Sunday, December 22, 2013

All Signs Point to Bethlehem: The Angel Choir

All Signs Point to Bethlehem: The Angel Choir
A sermon delivered by Rev. Peter T. Atkinson
December 22, 2013
at Gordonsville Presbyterian Church, Gordonsville, Virginia
Luke 2: 8-15
Genesis 22: 9-18
Let us pray,
Help us to see despite our eyes
Help us to think outside of our minds
Help us to be more than our lives      
For your eyes show the way
            Your mind knows the truth
            Your being is the life.

8 In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. 9 Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. 10 But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: 11 to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. 12 This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.” 13 And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying,
14     “Glory to God in the highest heaven,
and on earth peace among those whom he favors!” 
15 When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.” [1]  

I'd like to start this morning, by taking a look back at our Advent journey. It is hard to believe that Christmas is already upon us. Once you get to the 20's it's really here, even if it is 60 degrees outside. It can catch us by surprise though. It especially jumps out at you,  if you are like me and wait until the last minute to do all your Christmas shopping. I'm planning to face that whirlwind tomorrow morning. DeAnna and I have been joking lately about how we don't really focus on things until it's next. Like we focused on church last week, then a special service at Blue Ridge, then practicing with Kane and the bells, then finishing school, then the concert, then this morning. . . it does seem to be one day at a time, one thing after another, busy busy busy, time of year for so many of us. . . and so for me shopping for Christmas hasn't been next yet, but if I waited really until it was next, it wouldn't get done. . . so tomorrow's the day.
Luckily for me my journey to Bethlehem doesn't always mirror the whirlwind of Christmas. Advent often takes us on a more intentional and focused route. For us we've looked at the prophets. . . reminding ourselves that the key focus of their message is making the claim that God is very much in control of this world. And those prophetic messages trace through the entire gamut of historical situations: good times and bad times, times of peace, times of war, times of plenty and times of lack, times of independence and times of domination, times in that land flowing of milk and honey, and then times of exile, and the one key component of all the messages of all prophets is there recurring again and again. . . God's reign is real, and His will, will be done. So that was the first Sunday of Advent where we lit the Candle of Hope.
We were snowed out the following week, but we had a mid week special prayer service, where a few of us gathered after sharing soup, we sang songs that echoed the very same message. . . We sang:

"Nothing can trouble, nothing can frighten; Those who seek God shall never go wanting.
Nothing can trouble, nothing can frighten; God alone fills us."
"Our darkness is never darkness in your sight: the deepest night is clear as the daylight." 

"Within our darkest night, you kindle the fire that never dies away, never dies away.
Within our darkest night you kindle the fire that never dies away, never dies away."

And on that day we expressed our faith, proclaiming again that prophetic message. That even in the darkness there is light. . . We said:

Lord you have always given bread for the coming day
And though I am poor today I believe 

Lord you have always given strength for the coming day
And though I am weak today I believe
Lord you have always given peace for the coming day
And though of anxious heart today I believe 

Lord you have always kept me safe in trials
And now tried as I am today I believe 

Lord you have always marked the road for the coming day
And though it may be hidden today I believe
Lord you have always lightened this darkness of mine
And though the night is here today I believe 

Lord you have always spoken when time was right
And though you be silent now today I believe 

And on that night of prayer we lit the candle of peace. And then last week we were filled with Joy, lighting that special pink candle, surrounded by the wonderful music of HARP, and I combined two sermons into one, looking at how both the secular world and the natural world lead us towards Bethlehem, lead us towards Christmas. We find in both the secular world and the natural world the echo of the prophetic message, that God is very much in control, even when we don't see it, even when we don't think so, even around and amongst those who don't believe. The world does not have to believe to give God his power. God's power simply is. On Monday night this week, there was a beautiful almost full moon, a gibbon moon, it was breathtaking and gorgeous. We talked about it for a bit at the Advent study, Nancy Roache said, it's hard to see something like that and not believe. Oh man she's so right, and so perfect for that night, just in time to make the point, but it led me to a question. Is it easy to see something like that and see God's power, can we also see it when we see the things of man, when we see what humans do, do we see God's power there, too, working in and through us, the best and the worst of us, our friends and even our enemies. The claim of my advent series has been, yeah we're supposed to. Love points us that way, it does. Love, todays, candle, are we there yet? Let me tell you it's been easy the last two weeks with the joy of the music of the season, Harp, and then the bells today, sharing God's gifts to us with the world. It's there we see it. . . It's beautiful. Maybe especially today, all of the talent joining together, yes we may just be ready to love.
And so we come to today, and we get our final piece, the final piece of the story of who originally travelled to Bethlehem and what compelled them each to go. The hearts and minds of our imagination giving background to what we are looking for from the Prophets, Mary and Joseph driven by the Census, the Wisemen following the star. . . and finally today, the angel choir singing to the shepherds, "Glory to God in the Highest, and Peace and Good Will unto men!" Today we talk about miracles -- history, the secular world, the natural world, and now miracles, angels singing in and to our faces.
If you look up miracle in the dictionary you'll find that it says: "an extraordinary event in the physical world, that surpasses all known human and natural powers, and is ascribed therefore to a super natural cause." I would think that an angel choir manifesting itself in the night sky all those years ago certainly fits that definition. The other thing that it is, that is missing in the definition is that it is immediate, hard to miss, in your face, like a slap, like a wake up call, much different than the census where you plan your journey, of course all except that all important hotel reservation, or following the star where you have a long way to go, to journey and to ponder, charts to study, all of that, these shepherds have the immediacy of Angels. . . there is also a Bible Dictionary definition of miracle and it includes this immediacy, it says: an event brought about by the immediate agency or volition of God. A miracle is the get up and go of the story. You can't miss it, it's happening, now, Go now!
Earlier this year some of us read Leif Enger's Peace Like a River. It is the best book I've ever read about miracles, fiction of course, but I've found that truth finds its way into fiction more deeply than does it into fact. In that book is the following:

Real miracles bother people, like strange sudden pains unknown in medical literature. It's true: They rebut every rule all we good citizens take comfort in. Lazarus obeying orders and climbing up out of the grave--now there's a miracle, and you can bet it upset a lot of folks who were standing around at the time. When a person dies, the earth is generally unwilling to cough him back up. A miracle contradicts the will of earth. My sister, Swede, who often sees the numb, offered this: People fear miracles because they fear being changed--though ignoring them will change you also." 

That's the deal right, could you have ignored it if you were a shepherd? Could you not go? Was there one shepherd, standing out in the field that was like, yeah umm I saw the angels, but I'm not sure we should go. Who is going to watch these sheep? Don't you think it's best that someone should remain back and watch the flock, you know just in case? I'll stay. . . You guys go. I'll be good here. No you just can't imagine that. You see an angel choir, you pretty much go.
My girls have been so excited about the Elf of the Shelf. We have ours, his name is Quincy, he's been all over the house. But they weren't sure about it at first, but then they watched the Elf on the Shelf show, the Christmas special that was on tv a few weeks ago. In that show there is this boy who doesn't believe. . . he wants the elf to prove himself. He slowly pushes his finger toward him, saying, "Just Fly" show me. I want you to show me. I want to see then I will believe. His two younger sisters know that it doesn't work that way, he touches the elf, and it falls lifeless to the ground.
How often are we like the kid? We've read the prophets. We know in our minds that God is real, that God is in control, that Jesus is coming. We see the truth in the world. We look at the moon, at the beauty of a sunset, at the magic of falling snow, and we see God there too. We see the amazing gifts of people, we see our friends, we see the genius of music and art, the truth of God's gifts manifesting themselves all around us. We've seen all that, but we are still in that Advent mode, not ready for Christmas, desperately craving the one miracle to remove all doubt and strengthen us forever. See that's the thing, miracles last, they are permanent, whereas the truth of the Bible needs to be studied and worked at, the wonders of nature are all around us, and we're used to people, we take them for granted, often in our times of need we miss the wonder and the truth in them. . . and those doubts creep in, but a miracle, now that would last. We pray please God send me something, let me know. . . and we stick our finger out pushing towards our faith like it's some kind of Elf on the Shelf.
We can't control a miracle, we can't make it happen. If we could it wouldn't be a miracle. . it would break the definition. I remember there was a Christmas special, a cartoon called, "Twas the Night Before Christmas." We had the record of the story and the songs when I was growing up. It was the one with the mice and the clock. The oldest mouse boy doesn't believe in Santa, so sends letter to the editor of a newspaper, saying:

Dear editor, Santa Claus is a fraudulent myth rooted in unconscious fantasies. . . P.S. the reindeer are phony too.  

So Santa has decided he won't come to that town. Do you remember this one. Eventually the boy has a change of heart and decides he wants to help. He does so because he hears the humans, in whose house the mice live, the clock maker, singing a song called, "Even a Miracle needs a hand." It inspires him to act, and he ends up saving the clock, the clock strikes 12 and sings a song of apology to Santa and they all live happily ever after, Santa comes. Even a miracle needs a hand. . . no it doesn't, that song is part of that myth that we hold to so often that we are in control. We just can't make a miracle happen, all we can do is take a leap of faith when and if it does.
Ten years ago I wrote the song Leap of Faith, and whether I had this idea in mind then is doubtful. I sang it last night at the concert, and I've sung it often in the 10 years since I wrote it. It always means something different to me. Today it meant this: It has three verses: The first is about the shepherds, how they saw the angel choir, and didn't hesitate, they took their leap of faith, the second is how the wisemen, like wise, saw the star and did the same. The third verse is set up for us. It describes the cross, and the miracle of resurrection the miracle of our salvation, the miracle of Immanuel, God with us, the incarnation, Jesus Christ and the work that he does on our behalf, a miracle needing no hand, completely sufficient without us doing a thing, the chorus of that verse goes:
Could a lonely cross
Help you forget the cost?
Would that be enough love
Sent from God above?
Is that what it would take
For all of us to make
Our own Leap of faith 

We said that a miracle is immediate and lasting. . . why not this one? Why is the Christmas story not miracle enough for us? Hopefully Christmas hasn't become so normal to us that we don't see it as miraculous any more. God with us, so loving us, that he would become one of us, and die to be raised saving us forever. I end the song with a small coda type thing at the end, saying: 

Do we really need a sign
To change our minds?
Let’s take that leap of faith
On this Christmas day.

The Cross sings the song of the prophets, it shines the light of the star, it ironically surpasses even the earthly power of Rome, and it echoes the song of the angels: Glory to God in the Highest, and Peace on Earth, Good will to all men. I hope you hear the song of this miracle today and all days, for its choir is still singing. Shall we go to Bethlehem now and see? Amen.

[1]The Holy Bible : New Revised Standard Version. 1989 (Lk 2:8-15). Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers.