Maybe This Night Will Be The Night

“The Nativity”
Lorenzo Lotto, 1523
National Gallery of Art
Washington D.C., USA

Luke 2: 1-14 (KJV) 
And it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be taxed.  (And this taxing was first made when Cyrenius was governor of Syria.) And all went to be taxed, every one into his own city. And Joseph also went up from Galilee, out of the city of Nazareth, into Judaea, unto the city of David, which is called Bethlehem; (because he was of the house and lineage of David:) To be taxed with Mary his espoused wife, being great with child. And so it was, that, while they were there, the days were accomplished that she should be delivered.

And she brought forth her firstborn son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger; because there was no room for them in the inn. And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. 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. And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord. And this shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, 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, and on earth peace, good will toward men.

Mary and Joseph have arrived.  The crowds are almost too much to take, pushing and crushing as the couple makes their way through them.  Mary doesn’t feel well.  She really needs to just lie down and rest.  And when you don’t feel well, the last place you want to be is somewhere that is not home, somewhere foreign, somewhere so crowded, so unwelcoming.  They need to hurry.  There is not too much time left. 

They stop at a small inn up on the hill overlooking the shepherds’ pastures down below.  Joseph leaves Mary for a moment and goes to make arrangements for a place to stay.  But when he returns, his face looks frustrated, almost in tears.  He tells Mary that the inn is full.  In fact, the whole town is full.  There is no place to stay.  There is no room.  But he tells Mary that the innkeeper has given them permission to at least go into the stableroom to keep warm.  He’s freshening the hay now.  Well, it will have to do.

You know, I think the innkeeper gets a bad wrap.  I mean, was he supposed to kick someone else out?  And consider this:  This was not the Hilton.  It probably wouldn’t even qualify as a roadside motel.  It was probably just a couple of small beds in the innkeeper’s home.  And first century houses were often just a room or maybe two of actual living quarters anyway.  The second or third room was attached to the house and used to house the animals that were so much a part of their life.  No one in this small town would have owned a large “ranch” estate. The stable probably wasn’t “out back” the way we think.  It was part of the home.  So the innkeeper was possibly, on some level, bringing Mary and Joseph, bringing strangers, into his home. What that means is that the Divine came into the world because someone acted human.  Isn’t that amazing?

So Mary and Joseph entered the stableroom and, surrounded by animals, tried to get some rest.   They could still hear the crowded city outside.  They could hear the Roman guards yelling as they tried to control the crowds.  It made the place feel every more foreign, even more foreboding.  But directly overhead, was the brightest star they had ever seen.  It was as if the tiny little stable was being bathed in light.  So Mary laid down and closed her eyes.  She knew that the time was almost here.  She knew that the baby was coming into the world.

And on this night of nights, into a cold, dirty stable in a small town filled with yelling and pushing crowds, into a place occupied by soldiers, into a place that did not feel like home, into a world that had no room, God comes.  The door to the Divine swings open and God and all of heaven burst into our little world, flooding it with Light and Life.  And yet, the child in the manger bathed in light, the very Incarnation of the Divine, Emmanuel, God With Us, the Messiah, is, still, one of us.  God takes the form of one of us–just an ordinary human–a human like you and me–to show us what it means to be one of us, to be human, to be made in the image of God.

God comes into a world that is unprepared for God, that has no room for God.  God comes into places that are unclean, unworthy, unacceptable for us, much less for the Divine.  God comes into places that most of us would not go, out of fear of the other, out of fear of the unknown, out of fear of the darkness. And there God makes a home.  The Divine begins to pour into the world and with it a vision of the world pouring into the Divine.  This night, though, is not the pinnacle of our lives but, rather, the beginning.  God comes, bathed in Light, in the humblest of disguises immagineable, into the lowliest of places we know, into the darkest night of the soul, that we might finally know that all of the world is of God, all of the world is bathed in the Divine.  God comes so that we might finally see life as we are called to see it and live life as we are called to live it, filled with mercy and compassion and awareness of our connectedness to all the world.  God comes so that we might finally be human, so that we might finally make room. 

Perhaps the world will never be completely ready for God.  If God waited for us to be completely prepared, God would never come at all.  But this God doesn’t need our preparation. This God doesn’t need to come into a place that is cleaned up and sanitized for God.  Instead, God comes when and where God comes.  God comes into godforsakenness, into a world that is occupied by foreignness, where the need for God is the greatest, into a world that cries out for justice and peace, and there God makes a home.  God comes into the darkness and bathes it in light.

The time is almost here.  In just a few hours the door to the Divine will swing open and God and all of heaven will burst into the world.  If you stop and listen, just for a moment, you can hear the harps eternal in the distance as they approach our lives.  Can’t you feel it?  Doors opening, light flooding in, the earth filled with a new vision of hope and peace.  Maybe, just maybe, tonight will be different.  Maybe this is the night that the world chooses peace and justice and love.  Maybe this is the night that the world takes joy. Maybe this is the night when the world realizes that it is already filled with the Divine.  Maybe this is the night when we become human.  Maybe this is the night that we make room.

O holy Child of Bethlehem, descend to us, we pray;
Cast out our sin, and enter in, be born in us today.
We hear the Christmas angels the great glad tidings tell;
O come to us, abide with us, our Lord Emmanuel!
(Phillips Brooks)
On this night of nights, give yourself the gift of making room for God.  Give yourself the gift of being human.  Give yourself the gift of making this night the beginning of God’s coming into the world.
Merry Christmas!

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,