Monday, December 31, 2007

Goodness Born with a Gasp & Cry

A sermon by Greg Ledbetter preached on the First Sunday after Christmas Day, Year A
December 30, 2007.

Sermon Texts: Isaiah 63:7-9; Hebrews 2:10-18; Matthew 2:13-23
Somewhere in our old boxes of things we have photos and even 8mm videotapes of Christmases past. You know the kinds of photos and videos I’m talking about … everyone in their pajamas … wrapping paper everywhere … the kids looking joyous and energized and the adults rumpled and tired and looking as though a good shot of espresso would help. On-camera, there are usually lots of smiles, plenty of Christmasy show and enthusiasm … items being held up and displayed for whoever it is that will be viewing these visual archives years hence. Off-camera, it can be a different story. The actors in the photos and videos turn down the wattage of their smiles … best behavior is set aside for whatever fits the reality and the moment. Off-camera, the knee-deep wrappings are being carted off to the recycling bin—or carefully folded for re-use as in the home of my childhood. Off-camera, one can begin to assess this day of days … this long-awaited time. Were everyone’s hopes and dreams realized? … the gifts the children begged for? … the family harmony and togetherness that mom or dad prayed for? Did two millennia of singing about “peace on earth and good will among men and women” bring the ancient dream any closer to fruition?

The lead-up to Christmas gets us pretty well-acquainted with the on-camera details of the story of Jesus’ birth as the writers of the gospels of Luke and Matthew describe and/or imagine them. Shepherds … singing angels … mangers … grouchy inn-keepers … stars in the sky and odd-looking and sounding foreigners who follow them.

Perhaps it’s the off-camera realities that hit the holy family so swiftly, so soon after the birth that keep the gospels of John and Mark from caring about trying to describe the cozy scene at all. The un-coziness of the historical realities of the time intrude so quickly that it is only the luxury of later times that allows painters and poets and composers to imaginatively fill in the details that the gospel writers failed to provide.

Christmas Eve, as we drove home, as you likely did also, we drove by many homes that were beautifully lit and decorated. Christmas lights and decorations area like the winter equivalent of summer fireworks displays—it’s nearly impossible to be unmoved by evening the simplest of them. Gorgeous symbolism of the light that is entering the world, the light that is fragile and beautiful. If you’re a true Christmas light observer, you also take note of the outdoor Christmas decorating trends. For years, big, fat energy-sucking colored light bulbs were all we had, and so that’s what we hung on our homes each year. Some families, like Jan’s, went all-out and cut out plywood and painted versions of Santa and the Reindeer … or painted plywood nativity scenes. Then came the mini-bulbs … first in strings … then the strings started blinking and racing around … then came the strings of icicle mini-lights in white or rainbow colored versions. The latest fad in Christmas lawn decorations are these inflatable plastic and nylon snow-globes and back-lit figures. I’m sure you’ve seen them. Perhaps you’ve even seen the inflatable Santa on an inflatable motorcycle. Perhaps, like me, you wonder if this trend in Christmas decorating will last. And what will come next.

On Christmas day, we took a drive and I noted as we drove through the same neighborhoods through which we’d driven the night before that what had been these tightly inflated, lighted displays were now just sloppy piles of wet nylon and plastic in the yards. Such a depressing contrast with the night before.

You may have heard us speak of “ChristmasTIDE” … this is another way of referring to season of Christmas that extends from Christmas Day to Epiphany. These are the “Twelve Days of Christmas." By that reckoning, this is day six. As with the word “-tide” in Christmastide, there are almost tidal qualities to these days … possibly a heightened awareness of the ebb and flow in our lives and in the world around us. The light that is seeking birth in a back and forth struggle with that which would put it out. The same Christmas evening that we drove back home among the now re-inflated yard decor brought news of a tiger attack at the venerable San Francisco zoo. Two days later as Lura was leaving the office, she paused at my door and said, “Oh, and you did hear about the assassination of Benazir Bhutto, didn’t you?”

All around us … before and after the joyous season … all around us … before and after the holy birth … the light that is seeking birth is locked in a back and forth struggle with that which would put it out. Goodness that seeks to be born with a gasp and a cry … always fighting the odds … always fighting an uphill battle. Hope in a deadlock struggle with fear. Joy going to the mat with terror.

When I was eight years old, my family and I joined my grandparents from the Central Valley on a summertime trip to San Francisco. One of my memories of that visit was reaffirming the great truth of Mark Twain’s observation that the coldest winter he ever spent was a summer in San Francisco. We went as a family to Candlestick Park and watched the Giants squeak out a win over the “Bums” … the hated Los Angeles Dodgers. Willie Mays was in center field and Juan Marichal was on the mound. We may have frozen our buns off in the cheap seats, but all was right with the world on that night at Candlestick. The next day we paid a visit to the San Francisco zoo. The father-in-law of my dad’s associate pastor was one of the zookeepers and so I had the kind of access to the zoo that other kids could only dream about. We got to go IN the cages. In particular, I remember getting to go in the ring-tailed lemur cages and feeding these wonderfully exotic mammals. We also got to go amongst the llamas with arms full of hay while they plucked at the hay and our hair and our clothing. It was a dream day at the zoo. It was a day that has become gilded in my memory, a golden day that has made a visit to the zoo a kind of comfy walk down memory lane.

And then the Christmas Day tiger attacks which were awful enough in themselves—this horrific reminder of the danger of sentimentalizing these gorgeous, but lethal beasts of the wild. I have these awful images of the two surviving brothers running back to the zoo cafĂ© and wondering where in the dark the dangerous beauty was. Would that it had been the lemurs and llamas that had escaped their confinement.

Let me say again: All around us … before and after the joyous season … all around us … before and after the holy birth … the light that is seeking birth is locked in a back and forth struggle with that which would put it out. Goodness that seeks to be born with a gasp and a cry … always fighting the odds … always fighting an uphill battle. Hope in a deadlock struggle with fear. Joy going to the mat with terror.

This is Matthew’s message to us this morning. That the birth of THE child and perhaps the birth of every child is delight mingled with danger. Danger and delight. We’ll recall that this morning’s text follows immediately upon the heels of the visit of the magi whom Matthew describes as wise men from the East. Our singing of the “We Three Kings from Orient Are” may dull us from remembering that Herod the Great sought to manipulate the magi. Herod attempted to trick the magi into leading him and his soldiers to the place of Jesus’ birth so that they could destroy the threatening goodness of God that had been born.

After the visit of the magi, Herod gets wind that it is he that has been tricked … and he is furious. Herod goes into a murderous rage that results in a vast blanket of death being cast over the region where Jesus was expected to have been born. We may remember that the first attempt on Benazir Bhutto’s life killed 140 of her followers. Then and now, such is the tragic cost of being too near perceived greatness. The Roman historian, Josephus, makes no mention of Herod’s “slaughter of the innocents”, but we know from the simplest reading of history that tyrants and despots put no value whatsoever on human life when it comes to maintaining their power and pursuing their ends.

All through the ages
the wise men and sages
have said there are dirty deeds that
simply must be done.

To keep society growin'
and the benefits flowin'
there's a simply necessity
of hurting someone.

It takes strength and agility,
takin' responsibility,
it's the core of what leadership's
really about.

When the red blood starts comin'
just think of it as plumbin' --
if you've got a problem you must
flush it out.
Apparently this is the thinking in Pakistan and in far too many other devastated places and times on this planet.

The foregoing is a song written by Harry Chapin that comes from the delightful and dangerous musical, Cotton Patch Gospel. The song is Herod’s song and later in the song, it is sung against the backdrop of Rachel’s lament from Isaiah whom we heard quoted by Matthew this morning.

'A voice was heard in Ramah,
wailing and loud lamentation,
Rachel weeping for her children;
she refused to be consoled, because they are no more.'
Chapin’s song continues:

Rockabye sweet angel, momma is here,

Hushabye sweet baby, there’s nothing to fear.

Close your eyes sweet darling, all through the night.

Momma will hold you tight, ‘til the morning light.

Momma will hold you tight, ‘til the morning light.

All around us … before and after the joyous season … before and after the holy birth … the light that is seeking birth is locked in a struggle with that which would put it out. Goodness that seeks to be born with a gasp and a cry fighting an uphill battle. Hope and joy in a struggle with terror and fear.

How do we emerge from this “joyous season of the holy birth” with its tigers and Herods and Bin Ladens—to say nothing of partly deflated Christmas hopes and family dustups—with our hope intact, with our resolve to continue giving birth in ourselves to the goodness of God?

For Matthew, it is that the same God who haunts our world with visions of Shalom, will habitate our dreams with visions of God’s protective grace. You may remember that Joseph really only gets a good part in the drama of Jesus’ birth in Matthew’s gospel. In this morning’s reading, Joseph plays a key role in protecting his little family from the wrath of Herod. Three times God appears to Joseph in his dreams and three times Joseph heeds God’s message of protective grace assuring that baby Jesus would live to be baptized by John in the river Jordan and live out the adult life that the world has never forgotten. Whether dreaming while sleeping or waking, God’s grace is ALWAYS with us and always WITHIN us.

In recounting the “gracious deeds” and “praiseworthy acts”, Isaiah said that is was in their time of distress that God became their savior:

It was no messenger or angel
but God’s presence that saved them;
in God’s love and pity God redeemed them;
God lifted them up and carried them all the days of old.

Not to get too maudlin, but Isaiah’s words can’t help but remind one of the “Footsteps in the Sand” poem that is stuck on the sides of so many refrigerators. In the poem, the deepened single set of footprints serve as an indication of the times when it was God’s strength alone that carried the struggler.

The author of Hebrews tells us that God’s servant, through whom we have received back our lives, was perfected by his struggles … his sufferings. The baby born to Mary and Joseph was no hermetically sealed seed of humanity protected against the “scuffing up” the rest of us have to endure, but one who was like us “in every respect”. “Because he himself was tested by what he suffered,” the author of Hebrews preaches to us, “he is able to help those who are being tested.”

So here at year’s end and mid-Christmas is where we are and what we have:

  • A suffering savior who knows well our suffering.
  • Carried safely in God’s arms as one would carry a child.
  • Waking and sleeping dreams of God’s protective grace.

It may not be a Currier and Ives engraving with which we’re left with this day, this sixth day of Christmas, but I pray it is enough to lead you into a new year and a new day in your life with hope and resolve … a new year and a new day in your life where the goodness of God’s great love and mercy will be given birth, gasping and crying and thrust into your arms and your being to care for, come what may.


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