Friday, December 23, 2011

Quickly to Bethlehem: Sermon, December 24, 2011

Nearby shepherds were living in the fields, guarding their sheep at night. The Lord’s angel stood before them, the Lord’s glory shone around them, and they were terrified.

The angel said, “Don’t be afraid! Look! I bring good news to you — wonderful, joyous news for all people. Your saviour is born today in David’s city. He is Christ the Lord. This is a sign for you: you will find a newborn baby wrapped snugly and lying in a manger.” Suddenly a great assembly of the heavenly forces was with the angel praising God. They said, "Glory to God in heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favours.”

When the angels returned to heaven, the shepherds said to each other, “Let’s go right now to Bethlehem and see what’s happened. Let’s confirm what the Lord has revealed to us.” They went quickly and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby lying in the manger. When they saw this, they reported what they had been told about this child. Everyone who heard it was amazed at what the shepherds told them. Mary committed these things to memory and considered them carefully. The shepherds returned home, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen. Everything happened just as they had been told.

Luke 2:8-20, Common English Bible

Giving all glory and honour to God.

Christmas is a time for stories. We tell the Christmas story, and other stories that build on it, about the animals and the shepherds and the littlest angel and the little drummer boy, and other stories about Frosty and Rudolph. And we tell stories about our families and the Christmases of past years, sometimes happy stories, sometimes sad, sometimes funny. My mother used to tell about a Christmas dinner at her aunt Nellie’s, and an argument broke out, and Nellie, who had had a few drinks, got angry and grabbed the turkey in the oven with her bare hands and slammed it onto the table. That was probably a lot funnier later than it was at the time, when it was probably pretty scary.

At Christmastime I think about a relative of mine, Arch Hatfield, who had been a lumberjack in Nova Scotia and became a Baptist minister. He was in the Primitive Baptist church. It’s since changed its name, as I guess no one wants to be primitive anymore. And my father’s family had several stories about him, when he was ministering in Carleton County in New Brunswick. He was called the Shepherd of Carleton. I may have told you before about one Sunday in the 1930s. Arch had come to preach the evening service in the church, and as it was the Depression Grampy had no money to put in the collection plate, so when Arch came he and Grammy gave him a meal, fed his horse, and sent him away with a bag of grain, some eggs, or maybe a roast. That was how ministers were paid then. Now we have direct deposit.

This one time Arch was with Grampy and my Dad and uncle in the barn. It was getting dark and the turkeys were getting in position to roost on the beams. One young gobbler missed its footing and crashed to the barn floor, lying there stunned. In an instant Grampy had his pocket knife out – all men carried knives then – beheaded the turkey, rubbed the feathers off, and dressed it on the spot. He handed the bird to Arch and said, “Here’s your Christmas dinner!” Arch was speechless. He couldn’t believe what he had just seen, and went away talking about how God always provides. Later it came out that he had been very anxious about Christmas dinner for his family, as money was scarce and no one had given them a turkey or ham. In my family this was the story of the Christmas turkey miracle.

Tonight I’m thinking of another of our family stories. Once, during the 1950s so Arch had a car instead of a horse, Arch was driving to a service in the country. I think it was Christmas Day, and it was a cold and snowy Christmas. The car got stuck on a lonely stretch of road. Arch decided to walk the rest of the way to church, about six miles. I should mention that he would then have been over 70 years old. So he headed through the driving snow and bitter cold. He got there, but was so late that the congregation had gone home. Yet, as I heard the story, folks came back and got the stove going and people came in to hear the Christmas message and sing the carols about Jesus being born.

This makes me think of our Christmas story, the first Christmas story. The angels don’t bring the news of Christmas to the ruler and his court, or the rich people, or the religious authorities, or even to city dwellers. They announce it to shepherds, at work with their flocks in the fields - just simple, no-nonsense, plain-spoken country people, so poor and ordinary that other people back then looked down on them. They are chosen to be the first to know what has happened. And remember what happens in the story when the angels disappear. The shepherds say to each other, “Let’s go right now to Bethlehem and see what’s happened. Let’s confirm what God has revealed to us.” Luke wrote this story down, and he writes that they went quickly. Luke wrote in Greek, and the word here means the shepherds hurried, they raced, to get to Bethlehem. Hearing about these shepherds, I can only think of Arch Hatfield, the Shepherd of Carleton, another down-to-earth, simple country person, in his 70s, slogging through the snowdrifts and struggling against the wind and blowing snow, trying to get to a Christmas church service as fast as he could, hurrying as if to Bethlehem.

What would draw these shepherds, 2000 years ago, 60 years ago, to rush like this? What is it about this night that would cause anyone to risk rushing across rocky, pitch-dark hills in Palestine or up a windswept, snow-covered road in rural New Brunswick?

What did we just sing? The second verse of Angels From the Realms of Glory – shepherds in the field abiding, watching o’er your flocks by night, God with us is now residing, yonder shines the infant light. God with us is now residing. The child born to Mary in Bethlehem is God with us. Emmanuel. The Christmas story we read is from the good news according to Luke. John doesn’t have a Christmas story, but his gospel starts by telling us, the Word became flesh and dwelt among us. We say this in the United Church’s new creed, God has come in Jesus, the Word made flesh. The Christ, the anointed one of the ancient prophecies, is God’s Word, through whom and for whom all things were created. And, somehow, mysteriously, the divine Word of God becomes human and is born as we are, and is named Jesus, which means Saviour.

God comes to be with us in a tiny, vulnerable baby. We may sing, little Lord Jesus no crying he makes, and holy infant so tender and mild, but we know that if he really is human the baby Jesus cried and spit up and made as much of a mess as we did. And he who is somehow divine and human, he who is God come to be with us, is not born in the imperial capital or even in a city, but in a little town, a remote place on the fringe of the empire, in the sticks really, and not in a palace or a temple or a mansion or even a house. My mother used to say, were you born in a barn, but Christ the Lord IS born in a barn, born amid animal smells and hay, and laid in a manger, a feeding trough.

Now, if that is the whole story, that alone would be awesome. And often we want that to be the whole story. If you saw the movie Talladega Nights, you remember that NASCAR driver Ricky Bobby likes to pray to baby Jesus. He tells his wife, "look, I like Christmas Jesus best. When you say grace, you can say it to grownup Jesus, or teenage Jesus, or bearded Jesus, or whoever you want." So he prays, "dear eight pound six ounce newborn baby Jesus, don’t even know a word yet, just a little infant and so cuddly, but still omnipotent."

Well, we can be like Ricky Bobby sometimes, staying with the Christmas Jesus, just as parents look at their sleeping babies and whisper, I wish they could just stay like this forever. Other times parents wish their babies would grow up already. And our babies do get bigger, and so does baby Jesus. He does grow up, to teach us, to challenge us, to confront us, to be with and love the people excluded from polite society, to show us what God is like, how much God loves us and accepts us, and how God wants to change us so that we are more like Jesus, more like God. Jesus came so we can be more truly human, and thus more godlike. And Jesus doesn’t wave his hand and solve the world’s problems, but is the king who comes to serve, and to suffer. We will follow the story from Christmas to Good Friday and Easter, when Jesus will die and rise again from death, to free us from death.

You know, there’s a slogan this time of year, Jesus is the reason for the season, and that’s true, although I think Jesus would be dismayed that his followers get so agitated about whether or not a store wishes customers Merry Christmas.

Jesus is the reason for the season. But not the only reason. There’s more. One of the readings from the Bible for Christmas Day is from the letter to Titus, and it says, when God our saviour’s kindness and love appeared, he saved us because of God’s mercy, not because of righteous things we had done, through the Holy Spirit which God poured out on us generously through Jesus Christ our saviour. Saved US. Poured out on US. Brothers and sisters, the whole story of salvation, Christmas, Good Friday, Easter, is all for us. WE are the reason for the season. God chose to take human form, to be the eight pound six ounce newborn baby Jesus of Christmas, for us, so that WE can be the body of Christ in the world, so that WE can help to bring God’s realm of love and justice and peace, so that WE can be transformed, so that WE can have more abundant life now, and so that WE will have eternal life as death will not hold us.

Now that IS awesome. That is good news of great joy for all people. That’s why Arch Hatfield trudged through the snow and endured the cold to worship at Christmas. That’s why folks then came back and filled the church and sang and prayed on Christmas Day. That’s why we’re here.

In our story the shepherds return home, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen. And we will go out with the joyous songs of Christmas on our lips and the wonderful news of Christmas in our hearts, that God has come to be with us in Jesus Christ, praising God that Jesus is born for us. 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.

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