Sermon 11-27-2016; ‘Seeking the Christ Child, With Hope’
Isaiah 11:1-5 & Luke 2:13-15
Marcus Borg, The God We Never Knew; Harper, 1997.
‘Santa Claus is Coming to Town’, Coots and Gillespie, 1934.
‘An American Tail’, James Horner, Don Bluth, 1986.
Pastor Ruthie Tippin – Indianapolis First Friends Meeting
Phillips Brooks was a native Bostonian of Puritan stock. He became an Episcopalian minister in both Philadelphia and Boston, and at one time, visited the Holy Land. When standing at the site of Christ’s birth in Bethlehem, hearing carols being sung hour after hour, he said “it seemed as if I could hear voices I knew well, telling each other of the Wonderful Night of the Savior’s Birth. Three years later he needed a song for the children’s Christmas program, and wrote the words to the carol we know so well… “O Little Town of Bethlehem.” I so love the imagery Brooks uses to set the carol in place… the stillness of the town, the deep, dark night, the light that breaks through that darkness, and the realization that both hope and fear are answered in that one place, in that one evening.
Hope and Fear. Hope and Despair. Both travel together. The ‘hopes and fears of all the years were met’ in Bethlehem that night. Years of waiting, hoping, giving up, trying again, becoming discouraged, bucking up… Isaiah had promised the community of faith that One would come who would make the world right – right and righteous. Rooted in their own understanding of themselves – in their own kind, he would come – shoot and branch – naturally, organically. Powerful enough to slay the wicked, but gentle enough to be concerned for the poor and meek. Filled with wisdom, understanding, delighting in the Lord…. Did they dare hope for such a One as this?
What do you hope for? What do you dare to hope for? What do you limit your hopes to? Many of us – myself included – hope only for those things that are possible. The outcome of an election. The offer of a job. The safe arrival of a newborn baby. The good result from a series of radiation treatments. All these things are possible. Do we dare to hope for the impossible? When fear and despair surrounds us, and the possible seems impossible, do we yet dare to hope? Will we hope for something beyond ourselves?
Isaiah’s prophecy tells that the One who will come ‘will not judge by what his eyes see, or decide by what his ears hear.’ Instead, he will use righteousness and equity to make decisions. He will use all of who he is to turn the world round right. How many of us, in looking to the future, consider only what our eyes can see and our ears can hear? Do we use all of who we are – all of who God is in us? Do we judge the future, making room for God to work in us? Do we allow for God’s righteousness and equity? For God’s power and faithfulness?
Christmas tells us who we are. Think about it for a moment. In his great tale of humankind, Charles Dickens asks us to decide: are we Scrooge or are we Crachitt? Are we hopeful? Or despairing? Do we work for the good of humankind, or for the most we can take from them? ‘A Christmas Carol’ challenges us to consider who we are. The Christmas Carol, sung by the angels to the shepherds that evening just outside of Bethlehem, asked the same question… ‘Who are you?’ Are you those who live in hope? Do you live into hope? Do you dare to act on hope? Do you want to hope enough that you will seek out the reason for your hope?
Marcus Borg in his book ‘The God We Never Knew’ speaks of different ways of looking at God - and how we look at God, is how we look at Christmas. It’s how we look for the Christmas Child – for Jesus – or if we look at all. Marcus speaks of his childhood and then maturing in faith, and his different experiences of the Sacred. One of the earliest was Pastor Thorsen – the finger-shaker… ‘he actually shook his finger at us as he preached’. God, for young Marcus, was the ‘big eye in the sky’ who knew everything:
He sees you when you’re sleeping, He knows when you’re awake,
He knows if you’ve been bad or good, So be good for goodness sake.
‘The All-knowing, lawgiver and judge who knew everything we thought or did. But we could be saved by being Christian – that was the requirement.’ (Pastor Thorsen’s finger shaking).
So many people today have this same experience of God. It was their childhood understanding of God, and it remains today. God is “out there”, transcendent, who judges all they do. God chooses to love, but… does God love them? They sing with Fievel, the mouse:
‘Somewhere out there, beneath the pale moonlight,
Someone’s thinking of me, and loving me tonight…’
Through seminary, through the work of his life, Marcus Borg discovered both God’s transcendence and God’s immanence – that God is other and more, but God is also present and in. God is not only ‘out there’, or only ‘just here’. God is not either/or, but God is both/and. As Borg puts it, ‘God is more than everything, even as God is present everywhere. God is all around us and within us, and we are within God.
Friends, this is revolutionary… as Borg states it, ‘it is biblical, and certain kinds of religious experience points to this way of thinking about God… some [Christians] welcome it enthusiastically because it makes sense and fits their own experience.’ Intimate, direct experience of knowing God. This is what early Friends were arrested for preaching about. This is what we know to be true. This is what people are hungry for.
This is why we can hope…
We do not hope, based on our own will or way. We do not simply wish, or cross our fingers, or say simple prayers and hope we ‘get lucky’. We hope with the knowing that we are filled with God – that God is in us. That God knows us. And that God is with us. That we are companioned in our hope by Godself. We live into hope, knowing we live with God, in God’s presence.
Shepherds… going about their business – believed God’s messengers for something beyond themselves. They sought God out with hope. They had no reason to expect anything, except that angels had come – first one, and then multitudes of angels. And they sang of promise – of hope fulfilled. What do you suppose those shepherds were thinking as they moved toward Bethlehem? Had they heard the prophecies? Did they know what to hope for? Did they carry hope, along with their sheep and lambs?
Do you seek the promise of the Christmas Child? Do you know the gift of Emmanuel – that God is with us? Do you hold on to hope – regardless of time? Regardless of circumstance? Do you remember to remember all of who you are, and all of who God is in you, around you, below you, above you, beside you, as you carry your hopes and fears to Bethlehem?