Sermon 12-11-2016; Seeking the Christ Child, with Joy
Isaiah 9:2-7 & Luke 2:8-11
Marcus Borg, The God We Never Knew; Harper, 1997, pp. 42-45
Pastor Ruthie Tippin – Indianapolis First Friends Meeting
Have you ever heard the angels sing? We certainly have heard them this morning, thanks to the wonderful Royal Sensation choir. I know this is one Sunday that many of you look forward to… the sound of these voices is incredible. But seriously, in your own experience – have you ever felt God’s presence surrounding you as Luke describes in his Gospel? “Do not be afraid. I bring you good tidings of great joy… and suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying “Glory to God in the highest.”
How tender of the angel to dispel fear when it first appeared. Shepherds in a field, travelers on a journey, housewives at their laundry, doctors with their patients, ranchers in their corrals, engineers at their building sites… people moving through their daily lives and tasks are not used to angels appearing. We are not used to good tidings of great joy. Can you remember when you have ever heard the angels sing? When you have heard good tidings of great joy?
I was trying to remember this myself. I know I’ve heard God’s angels many times, but one time in particular came immediately to mind. I was in the Student Union Building – the SUB – at George Fox College, eating dinner. Kay Ridinger came up to me and said, “I have something to tell you. Meet me in Edwards Hall right after dinner. It’s about Jon Tippin.” What Kay knew, and what you might not, is that I was in the winter of my junior year in college. I had loved Jon Tippin since I met him a year and a half earlier.
I met Kay immediately after dinner at the dorm, and she told me that Jon had asked if I was dating anyone… ‘Do you think she’d be interested in going out with me?’ If Kay was the angel, that was when the multitude of heavenly hosts started singing!
God doesn’t need Kay Ridinger or any other person, to speak ‘good news of great joy’ into our lives – we know God speaks directly to us – through our heart, our soul, our mind, and even through our bodies. But sometimes, God uses us as God’s angels to speak into another person’s life. That day, I experienced the gift of joy.
Marcus Borg writes about this in “The God We Never Knew”, and we discussed this last week – the cognitive, intellectual understanding of God. Loving God with all our mind is what God wants from us… loves from us. The inquisitive, curious questioning about God, about faith, about our relationship with God, and then, with the world - and Quakers, of all faith communities, are brilliant at this. Our faith continues to challenge us to seek, to question, as we use queries to examine our own lives, and our lives as a Meeting.
Borg moves from the cognitive aspects of sacred experience to the affective (“feeling”) aspect of these experiences and their effects. “They are commonly marked by joy, bliss, and peace. Moreover, they frequently lead to a transformed and loving perception of people and the world.” Borg goes on to give us examples:
Imagine the Irish poet, William Butler Yeats, at a Starbuck’s coffee shop. It’s not stretching too far… He was sitting one day in a London coffee shop, and describes it in part four of his poem “Vacillation”. The first five lines describe the setting – the last four the experience:
My fiftieth year had come and gone,
I sat, a solitary man, in a crowded London shop,
An open book and an empty cup
On the marble table top.
While on the shop and street I gazed,
My body of a sudden blazed;
And twenty minutes more or less
It seemed, so great my happiness,
That I was blessed and could bless.
Joy is central to an ecstatic experience that the French mathematician and philosopher Blaise Pascal had over three hundred years ago:
‘In the year of grace 1654, Monday 23 November… from about half-past ten in the evening till about half an hour after midnight:
God of Abraham, God of Isaac, God of Jacob. Not of philosophers and the learned. Certitude. Certitude. Emotion. Joy… Joy! Joy1 Joy! Tears of joy… My God… let me not be separated from thee for ever.’
Borg: Another example of ecstatic joy and transformed perception comes from Billy Bray in the nineteenth century, whom William James describes as “an excellent little illiterate English evangelist”:
‘In an instant the Lord made me so happy that I cannot express what I felt. I shouted for joy. I praised God with my whole heart… Everything looked new to me, the people, the fields, the cattle, the trees. I was like a new man in a new world. I can’t help praising the Lord. As I go along the street, I lift up one foot, and it seems to say “Glory”; and I lift up the other, and it seems to say “Amen”; and so they keep up like that all the time I am walking.’ “Glory”. “Amen”. “Glory”. “Amen”. “Glory”. “Amen”…
Bray’s response to God’s presence reminds me of something George Fox experienced… do you know what I’m thinking of? Fox records this in his Journal, in1648: “Now I was come up in spirit through the flaming sword, into the paradise of God. All things were new; and all the creation gave unto me another smell than before, beyond what words can utter. I knew nothing but pureness, and innocency, and righteousness; being renewed into the image of God by Christ Jesus, to the state of Adam, which he was in before he fell. The creation was opened to me…”
When have you heard the angels sing? When have your experienced the presence of God? For some of us, it comes as a blazing inner sensation in a crowded coffee shop that no one else would suspect. For others, it has come among many on a hillside, with sheep scattered nearby. For some, angels sing in the last hours of evening. For others, they come in bright daylight, giving us a new sense of the creation that surrounds us.
So what does joy – the experience of deepest hopes satisfied, the challenge of curiosity accepted, the ecstacy of presence – what do these mean for us this Christmas, and always? As Borg would say, as the shepherds, kings and angels would report, as I can tell you myself… no one can prove God to you or to anyone, but God alone. These joy-filled, ecstatic experiences – whether quiet fires or loud choruses – must be taken seriously as the reality of the sacred. As Borg says: “The varieties of religious experience suggest that the sacred – God – is an element of experience, not simply an article of faith to be believed in.”
Friends, we don’t believe in God because of a creed we’ve been taught as children. We don’t believe in God because of a Christmas carol, or even a passage in sacred scripture. We don’t believe in God because of something we’ve seen or have not seen, or because someone tells us to. We believe in God because we have experienced God – perhaps brought to us in those ‘angelic’ ways. We believe because we dare to hope. Because we remain curious. Because in humility, we have allowed way to open to experience God. No other persons’ experience will be yours – just as was true for the kings and the shepherds.
Leslie Weatherhead describes his encounter with the presence of God made real in his life – on a train:
‘For a few seconds only, I suppose, the whole compartment was filled with light. This is the only way I know in which to describe the moment, for there was nothing to see at all. I felt caught up into some tremendous sense of being within a loving, triumphant and shining purpose. I never felt more humble. I never felt more exalted. A most curious, but overwhelming sense possessed me and filled me with ecstacy… All men were shining and glorious beings who in the end would enter incredible joy… An indescribable joy possessed me. All this happened over fifty years ago but even now I can see myself in the corner of that dingy third-class compartment with the feeble lights of inverted gas mantles over head and the Vauxhall Station platform outside with milk cans standing there. In a few moments the glory departed – all but one curious, lingering feeling. I loved everybody in that compartment. It sounds silly now, and indeed I blush to write it, but at that moment I think I would have died for any one of the people in that compartment.’
‘There will be no more gloom for those who were in distress… The people walking in darkness have seen a great light… a light has dawned. You have… increased their joy.
‘Joy to the world – the Lord is come.’