Thursday, December 24, 2015

Christmas Eve, 7 pm

Luke 2
8 And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night. 9 An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. 10 But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. 11 Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord. 12 This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.”

What the point of having a Bible study if you can’t uncover a few heretics along the way?

It all began with our most recent study, focused on hymns: the history of hymns, the theology of hymns, and even some spontaneous hymnwriting. Turns out Central’s got talent, but before we made this discovery, I wanted to lay a trap—in the nicest possible way.

So we began with a verse of Wesley’s classic “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing”:

Veiled in flesh the Godhead see
Hail the incarnate Deity

Then I did a hands up. Is this a favourite? Anyone? A few hands went up. “Aha! Heretics!” It was as simple as that. I carefully explained that this verse has all the hallmarks of Docetism, the heretical belief that God simply appeared on earth in a Jesus-suit. “Veiled in flesh the Godhead see.” You see, study can be fun and exciting.

Then, of course, one of the clever participants reminded me that “Godhead” is the same as the Trinity—Father, Son and Holy Spirit. No heresy then, nothing to see here—only a minister being hoisted on his own petard.

So we resolved that God took flesh and dwelt among us, arriving in the most vulnerable form, mirroring our own experience, fully human and fully divine. God entered the world among the humble—not in a palace, not even an inn, but out back, in a manger, surrounded by shepherds and their flocks.

It seems to be a recurring theme in the Bible: God overlooking the powerful and the connected in favour of the vulnerable. Think of Moses in basket, floating on the Nile, the fate of Israel at the whim of the current and some woven reeds. Or think of David, last among the sons of Jesse, so inconsequential that he isn’t even presented before Samuel as he seeks Saul’s successor. The future king is tending the flocks, ever a symbol of humility.

And, of course, Jesus. Born in poverty in about the least important part of the Roman Empire, a place of frequent wars and dislocation. And they weren’t even fighting over the place itself—just armies running into each other on their way to somewhere else.

Much has been made of the story of the flight into Eqypt, the Holy Family on the run from the evil Herod. And some have drawn a parallel to refugees in the modern sense, forced to leave home and seek refuge until such time that trouble has ceased.

It feels strange and awe-inspiring to know that the young woman and her son that we will sponsor are under the same moon tonight, half-a-world away in a camp, waiting for their own flight to safety. It feels like such a blessing to be able to help, to be a safe place in a world of trouble. We pray for them tonight.

And I think it’s fair to assume that the help will go in two directions. They will help us fulfill our mission to love and serve others, and they will help us remember that we live in a place untouched by war for 200 years, and prosperous by nearly every measure. May we be transformed by the experience.

This idea of being helped while we help seems to have more to say to the season, beginning with the very reason we gather tonight. We frame the season as God’s great gift to us, “unto us a son is given” found in both scripture and song:

How silently, how silently
the wondrous gift is given!
So God imparts to human hearts
the blessed gift of heaven.

And while that is completely true, it is not the complete story. For the complete story, we need to go back to the beginning. In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth, seeing it was good. Creatures follow creation, and soon we appear, becoming both the trial and triumph God intended. Our freewill makes us a bit of a mystery to God, and only serves to underline the solitude God feels, literally alone in the universe, a sort of divine refugee.

And what happens next is the first of many great reversals. God enters our world in Jesus, to experience the fullness of what it means to be human—but also to overcome the solitude that only God can know. We receive God’s greatest gift in Christ Jesus and we are a gift to God—allowing God to experience the warmth of a mother’s embrace, the adoration of all around, and the commotion that only childbirth brings. Even on that first night of nights, God overcame solitude to become God-with-us, Emmanuel. What God imparts to human hearts is returned in wonder and praise. And the blessing is mutual, now and always. Amen.


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