Monday, December 24, 2012

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.”

In the future, you will be able to travel back in time to help yourself get ready for Christmas.

I’m not sure how we will manage not to disrupt the space-time continuum, say giving yourself some stock tips or avoiding the door when unwelcome guests arrive. All these things will need to worked out before we go stuffing the turkey for ourselves while we vacuum under the tree, but if they can put a guy in the moon...

Speaking of the space-time continuum, I have to say my favourite episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation is one called “Yesterday’s Enterprize.” While not a Christmas episode—Christmas does appear a handful of times in Star Trek—”Yesterday’s Enterprize” illustrates what can happen went the past and the present collide.

If you recall the episode, suddenly the Enterprize is changed, a little darker, with more militaristic looking uniforms, the officers are carrying side-arms, even in ten-forward. And while the rest of the crew is blissfully unaware of the change in the Enterprize, Guinan, played by Whoopi Goldberg, is not. She understands that something is off, something has fundamentally changed, and she takes this concern to Captain Picard. Luckily for the sake of our collective fictional future he trusts her—always trust the future of humanity with Whoopi—and soon everything is saved.

Now I want you to imagine our own rift in the space-time continuum, here at Central. Imagine you’ve come this evening in your best Centurion’s outfit: some light armour, your best for tonight, polished sword and sharpened spear, and one of those helmets that looks like something the Fuller Brush Man might sell you. The kids have their costumes too, little swords, dull of course, and maybe a cape in an appropriate holiday colour.

One of our youngsters gets up to the microphone here at the front, beside the lightly armoured tree and the weapons that decorate the walls. She opens the Bible to a story of the Incarnation, perhaps the earliest and best, and reads in a clear voice:

13 Once when Joshua was near Jericho, he looked up and saw a man standing before him with a drawn sword in his hand. Joshua went to him and said to him, ‘Are you one of us, or one of our adversaries?’ 14He replied, ‘Neither; but as commander of the army of the Lord I have now come.’ And Joshua fell on his face to the earth and worshipped, and he said to him, ‘What do you command your servant, my lord?’ 15The commander of the army of the Lord said to Joshua, ‘Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place where you stand is holy.’ And Joshua did so.

There, in Joshua 5, is God’s first appearance in human form, we call it incarnation, and it leads to his famous victory over Jericho. It’s a strange passage to our ears, God appearing with drawn sword in hand, but to our alternate timeline selves, it would make perfect sense. This becomes the essence of God’s coming to live among us: fighting along side the people, defeating our enemies, and declaring vanquished territory ‘holy ground.’

And there is more. In the journey from Hebrew to Greek to Latin to English, which is roughly how we got much of our Bible, the original name for Jesus is Joshua. So when the story of Jericho concludes with the words “So the LORD was with Joshua, and his fame was in all the land,” it is easy to see how all this could get conflated: Joshua hosting the incarnated warrior-LORD, and with a name that literally means “God saves,” and eventually bearing the name Jesus.

If we had a Guinan in our midst, she might sense that something is not right. Trust Whoopi, I say, because the militaristic timeline for the church feels wrong, it must not be. And it seems others felt this way too, because the Joshua 5 appearance remains an obscure passage best left to Bible trivia games and not the leading reading to illustrate the incarnation.

It seems from earliest days, the strong preference was for a baby. And so baby it is. Born to a couple of peasants on the edge of the empire, no money, no bed, no armour, no tiny sword, only a star to lead the way. And we remain led, to this humble setting, to take in the only timeline that makes sense: a God who wanted to experience the whole of human living, from teething to falling off his bike to losing friends to living under Roman occupation to betrayal and finally to death on a cross. It had to be all or nothing for the God who wants to know us better than we know ourselves, and so only beginning at the beginning would do.

Speaking of the beginning, if time travel were possible I might travel back in time to 1965 and say to my parents, ‘hey, is your camera broken?’ Surely little Michael deserves even a tenth of the photos you took of Andrew.’

Instead, here is a sample dialogue of every time my mother and I dip into the old photos:

Me: Is that me?
Mother: Sure it is. No, wait, that's your brother.
Me: Is this one me?
Me: Surely this is me.
Mother: I'm not sure, honey. Does it really matter? I mean, you and your brother look so much alike.

Someday I will form the International Brotherhood and Sisterhood of Subsequent Born Children, pressing for our right to be photographed and recorded doing all the things that firstborns did: sleeping, eating, sitting, looking bored, naked in the tub, looking menacing near my crib—you get the picture.

So think of Christmas as a celebration of God’s firstborn. Come as a baby, fussed over, photographed, described at length, overwhelmed with gifts and attention: so much so that even we subsequent born can see that this is the best way to welcome our Saviour. Far better than the soldier-saviour, or the warrior-LORD, or any other way that we might imagine an alternative to vulnerability and the weakness that is really strength.

Instead, Christmas is a collection of God’s baby pictures, present in all the details of the season, recording that this indeed is the best means for God to be present to us, to understand us, and live for with each day. Amen.


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