Friday, January 28, 2011

January 23, 2011

Matthew 4:12-23

12  Now when Jesus  heard that John had been arrested, he withdrew to Galilee.  13  He left Nazareth and made his home in Capernaum by the sea, in the territory of Zebulun and Naphtali,  14  so that what had been spoken through the prophet Isaiah might be fulfilled:  15  "Land of Zebulun, land of Naphtali, on the road by the sea, across the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles—  16  the people who sat in darkness have seen a great light, and for those who sat in the region and shadow of death light has dawned."  17  From that time Jesus began to proclaim, "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near."   18  As he walked by the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon, who is called Peter, and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the sea—for they were fishermen.  19  And he said to them, "Follow me, and I will make you fish for people."  20  Immediately they left their nets and followed him.  21  As he went from there, he saw two other brothers, James son of Zebedee and his brother John, in the boat with their father Zebedee, mending their nets, and he called them.  22  Immediately they left the boat and their father, and followed him.  23  Jesus  went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the good news  of the kingdom and curing every disease and every sickness among the people.

Beloved, grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, amen. 
There is no end to the amount of time that one can waste away on the internet, and perhaps this applies more to facebook than any other cyber-reality, if that is even a proper phrase.  Yes, while one can very easily get sucked into the benign stalking of friends and their posts and status updates, there is also that no small matter of quizzes which one can take.  Indeed, by one click of the mouse and the rapid fire answer of a series of questions, one can find out any number of truths about oneself that would have remained undiscovered.  Yes, if you have ever wondered which president you are most like, what sort of Christian you are or even what celebrity happens to look most like you, facebook offers a quiz that will grant you the answer to those stubbornly persistent questions. These sorts of questions, though, are not limited to the absurdity of a dorm room full of freshmen boys discovering, via facebook, what side they would be on in a rumble between pirates and ninjas.  Think, instead, about the way we look to manage and construct our futures as human beings.  Personality profiles, career interest quizzes, magazine surveys that tell us whether we are good spouses and partners and how we can be better parents, or how we can sneak more vegetables into our diets, we are all at the beck and call of such programs.  This is discernment for the 21st Century.
Why we so intently believe that these things can tell us something we need to know about ourselves is a perhaps more interesting exercise.  I cannot help but wonder if at the heart of this matter is our need know and then control who we are and where we are headed.  The future is far from given and this life is fraught with uncertainty and peril, and so the more information we can gather to bolster ourselves against the unknown, the better.   If a quiz on our diets will help us extend our life, why not take it?  If a magazine article call tell us, in three easy steps, how to improve our marriage, why look askance at such helpful advice?   In all of this, I cannot help but wonder if we are interested in these sorts of quizzes because keeping the fear of the unknown at a safe distance is a constant task.
This is all understandable work and, in some sense, probably necessary, pirate quizzes notwithstanding of course.   So, why bring it up in a way such as this?  Well, there is a tendency, I think, to assume that our life as Christian disciples, as those raised in water and Word and weekly gathered together around the Eucharistic table, that this whole enterprise we call life in Christ can somehow be fashioned after this same approach.  Yes, that the life to which we are called as disciples of this Jesus can be described by, and filtered through, a similar process of personality management and predictable outcomes.  Yes, there is something entirely tempting about approaching our lives as the body of Christ in this way, and there are strong and vocal forces that will gladly prey upon our need to know where we are headed, both individually and collectively as Christ’s church.  These technocratic soothsayers will, without any trouble at all, take our time, money and trust and give us in return the neat and tidy knowledge of our future, of ourselves, that we so crave.
The trouble, though, is that no where in the New Testament can I find evidence that Christ works like this.  Instead, it seems as though Jesus is constantly upsetting the predictable and is intent upon disrupting the usual pattern of things.  Take, for instance, the story of the first disciples we have before us today.  There is nothing predictable or manageable about it.  Yes, the genesis for Jesus’ ministry is the imprisonment and the delivering up of his dear friend and forerunner John the Baptizer.  Where does Christ go to mourn the now almost certain loss of a friend?  Well, to Galilee and this is not exactly a pristine spiritual retreat center.  Instead, it is the home of the Gentiles, that is the home of the impure and unwashed masses.  Galilee, the bastion for those despised for their lawlessness by good religious folks of their time.  To say nothing of whom Jesus calls to be his first disciples.  Here we are not dealing with the baccalaureates of Capernaum High School.  These were hard men living hard lives whose options had run out on them.  Yes, let us not romanticize these men with idyllic images of fly-fishing in Rocky Mountain National Park.   Their work was dangerous, demeaning and far from lucrative.  For a first century Jewish person, the sea would have represented chaotic and dangerous forces that lie outside of humanity’s control.  It was, then, an inherently impure place.   To go anywhere near the water was utter foolishness, to say nothing of earning your living by the creatures that inhabited the sea.  To eek out a living by fishing was not exactly ideal.  Jesus, then, does not ask these men a series of questions that will help them determine what skill set they will bring to his operation and whether their personality types will compliment one another.  Nor does he ask for their SAT scores and three letters of recommendation.  Instead, he interrupts the predictable and manageable grind of their grueling existence with an open ended invitation.  An invitation to become “fishers of people” whatever that particularly phrase might mean.   To suggest that this is a promising beginning is to excuse the story’s scandal.  As people who value predictability, competence and like-mindness, this calling of the first disciples hardly fits our criteria. 
However, when we look a bit deeper, is it really any different for us?  No matter our efforts to control and manipulate our lives, the threat of the unknown remains.  It cannot be managed away, no matter the number of personality quizzes we take.   And so perhaps it is a word of unspeakable joy and freedom that God does not work in predictable and manageable ways, but rather as St. Paul writes, in ways that appear foolish.  For, if the unknown cannot be defeated through the meticulous management of our lives, we must try another way.   Yes, what we have here is a God who will not wait for us to get our lives in order before beginning the work of discipleship in us.  We have a God who does not wait for darkness to subside but instead shine God’s everlasting light into that darkness so that we may rise from our graves right here in the present. Graves like self-doubt and self-hatred, graves like fear over whether or not our futures have that much anticipated happily ever after or whether our best days are indeed behind us. This is a God who will claim the chaos and unpredictability of this life as God’s own and in exchange will give us the joy and mercy of Christ’s presence in the midst of such circumstances. This is a God who will turn death to life not by managing its sting away, but by entering it fully and conquering its cruel embrace.  For this is the delightfully confounding news of Jesus Christ, that his work on us and with us cannot be readily predicted or anticipated, cannot be reduced to a reasonable conclusion compiled from a series of computer-generated questions.  And when God interrupts our lives in this way, we are given the vision to see that our lives, our well-being, is wrapped up in the well-being of our neighbors and that small though our contributions may be, God is present in all the ways we try and better this world.  Yes, discipleship, then, is nothing less than having our lives interrupted, again and again and again, by the grace of God who shows up in the most unusual places.  Let us, then, in the words of C.S. Lewis, be again surprised by joy. For in so doing, Christ is found in our midst.  In Jesus’ name, amen. 

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

January 16, 2011

John 1:29-42
29  The next day he saw Jesus coming toward him and declared, "Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!  30  This is he of whom I said, "After me comes a man who ranks ahead of me because he was before me.'  31  I myself did not know him; but I came baptizing with water for this reason, that he might be revealed to Israel."  32  And John testified, "I saw the Spirit descending from heaven like a dove, and it remained on him.  33  I myself did not know him, but the one who sent me to baptize with water said to me, "He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain is the one who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.'  34  And I myself have seen and have testified that this is the Son of God."   35  The next day John again was standing with two of his disciples,  36  and as he watched Jesus walk by, he exclaimed, "Look, here is the Lamb of God!"  37  The two disciples heard him say this, and they followed Jesus.  38  When Jesus turned and saw them following, he said to them, "What are you looking for?" They said to him, "Rabbi" (which translated means Teacher), "where are you staying?"  39  He said to them, "Come and see." They came and saw where he was staying, and they remained with him that day. It was about four o'clock in the afternoon.  40  One of the two who heard John speak and followed him was Andrew, Simon Peter's brother.  41  He first found his brother Simon and said to him, "We have found the Messiah" (which is translated Anointed  ).  42  He brought Simon  to Jesus, who looked at him and said, "You are Simon son of John. You are to be called Cephas" (which is translated Peter ).

Beloved, grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, amen. 

From time to time, there is no more valuable a way to learn about human nature than watching children.  A friend of mine told me once that she did not believe in original sin until she tried to put her two year old to bed.  Now, being an uncle, I am in a place where I get to observe not only my nieces, but also my brother and soon to be sister-in-law, and being a bit mischievous, I must admit that I enjoy the moments in which they have been asked a question for which there simply is no decent answer. Children can ask incredibly sophisticated questions and, regardless of the age difference, sometimes you are simply beat, questions like why one child received a lesser punishment for the same offense as another, or questions like why your older sister is allowed to stay up a bit later than you.   Now, being parents, they have that old stand-by, “because I said so” and they are able to pass by on the sheer authority of that statement, for now at least.   What is clear when these situations occur, though, is that a fantastically precise question is often worth more than a dozen or so clichéd answers, and these sort of answers, these “because I said so” do not really do justice to the depth of the question that is being asked.  These answers, or in the words of singer Craig Finn, these “excuses and half truths” are the blunt instruments we use to end a conversation when we know that we have beaten, even if it is a by a five year old.  They are, in fact, a very human response that we use to avoid a discussion we would much rather leave behind. 
Now, it is often the case that we think of our faith, our participation in the church, on the answer side of the equation.  Being a Christian is supposed to give us an answer to any number of questions: questions like what is a life for?  How I am supposed to treat my neighbor?  Yes, in response to these questions, we put Christ on the other side as the answer.  What is a life for?  Well, it is to be lived in the fullness of Jesus’ love.  How I am supposed to treat my neighbor?  With the goodness, love and respect that Christ treats me. 
What happens, though, when things get flipped and Christ, rather than providing us with an answer, asks a question, and one of those deeply penetrating questions that produces genuine reflection?  Well, we have one of those sorts of questions before us today, and rather than turning this into an opportunity to shout the religious equivalent of “because I said so,” we would do well to engage it on its own terms.  The question is put thusly:  John the Baptizer has just told two of his disciples that Jesus, the lamb of God, is walking by, and these disciples immediately jump up and chase after this Jesus. After seeing that they are coming after them, Jesus asks them this question: “What are you looking for?”  That, simply put, is a fantastic question.   Now, we can easily gloss over this question and keep moving to less challenging parts of the story, but I think the fact that we have desire to do so is reason enough to stick with the question.  What, I mean really, what, are we looking for when we show us here on Sunday morning?   There are all sorts of answers we could give to that question, some of them reasonable and sufficient, but I think that John’s Gospel has an even more interesting insight waiting for us to unearth. 
You see, just prior to this question, John the Baptist makes a most extraordinary confession.  Of Christ, he says the following: “I myself did not know him, but the one who sent me . . . said to me, ‘He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain is the one who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.”  Or to put it more plainly, without God’s Holy Spirit to identify him, John the Baptist wouldn’t have been able to see Jesus for who he is.  Jesus, quite literally, would have walked on by and this would have meant nothing to John, and it is really so different for us?  Without God’s Holy Spirit, we will, I am afraid, inevitably recast God in our image and answer this question, “what are you looking for?” in ways that benefit us the most. We will provide answers that will allow us to remain pure at the expense of all those with whom we disagree and allow us to ignore the plight of our neighbors.  Or we will provide answers that look alarmingly similar to the dominant values of the culture around us.  When this becomes the criteria, Christianity becomes a way to entertain ourselves, or a self-help program, or even worse, yet another way to quantify our success as Christians, as if such a thing could ever be done.   Yes, these are the sort of answers that we will likely give, for this is what it means to try and find a God without the vision that the Holy Spirit creates.  When we do so, we find not God, but a distorted and aggrandized version of ourselves and there can be no more lonely a feeling than that.  Martin Luther picks up this radical line of thinking in his explanation to the Third Article of the Apostles’ Creed in which he says the following: “I believe that by my own understanding or strength I cannot believe in my Lord Jesus or come to him.”   
There is, then, something profoundly urgent in this question, but that does not mean that it is not somehow a word of comfort.  For when we sit in the impossibility of this question, we are met with this news, that our own inability to see Jesus is nothing less than the occasion for God’s activity.  It is right in the middle of our own fears and failings that the Holy Spirit takes up residence.  It is precisely when we admit that we do not have the answer to the question that God begins in us a most marvelous work. Yes, that John the Baptizer could not see Jesus on his own is really only half the story.  For the Holy Spirit did indeed descent on Christ and pointed him to John. I cannot help but wonder if this could not have happened if John already assumed that he knew who Jesus was.  Perhaps it is our presumption more than anything else that God must overcome.  In the same way, Martin Luther did not stop with humanity’s inability to find God on its own.  Rather, he continued with the following: “but instead the Holy Spirit has called me through the Gospel.”  And if the question is true for us, so too is this answer.  This is, dearly beloved, is why we are here, what we are looking for.  We are here because God’s Holy Spirit is present and active, calling you into this place so that you, too, might behold the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.  Or in the still more beautiful words of Ignatius of Antioch, one of the pillars of the early church, “in me is a murmuring wellspring . . . saying come away to the Father.” We are here because that same Holy Spirit creates a hunger, a longing, that can only be satisfied by this God come in the flesh. A God who will be fully revealed not in some profane display of power, but instead when he is hoisted upon an instrument of torture, the cross, and in so doing takes the consequence of human sin onto his own divine and bruised body.  We would not have the vision to see this God on our own, for this is no place to find a God.   For his presence among us is not one of vengeance and retribution, our native languages, but rather sweet mercy and powerful grace.  The kind of God whose activity urges us to beckon others to come and see that this God is good.  What are we looking for?  Well, we are looking for the God who has already found us, and has done so in Jesus’ name, amen. 

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

January 9th, 2011

Matthew 3:13-17

13  Then Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan, to be baptized by him.  14  John would have prevented him, saying, "I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?"  15  But Jesus answered him, "Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness." Then he consented.  16  And when Jesus had been baptized, just as he came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him.  17  And a voice from heaven said, "This is my Son, the Beloved,  with whom I am well pleased."

“What Are You Doing Here?
January 9, 2010
Rev. Justin Nickel
            Of all the realities that I do not miss about my life in Minnesota, the way that the snow begins look in January might sit atop that particular list, and those of you who have spent some time in perennially cold places will know just what I am talking about.  Around this time of year, snow that has been on the ground and in the streets since the fall begins to turn a distressing shade of grey.  Because it does not melt, the snow acts as a sort of magnet for exhaust, gravel, dirt and any number of things that sort of assault your eyes.  While the first snow of any season might bring a peaceful hush to one’s state of mind, this does not at all apply to snow that has been on the ground for months. There is nothing soothing about staring at snow that has turned black under the influence of car exhaust.  It is simply depressing, and while we have the sunshine here in Colorado to actually melt that snow, I cannot help but feel like it is still a good symbol for January as a month.  What is January if not a magnet for all the emotional and physical car exhaust that is waiting to be collected and recognized after the bluster of the holiday season?  Yes, given the amount we spend monetarily, emotionally, even physically to ensure that our holiday celebrations are all that we need them to be, it make some sense that January would be the space in which all that we have ignored  seeps back into our realities.    There is, simply put, no way to avoid this movement of time.  The joys of December give way to January, and the oppressive routine from which we glimpsed a freedom, maybe manufactured but a freedom nonetheless, reasserts itself as the way this old world functions.  The suspension cannot continue forever, and the “real world,” with all of its demands, startles us out of our ease.  Oh January, it is seldom good to see you. 
            The temptation, I suppose, is to assume that God had more to do with Christmas Eve than January the 9th,   that God’s presence and activity in our lives follows this same movement and that we ought to expect the same letdown from God that we experience in the rest of our lives.  Or more simply put, is God just as present when the sanctuary has been stripped of its beautiful décor and our trees are now little more than kindling?  Where is God when vacation ends and we have to once again say goodbye to the family that we do not get to see often enough anyhow? Can we count on God’s goodness when our lives are no longer marked by joy and levity, but rather by sameness and routine?  Is God present when our anticipation is now past tense?   Where, then, is God when the snow is not white but polluted and stained?
            Well, with those questions in mind, we can perhaps understand John the Baptist’s question for Jesus, today.  “Do you come to me to baptized, Jesus?”  Or, in another way of phrasing it, what on earth could you possibly be doing in this place? You, Jesus, are not where you are supposed to be.  Why would you, the Messiah, the chosen one of God, come out here to the Jordan?  For this baptism that John was offering only served one purpose: repentance of sin, and so it makes good sense that John is completely baffled by Jesus’ request, nay command, that John would baptize him.  It does not make any sense that the Messiah for whom John was preparing the way would want to take part in a ritual that was part of this same preparation.  It would be like waiting for someone at a restaurant only to have that person arrive and say that the two of you should wait a little longer.  It makes no logical sense, but with this God, we are not necessarily after logic.  So, as Jesus drops his head beneath the stale waters of the Jordan, flies buzzing in spiteful heat and the air baking the putrid smells of motionless water, the question arises once again, “why, exactly, is Jesus where he is not supposed to be?”
            It is in attempting to answer that question that we stumble upon the beginning of the Gospel’s urgency: the borders that we establish for God are being torn asunder in this Jesus.  This transgression will mark his ministry from the beginning, as he jumps into the Jordan River to demonstrate just how serious he is about loving the poor and unwashed.  Yes, this love will cost him dearly, but this is his own baptism. The movement that begins in the incarnation, as God enters the human story, continues as God demonstrates just how deeply God is planning to enter this particular story.  This will be no superficial engagement on God’s part, for God is far too intent on reclaiming a humanity that has lost sight of God.  No, this is a God who will show up not in an idealized version of reality in which all pain and fear are suspended, but a God who will quite literally jump right into the midst of our messy lives so that we may never fear that this God has left us.  Yes, Jesus the Christ, God’s own chosen one, has drop his head under Jordan’s waters, and in so doing has named reality, that is our daily grind, as his own.  What is more, he has done so with the following purpose in mind: to name you all as beloved children of God right in the midst of your pain and sorrow, your fear and mourning. 
This is the work of Christ: to show up in the most unexpected of places, and how often these places are that which we would deem too mundane, too trivial for Christ to enter in.  However, Christ defies even that expectation and has come with his loving presence, his healing touch, into this world, into your life, as it actually exists.  There is, in short, no situation, no life circumstance that is somehow unworthy of his presence: for Christ has jumped into the river with sinners.  As our reading from Isaiah states, he is one who has come to heal blindness and to tear down the prisons that hold us captive.  Prisons like our fear of death or our continued mourning, concerns over failing health or whether we will be able to make it through another day at a job that asks too much and gives us too little in return.  Oh, these typically human concerns, these are the places where Christ is active.   We need not face the subtle pain of our normalcy alone.  God is no less present, no less active, on a Tuesday in the middle of January than God is on Christmas Eve; God is no less present when the snow has turned grey, so to speak.   And in your baptism, the same ordeal which Haley is about to undergo, you were given the faith that sees this God active in the world: you were given the hope that God in Christ is already redeeming this world and that you are a beloved child of God.  Yes, your baptism means this: you have been made God’s own child, and given the name beloved, and with that name a new reality into which you now live, a reality that is not marked by fear and competition, but rather by trust and community: community with God through the Holy Spirit, and community with the entire world that God loves so dearly.  Baptism is nothing less than this: than the death of one life and the resurrection of quite another. Yes, yours were baptisms into Christ, into his death and life, which means that your baptism now sends you into the world so that others may know the hope of the God made flesh, the hope of the a God who greets us right in the midst of our lives and their seemingly unending demands.  For this is what that name, beloved child of God means.  It means that your God shows up in the most unexpected places so that you may do the same.   Go forth, because like Christ, your baptism, Haley’s baptism, is really just the beginning of the story.  In Jesus’ name, amen. 

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

December 26, 2010

Matthew 2:13-23

13  Now after they had left, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, "Get up, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you; for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him."  14  Then Joseph  got up, took the child and his mother by night, and went to Egypt,  15  and remained there until the death of Herod. This was to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet, "Out of Egypt I have called my son."  16  When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the wise men,  he was infuriated, and he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had learned from the wise men.   17  Then was fulfilled what had been spoken through the prophet Jeremiah:  18  "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."  19  When Herod died, an angel of the Lord suddenly appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt and said,  20  "Get up, take the child and his mother, and go to the land of Israel, for those who were seeking the child's life are dead."  21  Then Joseph  got up, took the child and his mother, and went to the land of Israel.  22  But when he heard that Archelaus was ruling over Judea in place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there. And after being warned in a dream, he went away to the district of Galilee.  23  There he made his home in a town called Nazareth, so that what had been spoken through the prophets might be fulfilled, "He will be called a Nazorean." 

“Your Kingdom Come?”
Dec. 26, 2010
Rev. Justin Nickel
So, this is the reward for faithful church attendance, is it?  Here you dear people are, committed enough to show up the morning after Christmas, and your payment is this most gruesome readings from early in Matthew’s Gospel?  If ever a situation begged the question: “is this the thanks I get?”  this would perhaps be it.   Your fidelity rewarded with the grisly, political execution of children. Believe me, nowhere is this sort of thing listed as a best practice for growing a church. Where went the soothing beauty of the night of our dear savior’s birth?  Gone are the angels and the shepherds, gone are the wise men, gone is the sense of easy peace and sublime calm that filled our heads and our hearts not but two nights ago.  And with a tragedy that is too deep to comprehend, gone are the children, their winsome hymns replaced with the primal dirges of parents who must bury their children, a reality that offends the deepest biology of the universe.   Like a new born infected with an unanticipated disease before she can even leave the hospital, we have before us a panic that erupts in the middle of what should be the happiest of stories.  How, then, did we get here and so quickly? 
Well, to answer that question, we must unravel the story a bit and rehearse an exchange between the wise men and the ruler, Herod.  The wise men, you see, with no regard for the implications of their actions, happen upon a scene of inter-Jewish politics, and unintentionally set into a motion a series of events that will spin manically out of control.  These wise men, and by that phrase we mean astrologers, have been studying the stars and notice that something miraculous has happened to their East.  And so with the excess time and resources of the upper class at their disposal, they set out for Jerusalem, naively assuming that the current ruling party would also be celebrating whosever birth this star heralded.  Yes, they might have been wise, but street smart is not exactly an apt description.  King Herod and we should also note all of Jerusalem, that is all of those whose stability and comfort rely on the maintenance of business continuing as usual,   they recognize the new king for what he is, an unwanted threat to their stability, a possible attack on the status quo.  And while the wise men escape Judea without giving up Jesus to Herod’s bloody intentions, that will not stop the man in his madness.   For he, with the paranoia of those whose heads are made heavy by the crown, takes upon himself a horrific responsibility, and in so doing, gives himself over to demonic forces.  The sort of forces that insist the extermination of a group of people is necessary for the survival of another.  Forces that will even take on God if it means acquiring power, forces that will have one lusting after children’s blood on your precipitous descent to perdition. Herod is, in, some sense, the embodiment of humanity’s tragic condition in the extreme. For please do not forget that it is not just Herod who is afraid, but all of Jerusalem with him, which means that one need not be a murder of children to wish a freedom apart from God.  That sinful part of all of us who wish to be free of God may find an arresting resonance in Jerusalem’s agitated soul.  Yes, the terror of this story is that, we as inhabitants of Jerusalem, in part, wish that God would simply leave us alone so that we may protect all the good things for which we have worked so hard, and that the normalcy of our lives may not be interrupted by the Christ child.  
Yes, for as Herod nervously paces the floors of his palace hall, his mind is saturated with this one thought, that he has a right to protect all that he sought to build; that his whole life’s work is worth more than the lives of Bethlehem’s children.  Oh, stop to consider what crippling tragedy!   For what he has done, in ordering the slaughter of all those who might take on his throne, is to exert his freedom against any forces that might defy him, and in so doing, Herod attempts to abdicated even God’s throne. Yes, Herod has taken on the right that belongs solely to God, the right to create life and to take it away.  But we know how this storming of heaven ends, for Herod’s destruction was ensured the instant he believed Christ to be a threat.    
And so we, who sit in Jerusalem, anxiously wondering what it means that God has come in the flesh, yes we ponder what it could mean for us that God has entered space and time. Is a threat or a comfort that God has moved in next door?  I would venture a guess that, for most of us, it is both. Yes, for God’s incarnation into our worlds means that, in a certain sense, the jig is up.   We have been measured, and we have been found wanting.  We simply do not do that well when we are left to our own devices.  There is too much anger in us, too much doubt, too much greed, too much sorrow.  We will work towards whatever is in our own best interest, and whatever stands in our way of achieving that, we will name our enemies.
If this is the truth about us, then can it really be such a bad thing that this part of us has come under attack? This, then, is perhaps the greatest irony of this story: Herod is just as right about Christ as are the Wise men.  Christ is the new King, and Herod is quite right about what this means for his reign and for ours.  Where Herod goes wrong, though, is assuming this is not the greatest freedom.  For, in Christ, God reclaims His rightful place as the one who is truly God, truly responsible for the judging and redeeming of humanity.  That the Christ child coming in our midst has come save us from the minor wars we wage against ourselves and others, perhaps this is actually a welcomed relief, a much-needed respite. For this means, we need no longer attempt that exhausting and finally destructive project of being God for ourselves.  That, in Christ, we can see, touch, and yes even taste a God whose love is finally more real than the lies that we everywhere encounter.  Lies like you are not worthy of God’s love, or lies like you must go about this business of living on your own.  For we were not made to live apart from the God who has created us, and oh, if only Herod had someone to tell him this.  Yes, the notion that we can build lives free from God is the greatest and most tempting lie that we tell ourselves, and Christ has come as a light in that darkness.  Christ has come to create in us the freedom of being God’s children, and this, dearly beloved, is the most animating freedom that there is. This is the freedom to become truly alive.  It is the freedom to become not gods, but genuine people; people whose identity is secured not by what they consume or what tax bracket they inhabit, but people who are refashioned in the image of Christ.   The sort of people who can give generously of all that they have and all that they are, because in so doing, they participate more deeply in the community that God is everywhere building in their midst.  The sort of people who can point to the font and say that is where I was born, for in those waters, Christ made me his own.  Yes, this who God has proclaimed you to be.  Christ’s birth is a threat, yes, but it is a threat only to those forces that would keep us from becoming who we are in Christ.  Yes, our reign as masters of our destinies is over: for there is a yet more excellent way. In Jesus’ name, amen.

Christmas Eve

Luke 2:1-14 (15-20)

1  In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered.  2  This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria.  3  All went to their own towns to be registered.  4  Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David.  5  He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child.  6  While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child.  7  And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.  8  In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night.  9  Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified.  10  But the angel said to them, "Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people:  11  to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah,  the Lord.  12  This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger."  13  And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host,  praising God and saying,  14  "Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!"

15  When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, "Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us."  16  So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger.  17  When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child;  18  and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them.  19  But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart.  20  The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.

Beloved, grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Christ child. 

Well, here we are.  Indeed, in this most well-honored and cherished of traditions, the Christmas Eve service.  The sanctuary is soft with candle light, the air a hum with Christmas carols that seem so familiar it is as though they were written in our DNA.  Even as we revel in the welcoming kindness of the evening, yes as we prepare to undertake all those delightful rituals that make up this time together, let us call to mind once again the utterly bizarre event that stands at the very center of this celebration: the coming of God in the flesh.   Yes, for one brief moment, we ought to enter into this story, if for no other reason than to gaze upon its utter strangeness.  Take, if you will, the way that God enter the stubborn and prideful story of humanity.   Yes, you would think the creator of the universe, the one whose strong word called all things material and immaterial into being, well, you would think that that sort of God would perhaps enter the story of creation in a more splendid manner.  This is, after all, the same God whom Moses was unable to meet face to face, lest he not come away alive from the encounter.  Ah, indeed, the God who called to Job out of the whirlwind, and in so doing, marked with perfect certainty the essential distance, that is difference, between God and a wayward, finite humanity. Yes, this the God whose holiness made the prophet Elijah tremble with the knowledge of his own frailty, his own sin upon glimpsing God in God’s heavenly dwelling.   
It is this same God who enters space and time not as a force of blind will and determination, but as an helpless infant, and this is not a place for which we would seek out God on our own.  No one gets to the manger without the epiphany of angelic voices that make the Christ child known, and so we can understand a bit of the shepherds’ collective terror.  Not just because, for a few transcendent moments, the joyous echoes of heaven filled the earth, and their vision was full of the beatific scene that we will all one day call home, but also because to find God’s son in a Bethlehem barn might just mean that we are in need of a God that is helplessly out of sync with what we deem valuable.  It is a terrible ordeal to realize just how wrong we can get it.   For this is not God as we would create him.  How little resemblance does this child have to our idols, our idols of wealth and status, and our perception of ourselves as a powerful and important people?  Powerful enough to judge all of those whose lives do not reflect what we consider to be the good? What common ground is there to be found between the way we devour one another with stinging gossip and petty grudges and this God who in Christ, has accepted the risk of being human, and in so doing, has accepted humanity the way that it actually exists?  No, this God is not to come among us as a Caesar, as one who will mete out judgment amongst the poor, huddled masses begging to step briefly into the intoxicating orb of his power and prestige.  For it is the Caesars of the world who have enough power and ego to force the citizens of their empires to undergo long and strenuous journeys, simply so that they can raise funds to lengthen their resumes as gods among mortals.  The type of rulers who can arrogantly toss millions of lives into disarray as an exercise of naked power.  For that sort of power is its own justification.
This, though, is not the God we meet in Jesus Christ.  The Son’s whose birth in human form we here celebrate, this is an utterly different sort of God.  Yes, this is a God who is born amongst the lowest and the least, who actually is one of the lowest and the least.  The type of God who comes into the world a blue-collar kid from a backwater town; it indeed sounds like the beginnings of a Bruce Springsteen song.  The type of God who will not use his power to destroy others so that he may be exalted, but the type of God whose exaltation is precisely found in rescuing us from the destruction we bring on ourselves and on others.  There is no Caesar to be found here, and when the forces of Caesar and this God meet, well, let us for the moment just say that Christ and Caesar have very different ways of exercising power. Yes, it is a strange and wonderful story, and much longer then the space here allows.  For the moment, let us simply join Mary and Joseph, the shepherds and the whole host of heaven, in marveling at the God made flesh.  In Jesus’ name, amen.