December 24, 2016
Christmas Eve Service
Grace and Peace to you this evening. Grace and Peace.
Have you seen the videos of people with red-green color-blindness trying on glasses that filter the light and correct the saturation so that they can see colors the way most of us see colors? Or the videos of babies who cannot hear well or see well getting hearing aids or glasses for the first time?
I am constantly amazed at the technologies that are discovered and created that allow for such adaptations.
But what gets me about the videos is not the technology. What I love is the reaction to seeing things new. One teacher, trying on the color-filtering glasses said in a voice of pure wonder, “Is this what you see all the time?”
One young man, wearing the glasses at a plant nursery, is told that the tray in front of him is purple. He touches it to see if it is real. Then he is told his shirt is purple, and he looks down, astounded.
Of course, the ones that really melt the heart are those where a baby can hear his mother clearly for the first time, can see his father clearly for the first time. The look of pure joy, pure wonder, pure love.
It is easy to be cynical. We live in a time when we all walk around with PhDs in cynicism. “Sure, that baby hears her parents for the first time clearly, but just wait until they are older. They will never listen clearly again!”
It has always been easy to be cynical about generations younger or older than ours. But our cynicism has reached epic and epidemic proportions.
- Nothing good can come from the other side of the aisle.
- Nothing good can come from those who differ from us.
- Nothing good can come from legislative gridlock; the only thing worse is them actually doing anything.
- Nothing good can come from…well, pick your group in our polarized, segmented, compartmentalized, tribal world.
And maybe cynicism begins as a coping mechanism. We see things are not how they should be. We see the world is not as we wish it was. And we try and find ways of poking holes in it. We try to defend against despair. We seek a way of getting a handle on what is so often unmanageable.
But cynicism soon is like an acid. It eats away at our ability to see things as they are. It starts to etch our ability to hear what is real and good and true. We begin to see things always through cynical lenses. We hear things always with an ear for how wrong they probably are.
We don’t like to think of ourselves as cynical, do we? So we hide it in partisan rhetoric, in sound bites, in Internet memes. We gather with those who already agree with us, so none of us have to admit we no longer see with clear eyes or hear with clear ears.
But then there comes, like angels to a field full of shepherds, something we cannot ignore. Something that jolts us awake. We didn’t even know we were asleep!
A chord on a guitar or a pipe organ or a note from a voice, or if you are really weird like me, the striking of the drones on a set of bagpipes, and your soul wakes up and looks around and says, “This!”
A line of poetry or scripture or a lyric that you never noticed before and your mind starts to dream of possibilities and what ifs and maybes like you did as a child, when a stick could become a staff, a wand, a gun, a scepter, a baseball bat, a lifeline to a friend.
This is not easy to find some times. We live in a utilitarian age.
- Of what use is this?
- How can this help us?
- How can I benefit from this?
Such utility can make of life a living hell. Other viewpoints become enemies. People visiting church to find a word of grace and peace become possible recruits to a board or committee. We use words like “only.” We become only this or that. We become only us or them.
In those days a decree went out from
Emperor Augustus that all the
world should be registered.
This was the first registration and
was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria.
Rome had been a republic up until Augustus’s adopted father Julius Caesar. Now it was an empire. Augustus had the senate vote to declare Julius Caesar a god. This was a calculated move. It means that Augustus gets the title ‘son of god.” People thought they could control divinity by a vote. Nothing defines this utilitarian way of thinking than trying to use what is holy for political purposes.
And Augustus decrees that they shall register people. That most utilitarian of tasks. The reasons for registering people is taxation, raising armies, or locking people up.
And Quirinius is governor of Syria. Israel was not even its own territory in the Roman empire. It is a small addition to Syria.
Syria. Originally part of the Assyrian kingdom, the birthplace of Abraham. The birthplace of our biblical faith.
Syria. Home of Damascus, where Saul was headed to destroy the church when the Lord visited him, changing his name to Paul, changing his life. In many ways, the birthplace of the church.
Syria, in our own day, where war is practiced today in all its utilitarian and dehumanizing and violent ways. Genocide. Predation. Illness. Death. Aleppo, where humanitarian aid to refugees is stopped by violence.
The world was a place of utility and violence in the days of our story tonight. The world is a place of utility and violence in our own day. If we needed any more parallels, Rome used lead in the pipes and aqueducts to get water to its people; two years after the first Boil-Water Advisory was sent out, Flint still does not have clean water.
The people who walked in darkness
have seen a great light;
those who lived in a land of deep
darkness on them light has shined.
This is a song for our souls. And our souls defy utility. Our souls want to hear the songs of Zion. Our souls long for a sunrise. Our soul needs to be with others, not because they agree with us, or because they are useful to us, but because when we share a song we get harmonies.
And we discover again that there is holiness, there is the sacred, there is the divine. But we cannot control it. We cannot vote it in or out.
We discover again that there is a God, and it is not Julius Caesar. And into this world is born one who is the Son of God, and it is not Augustus Caesar.
And into our world of utility and violence comes an impossible word. Impossible, except that it is from God. And with God all things are possible.
Do not be afraid; for see—
I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people:
to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior,
who is the Messiah, the Lord.
This will be a sign for you:
you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.
God does what is impossible. Not through armies or weapons, not through enrollments or violence, not through war or imperial decree. But in the birth of a child.
- And now peace.
- And now hope.
- And now joy.
- And now that least utilitarian of all things: love.
- And now wonder.
- And now curiosity.
- And now new eyes to see one another, as if for the first time.
- And we have ears to hear one another, as if for the first time.
And you and I are both revealed, in all our imperfections and problems and differences, to be children of the same God, loved with the same love born that night so long ago.
And our world, for all its problems and cynicism, for all its violence and attempts to reduce us to our utility, its false divinities and political problems, is still the birthplace of Jesus – Lord of Lords, Prince of Peace, the Way, the Truth and the Life.
May we have eyes to see and ears to hear.
Thanks be to God. Amen.