Thursday, January 10, 2013

Christmas Eve: Swaddled Hope

sermon notes from the Vineyard Church of Milan 12/24/2012

video available at

Christmas is a season of hope. Hope wrapped in swaddling clothes. Hope drawing its first bracing breath. Hope announcing itself with a baby’s piercing cry, interrupting the cold dark night. Hope hungry to be fed, longing to be held.

Hope is no delicate, pretty thing. It is strong and unwieldy. Jarring at times in its entrance. Sneaking up on you at others. But always raw, wrinkly, unadorned. Like a naked baby embracing life for the first time.

The Christmas story teaches us an important lesson about the beginnings of hope. Because Christmas is, after all, the dawning of hope in the world. A world aching for salvation, for the intervention of God in its darkness and crisis.

This Christmas Eve, may we consider what the birth of Jesus teaches us about how we too, can apprehend the hope of Christmas.

As we witness Joseph and Mary on a forced trek to Bethlehem, Mary pregnant and weary, finding only a stable for shelter… as we witness the Shepherds summoned by angels to gather around the newborn and his bleary eyed parents… we learn this about Hope:

Hope comes when we enter into the real pain of the world and encounter God there. When we allow ourselves to open up, touch the pain of another and encounter God there – that is when we have an active experience of hope. As long as we stay insulated in ourselves, we won’t know the joy of salvation. Because the joy of salvation is big and wide, a party to which all are invited.

The manger invites us to come and taste that joy.

That’s what the shepherds did, and they went on their way rejoicing.

4So Joseph also went up from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to Bethlehem the town of David, because he belonged to the house and line of David. 5He went there to register with Mary, who was pledged to be married to him and was expecting a child. 6While they were there, the time came for the baby to be born, 7and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son. She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no guest room available for them.

8And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night. 9An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. 10But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. 11Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord. 12This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.”

13Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying,

14“Glory to God in the highest heaven,

and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.”

15When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let’s go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has told us about.”

16So they hurried off and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby, who was lying in the manger. 17When they had seen him, they spread the word concerning what had been told them about this child, 18and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds said to them. 19But Mary treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart. 20The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things they had heard and seen, which were just as they had been told.

Luke 2:4-20

Perhaps the nativity scenes we are most familiar with leave us with the impression that the shepherds were entering a Hallmark moment, peaceful and quiet, filled with soft lights and harp music and beatific smiles.

But no, the shepherds were sent into an animal shelter filled with some of the deepest pain known to humankind that night.

There is the pain of displacement, of separation from our home. All of us know this pain, do we not…?

Joseph and Mary were forced to take this journey for the sake of a Roman census. An edict that was enforced by Roman soldiers. At the end of a pregnancy. When a woman doesn’t even want to go up or down the stairs if she doesn’t have to. When the last place a poor man wants to be is on the road trying to get his beloved wife to safety and shelter, alone and far from grandmothers and aunts and others with experience in these matters.

There is the pain of isolation, of separation from the party. All of us have felt this pain, have we not…?

They arrive in Bethlehem to discover that there is no room for them. That they have arrived too late, surely because they had to travel more slowly than others. And they are too poor to bribe the innkeeper for a room. They can’t even generate enough sympathy for Mary’s condition. And so while everyone else is warm and fed and gathered together, they are left out in the cold.

There is the pain of rejection. All of us dread this pain, do we not…?

Why is no one with them? Why would no one travel to help this baby be born? Mary was an unwed woman when she became pregnant with Jesus, and this put her in a distressing situation. Joseph even considered abandoning her, cutting off their engagement, until an angel arrested him. He quietly married her, but a stigma would have remained on her pregnancy and her child to most who knew her, with the exception of her older cousin, Elizabeth, whose son John the Baptist leapt in her womb when she visited. And so Joseph and Mary find themselves alone, socially rejected as their son Jesus is born that night.

And of course, there is the pain of birth itself, the excruciating transition from one kind of life to another that growth requires. This is a pain we all unavoidably share in common.

Mary gave birth to her son with only her husband Joseph there for comfort and help. A young teenager. Worn out after a long journey. Carrying all those other pains in her heart. And surely fears born out of pain. And first babies do not come gracefully into this world, do they?

So we can imagine the scene into which the shepherds rushed. Joseph and Mary, exhausted and overwhelmed. This long awaited birth, fraught with anxiety and pain. And everything has gone wrong except that this baby is alive. And now theirs to care for. And there is no sign of God’s presence, of some miracle of epic proportion. Just a crying and perhaps now sleeping baby.

And then the shepherds enter. And they are filled with wonder because what the angels has said was proven true. And they see God in the painful place they have entered into.

And Joseph and Mary hear them tell their story. And they are filled with wonder because what the angels said to them 9 months earlier has found confirmation. And they see God now, right before them in the manger.

And Hope. Hope is here. Hope comes alive in them. Hope is alive in the world. Rescue is coming! It has arrived. Oh, it has arrived indeed, right in the midst of their pain.

And so the shepherds leave, praising, bursting with hope.

And Mary treasures all these things and ponders them in her heart. Hope filling every place of pain, like a river released from a dam, tumbling, coursing through the dry riverbeds of her soul.

May we have courage this Christmas to open ourselves up to entering into the pain of others and meeting God there, so that we, and our world may be filled with hope.

God himself had that courage. After all, the one who first opened himself up and entered into our pain is Immanuel, God with us. Jesus, born to Mary, God made flesh dwelling among us. Our savior, separated from his home, far from heaven’s party, rejected, suffering the excruciating transitions of birth, and later even death, so that the old creation might be transformed into new creation. And he now is our hope: Jesus, the hope of the world, the hope of my life and yours.

May we hear the mangers where he is born beckoning us to come, in the real pain of our world. In the lives of our children, our parents, our brothers, our sisters, our neighbors, our friends, our enemies. In poverty. And sickness. In rejection. And isolation.

And may we be like the shepherds, so that hope may become active in us, and we may have cause to glorify and praise God with them.

And may you be like Mary, bearing your pain with patience, until the time that God is revealed in it, flooding your soul too with hope wrapped in swaddling clothes.

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