Our lesson from Holy Scripture emphasizes two basic Christmas teachings. The first is the reminder of life as a journey and of faith as spiritual itinerancy. Joseph dispatches the Magi, who themselves go home by another way, and then flees for a time to Egypt, only later to return Nazareth. The birth of Jesus occasions a journey of faith.
The second reminder to us is of the God who keeps promises. Three separate events are said to transpire (flight to Egypt, slaughter of children, return to Nazareth), all in fulfillment of prophecy. While Hosea spoke of Israel, Matthew claims his words for Jesus. While Jeremiah spoke of exile to Babylon, Matthew claims his words for Herod. While Isaiah speaks of a messianic King, Matthew claims his words for the son of Mary. The birth of Jesus marks the protection of a divine promise.
We may want to pause just for a moment to reflect upon the glad tidings of great joy.
To do so, we need to clear away the straw and brush of some stress.
As the pastor responded, when asked by his civic club to speak about the miracle of Christmas, and the mystery of the Nativity, “Why certainly. It would be my pressure…I mean pleasure”.
There is much pleasure coming to this Nativity. But there is pressure as well.
You may consider the strange chaos of this season, for a moment of limited peace this morning. You may wonder about the stress of the holidays. Why so stressful? Their mixture of high expectation and low experience? Their year end blizzard of financial and social obligations? Their sudden reconfluence of families and generations? Their odd rhythms and paces? The rude manger? The journey to Egypt? Whence the stress?
Our ancient Scriptures suggest another source of our anxiety, at Nativity, if we have such on this very day of peace. It is this. Christmas places us unmistakably before the presence of the Holy, of all that is Holy, at Nativity. The pressing of this moment, our stress, comes from our vague premonition of the divine, of our sense of the Holy. It is an awesome and startling moment to find yourself in the presence of all that is Holy. Joseph can tell us, as he races toward Egypt. Do you feel today the presence of the Holy One?
The ancient Israelites would understand, and recall our need to love the Lord our God with all our heart and soul and mind and strength.
The prophet Isaiah would understand, and recite again his vision of the temple, “Holy, Holy, Holy is the Lord of hosts, heaven and earth are full of God’s glory”.
The virgin Mary would understand, singing, “My soul does magnify the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior”.
The apostle Paul would understand and record, “It is the God who said ‘Let light shine out of darkness’ who has shown in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.”
The evangelist John would understand, and teach, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the word was God.”
Every mystic and part-mystic from Dionysius the Aereopagite, to Amoun of Nitria, to Santa Teresa of Avila, to Howard Thurman would understand, and affirm, “the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom”.
Rudolph Otto said it for his generation, “the mysterium tremendum et fascinans”. The sudden sense of God, present.
And you? And me? And we?
To be alive at Christmas, in life’s journey and under the promises of God, is to reckon with the Holy. Hence our stress.
Before all that is Holy, then, a question, a question of soul inevitably arises. Hence our stress.
How am I living?
Have I asked too little of myself or too much of myself? Or have I asked too much for myself or too little for myself? The awesome wonder of Nativity provokes a mortal question: “Have you asked enough of yourself, and have you asked enough for yourself?”
In the presence of all that is Holy, we can come clean… Thou before whom no secrets are hidden, cleanse the thoughts of our hearts by the inspiration of thy Holy Spirit that we may more fully love thee and more worthily magnify thy Holy name…
Some of us ask too much of ourselves. We work 80 hours when 60 would be better, wrap 10 gifts when 4 would suffice, do 100% of our relational work and 30% of every one else’s. You ask too much of yourself.
Some of us ask too little of ourselves. We pass through life unaware of the bruising our narcissism inflicts on others. We do not pray in the morning, or worship on Sunday. We have not climbed the front step of faith which is tithing, nor knocked on the front door of faith which is giving away annually 10% of what we earn, nor entered the front room of faith which is discovering the joy of a tenth given. We do not keep full faith with our partners, spouses, friends. You ask too little of yourself.
Some of us ask too much for ourselves. So we create a world that is post-Christian . A world of pervasive materialism, preemptive war, limited literacy, flat spirituality, inherited entitlement, shallow sexuality, Machiavellian leadership, computerized e-buse, and disrespect for elders. We crowd the malls at 7am on the day after Christmas, hungry for a sacrament in consumption that merely consumes the consumer. You ask too much for yourself.
Some of us ask too little for ourselves. The Christmas vision of peace gets dim. The reality of love is blurred. The singing moments of joy are lost in the shuffle. We forget who we are meant to be. Are we lovers anymore? You ask too little for yourself.
How will any of us ever get this balance right? Before all that is Holy?
You know, we will never get it right.
A person who lives in isolation, neither giving nor receiving, may ask too little of himself.
A young woman struggling with issues of identity and behavior may ask too little for herself.
A young man raised in a morally heightened atmosphere, where expectations are very high, may ask too much of himself.
A woman at midlife, who has enjoyed much, too much pleasantry, may ask too little of herself.
A man, who has worked hard, and also was well placed in life, may ask too little of himself.
It is the conscience, of course, at Nativity, that place us, creation and conscience, before the Holy.
Nor is there one, even one, among us who has fully balanced, rightly balanced, the question of what we ask of ourselves with what we ask for ourselves.
Some of us this morning need to lean back and ask a little less of ourselves. Some of us this morning need to lean forward and ask a little more of ourselves.
While we do, though, while we engage again the balances of spirit, perhaps we could remember the good news of the Nativity. This news of glad tidings and great joy is a matter of full health and salvation for you, and trusting this gospel with life, your life, is a matter of life and death.
You see, if there were no pardon or peace in the universe, then we would have to get everything exactly right, or we would be doomed. If grace were like Newton’s gravity, and once you fell you kept on falling without pardon or peace, we would be doomed. If grace were like Marx’s history, and “moved with iron necessity toward inevitable results”, we would be doomed. If there were never any forgiveness available, before all that is Holy, we w
ould never be able to be at peace, or to act with grace, or to live any other than fear ridden, guilt obsessed, self centered lives. Hell. What a life that would be.
This is why John Wesley asked his one question. Do you know God to be a pardoning God? Not, do you believe, only, or hope, only, or feel, only, but do you know…
He breaks the power of canceled sin, he sets the prisoner free.
At Nativity, at Christmas, before the Holy, we are set free from…well?…you name it…that regret for… that word unfitly spoken, that event not foreseen and not forestalled, that deed you wish you could revisit, that memory from an autumn morning, or a midnight dream—they all engulf, and overwhelm, unless…
Dearest friend, the Holy Child of Bethlehem is God’s own pardon, God’s own peace, God’s own love to embrace you whether you lean backward or forward or both. As Howard Thurman, a some time mystic wrote,
When the song of the angels is stilled,
When the star in the sky is gone,
When the kings and the princes are home,
When the shepherds are back with their flocks,
The work of Christmas begins:
To find the lost,
To heal the broken,
To feed the hungry,
To release the prisoner,
To rebuild the nations,
To bring peace among brothers,
To make music in the heart.
We should not let the beauty of Thurman’s poetry obscure the wisdom of this theology. His great poem is about Nativity not morality. The work, here, is God’s. The work of finding, healing, feeding, releasing, rebuilding, bringing peace and music to the heart…this is the work of Grace, born in Bethelem of Judea in the days of Herod the King. The work is work done in Jesus the Christ. Oh, we may help, like at Christmas the 3 year old helps his mother to set the table. He drops the fork, and breaks the cup, and spills the water. She is grateful for his help, and help he should. But she it is who has the meal in hand. The feast is prepared, the table is spread. A word of grace is said. Kitchen, and dining room, and table are all prepared.
Sursum Corda. Lift up your hearts. Hear the gospel:
You are forgiven. You are accepted. You are healed. You are loved.
Mild he lays his glory by
Born that we no more may die
Born to raise us from the earth
Born to give us second birth
Hark! The herald angels sing
Glory to the newborn king.
Dean of Marsh Chapel