Wednesday, December 31, 2014

An Upside Down World in Partnership with God

Sermon preached on the First Sunday after Christmas at St. Michael's Church, Geneseo, New York, a Service of Lessons and Carols using Luke 1:5--2:52

I'm willing to bet that, for almost all of you, this is the first time you have heard the whole of the birth stories of John the Baptist and Jesus read in one sitting.

It is an extraordinary tale of visitations by angels and miraculous births, of daring dreams proclaimed has having come true, and of the Holy Spirit, in the words of another Gospel writer, John, like the wind, blowing wherever it wills.

In reading the Gospels it is important to remember that they were written, as it were, “backwards.”  They are not the result of dictation by someone who followed Jesus around, rather they are interpretation of Jesus’ life and death looking back from a post-Easter perspective. Each looks back, moreover, from a different reference point.

It is one reason why the birth stories in Luke and Matthew are so different.  Matthew looks back to Jesus birth with the reference point of Good Friday.  This child was the child born to die for the salvation of the whole world. Some have called Matthew’s birth, which we will hear next Sunday, the “dark side” of Christmas.

Luke has an entirely different reference point for looking back.  It is Pentecost, the experience of the Holy Spirit as the gift poured out on all flesh, the Spirit that creates a community of followers of the way of Jesus who become known as “those people who turn the world upside down” (Acts 17:6).

Here, at the beginning of his tale, Luke has already begun this theme.  As the Holy Spirit touches the lives of people in this story—Elizabeth, Zechariah, Mary, Simeon—their world is upended.  Nothing is left the way it was, nor ever will be again.

Perhaps the pivotal line in the whole story is uttered by the angel Gabriel to Mary, while sending her to her cousin Elizabeth, for a meeting of two extraordinary women who for all generations will testify to the world that "nothing will be impossible with God."

There is something very important in those words, something that hinges on the English word "with," which in Greek is the preposition παρα (para).  In Greek para is the preposition indicating “alongside of,” or “beside.”  So Gabriel does not say "nothing will be impossible for God," but, "nothing will be impossible with God or, literally, “alongside of" God.

It is tempting to hear these stories about the intervention of God in these folks’ lives and understand them to be examples of the kinds of things that can happen when God takes over a situation, does things "for," or even "to" people.

In one sense this is precisely the God we long for, the God who can do something “for” or “to” us, when we ask him to do so. We do not necessarily want the kind of uninvited visitations Zechariah and Mary receive, and the giving of new burdens or responsibilities they bring.

In his storytelling, Luke wants us to make it clear that this is not the kind of God we get.  We get the God of unexpected visitation.  God keeps his own calendar and plays it as close to his chest as the best card shark.

The unexpected visitation, however, is not for the purpose of doing something “to” us or “for” us.  It is for the purpose of doing something “with" us, alongside us.  So strong is this sense of “with” that these stories more than hint that in order to act in these situations God needs the cooperation of the human characters.

God needs Mary, needs her cooperation, needs from her something he does not have—human flesh and human freedom, the freedom to participate or not, to love or not, to hope or not.

The world often seems to us that it is in such a mess that only God can save it.  Well, no, actually, Luke says in these stories.  The world is in such a mess that only God and humanity, the Creator and the creature, can save it together, by their companionship in faith, hope, and love.

It is this very cooperation, participation, companionship that God wishes with us, for we are not fundamentally different from the characters in these stories nor is the desire of God for us any different than it was for them.  The desire is for a partnership of grace, that can bring new things out of old, change the world, raise us up to sing Mary's song about herself and her world about ourselves and our world.

From this day all generations will call me blessed.  The Almighty has done great things for me.  He has scattered the proud and lifted up the lowly.

What does this mean in our lives today? How does it begin, this working “alongside of” God?

One thing that gets said over and over again in these stories by the visiting angels is, "Do not be afraid."  The interior conversation that goes on in each of the characters does not get directly recorded, but in each one it involves a choice.  Shall I respond with fear or not?

Zechariah chooses fear.  We can identify with that, can't we?  He is muted, which is not so much a punishment as it is the natural result of his fear.  It is what happens to us as well, is it not, when we choose to be anxious and afraid?  Does not our anxiety and fear often cause to say “no” to love?

And Zechariah's tongue is loosed when he dares to cooperate with God.  He writes, “His name is John.”  That represents his conscious choice to be God’s partner in a new endeavor, upending the world of his privilege and his credentials, his ancestry, the letting loose of a new power in his life and in the world.

This is one important thing that the Christmas message is all about—a new partnership formed between us and God, the result of which is the fulfillment of the message of the angels:  Glory for God, peace for us.

Peace is impossible for us to bring about on our own, either in our own hearts or in our world.  If it were possible we would have done it long ago.  Likewise, peace is impossible for God to bring about on God's own, again, either in our own hearts or in our world.  If it were possible for God to do alone, he would have done it long ago.

Peace in our own hearts and in our world is only possible with God, in the partnership of our saying “no” to fear and “yes” to hope and a new, different possibility and allowing God the Holy Spirit to bring to birth in us our own salvation, as she did in Elizabeth and Mary long ago.

How do we begin?  It is in our daily lives as simple as heeding the words from a favorite Christmas carol.

O hush the noise, and cease your strife, and hear the angels sing.[1]

Listen.  Hear the angels calling us to be God’s partners in the fulfillment of the good creation.  For nothing will be impossible in partnership with God, a partnership orchestrated by the Holy Spirit.

[1] From “It came upon a midnight clear,” words by Edmund H. Sears (1810-1876).  Found in The Hymnal 1982 at # 89 and #90.

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