Born to Give Us Second Birth

Click here to listen to the full service

Luke 1:26-38

Click here to listen to the sermon only

Preface

Let the Christmas moment hold you.

Look around.   Notice the candle.  Touch the Bible.   Hear the organ.  Sense the evergreen.   Taste the happiness, the joy, and the conviction that life is good.

Let the Christmas moment hold you.

Christmas evokes stories.  See what you remember of the Christmas stories.   In those days there came from Caesar Augustus. House and lineage of David.  Shepherds abiding in the fields.  An angel of the Lord appeared.  Wise Men from the east.  Gold, frankincense, myrrh.  They went home by another way.  The Word was with God, was God, was in the beginning with God, all things were made through him.

Let the Christmas moment hold you.

You notice though that none of these stories are in our Gospel of Mark, whom we follow this year.  In fact, we have had to retreat from the high ground of Mark for these Sundays, come Christmas, for there was no Christmas in the earliest Gospel, no room in the inn of Mark 1 for birth stories.  Or in Paul, earlier still, who says only, ‘born of  a woman, born under the law’ (Gal. 4).  The stories came later than the gospel they narrate.  Why did they come at all?  Because people want to know about these things, and so a gift wrap of history and theology, memory and art came to pass.

Let the Christmas moment hold you.

This moment gives birth to stories.  Including your favorite.   Leo Tolstoy’s Where Love Is, God Is.   Raymond Alden’s Why The Chimes Rang.   O Henry’s The Gift of the Magi.  And some films too:  Miracle on 34th Street, White Christmas, Home Alone (J). 

Perhaps the shock of Incarnation requires us to mask our befuddlement, to muffle our astonishment at presence, mystery, divinity here and now, by and through the telling of stories.  That God would choose to enter our condition…That God would stoop down to us, to walk about us…That God would immerse Godself in our terror and horror:  Antietam, Flanders Field, Nagasaki, Auschwitz, Dresden, Pakistan, Newtown, Boylston Street, World Trade Center.  That God would stoop to take on our grief and loss:  a friend moved, a relationship severed, a parent buried, a marriage ended, a job removed, a dream deferred.  That God would decide to enter our duplicities and disguises:  best foot forward when the other one is the real one; saint at home, devil abroad;  suppression of our own foibles, but accentuation of others’.  That God with man is now residing, yonder shines the infant light?  What sort of news, what sort of gospel, is this?

Let the Christmas moment hold you.

Exemplum Docet

We have never been far from academia—Colgate, Syracuse, Ohio Wesleyan, Cornell, McGill, Lemoyne, U of Rochester, now BU.

Bob Fisk worked at Syracuse University for four decades.   He and his wife Connie started coming to our church out of an old family connection, on her side, and because his Boy Scout troop met in the building, on his side.   She was an architect, community leader, financial developer, and outgoing spirit.   He was quiet, kind, soulful, and real.   I could swap stories with him about Eagle Scout courts of honor, about trading neckerchiefs at the National Jamboree, about Philmont Scout Ranch and the Tooth of Time.

Bob worked in a small office on campus.  We will need some archaeological tools to describe his life’s labor.  He supported students who needed AV and other equipment.  In the chaos of his little nest, he could find for you all manner of treasures:  carbon paper, white out, typewriter ribbon, film strip projectors, carousel slide projectors, screens, amplifiers, ditto paper, pens and pencils, and virtually anything else you, dear student, might need, some decades ago, for your class presentation due in two hours, due early tomorrow morning, due in 10 minutes.   In the joyful freedom of pastoral ministry, as the church grew, I could go and visit Bob, and watch the nearly endless stream of orphaned students stampeding their way to his little room.  He didn’t preach at them:  your lack of planning is not my personal crisis, proper planning prevents poor performance, be punctual and do everything at the appointed hour.  No.  He just helped.  He just quietly and joyfully helped.  One winter a middle aged former minister, working on another master’s degree, came by to speak about Bob:  “I watch him.  He is salt and light.  He would give you the shirt off his back.  He is there for students.”

On weekends he took his scout troop to be enveloped in the natural world, usually deep into the Adirondacks.  There he taught a love of the created order, a respect for the history of places, and the rudiments of leadership:  ‘affirm in public, criticize in private’, and other lasting truths.  Big eyes covered by big glasses, a big smile, and silent except for laughter—I can see Bob right now.  He never bought a thing on credit.  Not his house, not his car, not his camping gear.  He taught his four children that same frugality.

Connie predeceased him by some years, but until Bob died last winter I knew and smiled to think that at least one Christian walked the earth.

A Christmas Story

As we trying to get that urban churching rolling, we one year arranged a dish to pass dinner.  We sang some carols, maybe 100 of us or so.  I had asked three of our people just to tell a Christmas story, as our fairly humble program that snow covered evening.  Bob’s was the last.

As a 20 year old he had gone to England, as part of a bomber crew in 1941.   He told us, simply, about being away from home for the first time.  About having a photo of his girlfriend, Connie.  About his mom and dad and two sisters.   He said that his only thought was to hope that he would see them all once more.  Connie.  His Mom.  His Dad.  His sisters.  “I would like to get home alive”.  This was his prayer, as it is for many today.  Christmas came, but the service men were not allowed any decorations.  No candles that might be lit and so shine and so guide enemy bombers.  Bob noticed that their rations came in cardboard boxes with a coating of paraffin on them.  So, when he had time, he would sit in front of Connie’s picture, that December, and using his scout knife he would peel off the paraffin, storing it in a number 10 can.  By Christmas Eve Bob had enough for three candles, each with a short wick made of shoestring in the middle.   That night as the plane after the plane took off, he set up a little table in the rear of fuselage.  When they leveled off, he and the crew, except for the pilot, gathered at the little table.  He was afraid maybe the paraffin wouldn’t work.  But after a while, all three candles were lit, burning now in the dark sky over the cliffs of Dover and over the English channel.  After a long silence, one of the men recited a psalm.  Then they said the Lord’s prayer.  Bob prayed his hope to get home.  Then together, without much singing talent and without any practice, they sang two verses of Silent Night.  “I would like to get home alive”, Bob said, as the candles dimmed, flickered and went out.

From that personal Christmas remembrance, I caught a glimpse of the origins of Bob’s humility, kindness, and integrity.

Redeemer Judge

As the years in ministry roll on, the Christmas season becomes heavily populated with such narratives.  I find my worship time with you—lovely the music, exquisite the spirit—haunted by ghosts of Christmases past, like that of Bob Fisk.  At Lessons and Carols, the opening prayer states, Let us remember before God them who rejoice with us, but upon another shore and in a greater light, that multitude which no one can number, whose hope was in the word made flesh, and with whom, in this Lord Jesus, we for evermore are one.   This year I thought of Bob’s recent death, and of his Christmas memory, as we prayed so.  But the Lessons and Carols service also has a closing prayer, O God, you make us glad by the yearly festival of the birth of your only Son Jesus Christ:  Grant that we, who joyfully receive him as our Redeemer, may with sure confidence behold him when he comes to be our Judge.  This year I thought of Bob’s faithful life, as we prayed so.  And I wondered:  how will I be judged? And by what measure, and in what way, and for what account, and to what end?  Our Redeemer, that is Christmas.  Our Judge, that is Easter.   By grace we are assured Who will judge us, the same Lord Jesus who by faith has redeemed us.  But by what measure, standard, purpose, or metric?

That is, just what is the just point of life?

We should simply state, come Christmas, what, by grace, we judge to be the point of life.

What is the point of all this birth, death, activity, trauma, tragedy, success, failure, health, disease in the span of three score and ten years, or if by reason of strength, four score?

 Theme

The purpose of life is to love God and love neighbor.

The point of life is to learn to love to learn love to know Love, love divine and love human.  If that is not the point, then what is?  All the rest—achievement, successes, earnings, power, education, family, legacy, all (and these and other things are of course quite important in their own right) are meant to help us to learn to love, and have meaning if they help us to learn to love.  Are we lovers?  Are you loving?  Are we lovers any more?

To see and live such a purpose in life requires a second birth.  Not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man but of God, to become children of God.  It requires a new birth, which may take 9 decades of life, or 9 months of gestation or 9 minutes of a sermon.  One way or another, faith comes by hearing.  Christmas forces you to make a choice.  What is the point of your life?  Is it to love your God and love your neighbor?  To such an end the Redeemer is born.  By such a measure the Judge is raised.  Are you going to wholeness?  Do you expect to made whole in love in this life?  If not, just what are you going on to?  9 minutes is plenty of time for that question to be posed in the pulpit and answered in the heart.  Are you here on earth to love?  If not, what are you are here for?

Three Magnificat Thoughts

Our Holy Scripture surrounds the nativity with a memory of God’s care for David, and with a single sentence summary in Romans, and with the announcement of a great portent from the angel\messenger Gabriel.  But mainly the Holy Scripture impregnates the birth of Jesus with the voice of Mary, in the Magnificat, following 1 Samuel 1 and 2, almost to the letter.  A soul that magnifies the Lord, and spirit that rejoices in God.  Mary sings of the lowly, for the lowly, to the lowly.  She has her eye on the next generation.  She has her mind on those now left out.  She has her heart on the fallible, the tardy, the hasty, and the self-occupied.  Her hope is in the ancient God of Holy Writ, the God of Jonah, the God of Hannah, the God of Deborah, the God of Sarah, the God of Moses, the God of the poor.  Just like there are many ways to be rich, so there are many ways to be poor.

The Gospel bears a regard for those of low estate.  The Gospel lifts up those of low degree.  The Gospel spreads a blanket of mercy.  The Gospel feeds the hungry.  A regular birth, no less or more miraculous than any other (see S Ringe, LUKE, 32-33).

To connect with a Greek culture, the Christian scribes found birth stories befitting the miraculous arrival of the divine.  But the songs are old and Jewish, the psalms here are eschatological and Hebrew.  They portend the arrival of the Messiah, and await the advent of that Day.

Humble among tardy students, Bob Fisk loved God and neighbor.

Kind among hasty students, Bob Fisk loved God and neighbor.

Self-giving among self-occupied students, able to crucify his own projects in order to resurrect theirs, Bob Fisk loved God and neighbor.

He did aim at humility, kindness and integrity.

And you? And I?  I could sure use your help, your example, your companionship and your good humor along the way.

Thurman Christmas

Christmas returns, as it always does, with its assurance that life is good.

It is the time of lift to the spirit,

When the mind feels its way into the commonplace,

And senses the wonder of simple things: an evergreen tree,

Familiar carols, merry laughter.

It is the time of illumination,

When candles burn, and old dreams

Find their youth again.

It is the time of pause,

When forgotten joys come back to mind, and past

Dedications renew their claim.

It is the time of harvest for the heart,

When faith reaches out to mantle all high endeavor,

And love whispers its magic word to everything that breathes.

Christmas returns, as it always does, with its assurance that life is good.

(Howard Thurman, THE MOOD OF CHRISTMAS)

 

-The Rev. Dr. Robert Allan Hill, Dean of Marsh Chapel

For more information about Marsh Chapel at Boston University, click here.

For information about donating to the Chapel, click here.

Leave a Reply