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 biblegateway.com 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.