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 23, 2012

The Hint Half-Guessed: Luke 2:1-20

*This sermon was preached at Zion Mennonite Church, Hubbard, OR on the fourth Sunday of Advent, December 23, 2012 and my last sermon at Zion.
In the womb of a mother I was molded into flesh. And my first sound was a cry like that of all. I was nursed in swaddling clothes. For there is for all humanity, even a king, one entrance into life (I).

The quote I just read sounds like a description from a familiar story. Immediately a scene pops into our heads. If I were to ask you----Who is this baby?----you could easily guess the person who is being described, right? The hints are all there. Mother. Birth. Swaddling clothes. King. A few words and our imaginations see the bright star overhead, smell the cattle, and feel the chill in the air. But, we had better be careful about jumping to such conclusions. Sometimes, we hear what we expect to hear.

It's like the Christmas story. We have heard the story repeated over and over so many times that we have trouble really hearing it. Hearing the story of the birth of the Christ child can be like having the answer to a riddle before it is told or knowing the punch line of a joke. And if you heard the plot of a mystery novel told over and over again, it would tend to lose its mystery. We are all too familiar with the Christmas story---census, Bethlehem, inn, manger, shepherds, star, magi, angels, baby, swaddling clothes. We know where the story is headed and that it is really a king who lies in the hay. And we come to the same conclusions each time we hear the story. Just like we probably concluded that the opening quotation about a king in swaddling clothes was describing the baby Jesus, when in fact the words are from a book known as The Wisdom of Solomon written about 30 BCE and is speaking of king Solomon. Who would have guessed?

In order to hear the Christmas story afresh, our preconceived notions need to be tossed out the window, if only for a moment; even if our conclusions are correct. We must approach the story as if with virgin ears. Only with a new hearing will the baby begin to stir once again from the inked pages of the Book.

Walk with me as we peek into the manger. Listen to the crunch of hay beneath your feet as you come to the manger, a room in the bottom of a home where the animals were kept. Outside the artist moon outlines the hills and cypress trees with a silver pen. Your hand touches the rough wood beams as you enter the manger room. There is a rustling of animals, skin to skin, as they notice you have intruded into their quiet sanctuary. The air inside is warm with animal breath. It smells of hay and cattle. You can hear the breathing of a sheep, whose bell clinks as she turns to look at you. You take another slow step closer.
The shades of light are brushed with the golden glow from an oil lamp, like in a Rembrandt painting. The silhouette of a person lies in the hay near the flickering light. It is a young girl. She couldn't be more than fourteen years old. Her lips are dry and stick together. Her breathing comes in short gasps. She looks exhausted. In her arms is a small bundle wrapped in strips of cloth. Next to her is a man with a peppered beard bending over the mother and child and speaking in a hushed tone. He turns to you and smiles proudly. The mother pulls back the strips of cloth to reveal to you the face of. ... a baby, just a baby, as earthy as the ground beneath your feet.

Who among us, looking into the fresh face of that baby, would have guessed that a king had been born? Who would have guessed that his squalling cry would one day proclaim words of hope to the hopeless? Could anyone ever have looked upon those tiny hands and guessed that they would touch the sick and make them whole? Given the hints, who would have guessed that this child born in the rags of poverty would someday be proclaimed the King of Kings and the Lord of Lords, a king who overturns all kingdoms?

Caesar Augustus never would have guessed that the Savior of the world was born. For he was the one proclaimed "Savior of the whole human race." He was the ruler to be honored as a god. Why would Caesar be looking for good news in a Jewish baby, seeing that it was decreed of Augustus in 9 BCE that "the birthday of the god ( Augustus) has been for the whole world the beginning of the good news." Emperor Augustus would never have guessed that this child in the manger was to become the Prince of Peace, when it was the Caesars who had brought the Pax Romana, the peace of Rome, a peace imposed by the might of an empire? It would be ludicrous to think: that a savior, a king who brings good news and peace, would be born under the thumb of Rome.

Caesar was too busy taxing his subjects to death, squeezing tribute from them like blood from a turnip. Tribute must be paid to the king. But, the real tribute will be rendered to another king by strange travelers from the East. Caesar never could have guessed that a poor Jewish child born under his oppressive reign would someday be a ruler mightier than all the Caesars.

How strange are the words spoken of this child: "He came unto his own, but his own received him not." Surely those who longed for the Coming One would have guessed that their hope lay in the hay. They had hints of the Messiah's coming inscribed in their papyrus scrolls. Their eyes squinted for signs of Christ's coming. This blessed hope kept them going as their bodies bent beneath the yoke of Roman oppression. But, no sage in his musings could have contemplated that such Wisdom would spring from a mother's womb. No prophet could have envisioned the reign of peace that was nestled in this child's bosom. No scribe could have deciphered that this baby would become a human scroll upon which God would write the Living Word. No Pharisee could have read in the eyes of this frail one and seen that he would speak to the deadness of the law and cause it to have new life. No zealot could have known that revolutionary words would come forth like swords from the tiny lips of the babe. No Essene, tucked away in their antiseptic, desert community, could have believed that this child would turn dining with sinners into an art. Who would have guessed from the hints given?

The most obvious hints came to some peasant shepherds and not to the power brokers of the day. They got the "inside line" on the babe. The hint was a shout from heaven. An angel brought the hint with these words:

I bring you good news of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, which is the Messiah, the Lord (Luke 2:10-11).

And if that wasn't enough to give it away, a whole platoon of angels came to announce, not the Pax Romana of Caesar, but to proclaim the peace this child would bring as they sang:

Glory to God in the highest. Peace on earth to those whom God favors (Luke 2: 14)

This blatant blast from heaven's horn sounds like a hint that no one could miss. But, let's remember that faith shouts what God has whispered. Remember the voice at Jesus' baptism? Some thought it was thunder. The light that struck Paul on the road to Damascus and the voice from heaven went unheard and unseen by those accompanying him. Angels are messengers who shout what God has whispered. They come to us like excited children telling us the end of the story. They trumpet what is only a hint.

Be honest. Who would have guessed that this was the Christ lying in the hay in a common home under an empty sky with a sweaty young girl and a newborn in a  feeding trough ? Where will the shepherds find this ruler of rulers? How will they recognize the promised Messiah? We are privy to the hint, the sign that is given to the shepherds. And the hint is as bare as the baby when he was first born.

You shall find a baby wrapped in swaddling clothes lying in manger (Luke 2: 12).

You who know the story have arrived at the manger even before the shepherds. There you are standing in the manger room squinting at the newborn, looking as if with a third eye. You look for something that might mark this baby as different from any other ordinary infant; maybe a golden halo around his head, like in a Renaissance painting. The sky outside with pinholes for light does not tip you off, even though one star seems a bit brighter than the others. This king has no royal bassinet, no kingly robe, no jeweled crown. You listen for the flutter of angels, but there is no sound of flapping in the air. Only the buzzing of flies around fresh cow dung. No flash from the heavens. No cracking apart of the sky.

All that you have to go on is the sign, a heavenly hint; a baby wrapped in strips of cloth lying in a feeding trough. With only those hints, could you have guessed that the glory of God was resident in that child? With only a whisper of God and a plain ol’ baby wrapped up tight in his humanity?

Finding God hidden within the human hints is the task of the seeker of the Sacred. Here is a most profound truth: there is nowhere else on earth that we will find God, except in what is utterly human. The pulse of God beats beneath the skin of human life. God’s voice speaks through human voices or earthy silence. God shows up on the pages of a Book with the marks of human hands. The timeless has intersected with time. Heaven is clothed with earth. It is there that we must peek for the hints and guesses of the Sacred. The divine is in the human. As it was in the baby in the manger.

Poet T.S. Eliot has movingly spoken of this truth in lines from his poem Four Quartets:

To apprehend the point of the intersection of the timeless with time something given and taken, in a lifetime death in love,

ardor and selflessness and self- surrender

a shaft of sunlight

the wild thyme unseen or the winter lightning
or the waterfall or music heard so deeply
These are only hints and guesses

hints followed by guesses; and the rest is

prayer, observance, discipline, thought and action
The hint half-guessed, the gift half-understood

in Incarnation

Here the impossible union (2)

The Word became flesh ... and dwelt among us. The theological term for this is Incarnation. Heaven wedded to earth in an impossible union. That is the mysterious plot of the incarnation. God in Christ. Christ in the world. The Holy in the mundane. The extraordinary in the ordinary. The Word become flesh. And we have been guessing about God ever since. For the hard lines between the sacred and the secular have been forever blurred. The Mysterious God of the eternity has come to us in this vulnerable Jewish baby within time. The divine has enfolded the human in an eternal embrace. That is why the hints of God's presence among us are stuffed in life, like fortunes in cookies, like leaven in bread, like God in human life; as the hints of God are all wrapped up tight in that child in the manger. Hints and guesses.

The hints of Mystery are all around us wrapped up tight in the swaddling cloths of the human. Even while the Caesars of this world oppress and make war, whispers of God's peace can still be heard by messengers with clipped wings. Even with the TV flooding our living rooms with the sewage of gossip, scandals, and violence, the good news of hope and forgiveness still trickles from human lips. Even though the news of tragedy in Newtown stabs our hearts and we wonder where in the world is God, we catch a glimpse of the sacred in the healers and helpers, the angels of assistance. The hints are there in the pulpits and in the streets, the stained glass and the graffiti on the wall, in the Bible and the newspapers. God is there in the old man rocking alone in the rest home, the laughing child, the homeless man in the park, the black teen mom nursing her baby. God is hope in the presence of hopelessness, light in the pit of night, the glue that holds us together when all seems to have fallen apart. God is there hidden beneath the skin of it all. As hints and guesses. Just as God was hidden beneath the skin of that baby born in the manger. A vulnerable God enters our world in the fragile skin of human life.

Jesus is born. The hint half-guessed. The gift half-understood in Incarnation. And life will never be the same. God will never be the same. God has dwelt among us. God still dwells among us….in the laughter and tears, the hope and despair, the triumphs and tragedies. There are hints of God's presence all around us, if we but listen; to those solitary moments when the silence screams; to the whispers of grace in the warmth of human compassion; to the outraged prophets who cry out for justice; to the simple story at Advent of a baby’s birth. The hints are there, human and vulnerable. As human and vulnerable as the baby in the manger. God is in the human. And who of us will dare to guess. No. More than that. Who of us will dare to believe?

(1) The Wisdom of Solomon 7: 1-6

(2) T.S. Eliot, The Complete Poems and Plays, 1909-1950. (New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1955 ), 136.

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