancestors, dawn has been a source of reassurance once again that life continues, that the forces of life have gifted us and we have arisen to see another day. In John’s opening lines, we hear of the presence of Christ from the beginning of time when ‘let there be light’ constituted the first dawn in our faith story. Coupled with the idea of Jesus as a human baby, this is the most poignant melding of [the] birth of the cosmos and birth from a womb. Divinity and humanity as one.”

   This is enfleshed love, embodied love, the embodied love of God incarnate for all of creation. And we are created in the image of that same God; made in the likeness of this very same God. The seed of God’s love is planted within us so that we too, might be like and love like God. And so we ask again the question that was posed in our synopsis earlier: “what would the world be like if ‘love’s pure light’ was at the center” of all we do, of all we create. Made in the image of this one who is grace upon grace, how are we to nurture relationships that birth, multiply and radiate grace in the world? A grace-full existence. What would that look like?
   It would look like the Jesus of the gospels. Not so much the Jesus who walks on water, although if you can do that that would be pretty cool, but the Jesus who cleanses and restores and loves none the less. It would look like the Jesus who feeds and forgives, who heals and gives hope. Even as John presents Jesus as this transcendent, almost other-worldly being, we see Jesus as well in a very earthy way in the fourth gospel. Jaime Clark Soles points out “that the stuff of earth is the stuff of God. Not a single thing that has been created was created apart from God. It all came from God, it all belongs to God, and it all testifies to and reveals God. In that way, creation itself is a sacrament, a means of grace.”
   And Soles goes on to make this point further, saying, “For John, with the Incarnation, God becoming flesh, bread is no longer just bread (ch 6); flesh is no longer just flesh, water is no longer just water (chs 3, 4, 7, 19); vines, branches, sheep, shepherds -- all of them reveal the nature of God and identity of Christ. No wonder, then, that in healing the blind man (ch 9), Jesus takes the dirt and mixes it with saliva and puts it on the man's eyes. Surely Jesus could have skipped all the messy, dirty parts and just healed the guy, as he does elsewhere (ch 5). But the use of the earth and the spit should remind us of the creation as told by Genesis, where God creates the first person using [a clump of] earth.”
   We have a lot of people in our community whom some would describe as “earthy,” don’t we. I read a book this week titled “Having Nothing, Possessing Everything,” written by Mike Mather, a UMC pastor in Indianapolis. The church he serves, much like ours, is situated in a community in which there is much need, economic decline, drugs, and violence. In a Bible study one week, they were studying Acts 2, where Peter is preaching from the prophet Joel, who relays God’s message that God will pour out God’s Spirit on ALL flesh. One of the students in the class, who also volunteered at their food pantry, asked, “if that’s the case, why do we treat people like that’s not true?” Mather asked her what she meant, and she said, “When people come to the food pantry, we ask [them] how poor they are, rather than how rich they are. Peter is saying all people have God’s Spirit poured into them.”
   That realization caused the church to begin rethinking some of the ways they attempted to “love” their community. Rather than focusing on needs, that is, what was missing within the community, they began to explore what gifts were present. One day, a woman named Adele came to their pantry. Three generations of her family were living in her home and she worked part time as a cook. She told them she was a good cook, and they challenged her to “prove it.” When she asked what they meant, they invited her to prepare lunch one day for the custodian, the secretary, and the pastor. Mather describes the lunch she prepared as fabulous.
   Shortly after that, the church secretary learned that some community leaders were planning to have a large meeting at a restaurant, and she urged them instead to have the meeting at the church and have Adele cook for them. They did, paying her for the meal. Over the next several months Adele catered more and more events in the neighborhood. 
   Then the Chamber of Commerce reached out to the church to have an all-day meeting in their building, along with use of the kitchen. The church that was fine, but that they preferred that the Chamber use their caterer, Adele. 
They agreed. The church took twenty dollars (their only investment) and had a thousand business cards printed for Adele, which she made good use of by distributing them to the seventy business leaders who had gathered at the church that day. A year and half later, Adele opened her own Tex-Mex restaurant. 
   If they had asked Adele how poor she was, what she didn’t have, instead of what gifts she did possess, “everyone would have been poorer for it,” Mather writes. The story of Adele teaches us that if we ask different questions, we might discover a world of God-given gifts in other people that might never have become known otherwise. If we begin looking for peoples’ gifts rather than their needs, we discover love’s pure light that God has planted there, waiting to radiantly beam into the world. You see, you can’t build anything with what you don’t have. 
   When we practice real love, not the emotionally squishy love of Valentine’s poems and Harlequin Romances, but the actionable love of God in the world, we begin to see the face of God in all of those around us. When we come alongside the child who struggles with reading as a friend, rather than as a grownup who wants to “do good for the disadvantaged,” we can see love’s pure light sparkle like radiant beams in their eyes when, between stories, they tell you about their new puppy, their family nick-names for one another, or the joy they had in picking out a Christmas gift for their mom or dad.
   Love and grace go hand-in-hand. It’s easy to make Christ’s love transactional. We can do our part and serve people in the food pantry or the free store, we can provide gas cards to people or pay utility bills for them through Helping Hands, and never see them for who they are; never see them as anything beyond being what we might consider a “needy” client of one of our programs - never see them as a child of God, with gifts as well as needs, with dreams as well as nightmares. In the light of pure love, love and grace go hand-in-hand.    
   This passage from John’s Gospel is as much about who God is, what God is about, and to what and whom God is committed as it is a declaration about the Word itself. The prophet Joel, remember, said that God’s Spirit was poured out on ALL flesh. The fourth evangelist understands that God’s promise to be with God’s people wherever they go has taken on an all new meaning in Jesus. The incarnation of God in Christ is deeply intimate and personal and assumes God’s commitment to and presence in all of God’s children. Moreover, in the Word made flesh and dwelling among us, now God not only goes where God’s people go, but is who they are. That is, God dwells with us and in us by taking on our form, our humanity. This “different” dwelling of God is God being where we are, and being who we are. 
   The presence of God in human form is the "dawn" of redeeming grace. God so desired to be one with us that God came to live, breathe, feel, teach, touch, and love. Made in the image of God, we are called to nurture relationships that birth, multiply and radiate grace and love’s pure light in the world. What a difference it would make in the world if we held “love’s pure light” at the center. Amen.

Sunday, December 9, 2018

12-9-18 “Glories Stream”

   We celebrated some special birthdays this morning with Ruth and JoAnn. And I know there are many more of you who have birthdays this month as well. 
December is a big birthday month in our extended family too. We had a nephew’s birthday on December 1st, a niece on the 10th, Lynn’s brother’s birthday would have been the 13th, mine is the 15th, my daughter’s is the 16th, our brother-in-law’s is on 17th, and we have yet another niece celebrating on the 27th. And at our house, when we celebrate a birthday, regardless of the month, we usually have a cake or an ice cream cake or something on which we place candles for the birthday girl or boy to blow out. We have a lot of birthday candles, both regular candles and those wax number candles. However, we only have two number candles - the numbers #2 and #3. So regardless of your age, you get a #2 and/or a #3, along with some individual candles to light the way to making your birthday wish.

   December birthdays, though, are…special, and I’ve always found that having a December birthday was a mixed bag. In fact, for years I jokingly referred to being born in December as planned parenthood - your parents plan you for Christmas time so that they didn’t have to buy you as much!  I mean, if you’re born in other months, you’ve probably never received a combined “birthday/Christmas” present - you’ve gotten two separate gifts, right? 
December is almost always too cold - at least in Ohio - for an outdoor birthday party unless you like skiing or sledding or something, so there are likely no ponies, no picnics, no trip to the zoo or the waterpark, no Cedar Point or King’s Island fun. In fact, the Christmas season is so busy for most families that there’s likely not much of a birthday party at all. When I was in college, my friends threw a “Half-birthday” party for me in June just so I could have a real party with them there instead of it occurring while we were all away on Christmas break. December birthdays are just, as I said…special.

   I always enjoy seeing who else I share a birthday with, and besides sharing the 15th with JoAnn, we also share that date with comedian Tim Conway, actor Don Johnson, singer Dave Clark of the Dave Clark Five, and billionaire philanthropist J. Paul Getty. That’s a pretty diverse group of fellow "1-5ers" I guess. But I don’t share this calendar info to make this about me, or about my fellow December birthday sisters and brothers, but rather to help us think about the meaning of Christmas from a different perspective than how we might usually approach it. 

   Our scripture from Luke’s gospel today is basically a birth announcement, but rather than arriving in the mail or via email with a link to a gift registry at Babies-R-Us, it comes from angels - first one angel then a multitude - enough angels to make the Mormon Tabernacle Choir look like rag-tag group of carolers. 
   “Don’t be afraid!” the angel proclaims. What a strange way to begin a birth announcement. “Don’t be afraid! Look! I bring good news to you - wonderful, joyous news for all people.” Nearly every angel-human encounter in the bible begins with some variation of “Don’t be afraid.” Real life angels apparently don’t physically look like Clarence from “It’s a Wonderful Life,” Della Reese from “Touched By An Angel,” or those cute little Valentines cherubs if the first thing out of their mouth every time is “Don’t be afraid.” But I digress. 

   “I bring good news to you!” Good news, from the Greek euangelion, from which we get “evangel,” “evangelical,” “evangelism,” “angel,” and the word “gospel.” The gospel is good news. The word “gospel” means good news. The angel announces good news, joyous news for all people. 
   “Your savior is born today in David’s city.” Not just “a” savior, “your” savior, the savior of “all people,” the angel proclaims. “He is Christ the Lord.” The angel doesn’t give the baby’s name - Christ is not Jesus’ last name, it’s his title. The Christ is the anointed one, the messiah of God, the savior from God. John’s gospel calls it the Word of God. Richard Rohr helps us understand what is meant here by suggesting we think of it as the “blueprint” or “plan” of God. The primary meaning found in this announcement is NOT the birth of a baby named Jesus from Nazareth, the primary focus of the announcement is the revelation of God and God’s plan for salvation in the flesh. 
God embodied. Good news!

   So, in thinking about this Christmas miracle - told as a birth story - in a more personal, intimate way, through the lens of births and birthdays that we all can relate to, the meaning of Christmas has to be lodged somewhere, someplace deep inside who we are. And through this lens, we might actually have an embodied experience of what can be a rather baffling and bewildering doctrine in which we believe, but at the end of the day, if we are honest, we hardly know what to do with.
   As Karoline Lewis so eloquently reminds us:
“…that confusing and confounding [doctrine] is the incarnation itself. What does the incarnation really mean? Yes, of course, always, it means that God chose to enter into our humanity, in all of its fullness and foibles, its power and pain, its joys and sorrows. Yes, of course it means that God would even experience death itself, only to defeat its determined grip on our lives and turn it into eternal life. 
But what does it really mean for us, here and now and today, beyond the truth of Jesus of Nazareth and the promise of an empty tomb?”
   “The incarnation means that at the same time the incarnation is a revelation of God, it is also a revelation of who we are. We begin to realize that in God’s decision to become human that our humanity matters. We begin to recognize that in God’s commitment to bodies that our bodies matter. We begin to remember that God’s determination to be known in the flesh means that doing ministry in the flesh matters.”

   So these angels declare more than just a simple birth to these lowly shepherds who live in the fields. They declare great joy! Births are joyful occasions, even without choirs of angels! But this one, this one is even more special. The passage tells us that in this announcement, “glories stream.” Our song says “Glories stream from heaven afar.” But what does that mean? 

   I shared with you last week that in scripture light is often representative of God’s presence, and of the symbolism we use in the Advent and Christmas season around light. “The glory of the Lord shone around them…” the passage said. A search for “glory” at gets you multitudes of examples of the Hebrew texts’ use of the word when it comes to God, which continues into the Gospel depictions of the presence of God. Throughout the scriptures, “glory” often has to do with “shining,” with light. God is light and the light surrounds us. 
God’s presence, God’s deliverance, God’s strength is with us like that pillar of fire, the burning bush, and now the star and accompanying theatrics of angels bringing their singing to the shining. The Isaiah passage from last week said that the people who have walked in darkness have seen a great light. The angels show us the appropriate response to this shining light... “Glory to God!” 
Praise is the only thing we can do in the face of such power and promise that we are not, ever, alone, that God is with us.

   This Sunday is about Joy. And as we consider this text in the context of our celebration of the song “Silent Night, Holy Night,” how can we not connect joy with “glories” and “alleluias?” Typically, we wouldn’t get to this scripture reading until Christmas Eve, working our way through all of the Advent passages about waiting and anticipating both the coming and second coming of Christ. 
But this year we’re jumping the gun a little early as we consider that silent and holy night that is often lost in the confusion of Advent and the Twelve Days of Christmas, which actually start on Christmas Day rather than leading up to it, as many believe. So like a nice piece of Christmas chocolate, let’s let this idea of joy and glory streaming roll around on our tongue for a bit, let’s savor it’s flavor before we bite into it and finish it off. 
   The angels come with JOY - the shepherds respond in fear. There may have been plenty to fear for these folks. One commentator suggests that these were possibly not only the “lowly” in terms of job importance, but these may have been the lowliest of shepherds... the hired hands, not the owners of the land or the sheep but the indentured slaves or lowest-wage earners working the night shift and literally “living in the fields.” It is the darkest part of the night when suddenly something that felt absolutely apocalyptic shook the earth where they stood.
   Fear can make us feel like we are on the edge. If we’re jumpy already, anything that reeks at all of difference or change can feel like a threat. 
We get hyper-aware and on the look-out for the bad stuff we hear about every day, on the news, on our phones, seemingly everywhere.

   “When people are frightened, intelligent parts of the brain cease to dominate”, Dr. Bruce Perry explains in an article published on the Time magazine website. 
When faced with a threat, the part of our brain responsible for risk assessment and actions cease to function. In other words, logical thinking is replaced by overwhelming emotions, favoring short-term solutions and sudden reactions.” That is, our limbic brain kicks in and we revert to “fight or flight” reactions. 
And for most of us, when we become overwhelmed (and who doesn’t in this fast-paced, expectations-out- of-control world), we tend to struggle to find joy and to see the good that is all around us.

   Enter the angel’s message: “We’ve got Good News!” “Good news” is another term often used in scripture for God’s presence and strength. “Hey, over here! Don’t forget you aren’t alone.” In fact, what the angels were about to tell the shepherds was that God’s presence, God’s glory, God’s light was streaming all over them. This IS Good News for ALL.

   So... what’s joy got to do with it? What Good News are we missing, what don’t we see all around us that is worthy of joy, because we’re distracted, too jumpy with fear? This story is one of transformation from fear to joy, from panic to praise. The “glory” (code for “light”) streams upon us. God’s goodness, presence and strength are all around us and IN us. To use a pop culture reference that has made a reappearance at theaters recently, “A Star is Born” every time we let ourselves embrace joy and let that star shine its light from within us to the world. We’re called to be a star and let our joy spill out, streaming all over the place. We’re called to be a star!
Say it with me - “I Am a Star!” Say it again! Louder, like you mean it - like you believe it! “I Am a Star!”
   Sometimes we get embarrassed by expressing joy, don’t we? Especially the “higher” we get on the totem pole or the more concerned we are about “appearances.”

Author Marianne Williamson wrote in her book, “Return to Love,”
“Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate.
Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. 
It is our light not our darkness that most frightens us.
We ask ourselves, who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented and fabulous?
Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God.
Your playing small does not serve the world.
There's nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won't feel insecure around you.
We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us.
It's not just in some of us; it's in everyone. 
And as we let our own light shine,
we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same.
As we are liberated from our own fear,
Our presence automatically liberates others.”
(from Return to Love by Marianne Williamson, Harper Collins, 1992)

   We need to be a people and a church that isn’t afraid to belly-laugh, to gasp in delight, to seek out beauty, and to see the world through the lens of wonder and respond with joy. For we believe in a God who is “awesome and a wonder-worker,” as the Psalmist reminds us, a God who, as Jesus told us, made us to be light for the world! Perhaps the “silence” we speak of this week is the need to silence the onslaught of messages of fear and open ourselves to see and experience the beauty that sustains our joy of life - the life that God embraced and embodied in a child, born in a manger, 2000 years ago.

   So, here is what we need to take away from this story, from this idea of joy, and of God’s glory streaming in and around us: That God was born and was human, means that you matter, that I matter -- that we are special in the eyes of God. Not just some of us, but all of us. And not in some sort of narcissistic, egocentric, kind of way but because to be human can never be a generalized claim. To be human is to be you, as God created you to be. So be you.
   And no, it’s not all about you, but it is everything about you. The incarnation is this radically reciprocal reality. God’s commitment to being human in Jesus is God also saying, “I am committed to you being you and being fully you.” It is God saying “I love the true you.”

   Richard Rohr writes, “The True Self -- where you and God are one -- does not choose to love as much as it is love itself already. (see Colossians 3:3-4). 
The True Self does not teach us compassion as much as it is compassion. Loving from this core of your being as you were created is experienced as a river within you that flows of its own accord. (see John 7:38-39). 
From this more spacious and grounded place, one naturally connects, empathizes, forgives, and loves everything. We were made in love, for love, and unto love. This deep inner ‘yes,’ that is God IN us, is already loving God through us. The false self doesn’t really know how to love in a very deep or broad way. It is too opportunistic. It is too small. It is too self-referential to be compassionate.” 
It is too fearful, to be joyful.

   Christmas is the gift from God of God’s very self for the sake of you being your very self so that the world might know God’s love -- in, through, and because of you.