Friday, January 4, 2013

Dusting Off the Creche

Here in one of America's poorest cities, I think there is often a greater risk that we so sanitize the Gospel that there is no way in for many who gather here, especially on Christmas Eve. And as we continue to experience a deepening of the connections with our actual geographic neighborhood, this year there were many great connections to be drawn between the world of our newer faces. And at the same time for our more seasoned folks, who've been there, done that, there may be very little anyone expects to hear or think about.
The first part of this is my late service Christmas Eve message to about 80 people mainly from the immediate neighborhood where I focused on the improbability of the shepherds.
The second part is for this coming Epiphany Sunday where we dust off the Magi. And after defending against the onslaught to just put everything away this Sunday there are still trees with lights and the creche with the magi. Interestingly they come from a different set and are a little outsized- the camels look enormous. Oh well.
As an aside, I should note that I thought David Lose and Craig Satterlee's insights on Working Preacher this year were delightful.


Take a look at this guy, the shepherd. He looks so gentle, so devoted, so humble. We probably imagine him like “The Good Shepherd.”

But when you know who he and his companions REALLY are, it turns out that the shepherds were the least likely candidates to hear the story, much less get to share it. The easy explanation, of course, is they are NOT in Bethlehem, not in the city. They are out, W-A-A-Y out, beyond civilization, scattered, frankly, kind of forgotten. Their main conversation partners are… sheep. But, more meaningfully, the shepherds would be the guys voted “least likely to succeed.” They were people of very little prospects.

You see, first born sons get the inheritance, and second born sons find a trade, but last borns? And Immigrants? Well. They become shepherds. And they kind of fell off the map. Doing a job someone had to do, providing clothing and sometimes food, for a world that wrote them off. Doing a job that fell to them, whether they really wanted it or not. Spending endless time in all kinds of weather, sleep deprived from having to be hyper-vigilant a lot of the time. More than a little edgy. Serving a need of a society that considered them too dirty, and smelly and dangerous to be around. Living by their own rules, always defending against predators and thieves, making them perhaps a little violent. The truth is that no one wanted the shepherds to come to town, and certainly not to worship. Their arrival was not good news.

And their messenger service on the way home was probably ignored. The sheep they tended were like money on the hoof. So if you could sidle on over to another flock and make off with a few to get a little something in your pocket, well good for you! They stole from each other. Shepherds were considered so dishonest they were not allowed to give testimony in court because given their reputation, no one would believe a single word they said. THESE shepherds are the ones God singled out to hear the good news? Of hope and joy and peace?
And then THESE shepherds walk away from their world- to search for a baby? And a story of good news?

How odd.
How odd- that the good news comes to those with the fewest prospects and sketchiest reputation
How strange- that they went!
How hard it must have been for them to let it sink in.
How unusual that THEY were the ones who then went testifying throughout the whole region, telling of God’s revelation!
A baby, born into their world, amidst the animals. Here with them…God
Life changing news in a broken world. Confusing news.
Yet this wondrous news shows, I think, that in GOD’S world, Jesus is born where people need Him most.
Tonight, we’ve all walked away from our worlds and come to this place. We all have different reasons.
But perhaps we too are searching for a baby, hoping for good news, and perhaps, we hope more of the story.
Maybe you’ve come excited, full of joy, surrounded by love and family. Maybe you’re wondering where all that is in your life.
Maybe you’re grateful God loves who you really are, or maybe you’re hoping no one knows who you really are.
Maybe, you’re like the shepherds- you’ve left outside so long you’ve given up on God, but something told you to come.
We’re all here- to hear and to share in this mysterious good news

That the God of grace has come here bringing salvation. To unlikely people in unlikely places- to US
To change our lives.
In all our longings, hope is given new life.  In this baby, with us.
Christ is born into our world. Christ entering here and now. Christ, where we need Him most.
To heal all the broken places, to show what true love looks like, to bring real peace.
It’s still confusing for us, but tonight, let’s try to let it sink in.

Let it sink in:
Jesus, born for you, for me, for our world. C
hrist in our midst. Here with us now
Is God.

Every year, it happens. “Why is the crèche still out? Christmas is over.” It’s kind of tedious, this waiting for the wise men. We already know the story. We know what God did.
So many years ago, religious insiders were longing for God to act, longing to see God in their midst, but despite being people of God, perhaps marching through the readings year after year, after awhile it was more like- “yeah, yeah, yada, yada”  than believing God was really up to anything. I suspect that it can be that for us sometimes too. We see the Magi and think- gold, frankincense, myrrh, got it. See ya til next year! And I imagine that most of us spent more time in the past week waiting to to see the predictions for 2013 than waiting for the Magi to be placed in the manger, and thinking they have anything new to reveal to us about God.  On Christmas Eve at the late service we dusted off the shepherds and talked about who they really were and what their story tells. Today, let’s dust off the Magi.

Let’s start by imagining we’re back in the day-Leaders encounter three guys who show up out of the blue in a caravan. Three guys, not from anywhere nearby, foreigners. Three guys who are not only not regular worshippers, they’re not religious. They come and tell the people who are looking for their Savior, that the Savior is here! How could they know? Especially when you realize that over time we’ve cleaned up the Magi. We’ve made them be kings, and we’ve made them be wise. But while kings in their country consulted them, they were astrologers, magicians, fortune tellers, psychics.  If they existed today they’d have a hotline or a reality TV show. They’re about as far away from Yahweh the God of Israel and Jerusalem as you could get. Searching the skies for a message but not really sure what they were looking for. Now they’ve come convinced they’ve received a message and it’s true. A child is born who is a ruler like none other!  The one you’re looking for! A message brought by people that those leaders and those who first heard the gospel, thought was a joke. They were fools! No one would be expecting the magi to be a source of truth!

So we have the story of the birth of a prophet to an elderly, kind of shunned woman, and then the birth of a Savior to a young girl of no account in a tiny village of an insignificant family. News shared first with those who were of the lowest prospects, who no one would listen to when they went around telling the story.  And now the official announcement of the birth of this King is brought by three psychic friends who come to say- did you see and do you know? Only to hear- there’s a star? What star?! We sing the songs of Christmas and Epiphany with such certainty, but it was all so very unlikely.

Not only to the outcasts but to those not even really wired to believe, God came. The magi came, looking, and drawn by God through of all things, the light of a star. Following something they were used to looking for, but believing something great and new was happening. Only to be met by the people of God as unwelcome. Greeted with alarm, and interrogation, and told that if they were serious they should prove it, and they were sent away. Because to be the “magi” was a slur, and a slam. We should keep our distance from “those people.” The magi kept on, and came to a town suddenly overwhelmed by this influx of strangers. Men who came to meet a baby and met God.

They were drawn by an overwhelming sense that there was something greater, something more. The irony is that it is often those no one expects to reveal Jesus are the ones show us God, the source of true Wisdom and joy and salvation. And God brings people in ways they can connect to. The Magi were brought by a star, and then sent on a path by a dream, things they could relate to. Guided by a God who continued to speak in a way they could grasp. This story of the Magi will have its fullest revelation later in Matthew, in chapter 11, verse 25 when a grown Jesus will give thanks, to his Father, Lord of heaven and earth, for hiding things from those who consider themselves ‘wise and intelligent’ and revealing them to little children.” God coming to those we think are too young, too foolish, too insignificant, too unknown.  They see the Jesus, experience real wisdom.  For those of us who’ve been around awhile, there is a real danger- that we fall into thinking we already know, or are already wise and intelligent. Today we’re reminded God is still doing something more, and something greater. What a shame it would be to miss it!

It is always startling to grasp that God’s agenda is so universal. That the insignificant are no longer patronized as “the least” and those who are sure of their status find themselves at odds with God’s vision. When we think we know, we risk missing out on the benefits of being Christ’s followers. We miss out on experiencing what the Magi did- the absolute delight of God encounters! The ones that touch our hearts and reveal Christ to us. When the Magi met Jesus, they were absolutely delighted! And they gave the best gifts. Even more than the luxury items, they opened their hearts. They not only saw the power they realized they were sought out and shown extraordinary welcome by God.  They gave themselves over to this child for who He was. And it all started with of all things, a star in the sky, not a structured worship moment. When we wonder where others are, perhaps we must seek them out, and perhaps they will come in ways we do not expect but in which God is asking us to welcome not doubt.

And I suspect our search will continue to reveal God active in the unscripted, unexpected people and moments where light shines and reveals the love of God in Christ in our midst. Recently God became known through an artificial Christmas tree.  This past year many have come here through our afterschool program looking for resources and for help with their kids, but are discovering a place where they meet God, and can talk about God. But it is not only these new faces that get a revelation.  So here is where the artificial tree comes in. A few weeks ago, people here had an extra Christmas tree. They wondered if anyone who could use it. At the same time, I knew of a family who had traveled here from far away who has come to this place believing God wanted them here. When the tree was made known,  one of the kids was absolutely delighted! The next day he showed me a small box of a few cards he had made of his artwork at school. He only had a few. But he’d taken the very first card and used it to thank us. I felt more than a little unworthy to be shown such adoration as something he treasured he gave. But what he really saw was Jesus, and what he really showed was that same Jesus.  And this boy from a family from far away, coming first to our afterschool program, then finding their way here for worship, was here on Christmas Eve. He was one of our wise men.  I don’t think that is by chance.

I hope and believe that he and his family keep coming because they know God wants them to meet the Child and to know the story.  To experience God’s love and guidance and salvation in our midst. And I hope and believe that they keep coming because God knows we need to see and hear too.  So, whether you realize it or not, here is news in which you can delight. You are here this day because God wants you here and wants to show you this story that’s still happening . There really is something more when we gather around Jesus and follow where God leads. Even when the ways are just as unlikely as a star in the sky, or an artificial tree, or maybe a cup of coffee.  Let’s never believe we are so sure we know the story of how God acts, and who God speaks to or through that we become closed off to this message. God is still coming to us, giving what we can only humbly receive, but bringing light and life for all people.  Let’s never grow tired of seeking or sharing this good news!

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