Saturday, December 27, 2008

A Pentecostal Christmas

Sermon preached on Chritmas Eve at the Church of St. Luke & St. Simon Cyrene, Rochester, New York: Luke 1:5--2:21

The one Christmas morning I remember as a child is the day I awoke to a “Mighty Mike.” It was one part redemption and one part hope.

The redemption part is that the Christmas before had been somewhat meager. You see, I had stumbled upon the Christmas cache in our basement and had discovered that one of my dreams was coming through, receiving a farm set with tractor and various machinery like a plow and a hay baler. The next thing I knew my mother was standing over me and I never saw that tractor again.

The next year all I wanted was a “Mighty Mike.” It was this vehicle you put together that the commercials said would travel through any terrain and climb anything you put in its way. When the ad came on television I could barely sit still with excitement.

The name didn’t hurt. I was anything but “mighty.” Not particularly athletic and certainly not among the popular in my class, I was what we called in those days a “book worm,” who largely kept to himself. So there was a bit of fantasy at play in owning a “Mighty Mike.”

When I saw Mighty Mike under the Christmas tree as a ran into the room I was overcome with joy. I saw it right away because it was one of the unwrapped presents, which meant Santa himself had delivered it! It may have been the single happiest moment in my young life.

It was short-lived, of course. Mighty Mike did not live up to what the commercials promised. They rarely do, do they. Thus my ecstasy was short-lived and my fantasy dimmed. Might Mike ended up being just an “Average Mike,” and so was I.

There is much ecstasy in the long story we have just heard. Everyone seems to break into song: Zechariah, once his tongue is loosened at his son’s naming; Mary, as she greets Elizabeth to share in the good news of their miraculous pregnancies; and angels fill the heavens with song as they announce the coming of Messiah to the lowly shepherds. There is joy everywhere. But is it the kind that will last?

Who is the main character in this play of joy? It is not Elizabeth or Zechariah, Mary or Joseph, Gabriel (although he gets two appearances) or even John or Jesus. It is, rather the Holy Spirit who is the main character, showing up again and again.

The angel says to Zechariah about his son-to-be,

Even before his birth he will be filled with the Holy Spirit.

And the same angel says to Mary,

The Holy Spirit will come upon you…

And when Mary arrives at her aunt’s home it is said

Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit and exclaimed with a loud cry, “Blessed are you among women…”

And once he indicates that Elizabeth is right and the boy is to be named John,

Then his father Zechariah was filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke this prophecy…

Everywhere the Holy Spirit shows up to direct the action. Only in the story of Jesus itself is there no mention of her presence, although anyone with eyes to see and ears to hear can see her handiwork by this time. Angel hosts do not burst from the heavens with song without the Holy Spirit present to conduct them. At this point in the story we know that when angels show up and people burst into song, the Holy Spirit is the director.

It is the Holy Spirit who is the bringer of miracle and ecstasy. It is the Holy Spirit who makes this cast of ordinary people into extraordinary bearers of good news. It is the Holy Spirit, who, in the words of our sister Mary, “casts down the mighty from their thrones and lifts up the lowly.”

As St. Luke tells his story this is a crucial detail. The Holy Spirit’s presence at the beginning of the story of Jesus will later be mirrored by the Holy Spirit’s presence at another birth, the birth of the church at the beginning of his second volume, the Acts of the Apostles. The first believers will be filled with this same Spirit and they will themselves say and do extraordinary things, so much so that they become known as “those people who turn the world upside down.”

This is the joy that lasts, the gift of the Holy Spirit in our lives. Jesus may be the one we are called to follow this night, but it is Elizabeth and Zechariah, Mary and Joseph who are our companions on the journey, ordinary people like us, called to say and do extraordinary things, to become mighty not in the things of this world, but in the glory of God which brings peace to all in whom God delights. And it is the Holy Spirit that makes all of us, indeed, delightful in God’s eyes and thus worthy recipients of his peace.

In short, this Christmas is a Pentecostal experience. Everywhere we look, the Holy Spirit is acting, making people pregnant with possibility, filling the hungry with good things, and liberating all whose lives she touches from fear.

It is the Holy Spirit that is the tender compassion of our God, dawning from the heavens to shine on us who live in darkness and the shadow of death.

It is the Holy Spirit who creates a community out of those gathered together in a barn, huddled before an ordinary but miraculous baby, who himself, filled with the same Spirit, will turn the world upside down.

And the good news for us this night, better than we could have ever expected, is that this same Spirit is God’s gift to us, better than any toy we might receive tomorrow, because this gift will last, will not disappoint, will never let us down, because this Spirit always lifts up, makes each one of us a delight, equally mighty in the eyes of God.

So when God says to us, “Merry Christmas,” and hands us our gift, it is not we who open this gift, but this gift that opens us, opens us to say and do extraordinary things with our ordinary lives, beginning with the way we say “peace be with you” tonight to friend and stranger alike, and then all approach this Table and hold out our hands to receive the miracle of God’s own life given for us now and forever.

It ought to be enough, it is enough, to make our Christmas merry no matter what tomorrow brings, or especially the next day and the next. God has gifted us, has indeed gifted the whole creation with Spirit-filled glory in spite of all signs to the contrary, come what may.

We are present tonight at what our Pentecostal brothers and sisters would call “a Holy Ghost Party,” and we are called, whatever the circumstances of our life, to dance and to sing with our brothers Zechariah and John and our sisters Elizabeth and Mary with Gabriel on the trumpet and the angels providing the song and the Holy Spirit conducting it all in grand gestures of glory.

Let me close with a favorite poem by a favorite poet, Gerard Manley Hopkins, in which he both acknowledges our sometimes dreary ordinariness, but calls us to see in the very air we breathe the glory of God and the activity of the Holy Spirit.

God’s Grandeur

THE world is charged with the grandeur of God.
It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;
It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil
Crushed. Why do men then now not reck his rod?
Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;
And all is seared with trade;
bleared, smeared with toil;
And wears man's smudge
and shares man's smell: the soil
Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.

And for all this, nature is never spent;
There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;
And though the last lights off the black West went
Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs --
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
World broods with warm breast
and with ah! bright wings.

The world is charged with the grandeur of God
There lives the dearest freshness deep down things
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent world broods
With warm breast and with ah! bright wings.

Merry Christmas, my friends and fellow receivers of the gift of the Holy Spirit. Let it open up our lives that we, too, might be people who turn this old world upside down.

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