And Hear the Angels Sing!

“But you, Bethlehem Ephrathah, though youa are small
among the clans of Judah, out of you will come for me one
who will be ruler over Israel, whose origins are from of old,
from ancient times.” (Micah 5:2)

The day is almost upon us.  We’ve got presents wrapped and under the tree and your kitchen probably smells like the cookies that just came out of the oven (or perhaps a tastefully-chosen cinnamon and eggnog candle that mimics the same effect.)  Here at St. Paul’s, we’re approaching the end of the week of frenzy that has included a mad scramble to make sure we have all the information for the 9,846 different bulletins that are needed over the next few weeks. (Well, maybe that’s a gross exageration, but you get the idea!)  Plans are in place.  I think we’re ready…

Really?  We do this every year.  We walk through Christmas sort of like we’re preparing for a very familiar play.  The sets are in place; the costumes are ironed; the lines are memorized.  In those days a decree went out… Mary and Joseph get to Bethlehem at the appropriate time and the innkeeper, following the lines, tells them that there’s no room.  The baby shows up on cue and we light our candles and sing Silent Night and then hang around with the shepherds while we wait a week for The Wisemen to make their appearance.  And then we go back to our lives.  Really?  So, how’s that mystery thing working for you?

God doesn’t usually show up on cue or in the way we’ve planned for God to show up.  Perhaps God shows up when we’ve gone back to our lives.  God tends to show up not where the beckoning is loudest but where the need is greatest.  God comes when our questions are so overwhelming that we begin to doubt and gives the Divine a face and a name.  God comes when the world is not prepared, when the world, mired in oppression and poverty and greed, has not yet gotten around to cleaning itself up and making itself presentable, when the world has made no room and so God makes a home in a place that we assumed was downright godforsaken and bathes it in light.  God comes into our darkness and illumines our way.  God comes in mystery not to confuse us or make it harder to believe but to give us a taste of the transcendent mystery and amazing miracle that is part of us all.  God will come when and where and in the way that God will come.  And more than likely it will be outside of the box we’ve built for God.  When you realize that you do not know, it is there that you will finally see Emmanuel, the God who has been with us the whole time.  Rainer Maria Rilke said to “have patience with everything unresolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves.  The point is, to live everything.  Live the questions now.  Perhaps, then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer.”

Mary and Joseph are close to Bethlehem.  The roads are getting busier and the dust is making it harder to see.  It’s like traveling in darkness.  They are tired.  It would be nice to have a soft bed.  And they do not know what is up ahead.  They do not know what the future holds.  Let it be according to your Word!

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:
O rest beside the weary road, and hear the angels sing.

(Edmund H. Sears, 1849)
         On this day before Christmas Eve, give yourself the gift of mystery.  Let go of your preconceptions (and even your regrets!) about what Christmas holds and what you’ve planned Christmas to be and hear the angels sing!

ADVENT 4B: ‘Bout Time We Start Dancin’!

Lectionary Text: Romans 16: 25-27
Now to God who is able to strengthen you according to my gospel and the proclamation of Jesus Christ, according to the revelation of the mystery that was kept secret for long ages but is now disclosed, and through the prophetic writings is made known to all the Gentiles, according to the command of the eternal God, to bring about the obedience of faith—to the only wise God, through Jesus Christ, to whom be the glory forever! Amen.

In this Fourth week of Advent, we read this doxology along with the imminence of Jesus’ birth.  Read alongside the story of Mary as God-bearer, we have the sense that the full Gospel is starting to unfold.  This is in no way a “replacement” for the Law of Moses; it is that Law seen to its fulfillment in the new humanity, the new Adam, in Jesus Christ.  Gentiles have been “grafted” into a story that was already taking place, already in full swing.  This is nothing new.  It is, rather, the doxology.  For Paul, HIS gospel was the “unveiling” of something that had been around from the very beginning.

Scholars think that it is quite possible that Paul did not write these verses but that they were attached to the end of the letter perhaps AS a doxology, a statement of praise and proclamation.  But regardless of who wrote it, this is a statement of response.  It is, to use Paul’s words, an “obedience of faith.”  The Incarnation of God in Jesus Christ invokes our response; otherwise it is virtually meaningless.  In Feasting on the Word, Cathy F. Young quotes Helmut Thielicke when he says, “Faith can be described only as a movement of flight, flight away from myself and toward the great possibilities of God.”  The whole gospel in its fullness is about our response.  It is our faith that moves it and opens up the possibilities that God envisioned.

Advent is about letting ourselves envision what God envisions and then moving toward it.  Because into this world that often seems random and meaningless, full of pain and despair; into this society that is often callous and lacking of compassion, directionless and confused; into our lives that many times are wrought with grief and a sense that it is all for naught; into all of it is born a baby that holds the hope of the world for the taking.  We just have to be open and willing to take it.  The great illustrator and writer, Tasha Tudor said, “the gloom of the world is but a shadow.  Behind it, yet within our reach, is joy.  Take joy!”  This is what this doxology says:  All of this that has been laid out for you, all of this that has been created; all of this that has for so long been moving toward your life, take it.  Take joy!  Tomorrow will be your dancing day!

I love Christmas Eve at St. Paul’s.  I actually don’t know how to explain it.  It’s magnificent; it’s magical; it’s mystery.  It’s like nothing you’ve ever experienced before. It moves you into someplace that you have not been before.  It takes you out of yourself and gives you a glimpse, albeit a tiny, tiny glimpse, of what it’s all about, of why we’re here, of that to which we journey.  This will be my eighth year to participate in the processional that winds through the nave, encompassing everyone who is there in music and candlelight and incredible joy.  I say processional because, even though it comes toward the end of the service, it leads us to something more.  It leads us to our response.  It brings me to tears.  (I will say that in these last seven years, I have been brought to tears each year–six because it has moved me beyond myself and the seventh because, I have to tell you, Gail caught Emily’s hair on fire with her candle and had to hastily put it out with her bulletin.  Thankfully, Emily had very little hair product on her hair that night!  We were laughing so hard we couldn’t even see where we were going!  (See, you just don’t know what will happen when you let us loose!)

But the point is that this is our way of taking joy, of connecting to the mystery of the God who came and comes. Often, our choir will sing an Old English carol that I have grown to love (in fact, let it be known, that I want it sung at my funeral!)  because it is a song of joy, a song of deep abiding love.  It is the song that we should all be singing.  It is our invitation to joy.  The song itself is more than a carol.  It has additional verses (although some are extremely anti-semitic).  It tells the story of Jesus’ life, the Gospel, the Good News–the birth, the life, the death, the life.  It is the Song of Joy and our invitation to join in!      

Tomorrow shall be my dancing day; I would my true love did so chance

To see the legend of my play, to call my true love to my dance;

Sing, oh! My love, oh! My love, my love, my love, this have I done for my true love.

Then was I born of a virgin pure, of her I took fleshly substance

Thus was I knit to man’s nature, to call my true love to my dance.


In a manger laid, and wrapped I was, so very poor, this was my chance
Betwixt and ox and a silly poor ass, to call my true love to my dance.


Traditional English Carol
OK, the time is not here yet, but don’t you think it’s ’bout time we start dancin’?  Somehow our world has taught us to hold back, to not “count our chickens before they’re hatched”, to be reserved.  But God?  God just wants us to start dancing so that everyone else will join!
In this season of Advent, give yourself the gift of taking joy, of realizing what God holds for you, of dancing the dance to which you’ve been invited!  Let tomorrow be your dancing day!

Grace and Peace,



The Traditional place of Jesus’ birth beneath
The Church of the Nativity, Bethlehem, Israel
Taken February, 2010

Scripture Text:  Luke 2:1-20:
In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. All went to their own towns to be registered. Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.  In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. 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: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.” And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!” 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.” So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger. When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child; and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them. But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart. The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.

“In those days, a decree went out.”…There it is!  It is probably the best known story of all time and a great story it is–forced occupation, poor couple, long trip, impressive ancestry,  a last-minute birth, animals, humble beginnings, angels, assurance, surprise visitors, well-trained choir, and God.  (You know, in hindsight, if there had been a coach and a glass slipper, this would have been perfect!)  But, seriously, think about it.  This story has gripped the world for twenty centuries.  Jesus of Nazareth was born a human gift to this world, born the way we were all born.  No, the Scripture doesn’t speak of morning sickness and labor pains.  In fact, in our haste to welcome the Christ child into our lives each Christmas Eve, we forget the humanness of the birth.  We forget that he first appeared in the dim lights of that grotto drenched with the waters of Creation, with the smell of God still in his breath.  We forget that Mary was in tears most of the night as she tried to be strong, entering a realm she had never entered, questioning what the angel nine months before had really convinced her to do.  We forget that Jesus was human.

But this night, this silent night, is the night when the Word comes forth, Incarnate.  In its simplest form, the Incarnation is the mingling of God with humanity.  It is God becoming human and, in turn, giving humanity a part of the Divine.  It is the mystery of life that always was coming into all life yet to be.  There is a word that we do not use much. “Liminality”, from the Latin for threshold is used to describe in Old English, “betwixt and between”, a point of being suspended between two realms, two times.  Think of it as an airpline flying over the ocean.  For a few hours, you are suspended between and yet part of two cultures, two worlds.  It is as if you are nowhere and everywhere at the same time.  This is where we are.  Humanity and the Divine are this moment suspended.  Neither has moved forward yet.  Just for a moment, they will dance in this grotto while we look on. 

God has come, sought us out.  Eons of God inviting us and claiming us and drawing us in did not do it.  So God came, came to show us the sacredness that had been created for us, the holy in the ordinary that we kept missing.  God has traversed time and space and the barrier between us and the Divine and as God comes across the line, the line disappears.  God is now with us.  We just have to open our eyes.  And then, the walk begins, a walk that will pass through Galilee and Jerusalem and Golgotha.  And at each point, God asks us to dance again.  And we will never be the same again.  This notion of “Emmanuel”, God With Us, means that all of history has changed.  We have passed through to another time with our feet still firmly planted here.  It has changed us too.  God is not asking us to be Divine.  We are not called to be God.  God is asking us to be who God created us to be and came to walk with us to show us what it meant to be human, to be made, not God, but in the very image of the Divine.

This birth does not just stand alone as an historic high-point in world history.  You cannot look at it by itself.  The Incarnation, Emmanuel, God With Us, is not limited to this silent night.  God comes over and over and over again–in Jesus’ birth, life, ministry, death, and resurrection.  And this night in Bethlehem, this night of humanity, will end only a few miles away.  But it will travel far beyond.  It is part of a something bigger, a cycle of time and space, human and Divine, that has not ended yet and that, as I belief, will continue into eternity until all becomes one with God.  God came that we might have Life!

In this Season of Lent, God comes to show us how to be human, made in the image of the Divine.  What is it that stands in your way, that makes you inhumane?  What stands in the way of walking with God, Emmanuel?  Because, you see, that is the way to Jerusalem…

Grace and Peace,