Do Not Be Afraid

The Feast of the Incarnation
Sermon Preached Christmas Eve at St. Mark's Episcopal Church

The last several weeks – the Season of Advent – the lead up to this holy night – has been all about waiting and preparing.  But what is it we have been waiting for?  A baby born in a manger surrounded by Mary and Joseph and some shepherds? Encircled by cute farm animals?  A choir of angels announcing this good news?  Some of us were here at 4 o’clock this evening to see this vision of Christmas – slightly altered by some theatrical embellishments - reenacted by our children.  It was fun, it was adorable . . . but did it represent all that we’ve been waiting for? Does Luke’s story – when we focus only on what has become the crèche displayed in many of our homes – does that adequately justify the time spent in prayerful preparation?   And, more importantly, can that tableau satisfy the deep yearning in our hearts for something deeper and more meaningful? 
In conversations with many of you these past several weeks, it is clear that we need something more than the pastoral and quaint to satisfy our longings.  We are looking for and desperately need something deep and true.  About 10 days ago, Stephen Colbert offered a parody of R.E.M.’s “It’s the End of the World As We Know It” as his response to 2016.[1]  The song referenced many of 2016’s dark moments –Flint Michigan’s water crisis, wild fires, the death of cultural icons – Prince, David Bowie, Leonard Cohen – and the ugliness of the campaign cycle leading up to the November elections.  And this litany of darkness was followed by the ironic refrain, “it’s the end of the year as we know it . . . and I feel fine.”  While Colbert’s lyrics focused exclusively on the woes of the United States, the sentiment resonates around the globe. 
For me, the dust and ashes of Aleppo – to say nothing of the lives lost, the children orphaned, and the refugees shunned around the world – speaks to the present darkness in a way that nothing else in my lifetime has before.  But history tells us there have been other times like this.
“In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria.”[2]  Judea had just been declared a Roman province – an occupied territory – and the Jewish people were most likely registering for tax purposes.  This census ultimately led to a violent uprising.  Now there are a number of problems with the chronology in Luke’s gospel, not the least of which is that the first registration in Judea probably took place several years before Jesus’ birth; but the author of the gospel, nonetheless, wants to make it very clear that Jesus was born in politically turbulent times. 
Occupied territories, people living under foreign regimes or exiled from their homelands, peoples torn apart by war, these are not new.  In fact, this was the world into which Jesus was born - the world into which God chose to deliver a baby.  This year, instead of a baby in a manger, I see 5-year-old Omran Daqnees in the back of an ambulance in Aleppo.[3]  This is the darkness into which God enters, the darkness into which God chooses to be born. 
“The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness – on them light has shined.”[4]  A few nights ago, I woke up in the middle of the night and unable to sleep, I went to my cell phone to play a game of Scrabble with some stranger also lying awake at that hour.  But what struck me in that moment – in addition to the odd connection this technology could create across the miles – what struck me was how bright my phone’s screen was.  It actually hurt my eyes a bit, causing me to squint.  I found the setting that would allow me to dim the screen and then continued my game.  Of course, the lighting on my phone hadn’t changed; but the light surrounding it had.  Instead of the bright light of day or the fluorescent glow of bulbs in my office, I was lying in the dark.  In that instant, I recognized something profound about the “great light” that Christians have come to know as Jesus the Christ.  That great light shines brightest in the dark places.  And isn’t that what the gospels tell us? 
“He has cast down the mighty from their thrones, and has lifted up the lowly. He has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent away empty. He has come to the help of his servant Israel, for he has remembered his promise of mercy, The promise he made to our fathers, to Abraham and his children for ever.”[5]
This Jesus who we, using the prophet’s words, name “Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace” is born in a land at war.  This Jesus, a baby sent by God to be our hope in the darkness, comes to us in the darkness of this night to be for us a great light – a light so strong against the darkness – that the darkness cannot overcome it.  This light has the power to enter our hearts to transform us so that we are filled with hope, a hope that the darkness cannot overcome.[6] 
Tonight’s celebration is filled with songs of joy and of great gladness.  Tonight’s celebration is filled with family and friends and a feast of bread and wine that is but a foretaste of the feast we will all experience when God’s will is done on earth as in heaven.[7]  And tonight’s celebration is filled with a manger – Mary and Joseph, angels and shepherds – and a baby, a baby who overturned the world of politics in his day and promises to do the same in ours.[8]  A baby in a manger - an unlikely person and an unlikely place to look for and to find hope; but may this holy night be the night in which we realize once again that God with us – Emmanuel – is doing for us what we cannot do for ourselves.  And may this holy night be the night in which our deepest yearning finds fulfillment once again.
“Do not be afraid; for see – I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be assign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.”[9]

[1] The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, “It’s the End of the Year as We Know It,” December 16, 2016, accessed December 23, 2016.
[2] Luke 2:1-2.
[3] Photograph, Aleppo Media Centre, accessed December 23, 2016.
[4] Isaiah 9:2.
[5] Luke 1:52-55.
[6] John 1:5.
[7] Katherine Willis Pershey, “Christmas Eve: A Feast of Light,” A Preacher’s Guide to Lectionary Sermon Series: Thematic Plans for Years A, B, and C, compiled by Jessica Miller Kelley (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2016), 9-10.
[8] Jim Wallis, “Singing Our Way Back to Hope: Lessons in Resistance from theChristmas Carols,” Sojourners, December 22, 2016, , accessed December 23, 2016.
[9] Luke 2:10b-12.


Advent in an Old Brown Station Wagon

Advent 5 / 3A - Sermon Preached at St. Mark's Episcopal Church

Advent is like a family road trip before Christmas.  The kind that was popular in the 70s – where you loaded up the back of the old brown station wagon with luggage and presents that you’d be opening at Grandma and Grandpa’s house, trying to remember to leave room to see out the back window.  Where you got the dog bed set up, along with bowls for water and food, in the way back – next to the piled-high luggage.  Then you’d cram three kids into the back seat, Mom into the passenger seat and Dad behind the wheel (remember, this is the 70s).  And off you’d go – no faster than 55 mph because of the 1974 Emergency Highway Energy Conservation Act.  Yes, off you’d go and at least three of the five people in the car would be as excited as could be that just a scant 27 hours later you’d arrive at the grand parents house in Florida in time for Christmas Eve.  And, how long is 27 hours when you are a child – it’s only a bit longer than a day. . . and a day always goes by so quickly when you’re having fun.  And, we’ll get to stop at that cool Belvidere Oasis near Chicago – we don’t have one of those in Wausau! And, maybe we can go to the Cracker Barrel near Chattanooga where that triangle-shaped board with the pegs are on every table – maybe Mom and Dad will finally let us buy one!  And, so car full, minds filled with excitement and anticipation and we were off and going!
Maybe this is not how you remember the 1970s family road trip; but it is how the Bullock Family trip began. And Advent is like that family road trip.  In not too long - and even though you KNOW it’s going to happen, the first time it is always a bit of a surprise - in not too long, a small head will poke forward from the backseat to speak to the grownups in the front.   That small head from the center in the back pokes forward and says innocently enough - “are we there yet?” Now, the first time it is cute and even a bit endearing – after all, you’ve only been on the road for 2 hours, you’re not even out of Wisconsin yet, and sweet little Debbie in the back just doesn’t have a sense of how FAR Florida is and has no way to know that we’ve not been driving for 27 hours even though it feels like 100.  But then the voice continues, every 45 minutes or so, and is soon joined in stereo by a brother and a sister – “how much longer?” “now are we there?” “. . .but when?”  “how far from here?” – the cute and endearing is all spent and what is left is annoyance and mounting frustration as Mom and Dad begin bickering with one another about who’s idea was this in the first place and why couldn’t Grandma and Grandpa just have come to us – after all, they don’t have to travel with three kids!  Ah yes, the family road trip – the never-ending highway.  And, Advent – with its equivalent cries of “how many days until Christmas” and “why do we have to wait to open presents?” and the bickering . . . yes, Advent – the highway to Christmas.
The prophet Isaiah knows something about this highway.  He tells the Israelites that “it shall be called the Holy Way,” a passage “for God’s people” where “no traveler, not even fools, shall go astray.”[1]  And James, writing his letter as if he has too often been in the front seat of this ride on God’s Holy Way, reminds his listeners then and now to “be patient” and to “be patient.”[2]   He says it twice.  And, perhaps most apt to our family road trip analogy, James says, “do not grumble against one another.”[3]  “Don’t make me stop this car!”  And so this perhaps is where the family traditions of car BINGO and singing songs together arose – they were exercises in Highway patience.  Because nothing passes time more quickly than:
The bear went over the mountain,
The bear went over the mountain,
The bear went over the mountain,
To see what he could see.
And all that he could see,
And all that he could see,
the other side of the mountain . . . 
And the bear went over the hill. . . and over the road. . . and over the train tracks. . . and. . . you get the idea.
Yes, James reminds us to be patient and to use the prophets as an example of that patience – and the suffering it sometimes entails.  For the prophets did not just sit quietly and wait, they spoke out from the back seat – loudly at times – urging the people to get ready, to start changing their lives, to live as if God’s judgment is right around the corner, to get on the Highway – the Holy Way!  The Holy Way that is filled with exuberance and activity.  But, a Holy Way that is also filled with many of the same features of the other highways we travel in life.  The Holy Way is the highway of Advent, the highway that leads us ultimately back to Bethlehem and forward to God’s intended destination – deeper and deeper into God’s love.
Along the way, there are liable to be traffic jams – times when our faith seems stagnant, dark nights of the soul, unanswered prayers, nameless unease, feelings of loneliness amidst the crowd, grief that creeps in and surprises us.  And yet, this is still God’s Holy Way.  Along the way, there will be road construction – times when our deepest convictions are disrupted by new realities, times when alternative pathways must be created and many of those over bumpy, unfamiliar roads at speeds far less than the posted maximum.  Fines double in construction zones.  And yet, this is still God’s Holy Way.  Along the way, there are wayside stops for nourishment and refueling – times set apart for us to feed our souls, to tend to our most important relationships, to share secrets and dreams with a friend.  This too is still God’s Holy Way.  Along the way, we might even get lost – but on this Holy Way, God never loses us and will always reroute us so that we reach the final destination – God’s loving embrace for all humanity.
And so in this season of Advent, whether you find yourself in the spiritual backseat of an old brown station wagon wondering if we’ve arrived yet and singing along with Alvin and the Chipmunks:
I want a plane that loops the loop
Me, I want a Hula-Hoop
We can hardly stand the wait
Please Christmas don't be late[4]
OR, if you are in the front seat – slightly annoyed now, experiencing loss or disappointment, or just not sure where you’re headed any more - know that you too are on the right highway, the Holy Way of God - and that the destination is there for each of us, God’s promise is for all humanity. We will come to Zion with singing; everlasting joy shall be upon our heads and we shall obtain joy and gladness, and sorrow and sighing shall flee away.[5]  But, for now, we must wait – with patience and with singing.

[1] Isaiah 35:8.
[2] James 5:7, 8.
[3] James 5:9.
[4] Ross Bagdasarian, “The Chipmunk Song,” 1958. Full lyrics here, accessed December 9, 2016.
[5] Isaiah 35:10.