If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away---Henry David Thoreau

Sunday, December 25, 2011

An Ambiguous Sign: Luke 2:1-20

*This sermon was preached on Christmas Sunday morning at Zion Mennonite Church, Hubbard, Oregon. It included these pictures projected on a screen throughout the sermon. I could hardly finish the sermon as I looked out and saw a number of wet eyes among the congregation!

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in your sight O Lord, Our Rock and Redeemer.

The scene of the nativity was a favorite among Renaissance artists. Looking at their paintings you can see how each artist tried to bring together both the human and the divine elements in the story of Christ's birth. In Hugo van der Goes' painting Adoration of the Shepherds you can see a creative interplay of the elements of heaven and earth. The artist's devotion to the natural world is seen in the spacious landscape surrounding his manger scene and the wealth of precise realistic detail. In his painting the shepherds kneel before the Christ child dressed in simple peasant robes as brown as moist dirt. These field hands gaze in breathless wonder and excitement at the newborn baby, who lies naked and almost blends into the earthen tones.

In contrast to the down-to-earth shepherds are the unearthly angels, who look on in ritual solemnity. Some kneel around the Christ child dressed as priests at high mass. A few angels fly above the manger scene in ecclesiastical robes like flies buzzing around a maternity ward window. For symbolic reasons van der Goes' angels were painted on a much smaller scale. They are dwarfed next to the shepherds, appearing to be out-of-place, foreigners in a strange land. In other paintings artists have made the heavenly dimension dominate the manger scene, with striking colors, ornate gilding, or golden halos that encircle the heads of the Madonna and child. Although van der Goes brushes in the heavenly elements, the painting's natural and human elements appear to stand out.

Isn't van der Goes' rendition of the nativity saying something symbolically that we all can affirm? Though the Sacred was there at the manger scene, it was the human elements of Christ's birth that would have stood out most clearly. Let me ask you this. If you were an artist present at that manger scene long ago and were commissioned to paint a family portrait, what do you think you would have seen; a mother and child with matching cymbals for hats? Angels in ecclesiastical robes? If you had showed up at that stall with a digital camcorder and filmed the whole thing, what do you think you would have seen when you watched the film played back over a bowl of popcorn in your living room; angels buzzing around as common as house flies? Or were the angels only seen with the eyes of faith?

As Christians, we believe firmly that heaven came down and touched the earth on that first Christmas. But what if the halos were erased from the picture and the angels were painted out, how then would we recognize that God had come among us? If no angels with wings come to us to announce the good news, then where will we hear it? What kind of signs will we look for that the Savior is among us?

Believe it or not, the good news of Christ's coming was first announced to shepherds by angels from heaven. The shepherds sat on the hillside washing their socks by night, I mean, watching their flocks by night. There was nothing particularly unusual about that evening. Nothing filled the air, except the smell of sheep. And those shepherds were not particularly subject to heavenly visions. They lived off the land. Rough-and-tumble fellows. Calloused hands. Scruffy beards. No nonsense. Real down-to-earth, hardworking kind of guys. Their business was watching sheep, not gazing off starry-eyed into the heavens.

Then all of a sudden an angel of the Lord stood before them. I can imagine their eyes bugging out an inch or two and their jaws hitting the ground with a thump. The glory of the Lord shone around them like a beam from a UFO. Those simple shepherds were scared right out of their wits. They did a double-take and rubbed their eyes awake. What would angels be doing out there among a bunch of sheep? In typical angelic language the angel said. "Do not be afraid." Sure! Don't be afraid. Ha! Like shepherds see angels every day. "See," said the messenger, "I am bringing you good news of great joy for all people." The ears of the poor shepherds perked up at the sound of good news.

"To you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord." And as if one angel were not enough to blow the brains right out of those simple shepherds, the night sky cracked open and was spangled with a flock of glittering angels praising God. Above the sound of flapping wings they sang, "Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace among those whom God favors." Wow! Chiffon angels come to burlap shepherds. The doors of heaven open in a pasture.

But in our modern age we don’t look for good news to come to us wrapped up in such heavenly form. Unlike former ages, we 1ive in a time when the halos have been erased and the angels have been painted out of the picture. Myth, story, and symbol, have all been ruled out as vehicles of truth. The supernatural has been written off as fairy tale or childish imagination. Although many would say we live in a postmodern or post-enlightenment era, I believe we still live under the long, dark shadow of the age of Enlightenment. Ours is an age still dominated by science and rationalism. The Enlightenment taught us that for anything to be true it has to be quantifiable, fit into a formula, or put under a microscope and examined with the human eye. The philosopher Descartes, father of the Enlightenment, expressed the spirit of the modern age when he said: I must avoid believing things which are not entirely certain an indubitable.

The age of the Enlightenment says that there’s nothing, nothing that we cannot doubt? If that’s the case, then why not include rationalism as one of those things that we can doubt. That is what postmodernism has done; doubt rationalism. Does everything that is true have to fit into a logical formula? Does everything have to be literal or it is not true at all? If that were the case, then those of us who see with eyes of faith would have big problems.

Sociologist Peter Berger has examined the alleged demise of the supernatural in modern secularized society in a book fittingly entitled A Rumor of Angels. The opening sentence of the book reads: If commentators on the contemporary situation of religion agree about anything, it is that the supernatural has departed from the modern world." Berger's thesis is that we live in a time when the transcendent has been reduced to a rumor.

We have all been affected by our modern rationalistic age to a great degree. I know that I have. I'm a bit skeptical of claims of the miraculous and supernatural. Granted, this is the kind of world I read about in my Bible. But, when I lift my eyes up from the supernatural world I see in the Bible, I look out on a different kind of world. Speaking as a rational person, I have to say that we, as people of God, do not live in the same kind of world that the Bible portrays. God doesn't speak from burning bushes. The seas don’t part on command. The sun doesn’t stand still. Blinded eyes don’t see with mud for medicine. The dead do not rise up from their graves. And angels do not flit about giving birth announcements to virgins. That's not the kind of world into which I was born.

Today, there may be rumors of those who say they can hear God's voice. But, personally speaking, I seem to have trouble hearing God's voice a great deal of the time. I don't know about you, but when I pray I don't hear a sound. There are no audible voices. I often wait quietly, listening for God to speak, but there is nothing but the hum of silence. I have sat alone with my feet soaking in tears, frustrated, feeling hopeless and depressed, and no angel has shown up and placed a hand on my shoulder. When I asked God to show me the way, no angel has come to me like one did to Jimmy Stewart in It's a Wonderful Life. There has never been a cloud by day or a pillar of fire by night guiding my way. I have never actually heard a Charlton Heston voice booming out: "Leo, my beloved child, go to the elders of Zion and proclaim in their hearing, ‘Behold, I will shepherd your people." Have you ever heard such a voice?

At times I have deeply longed for an experience e of the "supernatural" to happen in my life. I have prayed the pray of Isaiah that opened our Advent readings: O that you would tear open the heavens and come down. But when I raised my head and opened my eyes, all I could see was an open Bible, a broken piece of bread, a wet-faced child, a disheveled young woman wanting some food, and a struggling church. I have squinted my eyes hard looking for signs that God was at work in my life. But most often I have seen very little that might be considered "supernatural," things that could not be explained away scientifically, rationally, or psychologically. So, I tend not to look for those spectacular signs of God's presence.

Even so, I still believe with all my heart that, on occasion, I have seen God's face. I have walked with Christ. I have heard the voice of angels. But most of what I have seen with my eyes and have heard with my ears has been all too human. Maybe I'm just a product of our overly rationalistic age.

It is from within such a rationalistic age that we hear of the voices of angels, who come announcing to simple shepherds that the Christ has come. But, rationally speaking, from the viewpoint of our age it would appear that all angels have flown the coop! And the heavenly signs have been unplugged.

If that were truly the case, then where would we look for signs of Christ's presence among us? Where would we listen for the good news? Where would we experience the Holy? I read in today's Christmas story about a sign that was given to the shepherds by the angels that was to confirm the good news they heard. And when I read what that sign actually was, I was moved to silence…. You might have thought that the stereophonic symphony of glittering angels in the sky would have been the sign that Christ had come among humanity. But that was not the sign. Shhhhh! Lean forward. Listen carefully to the angel's words:

This will be the sign for you… You will find… a child wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger.

What kind of sign is that? That's the sign of good news? That's the sign that Savior of the world has come? That's how God comes to us? In a frail, vulnerable baby wrapped up tight in his humanity? I was expecting something a little more supernatural, something with a little more pizazz. At least a baby with a cymbal for a hat! If I hadn't heard the word of God's heavenly messenger, I wouldn't have recognized anything out of the ordinary at the manger. Would you have? I wouldn't have seen God in that child, being without a halo and all. How about you? What kind of sign is that? A baby in a cattle trough. Maybe we just need to walk a little closer and squint little harder.

Can you see the sign? Look closer. In the darkness of the night the glow of an oil lamp creates a circle of golden light. A sweaty mother lies on the floor looking up at the rafters. She squeezes all the blood out of her husband's hand. The contractions are coming every two minutes now. They are getting harder and harder to bear. The only sounds you can hear are rapid breathing and the howl of a wolf in the distance. She inhales deep the smell of hay and cattle. Then it becomes so quiet that you can hear the feet of a mouse running across the floor.

The moment of silence is broken by a low groan. Then, onto the floor plops something that at first looks like raw hamburger. It's a baby! The mother goes limp, exhausted. Then there's a loud "Waaaaaaaaa!" The beaming father cuts the cord and ties it with a piece of old thread. Then he wraps the baby tightly with strips of cloth and lays him beside his mother.

No golden halos. No fluttering angels. No opening skies. But, there's the sign. And it is all too human. The baby’s earthen hue almost makes him blends into the hay. There's nothing very heavenly about this scene. Maybe if you just kneel and look deeply into the moist eyes of the child, you will see something. Maybe not. But, there's the sign. There's the sign of salvation, the sign of good news, the sign that the Messiah has come. A baby wrapped up tight in his humanity.

If that's the sign the shepherds were given of Christ's presence among them, then where in the world do we look for signs of Christ's presence among us? If the halos are erased and the angels are painted out, where will we find the Sacred?

This is the Gospel truth. We will find that the Christ is among us, like the shepherds, through an ambiguous sign. The truth for us is that we will find the Sacred wrapped tightly in the swaddling clothes of the human. As a confirmation of the good news that the Savior was among them, that the Lord had come, that God was in their midst, the angels gave the shepherds a sign; a baby wrapped in swaddling clothes lying in a manger. That was their sign; a rather ambiguous sign.
By "ambiguous" I mean that the sign could be open to several interpretations. The shepherds could have looked down at that human baby and said, "This is the Christ!" Or they could have looked down at that baby and said, "This is the Christ?" It's the same way with answered prayer. You can see it as merely a human coincidence or as the hand of God. The signs of God's presence among us always have that kind of ambiguity. They are capable of being interpreted several ways. That's because the Holy comes to us wrapped up in the human.

So, like the shepherds, we have to look for the Sacred wrapped tightly in the swaddling clothes of the human. Not wrapped like a Christmas package that you tear open to find the gift inside. As if we could tear away the humanity of that child in the manger, peel back his earthiness and find the real essence of Christ inside. No. God is there, all wrapped up tight in the human life of that child. The Sacred is wrapped up in the utterly human lives that we all live. And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us and we beheld his glory.

Trying to find Christ without the humanity of Jesus, or trying to find the Sacred without the human is like trying to find an onion by peeling away the layers of its skin. If you try to peel away the skin in order to find the onion, all you will have when you’re done will be a handful of onion skins. For the onion is in the skin. The Christ is in the baby. The Sacred is in the human. So, remember. The signs of the Sacred are always a bit ambiguous.

And though we may be Christians with a biblical memory and eyes filled with visions of heavenly things, we are still children of a modern, rational age. And at times we may want to peel away at the skin of the human and behold the Holy. We may wish we could pull back the curtain, tear open the heavens, and see God's glory directly. But if we expect to find God somewhere else except in the humanity of Jesus or expect to find the Sacred outside of our ordinary, frail, vulnerable human lives, then we may wind up with only a handful of onion peelings with tears in our eyes.

But, when we look upon life with the eyes and ears of faith we can see and hear the signs of God's presence among us. With eyes of faith we can see in the sign of a child in the manger the Savior, who is Christ the Lord. With ears of faith we can hear in the all-too-human word of Scripture the voice of God. With eyes of faith we can see the Sacred in the skin of all that is human. Angels come to us, unaware, in the guise of friends who tell us good news or as strangers at our doorstep. And believe it or not, if we squint hard enough, we can see Christ in the onion skin of this church.

Such ambiguous signs. They only become signs of God's presence when we look at them with the eyes of faith. Hidden in the very human stuff of our lives are signs that point us to the glory of God.

There you are on this Christmas morning. All wrapped up tight in your humanity. Hoping to find some sign of God's presence as you come to worship this special day. And all that you can see is an open Bible. Some burning candles. Garland and ribbon. Wooden words on a near wall, not magi from afar, proclaiming “Jesus is Lord.” All-too-familiar faces in church. All you can hear are human voices singing some old Christmas carols and a very human sermon. There are no halos. No angels. No heavenly voices. Just a bunch of ambiguous signs. And you came looking for the living and glorious Christ.

With eyes of faith look again at all the signs. They may look ambiguous. But, they point to Christ. All the signs point to Christ who has been with you all along. In worship. On the job. At play. In your home. Sitting alone in prayer. In joy and in sorrow. In sickness and in health. In life and in death. Christ has been there. Can you see that even now, right here, Christ is with us?

Can you see him? Can you hear him? Come closer. Lean forward. Kneel quietly before the tiny bundle that lies in the hay. Shhhhh. Can you hear him breathing? His warm breath fogs the morning air. His cocoa colored hands are so small and weak. His body is so vulnerable to that cold, cruel world out there. Gaze with wonder upon that bundle of life. What do you see? A baby lying in a manger all wrapped up tight in his humanity. No. More than that. This is the Savior, who is Christ the Lord. And it could have been just a stirring in someone’s heart, but didn't you hear some angels singing, "Glory be to God in the highest!?"

There is more light and truth yet to break forth from God's Holy Word.

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