Sunday, February 5, 2012

Leaving Bethlehem

Leaving Bethlehem
A sermon delivered by Rev. Peter T. Atkinson
January 1, 2012
at Gordonsville Presbyterian Church, Gordonsville, Virginia
Matthew 2: 1-15

It is amazing how quickly Christmas is over. On Monday I was driving over to the Blue Ridge School to give Tulane a run, and dispose of our Christmas garbage, and the radio station 95.1, which had been playing Christmas songs since a couple weeks before Thanksgiving had already gone back to their regular music. The energy of the beautiful Christmas Eve and Christmas weekend has been replaced by the vacuum of the Sunday after. And the New Year, and it doesn't feel like New Years day for me really yet either because all of the college football games are tomorrow, but before we’ll know it we’ll be back at work, in this new year, writing 2012 on everything, not thinking about it, but caught in the same old grind. We’ll pack up the decorations, and take the lights and ornaments off the dying Christmas tree, vacuuming up the dried and withered fallen needles and the seemingly endless strands of tinsel that have strewn to every corner of the house. We’ll put away the special dishes, the special clothes; all my great Christmas ties, the movies, the Griswolds and Ralphie, the music, Nat King Cole and Harry Connick, back in the box putting them away, with a sigh, that seems to ask, “why can’t it last forever.
The music, the parties, the joy.
The family, the presents, the peace.
The Advent, The church, The hope.
The cheer, the traditions, the love.
It would be great, but it wouldn’t be real. It would be fun, but it wouldn’t be true. It would be human, but it wouldn’t be God. In short it may be the holidays, but it wouldn’t really be Christmas. It wouldn’t be Christmas because Christmas represents the birth of God as a human. The God that cannot be confined to a manger, cannot be nailed to a cross, cannot be stopped by death, the God that is eternal, timeless, limitless, the great ever present I am. The truth is that the greatest part of Christmas, the real presence of God in our lives does not end on December 26th, or December 31st, it doesn’t end after twelve days, either. Christmas marks the real eternal presence of God in our lives.
My concern is not that Christmas ends too quickly, but that, for many of us, it never really starts.
For the purpose of conversation, I’m going to over simplify the phenomenon, by placing people into two distinct groups, knowing that I am ignoring the many diverse and certainly specific and individual reasons that people miss Christmas. I’ll call the first “The secular missing of Christmas,” and the second the “The traditional missing of Christmas.” We’ll deal with these two terms for lack of better descriptors.
First off, the secular missing. This type refers to the people who celebrate the day, the traditions, the gift giving, the music, the friendships, the time off, et cetera, but do not think of Christmas as a religious holiday. As church going Christians we try to believe that these people do not exist, but they certainly do. We try to remind people on signs that “Christ” is the reason for the season,” but historically speaking the December celebration of Christmas evolved from a pagan holiday, completely devoid of Christianity. The winter solstice was celebrated as a great pagan feast in many ancient cultures, including Babylon and Rome. It was in and around 350 AD that Pope Julius I officially designated December 25th as the day to celebrate the birth of Christ, in a hope to make it easier for pagans to convert, thinking that they would be much more open to conversion if they could keep their traditional celebratory feasts. I am constantly reminded of this fact by one of my atheist students, and honestly he is right.
Teaching at a boarding school is living in the heart of the secular Christmas celebration. But since it is a private school I get to talk about faith some in class. It is at the same time, amazing, awesome, and frightening the things that they say, think, and believe about Christianity, the Bible, the Church, and God. It is eye opening. Many of today’s church leaders could learn much about what it means to reach the so called “unchurched,” which by the way is a word that would certainly reinforce these kids’ negative ideas about faith.
It is a fallacy that many hold that teenagers are not interested in faith. In fact they have an unquenchable thirst to believe in something, anything, and the shame is that many of them are quite lost and searching. They ask incredible questions and regrettably, others are answering their questions for them. Many times we tell them what to believe, fearing their questions. In hopes to control their thoughts we, the church, the school, the world in an effort to stop the ambush of other answers insert our own, hoping that we can speak loud enough to drown out the other competing world voices. But the questions themselves are so powerful, showing the honest depth of their thought. One student, who is a self described atheist, who sings in the choir at Blue Ridge, asked a great one, that many of us would never have thought of. We were singing, “Do You Hear what I Hear?” and he got to the line that goes, “A child, a child, shivers in the cold, let us bring him silver and gold.” He said, “Why bring the child silver and gold, if he’s cold, somebody get that kid a blanket!” Another asked, “Who are Harold’s angels? I thought Harold was the king who didn’t like Jesus. Why would he send angels to the shepherds if he was planning on getting the wise men to kill the baby?” Obviously that is an extreme example, and it may be because that student is canadian, but the truth is that most of them do not know the difference between what The Bible contains and the commonly misread Paradise Lost. They don’t know the difference between Revelation and Dante’s “Inferno.” Their first concept about God is heaven and hell. The only history of the church that they know is the crusades, witch trials and the inquisition, instead of the end of slavery, the basis for created equal, and inalienable rights, and non violent civil protest. Their questions show eye opening human concern for others, but also glaring ignorance of what Christianity has to offer, which is all a reflection of our culture, wanting to save the world, but ignorant of how to do it. Faith solutions replaced by secular solutions. God solutions replaced by human solutions. Freedom replaced with control, God replaced by Herod. Are they right about what the church has to offer today?
Perhaps, we are missing out on teaching a new generation about what Christmas, Christianity, and the church are, by allowing others to teach them, while we focus instead on whether we say “Merry Christmas or Happy Holidays” at the local Wal Mart. Too long have we let others define us.
But that gets me to the others for whom Christmas never comes, which I called earlier the “Traditional” missers. So many of us get focused on trying to make Christmas perfect ourselves, that we miss the importance of God’s action at Christmas. You know the stress over having enough time to make the cookies, enough time get all the shopping done, getting the tree lights to work, which bulb is broken?, why are these things blinking all of a sudden?, What are the kids going to wear to church this year? How are we going to get the family together? Which family? When? How? Then there is the church service, how are we going to get the bulletins printed? When are we going to sing O Holy Night? Are these kids going to be ready to sing? Are their halos straight? How could you leave the camera at home. Are we going to have enough light to see? When will I ever get to sleep, I have so many presents to wrap!?!
The truth is Christmas as a holiday needs to come to an end each year. Because as great, as fun, as special as it is, there is no way we could sustain it. But in case you feel like you are letting God down by losing the Christmas spirit so quickly, going back to the grind of your regular daily existence, leaving behind the shepherds, the angels, the manger, Mary and Joseph and the baby, leaving all of them in Bethlehem, don’t worry it’s the way it is supposed to be. All had to leave Bethlehem, the shepherds, the wise men, the angels, and so do we. Because Herod is lurking.
When reading the gospel lesson this morning I left out the last 3 verses, choosing to wait on them until this moment. . . Here they are. . .
Matthew 2:13-15. “Now when they had departed, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, “Rise, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there till I tell you; for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.” And he rose and took the child and his mother by night, and departed to Egypt, and remained there until the death of Herod.”
It is interesting how Herod acts in the story. He is very much the controlling world. Sometimes using the characters, like he tried to use the wisemen, sometimes actively attacking, murdering, but always a step behind. God is in control in His world, though we often believe the illusion that He is not.
The real Christmas must take place with God, ahead of the world, somewhere out in front. Elusive, not packaged, not boxed in, not tied up in a bow, not stuck in Bethlehem, not nailed to a cross. Christmas must exist beyond our world, for if we let our world take it over we, the Herod in all of us, The Herod, who desires control and the Herod, who only wants definite simple answers, The Herod of us, will destroy it by confining Christmas within our finite understanding, our symbols and traditions. Christmas is more than Bethlehem, more than a manger, more than a virgin birth, more than a greeting card, it is God with us, eternally with us, in the present, on December 25th, December 27th and every other day, every minute, every second, all day long.
I have shared Ann Weem’s poetry with you all, during this Advent and Christmas season, from time to time, and the title of  our advent study, "Kneeling in Bethlehem" is the title of one of her poetry collections. I wanted to share this one because of its simple, direct, poignancy, entitled “The Cross in the Manger.”
If there is no cross in the manger,
    there is no Christmas.
If the Babe doesn’t become the Adult,
   there is no Bethlehem star.
If there is no commitment in us,
   there is no Wise Men searching.
If we offer no cup of cold water,
   there is no gold, no frankincense, no myrrh.
If there is no praising God’s name,
   there are no angels singing.
If there is no spirit of alleluia,
   there are no shepherds watching.
If there is no standing up, no speaking out, no risk,
   there is no Herod, no flight into Egypt.
If there is no room in our inn,
   then “Merry Christmas” mocks the Christ Child,
   and the Holy family is just a holiday card,
   and God will loathe our fears and festivals.

For if there is no reconciliation,
   we cannot call Christ “Prince of Peace.”
If there is no goodwill toward others,
   it can all be packed away in boxes for another year.
If there is no forgiveness in us,
   there is no cause for celebration.
If we cannot go now even unto Golgotha,
   there is no Christmas in us.
If Christmas is not now,
   if Christ is not born into the everyday present,
   then what is all the noise about?[1]


[1] Weems, Anne. Kneeling in Bethlehem. "Cross in the Manger." Westminster Knox Press, 1993, p. 77.