Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Christmas Eve Midnight Mass 2012: We are the sign

Lectionary: Isaiah 9:2-7, Psalm 96,Titus 2:11-14; Luke 2:1-14(15-20)

We gather on this great and holy night to joyfully receive the gift of our Redeemer,
to collectively behold him with sure confidence of his love for us and his purpose for our lives. Having prepared ourselves during Advent for this moment, we stand together now ready to be reborn with him, as daughters and sons of God.

It is truly a joyful moment - for us and for the whole world. The reason is, we are not passive observers in the story of Christmas or in the continuing plan of redemption. We are active participants.

We aren’t here tonight simply to recount the first chapter of the greatest story ever told. We’re here to live it again.

Each of us is alive in this moment of time, having been sent by God to participate in making manifest the will of God on earth so that everyone will come to know the Good News of salvation in Jesus Christ. Each of us has our part to play, our obedience to give, and our shame to bear as we live into our purpose.

Luke’s gospel narrative demonstrates this for us in Mary, Joseph, and the shepherds. They show us how doing our part requires us to trust God’s love, promises, and the plan of salvation knowing that the working out of that plan unfolds over time.

Luke begins the story of Jesus’ birth with a discussion of the Roman census, which was a means of establishing an accurate tax base. The Roman government wasn’t concerned about justice or fairness, and there was no doctor’s note to get you out of going to register. It also didn’t matter to the Roman government whether the rich and the poor Jews were being taxed fairly or giving proportionately. It only mattered that money came in to support the Roman governors.

Being a righteous man, Joseph, who was a descendant of the great King David, could have said, ‘No, I won’t go register. I won’t participate in this unfair, earthly institution which will feed the monster Roman government that occupies our land. And I won’t submit myself to the public shame Mary’s condition will bring to me.’ He could have said that, but he didn’t.

Instead, he took his pregnant girlfriend 90 miles to Bethlehem to register as he was required to do. By doing so, Joseph publicly and legally claimed Jesus as his son, legitimating him and Mary according to earthly institutions.

Joseph’s journey also fulfilled the prophesy that the Messiah would be born of the house of David (which his adoption of Jesus made official) and in the city of David - Bethlehem. By giving his trust and obedience to God, Joseph participated with God in bringing about the will of God on the earth.

Mary also had her part to play, her obedience to give and her shame to bear. Coming up pregnant prior to her marriage to Joseph, Mary could have been stoned to death for adultery. She could have said, ‘No’ to the public shaming her pregnancy would bring her - but she didn’t. She told the angel Gabriel that she would do whatever God asked of her. By giving not only her ‘Yes,’ but her body and her life to God, Mary participated with God in bringing about the will of God on the earth.

As the plan unfolded for Mary and Joseph, it brought one degradation after another, culminating on this night with their inability to find a decent place to lodge. We traditionally translate this problem as “no room at the inn” but a better translation is: “no room in the guest quarters.” (New Interpreter’s Study Bible, Abingdon Press, 1855.)

It may have been that there really was no room. The census would have brought lots of visitors to Bethlehem all at once. Given the shameful circumstance of Mary’s condition, however, it was more likely that Joseph’s family simply wouldn’t admit them into their homes and the only place made available to them was the space where the animals were kept. It would have been a serious insult to Mary and Joseph.

In the big picture, however, the Word became Incarnate to reconcile the whole world to God. Even his place of birth demonstrates that truth. The poor, the judged, and those excluded from civilized treatment on earth are given a place of honor in God’s plan of salvation.

Even the shepherds, the first to hear of the birth, were as lowly as the manger that held the infant Messiah. When heaven opened up and the glory of God shone on them, the shepherds were given their part to play.

The angel told the shepherds that the Messiah of God had been born in Bethlehem and there would be a sign for them there if they chose to go see it: a baby in a manger wrapped in swaddling cloth. The shepherds talked about it, then offered their collective obedience and went immediately to find this sign.

The shame they bore? They were dirty, smelly shepherds and they weren’t likely to be welcomed into the presence of, much less conversation with, “civilized” people.

That didn’t stop them, though. Despite the potential for rejection, the shepherds went to Bethlehem, found the baby, and made known what they had seen and been told – and everyone was amazed by what they said. By believing the good news of salvation announced by the angels, by seeking and finding the sign they were told about, and by speaking their truth despite the risk of rejection, the shepherds participated with God in bringing about the will of God on the earth.

But these events took place almost 2,000 years ago. What does it mean for us today? Why do we gather now to remember it?

In his book, “Jesus Today” Dominican priest, Albert Nolan, says: “On the whole, we don’t take Jesus very seriously… by and large we don’t love our enemies, we don’t turn the other cheek, we don’t forgive seventy times seven times, we don’t bless those who curse us, we don’t share what we have with the poor, and we don’t put all our hope and trust in God.” (Jesus Today, Orbis Books, xvii).

Why? Nolan suggests that many of us believe these to be great ideals, but that actually doing them “isn’t very practical in this day and age.”

Well, I think Mary and Joseph might have said the same thing in their day – the shepherds too. Following Jesus has never been practical. It isn’t supposed to be. Following Jesus is revolutionary!

And that is why we’re here today. The message is the same for us as it was for the shepherds. We are the ones being invited to not be afraid, to go see for ourselves the sign of God’s salvation in our world.

Where do we find such a sign in this day and time? Well, that’s simple. All we have to do is look inside and recognize that we ARE the sign. I share with you a prayer from St. John of the Cross to Emmanuel:

How gently and lovingly
You wake in my heart,
Where in secret you dwell alone;
And in your sweet breathing,
Filled with good and glory,
How tenderly You swell my heart with love. (From: “Living Flame of Love”)

We are the church – the body of Christ born again this night into the world. Our purpose is to do our part in the reconciling work of Christ.

We are the players in the Christmas story we live today, right now, in this place and time. We are all Mary, giving our “yes,” our bodies, our lives to God. We are all Joseph, giving our trust to God. And we are all the shepherds, collectively giving our obedience, seeking the presence of God in worship together, then proclaiming the truth we know to a world that aches to hear it.

“Joy to the world, the Lord is come. Let us joyfully receive our King.” Amen.

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