Saturday, December 26, 2015

Awe in the Familiar

Awe in the Familiar
A sermon delivered by Rev. Peter T. Atkinson
December 27, 2015
at Gordonsville Presbyterian Church, Gordonsville, Virginia
Luke 2: 9-20

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.

I typically put titles on my sermons when I do the bulletin, and that title gives me some guidance, based on what I've been thinking and studying all week, about where my sermon is heading. I didn't realize when I came up with this title for this sermon, "Awe in the Familiar" that it comes on the heels of my last Sunday Sermon, "Joy in the Mystery," which is kind of an ironic, unintended coincidence, of looking at both sides of this coin, we call Christmas. There is much that is mystery, or at least should be mystery, but there is also so much that is familiar. The real trick is to be able to find the mystery beyond the facade of the familiar. I want to try to look deeper into familiar things today, the story and the songs, to see what we miss when we go through the typical motions of routine.  We know the songs, we know the stories, most of them by heart, and if we like Linus, were asked what Christmas is all about I think we could probably recite this story, Luke 2: 8-20 by heart, much of it word for word. I'm going to read it slow, and I'm going to read the King James Version, close your eyes while you listen, and see if you can anticipate each next word that comes. Here it is, the shepherds, the angels, the manger:
8 And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. 9 And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid. 10 And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. 11 For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord. 12 And this shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, 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, and on earth peace, good will toward men. 15 And it came to pass, as the angels were gone away from them into heaven, the shepherds said one to another, Let us now go even unto Bethlehem, and see this thing which is come to pass, which the Lord hath made known unto us. 16 And they came with haste, and found Mary, and Joseph, and the babe lying in a manger. 17 And when they had seen it, they made known abroad the saying which was told them concerning this child. 18 And all they that heard it wondered at those things which were told them by the shepherds. 19 But Mary kept all these things, and pondered them in her heart. 20 And the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things that they had heard and seen, as it was told unto them. [1]

Could you anticipate most of it? Did you hear anything new? Did reading at a slower pace help you to capture some of the details more clearly? At the Blue and Gray service I brought out and focused on the idea of the shepherds being "sore afraid," that jumped out at me newly. And I found that it doesn't mean that the fear causes pain, but that sore means extra, more, intensely, and that the Greek original is actually the idea of fear repeated, Phobia, Phobia, as Greek often does for emphasis, and paired with the adjective "mega," which even in English means big. At Christmas Eve I was struck by the parallel of Manger, which is something to eat out of, something that animals eat out of, and how interesting that is when you think about Jesus claiming to be the Bread of Heaven and the Bread of Life in John's gospel as we saw this past year, and that we are to eat of his flesh, in John 6: 51-52, "I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.” How much foreshadowing is it, for communion, and for so much more that he would find his first bed to be a place where lowly animals feed. Does it all suggest that we are to humble ourselves to kneel and eat, beside our animal brothers? And that is what I mean about finding the awe in the familiar. How many times have I read the story, heard it sung, thought about manger, but never made that connection, but I have now, and I'm in awe of it, the tightness of it all. The thing that jumped out to me this time around was that the shepherds got done seeing Jesus and told everybody, that they were not just the first witnesses of Jesus, but the first witnesses for Jesus, the first evangelizers, out spreading the good news.
And that leads me to take a look at some of the carols. Some of them merely tell the story, like the First Noel. There isn't much to that one. . . shepherds, then wisemen three, reverently bending upon their knee. It just poetically goes through all the details. There are many like that, but there are others that really espouse deep theological meaning. Like "O Little Town of Bethlehem" which is part Ode, part Lullaby, it starts with singing about the streets and the light and the night, but then contains a line like, "The hopes and fears of all the years met in thee tonight." How interesting? How deep? How meaningful? Hopes and fears, of all the years, before and all the years between then and now, and all the years to come. . . hope and fear, those two ideas are central to the Biblical message. In many ways they are two sides of the same coin because the focus on the future. Our hopes looking at the future, and our fears worrying at the future, both met in the coming of Jesus Christ. . . Powerful.
Another one is "It Came Upon a Midnight Clear," which goes along pretty basic at first with a simple message about peace, but then you get:
And ye beneath life's crushing load, whose forms are bending low,
Who toil along the climbing way, with painful steps and slow,
Look now for glad and golden hours come swiftly on the wing
Rest beside the weary road and hear the angels sing.

Again, wow! To the point, beautiful, poignant. A recognition of the plight of human beings everywhere, the crushing load of life, how it bends forms low, from toil, painful steps. . . but there are golden hours that coming, where we can rest from our weariness, and simply hear those angels singing. . . so much is there, and that echoing angels song is a powerful repeated motif throughout many Christmas Carols. The fourth verse of "It Came Upon a Midnight Clear" shows a major theme, in that it isn't just the angels who sing, but instead the entire world of Creation, landmasses, animals, plants, even we, join the angels in the song.
When peace shall over all the earth its ancient splendours fling
And the whole world send back the song, which now the angels sing.

That sentiment is echoed in Joy to the World with, "heaven and nature" singing, and "while fields and floods, rocks hills and plains, repeat the sounding joy, repeat the sounding joy, repeat, repeat, the sounding joy." Another is in "Angels We have Heard on High" where you have "And the mountains in reply, echo back their joyous strains." The kids have a book that we have read a bunch of times this Christmas season called "The Song of the Stars," where all of creation seems to echo the idea, "It's time, It's time." When I read it both Coralee and Clara can't stop saying, "It's time. It's time." Then finally, "it's time, he's come, he's here." All of creation sings it in that book. It is one of the great themes of Christmas. All of the world singing out in celebration over Jesus' birth.
Another of the great themes of the Christmas Carols is the incarnation, that God is becoming human to be near to us, to be one of us, to experience life, with all of its burdens just like we do, especially the vulnerable innocence of childhood. . . it is a powerful image, and one ripe for poetry because that meekness, that mildness is self imposed.  The almighty, sovereign, sole creator of the entire universe becomes a meek and mild baby. Listen here from "Once in Royal David's City,"
Jesus is our childhoods pattern, Day by Day like us he grew.
He was little, weak, and helpless; tears and smiles like us he knew.
And he feeleth for our sadness, and he shareth in our gladness.

Right there in a hymn about his birth is brought out some of the great theological idea surrounding Christ and his dual nature of human and divine. It's also found in "Hark the Herald Angels Sing" where in the third verse we sing, "Mild he lays his glory by, born that man no more may die, born to rise the sons of earth, born to give them second birth." You have there all of the glory of the birth Hymn in Phillippians:
though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God
as something to be exploited,
7     but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
8     he humbled himself
and became obedient to the point of death—
even death on a cross. [2]

It is all there even at the beginning, in all these familiar hymns we know so well, but sing without thinking about. Even our own spiritual transformation that comes with the relationship we are forming with Christ. In the sweetest of lullabies, "Away in a Manger" you have it with "Fit us for heaven to live with thee there." Change our hearts O God, mold us, shape us, we are clay for you, mold us as a potter does with his hands. Again it's all there.
To me though, Christmas is "O Holy Night" and the words of that powerful song, make the season. You've heard it sung, and it's voluminous melody and strongly voiced notes can echo and mesmerize the ear, but do you hear the words? In closing this morning, I want to simply read them, to once again let us find the awe in what is so familiar:
O Holy Night! The stars are brightly shining,
It is the night of the dear Saviour's birth.
Long lay the world in sin and error pining.
Till He appeared and the Spirit felt its worth.
A thrill of hope the weary world rejoices,
For yonder breaks a new and glorious morn.
Fall on your knees! Oh, hear the angel voices!
O night divine, the night when Christ was born;
O night, O Holy Night , O night divine!
O night, O Holy Night , O night divine!

Led by the light of faith serenely beaming,
With glowing hearts by His cradle we stand.
O'er the world a star is sweetly gleaming,
Now come the wisemen from out of the Orient land.
The King of kings lay thus lowly manger;
In all our trials born to be our friends.
He knows our need, our weakness is no stranger,
Behold your King! Before him lowly bend!
Behold your King! Before him lowly bend!

Truly He taught us to love one another,
His law is love and His gospel is peace.
Chains he shall break, for the slave is our brother.
And in his name all oppression shall cease.
Sweet hymns of joy in grateful chorus raise we,
With all our hearts we praise His holy name.
Christ is the Lord! Then ever, ever praise we,
His power and glory ever more proclaim!
His power and glory ever more proclaim!


[1]The Holy Bible : King James Version. 1995 (electronic ed. of the 1769 edition of the 1611 Authorized Version.) (Lk 2:8-20). Bellingham WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc.
[2]The Holy Bible : New Revised Standard Version. 1989 (Php 2:6-8). Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers.