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The Rt. Rev. Robert Johnson The Rt. Rev. Robert Johnson

The Right Rev. Robert Johnson is the retired bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of North Carolina, Raleigh, NC.

Member of:

The Episcopal Church

Representative of:

The Episcopal Church


Discerning Reality

1 John 4:10

December 20, 1998

Which of these two verses of scripture sounds more real to you?

First, "In those days a decree went out from the Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered."

Second, "Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them."

Which of these two is more real, more authentic, more true to your own experience?

"In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus." That's the more real one, isn't it? It is for me.

"In those days a decree went out." Those days sound like these days. Those days sound like my days.

Decrees still go out. The powerful speak, and the powerless obey. The President speaks, and his Cabinet revise their positions. The Commander-in-Chief speaks, and entire divisions mobilize overnight. The district manager speaks, and the whole sales staff is replaced. The Internal Revenue Service speaks, and we show up at the appointed time and the appointed place with all our records and canceled checks in a paper bag. The alumni speak, and a football coach takes early retirement. The landlord speaks, and the tenant moves out.

"In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus," and the whole world scurried. And a couple of nobodies -- one of them in the late stages of pregnancy---had to hoof it the ninety miles or so from Nazareth to Bethlehem just so they could be counted at the prescribed office, just because of the decree, just so that Emperor Augustus could have his due.

That's reality. That's the real world. That has always been the real world and probably always will be the real world. And everybody who doesn't understand that is in for continuous disillusionment and unhappiness.

If you are with me so far, I hope that you are saying to yourself: "But that is not necessarily the whole truth; that reality is not necessarily the only reality."

If you are saying that to yourself, let me say it with you. "I think you are right. There can be lots of realities---or at least lots of levels of reality."

That's where angels come in. "And in that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over flock by night. Then an angel, an angel of the Lord, stood before them, and the Glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified."

That may not sound as a decree from the emperor, or from the Commander-in-Chief, or the district manager, or the IRS office, but don't rule it out.

Angels are the Bible's way of suggesting other reality. An angel is the Bible's way of saying, "Something is going on here that is more than it seems." So why didn't the angel appear to Emperor Augustus, or to Quirinius, or to Herod, or even to the innkeeper in Bethlehem? Why just to these ragamuffins who can do no better than work the night shift for a sheep farmer?

Can you imagine Emperor Augustus, or any other important official, listening to an angel? Emperors and Presidents and district managers and government officials and landlords and bishops are not always the first to recognize a new reality.

Those who have real power of one kind are not quick to acknowledge someone with real power of another kind.

Angels appear to people who might be open enough to see them, who might be willing to hear them.

On the surface, on the news-reporting level, this looked like a simple case of displacement and confusion caused by a new governmental policy. Towns were overcrowded. People were homeless. But life doesn't stop. Babies are born at unexpected times and in unexpected places. Babies are born in earthquakes, at sea, in airplanes, even in taxicabs.

This one was born in a stable and was laid in a manger. No big deal. An unfortunate couple got stranded in the chaos of the census, and their baby was born in a barn. A little humor-interest story maybe, but no big deal. Yet something was going on that was more than it seemed. And the angel was assigned to find someone to discern it.

A lonely widow walks the beach at sunrise, weighing the parts of her life, deciding if anything is worth hanging on for any longer. A solitary beach walker. But something is going on that is more than it seems. A reality is forming that most cannot see.

A new father learns that his two-day-old son has a congenital heart defect. He wanders apparently aimlessly around the hospital parking lot, pondering the doctors' several alternative recommendations. The security guard watches from his little cubicle and thinks the young father is strange. Something is going on that is more than it seems. A new reality is forming that most cannot see.

A grown man and his elderly father embrace each other awkwardly, their first hug in forty-three years. There were good reasons for the long alienation, now the reasons are not so convincing. Something is going on that is more than it seems. A reality is being remembered that was long forgotten.

A college student decides that the turmoil inside must be faced before she can continue her studies, so she drops out at mid-semester. Parents and family all tell her that dropping out is a big mistake. But she knows what must come first. Something is going on that is more than it seems. A new reality is struggling to be recognized but most cannot see it.

People gather in the middle of a Christmas Eve night to hear stories about angels, to eat bread and drink wine, around an over-sized table they call an altar. Something is going on that is more than it seems. A powerful reality is at work that many do not recognize.

It happens all the time. And sometimes we are lucky enough to hear the angel tell us what it means. It is tempting (because it is easier) to live only on one level of reality and, say that other levels are only imaginary. Life is neater and issues are simpler if we declare that our world will be only the world of Emperor Augustus and his decrees: cause and effect; economic determinism; free market morality; live and let live; political balance of power---that's the only reality that matters. Angels and "good news of a great joy" are for children in Sunday School.

It is also tempting to live only with the angels, to declare the world of Emperor Augustus to be only a shadow world and to embrace the spiritual reality as the only meaningful reality.

Did you see the ads some time ago for a new Baby Jesus doll? A company in Colorado sold Baby Jesus Dolls with a glow in the dark halo for $3l.50. It was a thirteen-inch-tall vinyl doll dressed in a cream-colored gown with a gold cross on the chest and wrapped in a blue blanket. The pupils of the doll's eyes were shaped like fine-painted stars, and the eyes were directed "upward, toward Heaven" (said the brochure). The doll came with a wooden manger, including non-toxic hay. The halo snapped in the back of the doll's head and was (quote) "safe for children."

Can you imagine a better way to teach your child that Jesus is not really a human baby, not really concerned with the real everyday world of human boys and girls? Jesus is only a pretend person. He doesn't really belong here. And if we want to be like him, then we don't belong here either. That baby Jesus doll comes in other disguises too---any number of religious excuses to avoid the human world, any number of spiritual escapist opportunities are available---and not just at Christmas.

But it is intellectually dangerous to begin to say that any one reality is the only reality. Human beings are made neither for heaven or for earth alone. We are made for earth and for heaven. We are made to deal with the Emperor and with God. We are citizens of earth and citizens of heaven. To deny or ignore either citizenship is to make ourselves half instead of whole.

Christmas is the giving of two worlds, the melding of two realities. God is not just the God of heaven.

Christmas is God's incarnation. God became human, not just to save the world, but to bless the world, to bless being human, to endorse being human, to join us in our humanness that we might more readily join God in God's divineness.

The angel said: "Do not be afraid. I am bringing you good news of a great joy for all the people; to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior who is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign for you; you will find a child. " The shepherds then did a very smart thing. They checked to see if the angel told the truth. They went to find the sign.

Signs are given to people who can see them. And when we see them, we too can return like shepherds, "glorifying and praising God" for showing us what is real.

O God, You make us glad by the yearly festival of the birth of your only Son, Jesus Christ. Grant that we, who joyfully receive him as our redeemer, may with sure confidence behold him when he comes to be our Judge, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.


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