In the Christmas pageant a five-year old was given the part of the angel who announced the birth of Jesus to the shepherds. He rehearsed his opening lines over and over: "Fear not, for behold I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all the people." He was ready. The rehearsals went fine, but no one had anticipated the impact of a packed house on the memory of a five-year old. On the night of the pageant the announcing angel rushed out on the stage, looked at the crowd and forgot his lines, but he remembered the spirit of the occasion, and he said, "Don't be scared! I've got good news for everybody!"
The child muffed his lines, but he did not miss the meaning of the coming of Christ. When we strip away the theological words with which we characteristically describe the Incarnation, the unadorned meaning is simple: Do not be afraid?It is good news. It is for everybody. It is for all time.
That's what I want to talk about today on this 2nd Sunday in Advent.
Jesus was born into a world riddled with fear. So much of the lives of people was controlled by factors over which they had no control. Anything not explained rationally, which was almost everything, was thought to be caused by demons and evil spirits. Disease and weather were controlled by unseen evil spirits over which they had no control. Israel was occupied by the Roman army. The destiny of the country was in the hands of people who did not have their best interests at heart. Every change seemed to worsen their situation, which was already bad. Most news was bad news. Fear so consumed first-century people of Israel that when they did not know how to feel they were instinctively afraid.
Knowing the oppressed and oppressive situation of the world into which Jesus was born, it is easy to see why the messenger of his coming opened the announcement by saying, "Do not be afraid." When you read the New Testament account of the ministry of Jesus, you will be amazed at the number of times Jesus said to individuals and to groups, "Don't be afraid." Jesus saw the prevalence of fear in the lives of people and he knew its debilitating effect. He could not teach people the way of faith and love nor leave in their hands the future of his kingdom if fear was a dominant force in their lives. He never used fear as a tool to teach or reinforce what he taught. Good news at last! The Messiah has come. You need not be afraid.
Each generation seems to have its own set of fears. The face of fear changes but its erosive effect is always the same. Despite all we have come to know, we seem to have as many fears as our less sophisticated forbearers. The external demons of which they were afraid have become internalized in our time. The demons of old have moved from the deep, dark woods into the deep, dark places in our hearts and minds. Knowing more has not saved us from fear. It has merely changed the face of fear.
Legend has it that there was an elderly farm couple down in South Alabama who had an heirloom grandfather clock that struck every hour on the hour. It had been in the family for generations. One night something went wrong with the striking mechanism. At midnight it did not stop with twelve strokes. It struck thirteen times and continued to strike. The old farmer who had heard that clock strike every hour on the hour all of his life bolted upright in bed, shook his wife awake and says, "Get up, Sally!" She sat up in bed and asked, "What in the world is wrong?" "I don't know," he said, "but it's later than it has ever been."
When we read the daily newspaper or listen to the evening news, most of us tend to get some sense of what the old man felt?it's later than it has ever been. When we are told in such graphic terms what's going on in the world each day, it makes us wistfully envious of our ancestors who at the end of the day knew at best only the news of what had happened in their own village. State, national, and world news is almost more than we can bear without developing significant fears. There are unseen forces afoot with which we feel we must reckon, and we have no power to control what's controlling us. It is frightening.
We also need to hear the reassuring words of the angel: "Don't be afraid. There's good news for everybody. The Messiah has come."
The good news that came with the babe of Bethlehem is that we are all included in the saving love of God. Several months ago, our Associate Pastor, Pam Barnhardt, did the children's sermon for an unusually large crowd of children at the 11 o'clock service. Children were packed into every corner of the chancel area. She ended the brief homily by saying, "And God loves you and you and you," pointing as she spoke in three different directions. She paused to let this profound message sink in. During the silence, a child down at the far end of the chancel behind the baptismal font toward which she had not pointed, said in a wee, small voice, "What about me?" This child represents a category of people that is larger than most of us know?those who feel left out, the poor, the oppressed, and the unnoticed?those who live below the radar screen of normal attention, who wonder if they are too small or too bad or too insignificant to be included.
Good news! Jesus came to tell us that we are all included in the graceful love of God. No one is left out.
The good news of the unconditional love of God is almost too good to be true. We simply have a difficult time, even in the church, turning loose all our conditions we are prone to put on love. We have an attachment to the idea of rules and conditions which keeps taking us back to a circumscribed understanding of God which predates Jesus. We want it to be true, but we find it hard to believe, even for ourselves much less all of those other people. Many feel that unconditional love would threaten the social and religious fabric, that it would erode the moral foundation of society. How strange. We find it easy enough to affirm the unconditional love of God in Christ in liturgy and creed, but when it comes to a practical application of the idea of God's grace, we develop significant hesitations.
Several years ago when Dr. Fred Craddock was Professor of Preaching at Candler School of Theology at Emory University, he was called at the last minute to teach an adult Sunday School class. Reluctant to accept such responsibility with no preparation, the caller assured Dr. Craddock that it was a simple lesson, the parable of the Prodigal Son. Being thus assured, he accepted. As a teaching device, Dr. Craddock read the parable exactly as it was given in the King James Version of the Bible, down to the place where the prodigal son came back home and the father went out to meet him. Here Dr. Craddock continued to speak as if he were reading from the Bible, which obviously he was not. And he said, "And the father said to his son, 'How dare you show up here after all the shame you've brought on this family! You've made your bed. Now lie in it. Don't come back here again until you've gotten a haircut and a decent job.'" Dr. Craddock stopped and there was a long silence in the classroom. Finally, someone sitting on the back row of the class said, "Well, that's what he should have said." Does that sound like anybody you know?
We do have a difficult time accepting the application of unconditional love to life in the real world. The idea of law and works fits our outlook so much better, but the Gospel is graceful. It always has been, no matter how hung up we may be on law and works. The Gospel of unconditional love is almost too good to be true even for ourselves much less all those other less deserving people out there.
The good news is that God's unconditional love is so large that it includes everybody. It is not only greater than we know; it is greater than we can know. No matter how articulate we may be, we never have enough words to give a complete description of God's love. There's a verse we sometimes set to music that suggests the extent of God's love. If it sounds too extravagant, the extravagance is only indicative of the inexplicability of God's love. Listen.
Could we with ink the ocean fill, Were the whole world a parchment made, Were every single stick a quill, And everyone a scribe by trade: To write the love of God alone Would drain the ocean dry: Nor could the scroll contain the whole Though stretched from sky to sky.
God's love encompasses everyone and everything. That's good news.
It is good news to know that God is with us. When John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist Church, was dying, his final words were, "The best of all is, God is with us." This is a comforting thought, but we find it difficult to believe that the great God Almighty, the great God of the universe is with us in our pain and problems in life. Good news. God is not far away. God is with us even when we do not know at the moment that he's there.
In 1972 Father Henri Nouwen wrote a little book entitled The Wounded Healer in which he told the legend of the wounded healer from the Talmud, which suggests a profound truth regarding the coming of the Messiah. This is the legend:
A Rabbi came upon Elijah the prophet standing at the entrance of a cave. He asks Elijah, "When will the Messiah come?" Elijah replied, "Go and ask him yourself."
"Where is he?"
"Sitting at the gates of the city."
"How shall I know him?"
"He is sitting among the poor covered with wounds. The others unbind all their wounds at the same time and then bind them up again. But the Messiah unbinds one at a time and binds it up again saying to himself, 'Perhaps I shall be needed, and, if so, I must always be ready so as not to delay for a moment.'"
The legend reminds us that the Messiah is with us in our woundedness for he also has been wounded. But he manages his woundedness in such way as to be readily available to any who need him. It's good news to know that the Messiah understands our condition for he also has been wounded.
The purpose of Advent in the development of our spiritual lives is to discover and recognize and serve Jesus the Christ. And where shall we find him? He is all around us, in all of those places and persons we least expect him to be. He is with the poor and the oppressed, those who are hungry and cold, and any who are at some extremity of life. Jesus once said that when we do something for one of the least of these his little ones, we have done it for him. It is not difficult to find the Messiah, but it may be difficult to recognize him.
Many years ago Edwin Markham wrote one of those poems that tells a story. It is entitled, "How the Great Guest Came." The setting is a European village where a cobbler of simple faith so inspired the people where he lived by the manner in which he lived that when he died, they built a cathedral where his cobbler shop had been. This is the story:
Before the cathedral in grandeur rose In Ingelburg where the Danube goes; Before its forest of silver spires Went airily up in the clouds and the fires; Before the oak had ready a beam, While yet the arch was stone and dream? There where the alter was later laid, Conrad, the cobbler plied his trade.
It happened one day at the year's white end-- Two neighbors called on their old-time friend; And they found his shop so meager and mean, Made gay with a hundred boughs of green. Conrad was stitching with face ashine, But he suddenly stopped as he twitched a twine; Good news, old friends! At dawn today, While the cocks were scaring the night away, The Lord appeared in a dream to me, And said, "I'm coming your guest to be." So I've been busy with feet astir, Strewing the floor with branches of fir. The wall is washed and the shelf is shined, And over the rafter the holly is twined. He comes today, and the table is spread With milk and honey and wheat and bread.
His friends went home; and his face grew still As he watched for the shadow to cross his sill. He lived all the moments o'er and o'er, When the Lord should enter his lowly door? The knock, the call, the latch pulled up, The lighted face, the offered cup. He would wash his feet where the spikes had been, He would kiss his hands where the nails went in, And then at last would sit with Him And break bread as the day grew dim.
While the cobbler mused there passed his pane A beggar drenched in the driving rain. He called him in from the stony street And gave him shoes for his bruised feet. The beggar went and there came a crone, Her face with wrinkles of sorrow sown. A bundle of fagots bowed her back, And she was spent with a wrench and rack. He gave her his loaf and steadied her load And she took her way on the weary road. Then to his door came a little child, Lost and afraid in the world so wild. In the big, dark world, catching it up, He gave it the milk in the waiting cup, And led it home to its mother's arms, Out of the reach of the world's alarms.
The day went down in the crimson west And with it the hope of the blessed Guest. Conrad sighed as the world turned gray; "Why is it, Lord, that your feet delay? Did you forget that this was the day?" Then soft in the silence a voice he heard, "Lift up your heart, Conrad, I have kept my word. Three times I came to your friendly door; Three times was my shadow on your floor; I was the beggar with bruised feet; I was the woman you gave to eat; I was the child on the homeless street."
Christmas is coming! Christ is coming! Fear not, there is good news for everybody! The Lord is with us! Celebrate!
Let us pray.
Almighty God, whose mercy exceeds our fondest dreams, we are thankful that your care for us is not dependent upon our understanding of you, and that your acceptance of us is not dependent upon the purity of our lives or the correctness of our conduct. How grateful we are that once upon a time you slipped down the back stairs of Heaven with a babe in your arms who became the Good News for everybody for all time. How grateful we are that the babe of Bethlehem keeps on coming to us in such strange ways at such strange times through such strange people. May the meaning of this season shine through the gloom in our lives to save us from all the dead-end streets in which we keep getting lost. Amen.