Sermon: “Bethlehem Goose Bumps”

Bethlehem Goose Bumps
Sermon by The Rev. Lisa Caine
Dec. 21, 2014 • Fourth Sunday of Advent
Isaiah 9:2, 6-7 and Luke 2:1-15

When did you first hear this story? How old were you? It makes me really happy to think that some of our youngest children, the ones in our nursery and in Mama ‘Cine’s class are now learning it. Some have heard it one or two times already, maybe three or four. But it’s still a new story to them.

I’ve been hearing it all my life, and that’s a considerable amount of time now. 72 Christmases! And it never gets old. It is one of my favorite stories. And even though I’ve been to seminary, studied and analyzed the gospels, read a variety of interpretations, and have learned a good bit about the historical, religious, and cultural background for their composition, this story still gives me, on a very un-intellectual level – goose bumps. And that’s a good thing. I hope it gives you goose bumps too.

I am especially thankful for goose bumps this year. The world has seemed a little darker recently, a little harsher, meaner, bleaker than usual. Maybe it’s because of the pall that has hung over our country since the events in Ferguson and Staten Island. Or maybe it’s the unrest in so many places globally – Syria, Iraq, Israel, Pakistan. Or maybe it’s the number of deaths caused by Ebola, and the fear that this horrible illness strikes into the hearts of so many people, even us thousands of miles away. Or maybe it’s this week’s bullying threats by the North Korean hackers. It could be any of those things, or all.

But you know what I mean. The world seems a dark and hostile place right now. It doesn’t feel very safe anymore. And yet we hear from Isaiah, “those who dwelt in deep darkness, on them light ha shined.” And we have heard once again today the angel’s song of peace on earth and goodwill to all. Our tendency may be to sigh and think “that would be nice; I wish it were true.”   But we know that Isaiah’s prophecy and the angel’s song aren’t wishes; they are both blessing and promise.

And the people to whom the angels first sang lived in just as dark, and hostile, and foreboding a time as we do. The rulers names have changed – Emperor Augustus and Governor Quirinius and King Herod aren’t around any more, but there are successors to their titles; we have our own rulers with grand titles – President, Prime Minister, Supreme Leader — who hold the fate of the world in their hands and who can seem just as oblivious or indifferent as their predecessors to the existence of the struggles of individual persons – whether a pregnant teenager, a group of wandering shepherds, a carpenter, or in the 21st century, one of us today.   We all seem incredibly small compared to these powerful ones. And yet Luke declares in the language of faith that whether these powerful ones care or not – whether they even notice or not – God is doing something that will change the world.

And we have such a hard time with that because frankly God’s ways are not our ways, and it simply isn’t the way we would do it.   If anyone of us had the power to change the world, we’d go directly to the centers of government, business, and religion, and clean house – establish refreshed, renewed, revised, reformed, rehabilitated systems that would make life more bearable for everyone, more just, more equitable, more abundant. But the announcement of the angels is not that God has come to make the same things better, but that God has come to turn over the tables and create a new system, to redeem us and our world, rather than merely rehabilitate us, and to establish a world that is truly and completely just, equitable and abundant, not merely a little more so.

God doesn’t go to the centers of power as we would. God starts small and indirectly, at the fringes, not in Jerusalem. God begins in a no account village – Bethlehem, Hicksville, a little back water town, nine miles down the road from Jerusalem.   God speaks to no account people – not to King Herod who received no serenade, or to Caiaphas the chief priest who remained blissfully unaware of God’s new plan, but to shepherds – lying, thieving, dirty, untrustworthy outcasts, no better than tax collectors and prostitutes. And, God’s self-revelation is not as a ruler, a soldier, a statesman, a high priest, someone who can snap his fingers and move armies and destroy cities, but instead God reveals God’s self in an infant, powerless, dependent, vulnerable, born in a stable to a teenaged mother.

It’s not anything like the way we’d do it. And that’s part of the goosebumpiness. This is first of all a scary story. But that’s the gospel for you – it feels like bad news before it can be good news. The shepherds, as the King James Version translates it, “were sore afraid” when they heard the news of the angels. They cowered in fear, terrified as this daring new plan was revealed to them. God is doing something brand new and it’s not like anything we’ve seen before, valued before, or trusted before. And sometimes we’d rather cling to what we know and what we have than to take a step off our beaten path; ours may be a predictable path, a boring path, an unhappy, frustrating path, but at least it’s our path; we own it; we know its contours, we know where it goes; we know what we can expect around the corner. But with God’s plan, we don’t know, can’t predict or see the path, and can’t control it. We can only step out in faith one step at a time into this brand new mystery.

But this is also a goosebumpy story because, beyond the fear, it offers hope of something brand new, something better than we’d ever envisioned. The angels’ message speaks to a place down inside of us that wants something more from life, something different from a good job, or higher pay, or a fancy house, or an expensive car. Not that there’s anything wrong with those things, but they don’t transform, they don’t save, they don’t even satisfy for very long. They don’t give a sense of meaning and purpose, and a faith that there is more to life than what meets the eye, than what we have settled for.

God comes at the edges, along the fringes, in the least expected places to the least likely people to share the truth that God is with us, for us, joined to us in whatever our circumstance, and is committed to giving us not just more of the same, but something different. Christ comes, not to give us more of the life we already know, but to give us new and abundant life altogether. God will not keep God’s self shut off in the corner of the pompous and powerful in palaces and state houses, or of the ornate and sacred in temples and cathedrals. God chooses to be with us in our common life, and good news can come to us at any time as we live our daily lives in all their ordinariness and messiness. The shepherds overcome their fear enough to draw closer and check out what they’ve just heard about, and to see if it is as the angels had described. And that is our challenge and opportunity too.

The question is, of course, since none of this is the way we’d do it, will be have sense enough to listen for the good news and recognize it when it comes. In her poem, Kneeling at Bethlehem, Ann Weems writes:

Is it all sewn up-my life?
Is it at this point so predictable,
So orderly,
So neat,
So arranged,
So right,
That I don’t have time or space for listening for the
Rustle of angels’ wings or running to stables to see a baby?
Could this be what he meant when he said
“Listen, those who have ears to hear.
Look, those who have eyes to see?”
O God give me the humbleness of those shepherds who saw
In the cold December darkness
The coming of light
The Advent of Love!

The shepherds heard and saw the Angel of the Lord, there on that dark evening, and then the heavenly host of angels singing “Glory to God.” When angels visit us, we have to be ready to change our plans too. The word “angel” comes from a Greek word that means “messenger.” Angels in the Bible are the go-betweens, bringing the world of God into human life. It isn’t important really how you think of angels – don’t get hung up on whether or not you believe in them, or whether they sit on your shoulder, or dance on the head of a pin, or hang around heaven playing harps all the time. What matters about angels is what they represent – the promise that there is a link – there is communication between us and God. God is not silent. God speaks a message of hope and redemption that the angels shared with the shepherds, they bring tidings of great joy . . . “unto you is born this day in the city of David a savior who is Christ the Lord.”

This is the message that gives us goose bumps. This is the message that is meant to change the world. Whatever trouble the world is in, terrorism, hunger, poverty, sickness, racism and inequality, this is the alternative message that can change the course of history. God is involved. God is doing a new thing – not your thing, not my thing, but a new thing. The dawn of redeeming grace is real.

The great African-American philosopher and preacher, Howard Thurman, wrote:

“There must always be remaining in every person’s life some place for the singing of angels – some place for that which in itself is breathlessly beautiful . . . throwing all the rest of life into a new and created relatedness . . . Despite all the crassness of life, despite all the hardness of life, despite all the harsh discords of life, life is saved by the singing of angels.” (The Mood of Christmas)

In the darkness of our night, in the darkness of our world – and tonight is the longest night of the year in the Northern Hemisphere, Christmas and the song of angels come to us where we are. God enters our ordinary world, our routine patterns at home around the kitchen table, while we’re stopped at a traffic light, when we’re at a holiday party, when we’re here in worship together, and just when we least expect it but are perhaps most in need of it, the Holy Spirit will break in and for a moment we will hear the rustle of angels’ wings and the sound of singing – “Glory to God in the Highest, and on earth, peace, good will towards all.” And it will give us goosebumps, and bring us hope. Thanks be to God. Amen.