Look Deeper

Luke 2:1-20

On Christmas, we must see beneath the surface. Otherwise there is nothing to see.

It was the night of November 14th, 1940. Four hundred and fifty German bombers flew toward England. Their target was Coventry. Coventry was a city filled with aircraft factories, munitions works and chemical plants.

The planes dropped one million pounds of high explosives and forty thousand fire bombs. Fourteen hundred people died or were wounded. German Air Marshall, Hermann Goehring, created a new word to describe the devastation. He warned other British cities that they would soon be “Coventrated.”

Coventry hosted an ancient cathedral. Bombs ripped the old building apart. Flames engulfed the structure. Parishioners saved what books, pews, and liturgical vessels they could. The senior pastor laer said, “It was as though I was watching the crucifixion of Jesus upon the cross.”

That was the surface view. On Christmas, we must see beneath the surface. Otherwise, there is nothing to see.

The morning after the attack, the cathedral stone mason was picking through the rubble. He noticed two charred timers. They had fallen into the shape of a cross. Parishioners had put that cross on an altar made of smashed stones. Someone wrote two words on the wall behind the makeshift altar.

“Father, forgive.”

That cross and those words remain today in the ruins of old Coventry Cathedral.

On Christmas, we must see beneath the surface. Otherwise, there is nothing to see.

It is a strange story. At first, it seems like business as usual. The powerful give the orders. The powerless comply. Only two things are certain—death and taxes. The Emperor calls the tune and the Empire gets up to dance. But then we take a closer look.

While they were there,” Luke tells us, “the time came for her to deliver her child. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.”

Here is a look beneath the surface. This night we see the cross in the midst of the rubble. We see hope underneath the despair. We see new life built on the ruins of the old.

In 1865, near the end of another war, William C. Dix wrote a Christmas carol. He named it, “What Child is This?”

What child is this, Dix asks us, sleeping on Mary’s lap? Shepherds show up to hear good news. Angels sing celestial songs. Heaven and earth meet together around a cattle trough. On the surface, it is all just too strange.

So take a closer look.

“Why lies he in such mean estate,” Dix wonders, “where ox and ass are feeding?” If you look beneath the surface, you can glimpse what is happening. Listen to the angelic announcement: “For to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord!”

This child is a sign that appearances are deceiving. What matters is underneath, deep down, in the heart of God. And that’s precisely where this child comes from.

We could stop there and be happy with the clutter of Christmas cuteness. But the story will not stay put. “Nails, spear, shall pierce him through,” William Dix reminds us. “The cross he bore for me, for you.”

Now we know why our eyes linger on the surface. You don’t see any cross-filled mangers at Wal-Mart. You find no Christmas crucifixion cards at the Hallmark store. Why do we refuse to g deeper? Because the depths hold death. And that is the one deep thing we want to avoid.

The surface is where the world helps us lie to ourselves. Here are some of those lies. I can have love without suffering. I can have happiness without community. I can have peace without justice. I can have power without responsibility. I can be my own god.

On Christmas, we must see beneath the surface. Otherwise, there is nothing to see.

So we look deeper. Like Mary, we ponder all these things and treasure them in our hearts. “Good Christian, fear,” Dix reminds us, “for sinners, here the silent Word is pleading.”

Now we can see the depths of God’s love for us and for the world. Here is Emanuel, the Word made flesh. Here is God, who will not abandon us to our own foolish devices. Here is the Creator of the Universe who comes as the Redeemer of the World. Caesar may issue orders for the moment. The world’s one true King has come to overturn all the powers that imprison us.

If we see that, we must be changed. Otherwise, we have seen nothing.

The charred cross remains in Old Coventry Cathedral. A new church has been built along the ruins. In the new church you can find the headquarters for Coventry’s international ministry of peace and reconciliation. This ministry focuses on forgiveness and changed lives as the key to global peace.

A deeper look changes us. Otherwise we have seen nothing. We must not exchange one set of chains for another. It is not enough to climb from one casket into another. In the end, that is all the world can offer.

William Dix offers this invitation. “The King of Kings salvation brings; let loving hearts enthrone him.”

Let loving hearts enthrone him. This is the call of Christmas. This is how we change when we look deeper. Let us be amazed at the words of the shepherds. Let us rejoice in the song of the angels. Let us smile at the coos of the baby. And let us pray about the call of Christmas.

Will Jesus sit on the throne of your heart? Let us pray…

Worth Pondering

Luke 2:1-20

But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart.”

It was such a mean old world. What a time to have a baby! The government raised taxes at the point of a sword. A pregnant women was ordered to travel dark and dangerous roads on the brink of birthing. An old king worried himself into a genocidal rage. Poor people were turned into migrants and refugees at the whim of a distant despot. Housing demand exhausted supply. A damp, dark cave became a delivery room.

And it was all so…so normal. Graft and greed, vice and violence, fraud and fear…this was the order of the day. There was nothing to ponder. No one was surprised. It was such a mean old world.

Into the heart of all this humdrum hatred…Love was born. This was not just any old baby. This was a promise fulfilled. “For a child has been born for us,” Isaiah declares, “a son given to us; authority rests upon his shoulders; and he is named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.

Into the heart of all this humdrum hatred…Love was born. So the days of this mean old are numbered. Oppression will be over. Combat boots and bloody fatigues shall fuel the fires of festivals. God’s justice and righteousness shall be the order of the day, every day. God’s passionate longing to set things right shall be satisfied.

For the shepherds it was just another cold night in this mean old world. They lived in the shadows of society, on the rim of respectability. Their safe and familiar darkness exploded into terrifying light. “Do not be afraid,” the angel thundered, “for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people…” Somehow, their mean old was world about to change.

To you,” the angelic announcer continued, “to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.” This was anything but normal.

Into the heart of all this humdrum hatred…Love was born. Love was born in a manger on the margins. Love was born to migrants on the move. Love was born to overturn oppression. Love was born to defeat the darkness of death and despair. Love was born into to this mean old world to bring all that meanness to an end.

It’s still a mean old world. I confess that too often it burdens me. We live in tribes divided by twisted truth claims. We are divided by race and class and gender and age. The world worships power and rewards arrogance. People are trafficked and tortured, abused and abandoned. Shouting heads and lying lips fill our airwaves. The mortality rate is still one hundred percent. And the meanness rate is close behind.

And it is all so…normal…for us. It’s so easy to forget that none of this is normal for God.

Into the heart of all this humdrum hatred…Love is born. “The grace of God has appeared,” Paul writes to Titus, “bringing salvation to all…” Tonight we can treasure these words and ponder them in our hearts. Love is born into our hearts and into our world in Jesus, God’s Word made flesh. It is a night to remember all the ways that Love is born into this mean old world.

When I am burdened by all the pain, I ponder. I ponder the gratitude of families as they received bulging baskets of food here for Thanksgiving. I ponder the celebration of one of our own members just a year removed from jail and now building a life of faith, hope and love. I ponder the joy of children hugging our own Santa Claus and receiving gifts from the angels here at Emanuel because their parent cannot give from behind the walls of a prison.

Into the heart of all this humdrum hatred…Love is born.

When I am burdened by all the pain, I ponder. I ponder the witness of our young people who showed us the best Christmas pageant ever and pointed us to all the horrible Herdmans in our own community. I ponder the love and care you show to one another as injury, illness, grief and death still shadow our homes and our lives. I ponder how we are blessed as a faith community to serve and to celebrate in this season of life and light.

Into the heart of all this humdrum hatred…Love is born.

So I invite you to ponder as well. Where is Love born in our life today, this week, this year? It is worth some quiet time in prayer and reflection. Amid the mayhem of this mean old world, a manger is filled with light and life. And we are invited to glorify and praise God for all we have heard and see.

It’s a mean old world. But into the heart of all this humdrum hatred…Love is born. Let us ponder how we can make our world the birth place of Love.

Receiving the Child

I preached this sermon on December 14, 2014 and based it on John 1. In the early part of this week, I’m sharing some previous sermons in the hopes of offering some quick help to preachers who are dealing with multiple worship services and gatherings and the probability that they will also have a Sunday service hard on the heels of the Christmas festivities.

A young couple drove to the hospital to have their first child.  On the way, the baby decided to speed up the schedule.  The young father-to-be pulled into the parking lot of a convenience store.  He sprinted inside and yelled, “Call 911!  We’re having a baby!”  One employee made the call.  The other followed him back to the car.  Soon a little girl was born.  She was received into a tomato and grease stained apron that had been warmed in the store’s pizza oven.

It wasn’t the quality of the receiving blanket that mattered.  The important thing was the willingness to receive the child.

We travel toward the birth of a child.  All the lessons remind us today to get ready.  As we get ready, let’s think about our hearts as “receiving blankets”.  We will treasure a child, keep him warm, hold him close. 

Let’s get ready to receive a child.

Paul’s words to the Thessalonian Christians (1 Thessalonians 5:16-24) steer us in the right direction.  Rejoice, pray, give thanks!  Receive the Spirit’s guidance.  Don’t turn up your nose at prophecy.  Test everything you see and hear, and keep what gives life.  These are instructions for preparing the receiving blankets in our hearts.  These instructions are best summarized in Paul’s words: “Do not quench the Spirit.”

Think about Mary, the mother of our Lord.  Here is someone with her receiving blanket prepared.  Let us not minimize the difficulties she faced.  She was not married, but was to be a mother in the most unbelievable of ways.  Sometimes we pretend that ancient people might have taken this all in stride.  But they knew how babies arrive—and this was not the way it happened.

At best, Mary faced rejection by family and friends.  At worst she risked being stoned to death for adultery.  Her family honor would be damaged beyond repair.  She might be reduced to selling herself in order to survive.  It would have been rational for Mary to reject the child rather than to receive the child.  Madeleine L’Engle puts it this way:

This is the irrational season

When love blooms bright and wild.

Had Mary been filled with reason

There’d have been no room for the child.

Mary’s response is remarkable.  “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.”  She was willing to receive the child, the gift of God’s Spirit.  This is the Advent invitation.  Do not quench the Spirit.  Get your blankets ready.

Of course, ours is a rational society.  Children often are not welcome—especially those who come to us outside of normal channels.  Children are too often regarded as a choice rather than a gift.  Children are too often regarded as burdens rather than blessings.  Children are too often regarded as distractions rather than as delights.  We may never think such things about our own children.  But only a few minutes of the day’s news tells us that our culture does not welcome children.

I say this with the full awareness that we live in a time when some people think they are all about the children, especially before they are born. The minute those children hit the real air of life in this world, however, they become unworthy of attention, support, and care. Political posturing is not care.

Receiving the child is always a ministry of self-sacrifice.  Think about John the Baptist.  He came first.  He should have gotten top billing.  He should have been the star.  But John took his place.  He received the child.  He was the voice crying out, “Get ready for the baby!”

The glory of it all is that we were received long before we were called to receive.  That is what it’s really all about.  Listen to these words from John one, verse twelve.  “All who received him, who believed in his name, he gave the power to become the children of God.”  And so we are the ones who are received.  This is the first gift of the Holy Spirit to you and me.  The Holy Spirit tells us that we are God’s beloved children in Jesus.  Can you allow God to be as good and loving as God wants to be?  Do not quench the Spirit.

My favorite Christmas carol has a verse that says it best:

“O Holy Child of Bethlehem,

Descend to us we pray.

Cast out our sin and enter in.

Be born in us today.”

This is our prayer in receiving the child.  Be born in us today.

There is nothing easy about being open to the Spirit.  That’s especially true when that guidance contradicts our hopes, our plans, our ambitions, our images of ourselves.  We have high opinions of our own priorities.  Winston Churchill was once told that his opponent, all things considered, was a very humble man.  “That is just as well,” Churchill replied, “since he has a lot to be humble about.”

This is true for us as well.  The temptation is powerful to quench the Spirit, to turn up my nose at God’s word to me.  There is nothing easy about receiving Jesus, God’s son.  He comes to tell us that world is to be turned upside down.  He comes to tell us that the poor, the helpless and the oppressed get God’s special attention.  He comes to tell us that strangers are to be received like neighbors and enemies are to be welcomed as members of the family.

If this is the Spirit to be born in us, it is no wonder that the process feels like labor and delivery!

But we know how to do this.  Today we practice these skills.  At our second service, we honor our children as they tell the Christmas story.  We share our gifts with children in our community who need our care—children who are impoverished; children with a parent in jail; children without a home for the holidays; children who suffer abuse or neglect.  I thank you for all the ways that you receive the child in and through our community of faith.

As we move toward the Christmas celebration, let us welcome the Spirit.  Let us open our hearts for that baby to be born in us, among us, and through us.  Let us pray to receive the Child.