Sunday, December 23, 2007

Christmas Travelers

Though there were a few absent faces, the pews were more full than expected despite the large quantities of snow that prevented some from joining us this fourth Sunday in advent.

With Christmas in the air, Pastor Brad Shannon's sermon continued to reinforce the message of hope.

"There fared a mother driven forth
Out of an inn to roam;
In the place where God was homeless
All men are at home.
The crazy stable close at hand,
With shaking timber and shifting sand,
Grew a stronger thing to abide and stand
Than the square stones of Rome." ~G.K.Chesterton

The closer we get to Christmas, the more crowded the highways and airports seem to be. Pastor Brad began by sharing a conversation with a taxi driver from whom he learned, to his surprise, that Christmas is not the busiest time of year for taxicabs. Why? Because business travelers rely on cabs to get from airport to hotel, whereas during the holidays parents or loved ones are usually waiting for us.

This is the hope within each Christmas traveler, that someone will be coming to meet them. And the hope of every advent traveler is that when we get to Bethlehem, someone will be there to meet us, too.

Among the hopeful travelers in the nativity story (Luke 1:26-66) was a young woman -- actually a girl -- named Mary. Her home had been Nazareth, but she left in haste, Luke writes, to visit her relative Elizabeth in the hill country of Judea.

Mary had good reason to flee Nazareth. Engaged but not yet married to a man named Joseph, Mary, a virgin, had just confirmed that she was pregnant. Though she knew the child to be a gift from God, she also knew no one would believe it. She had good reason to be running for her life.

She also had good reason to be running to her kinswoman Elizabeth. Elizabeth, who had been barren all her life, was far too old to have a child. Yet to everyone's surprise the impossible had happened. She was now six months into her pregnancy.

Maybe Elizabeth would have understood the emotions Mary felt. Maybe she would share the odd mixture of confusion and joy, doubt and faith, fear and hope that stirred within Mary's soul. Perhaps Elizabeth would understand the suspicious stares of nosy neighbors or identify with the embarrassed rejection by relatives. Most of all, Elizabeth might actually believe that impossible things could become possible with God.

The gospel story invites us to share the moment with Mary as she walked through the door of Elizabeth's house. Luke records that "when Elizabeth heard Mary's greeting, the child leaped in her (Elizabeth's) womb." Lk 1:41 Elizabeth responded to the kick in her womb with a song of hope: "Blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord." vss. 42, 45

Elizabeth knew the meaning of hope. Biblical hope is the deep, inner certainty -- just as real as a baby kicking in a mother's womb -- that God will fulfill what God has spoken. Hope is the inner assurance that against all odds God's kingdom will come, and God's will shall be done on earth as it is in heaven. Hope is the often unseen guarantee that in spite of all the world' violence and hostility, one day the nations "shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up its sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more." Micah 3:4

Hope is the gut level confidence that one day "justice will roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever flowing stream." Amos 5:24

Hope is a deep, inner awareness and for both Elizabeth and Mary, hope was the personal realization that God's promise was being fulfilled through the flesh and blood of their very human, very ordinary lives.

It wasn't much of a sign, just a baby's kick in a woman's womb. But it was enough experiential evidence to become the sign of hope that God would fulfill his promises. And in reality, it doesn't take a lot of what the world calls evidence to keep hope alive.

It didn't take much of a sign for American writer Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, just the sound of a bell in a church steeple on Christmas day, which he described in one of his best known poems, "Christmas Bells."

I heard the bells on Christmas Day
Their old, familiar carols play,
And wild and sweet
The words repeat
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

The year was 1863. This nation had been caught in the deadly grip of a civil war. The prior year had seen the horrors of Gettysburg, the ghastliest, bloodiest, deadliest single event in the history of this country. The original poem describes the awful reality of the war in lines that Christmas card publishers always leave out and which soloists in Christmas shows never sing.

Then from each black, accursed mouth
The cannon thundered in the South,
And with the sound
The carols drowned
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

Imagining all the homes that would have an empty place at the table for Christmas, Longfellow went on:

It was as if an earthquake rent
The hearth-stones of a continent,
And made forlorn
The households born
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

No wonder Longfellow was tempted to doubt God's promise of peace:
And in despair I bowed my head;
"There is no peace on earth," I said;
"For hate is strong,
And mocks the song
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!"

Then Longfellow heard a bell in a church steeple on Christmas day. It wasn't much, but it was enough to give him hope.

Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:
"God is not dead, nor doth He sleep;
The Wrong shall fail,
The Right prevail,
With peace on earth, good-will to men."

It wasn't much of a sign by the world's standards, but the ringing of the church bells was enough. It was enough to be the sign of hope, just like the child leaping in Elizabeth's womb. Elizabeth could never have explained that event; there is no evidence that she ever tried. But she knew -- from somewhere deep within that she could never forget -- that the child kicking in her womb was the sign of God's saving purpose being accomplished through her. The child was John, whom we later knew as John the Baptist, the one who prepared the way for coming of the Lord.

Nor could Mary have explained the baby in her own womb. There is no evidence that she ever tried. The New Testament doesn't attempt to analyze the scientific probability for the virgin birth. It was a mystery to be celebrated, not a thesis to be argued. By the world's standards it was utterly incomprehensible. But Mary knew that the child in her womb was the hope of God's saving purpose being accomplished in human history. She knew that God's living word was becoming flesh within her. She could feel the love of God becoming a tangible reality through her life.

Nor could the shepherds have explained what they experienced. And again there is no evidence they ever tried. All they knew for sure was that in the darkness of the night they received good news of great joy that was coming for all people: "To you is born this day in the city of David a savior, who is Christ the Lord. And this will be a sign for you; you will find a babe wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger." Luke 2:11-12

Those wise men, stargazer, mysterious visitors from the East never explained it. But they were wise enough to follow the Beckoning Bethlehem star until it led them to the Christ child, and they offered their best gifts in homage to the promise of this newborn king.

Nor could Joseph have explained it. There is no evidence in the New Testament that he ever tried. But he knew in his heart that this child was the sign of God's presence with us in human flesh. He obeyed the angel's command, even when obedience meant packing up his family and hiding out as refugees in Egypt.

By the world's standards, there may not be much of a sign in our lives. We may never be able to fully or adequately explain or comprehend it. But like Elizabeth and Mary, we can feel the deep, inner hope that God is at work to accomplish God's loving purpose through us. Just as surely as Elizabeth felt the baby leaping in her womb, we can know that the very same love of God that became flesh within Mary's body is becoming a reality in this world through us.

As shocking as it may sound, the amazing affirmation of Scripture is that in the same way the body of Jesus was formed in the womb of Mary, the life of the living Christ can be formed within each of us.
The sign of hope for every person of faith is simply this. "Christ in you, the hope of glory." Col. 1:27

Reflecting on the way the sign was given to Mary, Bible scholar Robert Mulholland came to this conclusion. "Every Christian is called to be a Mary. We are called to offer ourselves to God in such radical abandonment and availability that the Christ of God can be brought forth through our lives into the world... Many desire this and actively offer to God disciplines of loving obedience through which Christ can be formed in them."

The hope of every Christmas traveler is that someone will come to meet them. The one who meets us at Bethlehem is the living Christ, the one who becomes flesh in each of us.

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