December 11, 2022 (The first day of the third week of Advent 2022)
TODAY’S SCRIPTURE REFERENCE:
“In those days John the Baptizer came preaching in the wilderness of Judea saying ‘Repent, the kingdom of heaven has come near.’ He is the one who was foretold by the prophecy given to Isaiah saying ‘A voice of one calling out in the wilderness [urging] Prepare the way for the Lord and make straight the paths which lead to Him.’” (Matthew 3.1-3)
The God who dwells within us makes us His people!
The God who dwells within us reveals Himself in Word and Action!
The God who dwells within us will not forsake His Word of Promise!
Before I go any further in today’s reflection let me state my “now” understanding of Christmas. Like most of you, Christmas was a time for family and friends to gather in celebration of a life of hope and love. Many would also include the third element in the well-known spiritual trinity proposed by the Apostle Paul to the community of faith in the great city of Corinth. I would say only “many” because “many more” celebrated more the faith of another day in which to grant the opportunity for tangible gifts of acknowledgement as their reason for the season. Not to travel down a bad road, I will repent and turn back to the “faith” that is the focus of this reflection which elicits true joy into the world. That spiritual trinity of “Faith, Hope and Love” is bound in, as the angels declared it to the shepherds watching their flocks throughout the cold winter’s night, “good news of a great JOY which is for all people of One who has been born to you.” Stop for this moment and hear the word of the angel chorus that was sung directly to those shepherds. Imagine you are one of “those” shepherds struck in fear by the sudden explosion of an angelic presence like a detonated meteor hundreds of feet above your head leaving you humbled and very much alive. How grateful would you be having your life spared from such an unexpected and unanticipated event? No doubt, you would be thanking God in the midst of your breathlessness taking full inventory of your physical body to see if you were indeed alive or just dreaming. What joy would you experience knowing you had survived? Then imagine that in the midst of ringing ears and pounding heart a voice is heard from the vision of glory which filled the sky as if it was directed to you by name. That voice said “I have good news which is just for you. Your savior has been born in Bethlehem. You will recognize the truth of what I am saying when you see a newborn baby wrapped in swaddling cloths lying in a [stone] manger.” Such detail would be hard to ignore. Compelled by this joy-filled news, the shepherds set out to find what had been told to them. They did not go with doubt in their minds or fear in their hearts. But, they did not have any better an idea of where to go other than in Bethlehem where such a manger would be found. It certainly eliminated any number of places where a newborn would be found. Cross hospitals and natal care centers off the list because there weren’t any. Homes, hostels and inns would be of no help because unless they had animals to tend or stables provided for family, friend or visitors there would be no manger found there. So where would shepherds first look with such knowledge but wherever they knew animals were kept. Generally speaking it wouldn’t be in the heart of town that they would go first but on the outskirts of town. And they did not go in separate directions. Rather they went together as one people much like the wisemen who would arrive two years later. They were on their joy-filled journey undoubtedly consumed with the good news each one had heard for themselves that said “born to YOU!” They didn’t argue for their singularity of person as if there was a competition between them. They were joined together as one community: the many becoming one. Each may have had an idea for the best place to look. It would be reasonable to search out the closest stable to where they were watching the flocks given to their care. They were, after all, responsible to the sheep as much as they were responsible to themselves. We do not know the location of the stable in Bethlehem. We only know that they found one which fit the description perfectly. In a manger filled with fresh straw laid a newborn baby wrapped in swaddling cloths. All eyes were fixed upon the sight; both “man and beast.” I have always said that there were more than just Mary, Joseph and a donkey in that stable and extended enclosure for animals. If there was “no room in the inn” for them there was no room for others nor their animals. It was a busy place created by the very influx of all those whose lineage was of the House of David, “The Bread Basket of Judah.” It may have been a small city but it had a big reputation and large familial population. It would have been easily overwhelmed by those who arrived because it was the law of Caesar Augustus which could not be countermanded. So, around 4:am on a day early in the 4th month of the 4th year [B.C.], a baby was born which garnered the attention of anyone who happened to be in that place at that moment. There is just something about a baby being born that cannot be ignored. And in the awe of that moment walks in a curious band of shepherds still glowing with what had happened to them in the fields. They had no trouble believing what they saw because it was exactly as it was told to them. Their joy was complete. The promise of God as sung by the angels confirmed that their salvation had come in the greatest gift they could ever receive. For them, it was the “Lamb of God who was come to take away the sins of the world.” The only gift they had to offer for this newborn was the very story of what had brought them to that time and place. Everyone heard it. Everyone probably passed it on to those nearby who couldn’t believe their ears. Upon the “witness of two or more” so would the presence of God be. Oh yes, that would be Immanuel who is the “God with us and within us.” The very first evangelists were shepherds. Those who practiced the “spirit of Christmas,” the celebration of Christ, in its most impactful, appropriate and worshipful way were those truly in the world but not of it. Their robes and cloaks [it was a cold night remember being late winter or very early spring] were made of wool. They smelled of sheep and campfire. They were not dirty but probably were not GQ models ready for front cover exposure. Their language was probably more colorful and more simple than most. But, the heart and spirit which was exposed in the story they told and how they told it was undeniable: at least to Mary and Joseph. And in that moment, that was all that mattered. If there were other people there, the appearance of the shepherds may have caused them to draw back as if the shepherds were lepers. Many who had been awakened by the birth of Jesus to Mary, a young girl of around 14 years of age, were drowsy and ready to go back to sleep as it was “the middle of the night.” Others may have been unable to sleep and began to prepare for a new day with breakfast in readiness to get in line for their own “Black Friday” of census taking at the city gate or town square. Yes, they would want to be first in line and the first to get back home as soon as possible so that their life could go back to normal. The events of that morning didn’t strike them as particularly joyful and more perhaps as annoying. It didn’t impact or change their lives because it didn’t “happen to them” like it did for Mary, Joseph and the shepherds. They were not experiencing Immanuel. They were more caught up in “checking off the box of expectation created by those who ruled their lives and the land they lived on in this world.”
You may wonder why the scripture for this reflection was of John the Baptizer who would declare his “God-given” message thirty years after Jesus was born. You may wonder why I didn’t use the scripture alluded to in my story from the gospel given to Luke. And my answer is simply this: my “now” understanding of Christmas has everything to do with “Christmas Yet to Come” than the “Christmas of What Has Already Been.” Because God has been faithful to fulfill all His promises to us as we have seen in the birth, life, death and resurrection of Jesus who is the Christ, we know that the promises of what is yet to come will be fulfilled as well. While there is fear and dread in these difficult and traumatic times we are now in, there is also great joy for what shall be the ultimate consequence for those who call upon the name of the Lord and who live according to His purposes on earth. We know that the current events are like birth pangs leading to a new life. But, that life is not in the birth of the Christ as in the days of old in Bethlehem. Our Savior will not come as a baby born in a stable, wrapped in swaddling cloths lying in a manger when He returns. He will come in full glory, true justice and righteous faith to complete the work that has been started. This is the “now” Christmas understanding. It no longer is about satisfying the things of our “earth” and this world but preparing this and future generations for what is to come and how we will best meet that good news of a perfect joy reserved for those who love the Lord our God with all their heart, soul, body, mind and strength. We are called to live by the spiritual trinity for the sake of the Holy Trinity to be as one in the whole community which is blessed by the Son of God who was born of woman and now has been born in spirit and in truth. No greater joy is there than this which John the Baptizer declared in his day as he said what had happened in Jesus was the fulfillment of what Isaiah had told Ahaz would be the ultimate truth for all “Israel,” both Jew and Gentile. The greater joy is accepting Jesus as the Lamb of God who came into the world to deliver us from sin. He will return to deliver us from the wilderness of sin and welcome us into the House of the Lord forever. There we will know perfectly the promised Immanuel: God who is with us and within us now and forever. AMEN.
Father, we anticipate the completion of Your will for our lives and pray for the staying of the course which we undertake as those called by Your Name who have decided to live by Your purposes for our lives on earth as we will in Heaven. AMEN.