A sermon for the Fourth Sunday of Advent – Luke 1
Recognizing that many do not make it to church on Christmas Eve or Christmas morning, we usually read the entire birth narrative on the Fourth Sunday of Advent. This weekend’s release of Star Wars: Rouge One makes this sermon particularly appropiate.
The quotes in this sermon are from Steven Pinker’s book “The Better Angels of Our Nature” and Joseph Holub’s “Fear Not” The Acclamation sung, on the audio recording, prior to the sermon is “The Magnificat” from Holden Evening Prayer, by Marty Haugen, featuring Gary Curran and Linda Condy: Listen to the sermon here
This week as millions of people flock to theatres all over the world to see the latest Star Wars epic (Rogue One), I am reminded of the old joke: you know you might be Lutheran if, when you hear: “The force be with you.” you must fight the urge to say, “And also with you.” While I confess that I have not yet seen the new Star Wars movie, and my memories of the original Star Wars movie are decades old, my social media feeds have been filled with allusions to “The Force”. Over the course of the past few days, I’ve read more than a few articles from would be theologians, which insist that “The Force” of Star Wars is akin to the way many progressive Christians describe our understanding of God. While it is true that may of us who have long since given up images of God the portray the super-natural being who lives off in a galaxy far, far, away, who from time to time meddles in the affairs of earthlings, and many of us have indeed have embraced notions of God that reflect early Christian teachings about the One in whom we live and move and have our being.
The panentheistic view of God as the one who both lies at the very heart of reality and permeates reality so that God is in all and yet more that all, the one who lives and breathes, in, with, through, and beyond us, may on the surface bear a slight resemblance to “The Force” I can assure you that God is so very much more than the limited notions of “The Force”.
Right about now, I expect that some of you are wondering, why on earth I am rambling on about a childish science fiction movie just days before Christmas when I have all the ramifications of the greatest story every told from which to draw a sermon on this the fourth Sunday of Advent. Well bear with me for a bit, and if we are lucky and the force is with me, I try to explain just how Mary’s response to an angelic annunciation relates to our cultures fascination with “the force” and maybe just maybe assure you of the Good News that the God in whom we live and move and have our being is so much more of a force than the force that would be Jedi warriors all over the planet are embracing. The little that I do know about George Lucas’ force is that it inhabits a dualistic universe that is divided into to camps. On one side, we have “The Empire”, the dark evil side represented by the Sith, on the other side, the good side, the Rebellion, represented by the Jedi. The Force, is the name given to the collection of the energies of all living things that are fed into one Cosmic Force. The Force that is available to both Jedi Rebellion and the Empire of the Sith because The Force has two sides. The Force is neither malevolent or benevolent, neither good nor evil it has a bad side involving hate and fear, and it has a good side, involving love, charity, fairness and hope. The Force can be used for good or for evil. The Force is if you will, humanity write large, or the human psyche deified. The Force is nothing more than our collective strengths and weaknesses writ large.
Historian and spiritual philosopher, Ian Lawton describes the dilemma of those of us who seek to put a “little reason into the season” this way: “Picture the scene. Mary and Joseph are huddled together in a manger surrounded by farm animals. Joseph is drifting in and out of various dreams. Angels fly in and out of the manger singing songs and bringing earth-shattering messages. Three eastern kings gather around Mary and Joseph with gifts. Out of the window a large star can be seen in the day sky. Two sheep sit beneath the window having a conversation. One says to the other, “I don’t know why you’re being so stubborn. Let me go through this one more time. The virgin is having a baby. They’re naming him Jesus because of a dream. Angels told them that their baby would become the saviour of all humanity. Kings travelled hundreds of miles to find the place of birth like a needle in a haystack because they were led by a giant star moving through the day sky. Now which part of this are you having trouble believing?” The Christmas story is fantastic in the literal sense of the word. It is mostly fantasy. Which parts of it do you have trouble believing?
You’re in good company. This story is as unlikely as talking sheep. The laws of nature tell us that sheep don’t talk, virgins don’t have babies, stars don’t travel across the day sky and then hang like a blip over one home and angels don’t sing choruses. Even if a reliable source suggested that something happened that broke the laws of nature, you would demand evidence and there is little evidence for the details of the Christmas story outside of the Bible which has contradictory details. All in all, the Christmas story is highly unlikely. But don’t let details get in the way of a good holiday story, right? If you’re like me, you’re torn between the desire to be true to your common sense that is skeptical and your heart that just wants to let the story be a good story. The good news is that you can have both. You can question the literal account of the story AND you can enjoy the timeless message of the story. You can put a little reason into the season, and still take a yuletide joyride of inspired meaning. The Christmas story is mostly myth, but the message is real and powerful.”
Since the end of the first century, some 1900 years now, the Christmas story has been told. Lately the church has become a little embarrassed by the way in which this story has been told. All sorts of experts have weighed in to tell us that it could never have happened the way we all remember it. Biblical scholars, historians, theologians, bishops, pastors, professors even scientists have cast doubt on the details of the story of the nativity. But even though we know how impossible some of the details may be we cling to this power of the story. Despite the wisdom of the experts, regardless of our doubts this story still has the power to stop us in our tracks. No other story or image is more recognizable to people the world over than the Nativity scene of the birth of Jesus. The images of an angel announcing the birth, a virgin responding in faith, a carpenter leading a woman on a donkey to a stable in Bethlehem, cumulating with Mary and Joseph gazing fondly at the baby Jesus, while the shepherds look on and the heavenly host sing their praises, these images are crystal clear to all of us. The story is part of us; it’s in our bones. Every year this story causes our lives to shift from the routine of winter, to marveling at the wonder of it all, as we enter into a sacred time, where families are drawn together, and strangers greet one another with kindness and from near and far the hope of peace on earth is a dream shared by us all.
Now, I know that somewhere in the deepest darkest recesses of our being, or for some of us, just beneath the surface of this dream, the wisdom of the experts causes a shiver to run across our spines as we wonder how the hope for peace on earth can possibly lie with such an unbelievable story. That shiver used to haunt me, until the day I recognized the power of the truth that lies in the story of the birth of Christ. It happened a few years back, when my youngest niece Sheri Lynn was about three years old. I have three nieces and over the years I’ve gained a bit of a reputation as their eccentric auntie. I can’t help myself, my love of stories and books just oozed over into my role as their auntie. And so to mark every occasion in their little lives their dear old Auntie Dawn showered them with books. Before every birthday, every Easter, and every Christmas every special occasion I could be found in the children’s section of the bookstore, scouring the shelves to find the perfect book that told the perfect story. My family used to tease me mercilessly and insist that I ought to get those little girls something they could play with. But only books were good enough for my nieces. So, you can just imagine the collection of books they have that tell the story of the Nativity. My family are not churchgoers, so on Christmas Eve I used to go to the Midnight service before heading over to my brother’s house to spend the night. Well the year that Sheri Lynn was just three, I arrived at my brother’s house at about 1:30 in the morning. My brother and his wife, my parents and my nieces were all safely tucked up in bed. On the dining room table were the remains of the milk and eating the cookies that had been left for some other visitor. I poked my head into the room where my youngest niece was sleeping. Little Sheri was snorting as little ones do when they sleep. In the glow of her nightlight I could see a rather unusual gathering on the floor by the foot of her bed. Standing upright on the floor was a large picture book opened to show a picture of an empty stable above which a star hung in the night sky. Beside the book was a doll’s cradle; inside the cradle was a naked doll covered only in a tea-towel. Sitting proudly with their legs sprayed out as if they were doing the splits were what could only be Mary and Joseph even tough they looked a lot like Barbie and Ken. Surrounding this scene were all sorts of little people, some smurfs, a few princesses all, no doubt, standing in for shepherds and angels. The most wonderful part was that all of God’s animals were there, not just the donkey, the sheep and the cattle, but giraffes, zebras, horses, pigs, lions, tigers, turtles, alligators, elephants, hippos, bears and even an alligator and a snake. It was just as the prophet Isaiah had foretold a peaceable kingdom were all the animals lived in peace together and where the lion would eat straw with the ox and the wolf and the lamb would lie down together. The great thing about toddlers playing with animals is that in their minds all of the animals can play together. Sheri Lynn knew that the giraffe eats leaves because I saw her holding it up to the Christmas tree so that it could feast. She knew that the horse and the cow and the sheep and the chickens lived over at the Fisher Price farm and that some of the other animals lived aboard Noah’s ark, and that snakes and alligators could be very scary indeed, but on this night all the animals played together, and all of them gathered together at the baby’s cradle to love and to warm and to care for the child, who lay naked and vulnerable before them. Sheri Lynn had created an image of the Nativity story; an image whose details weren’t exactly correct, but an image that told the truth about all our longings during this most holy season. Continue reading