Thursday, December 29, 2011

The Whimper and the Roar of Christmas Day

Luke 2:1-20

2In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. 2This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. 3All went to their own towns to be registered. 4Joseph 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. 5He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. 6While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. 7And 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.

8In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. 9Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. 10But the angel said to them, "Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: 11to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. 12This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger." 13And 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!" 15When 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." 16So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger. 17When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child; 18and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them. 19But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart. 20The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.

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Some of you with small children had an exciting night last night. Christmas Eve at my childhood home on 7th Avenue in Morton, Mississippi was an exciting time. There were already many presents under the brightly colored tree. We had a live cypress(?) tree with those large colored light bulbs with red, green, blue, orange and yellow lights. My body literally shook with excitement when I thought about my presents under that tree. I had closely examined my gifts under the tree. I gently shook each gift to see if it made a sound. One gift sounded like a board game when I shook it. Hopefully, it was the Risk game or maybe Monopoly. Another gift made no sound when I shook it. It was probably a book, a pretty heavy book, most likely a new Living Bible. Mama had made a cake for Santa Claus and it was time to put it on the table along with a glass of milk. Why, that big, hefty, lovable ole Saint Nick would certainly be hungry when he got to my house, considering all the heavy lifting he would have to do bringing in my gifts, hopefully he would be bringing me a new bicycle, one with the twisted handlebars like a ram's horns. That would be so cool!! And now we were watching Santa Claus on our TV. There he was, right there, making his way across the state of Mississippi. You could see the outline of Santa and his reindeer on the radar right there on the screen. Oh my goodness, there had been another Santa spotting two counties over from where I lived. It was be time to get to bed about now. If we were awake when Santa came with our stuff, we may scare him away. Best to get to sleep and awaken early in the morning to see what he brought us. So off to bed we went. My older brother and me slept in the same bedroom. It was night, night and sleep tight and don't let the bedbugs night. No, no, no. Not on Christmas Eve.

We live in fear with good reason. Death is ever near. There is no guarantee that any of us will make it home alive today or any day. Life is contingent. I was never afraid to die but always afraid to live. Why? Here are three of my fears that are common among many people: I fear will make a mistake. I fear rejection. I fear I will not achieve God's purpose for my life.

Some variation of "Be not afraid" or "Do not fear" occurs 40 times in the New Testament. This theme of do not fear carries over from the Old Testament in texts such as Psalm 23: "Yea though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death I will fear no evil." So in our text today an angel says to a group of shepherds, "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. (Luke 2:10-11)

Banishment of fear is a common thread throughout the synoptic gospel birth narratives. Mary was afraid the first time the angel of the Lord appeared to her to announce she was carrying the Christ child within her. The angel's message to Mary was "Be not afraid." The shepherds were afraid when the angel appeared to them to announce the birth of Jesus. The angels told the shepherds: "Be not afraid."

We are afraid when we become aware of the potential to bear the Christ child within us. The angel says to us: "Be not afraid."

The shepherds and angels bear witness to what God is doing in your life. Think of the shepherds as the human mentors who have guided you through your life. These include parents, teachers, coaches, pastors and friends. The angels are the spiritual entities who accompany your spiritual journey. They have been called guardian angels. The shepherds and the angels in your life bear joyful witness to the birth of Christ within you.

A lost lion was adopted and raised by a herd of sheep. When he was three years old, the lion was bleating in the field with his brother and sister sheep when an older lion found him. The older lion was shocked to find this young lion acting like a sheep. So the older lion said: "Hey, what are you doing?! You are bleating like a sheep. You are not a sheep. You are a lion. Wake up. Get yourself together. Be a lion." The young lion was amazed to hear this and even more amazed to see this older lion since he had never before seen a lion. The young lion did not respond to the older lion but it made him start questioning his identity. A few days later the young lion who thought he was a sheep was standing by a stream when suddenly he saw another lion. It was his own reflection in the stream! And when he saw his reflection in that stream, he suddenly realized that he really was a lion and for the first time in his life, he roared! In a similar way, we have lost sight of our true identity. We have forgotten that we are made in God's image. We are God's children. We are not mere descendants of apes. We now stop acting like apes. We stop living out our animal nature. As we stare in wonder into the eyes of the baby in the manger, we see our own reflection staring back at us. We get in touch with the wonder and innocence of life. We bring that back to the world. Boxes and bows are good. But Christmas is about the gift that's inside the package. Christmas is about the birth of Christ within us.

In the jungle, a middle aged man hears the roar and footsteps of a tiger behind him. He takes off running as fast as he can. Up ahead he sees a precipice that leads to a his sure death if he jumps over it. Yet in his fear of the tiger behind him the man decides to jump over the cliff. As he falls down over the cliff he hits the side of the mountain and grabs hold a blueberry bush. Hanging there between heaven and earth, he notices that the blueberries are ripe on that bush. He reaches out and takes a handful of those blueberries and puts them in his mouth. They are the best thing he has ever tasted! (The stories about the lion and the tiger are adapted from some stories told by Anthony de Mello, a list of whose books are available for sale here.)

In our daily lives, we find ourselves between a rock a hard place. We realize the wonder and joy of life without fear. The man being chased by the tiger finally reached a point of not fear. He didn't cae whether he was eaten by a tiger or whether he was crushed on the rocks below the cliff when he juped. Every day of your life we have a similar choice. Every day we can choose to be not afraid. Thus, every day can be sublime. I have heard more than one story of a person who has been diagnosed with a terminal disease and then, only then, were they able to really live without fear.

Back when Jesus lived 1 out of 4 infants or mothers died in childbirth. Yet, Mary gives birth to Jesus without fear. Your job and mine is to give birth to the Christ within us. Let us do that today, on this Christmas Day, without fear. Do not be afraid of the good news that Christ is ready to be birthed in your heart today.

Early on Christmas morning, really really early, while it was still dark, someone awakened me.

It was my older brother, Tim. "Jon, Jon, get up! It's Christmas morning. Let's go look at our gifts. Let's go see what Santa Claus brought us."

"No. I'm still asleep. You go see what he brought and come tell me," I mumbled, half awake.

"No!" said my older brother. "He might be still in there!! I'm not going alone. You come with me."

"Okay. Okay. Let's go!"

So we fearfully and expectantly crept from our bedroom through the hallway into the living room, hoping that Jolly Ole Saint Nick would not be still in the house or we would scream in fright.

When we got to the living room, hey, no one was in there. We could see from the glowing lights on the Christmas tree a brand new bicycle! A blue one! With ram's horn handlebars!! Wow. Unbelievable! Santa Claus really came through this year! We were thrilled with the mystery and wonder and joy of life on that Christmas morning.

It's hard to put in words what it feels like Christ is born in your heart. Let's just say it feels something like the combination of joy and wonder and dread I felt when my brother and I were creeping down the hallway to peek into our living room to see what Santa had brought us. What is the present you were hoping for today? What is the bicycle you want for yourself? Imagine yourself getting that for Christmas. May such joy come into your life as Christ is born in your heart today.

Your role, like Mary, is to treasure all these words and ponder them in your heart. May this Christmas day be a day of treasuring what God has done in your life. Ponder what God is doing in your life now. The mystery of how Christ gets born in your heart is the greatest mystery in the world. May you, like the young lion who thought he was a sheep, see your own reflection in the eyes of the baby in the manger and may the Christ within you roar!

The Rev. Dr. Jonathan L. Burnham preached this sermon on Christmas Day, 2011, at St. John's Presbyterian Church, 5020 West Bellfort Ave, Houston, TX 77035, Phone 713-723-6262 |