Primitive religion is not believed, it is danced!

Arthur Darby Nock

Earth's crammed with heaven,
And every common bush afire with God;
And only he who sees takes off his shoes;
The rest sit round it and pluck blackberries.

Elizabeth Browning

Sunday, December 26, 2010

A Love Story

One of the greatest theologians that ever lived, Karl Barth, was asked to be a guest lecturer at the University of Chicago Divinity School.  At the end of a captivating closing lecture, the president of the seminary announced that Dr. Barth was not well and was quite tired, and though he thought that Dr. Barth would like to be open for questions, he shouldn't be expected to handle the strain. Then he said, "Therefore, I will ask just one question on behalf of all of us."

He turned to the renowned theologian and asked, "Of all the theological insights you have ever had, which do you consider to be the greatest of them all?

It was the perfect question for a man who had written literally tens of thousands of pages of some of the most sophisticated theology ever put into print.  The students held pencils right up against their writing pads, ready to take down verbatim the premier insight of the greatest theologian of their time.

Karl Barth closed his tired eyes, and he thought for a minute, and then he half smiled, opened his eyes, and said to those young seminarians, "The greatest theological insight that I have ever had is this: "Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so."

My dear friends in Christ, I submit to you that the Gospel of Jesus Christ is the greatest love story ever written!

I wish with all my heart that everybody could read it that way, but I'mafraid to say that I meet people every day for whom it reads more like a Used Car contract.  Somehow in the midst of all those beautiful love verses, they hear only clauses and conditions and the spelling out of all the consequences should any or those clauses and conditions ever be violated.

So I thank God that Christmas comes around once a year to remind us that God isn't in the business of keeping books and tallying ledgers, nor is God concerned about our status or position in life.  If God were concerned about any of those things,  then I submit to you that the Christ of God would never have been born into such disagreeable circumstances as we find
in the Christmas story.

No.  Christmas is the beginning of a classic love story with all the right ingredients:  infatuation, pursuit,  risk and relationship... But in all relationships of love, there does have to be that first meeting doesn't there?

When I was a child, I remember asking "what if my parents had never met? Could I have been born to another set of parents?  If I was, how would I be different?  And time and time again, I have wondered, what if had had made difference choices along the way.  Chosen a different college, a different career.  Think of all the people whose paths would not have crossed mine.  Of all those “first meetings” that wouldn’t have happened.

What if I had met an entirely different set of people?  What would my life be like?  Maybe I would not be here.  Maybe I would not know you.  Maybe I would not have my children.  Or have the relationships I have now. 

But no matter how my journey has unfolded, I know that certain people have come into my life who have changed my life.  Created a shift.  There have been certain “intersections” that have been critical.

Christmas is such an intersection.  It is one of those “crossing of the paths that changes things, significantly – for Christmas is where we find God intersecting with humanity!  Christmas is our first best meeting with the God who has desired us from the very beginning.

I submit to you that if it weren't for Christmas we might never have known the intensity of the love that God has for us.

In this story, with Mary and Joseph, far from home because of imperial rule, a peasant mother giving birth in unsanitary substandard housing.  In this story of shepherds, in this story of Kings weren’t open to the arrival of this baby, and heathen magicians who were -  in this story we meet the God who loves us.  Who loves us with an amazing love… a love that when we cross paths with it - changes everything.   

This story is God’s love letter.  Not just the story of the baby, but also the story of the man.
As Jesus grew and went out into the world, so our understanding of just how much God loves us also grew.  We find in Jesus that God's love doesn't demand perfection, that forgiveness isn't given away sparingly but recklessly and indiscriminately, that unconditional really means unconditional, and that God's love is completely and thoroughly inclusive.

We find that even the likes of us gathered here this morning fall within the embrace of that love, and that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

I said that when we cross paths with this baby, with the man, with this Jesus, there is a shift.  A change.  And so there is.

If you were to ask people what they would want, most of all.  For themselves, for their children, for the world, how do you think they would answer?  It is the classic answer of the beauty pageant participants.  “What I want most of all is world peace.”  We are people who live in troubled times.  Our world is trouble.  Our country is troubles, our lives are troubled, our hearts are troubles.  We want… oh do we want,  peace

Christ brings us peace.  A peace begins with the knowledge that God loves and accepts us just that much.   A peace that begins with Christmas!  That is a key shift that comes with the advent of the child.

There are other shifts as well.  Wayne Muller, in a book about the impact of a painful childhood, suggests that Christ can create all kinds of shifts….He allows us to shift from pain to forgiveness, fear to faith, emptiness to fulfillment, and judgment to mercy.   Most of all, Muller suggests, this Christ enables us to move from isolation, from loneliness to intimacy.  This love we receive enables us to tear down the walls of fear and distrust, and become open to one another.

Now having said all this, I know that Christmas is a time of great emotion for many of us.  The things we say Christmas is all about, joy, peace, hope love, can actually, when life is hard, cause a measure of sorrow to come into focus.  The Christmas season can give rise to some painful memories for a good number of people...   People often think about the failures they have suffered and about loved ones they have lost...

It is at Christmas time that I sense most keenly the loss of my parents.  I remember my father, and his quest for the perfect tree, and my mother with her amazing boxes of candy and cookies.  I remember Christmas Eve in my little home church.  Caroling in the snow.  Times and relationships that are no more.

But I also know this...without Christmas my life would be positively unbearable!

I would like close by telling you a story about a nativity pageant that like life itself, didn't go quite as planned...The youth group at a certain church was performing a manger scene.  Joseph and Mary and all the other characters were in place and ready.  They did their parts with seriousness and commitment, looking as pious as they possibly could.

And then it came time for the shepherds to enter. --- Dressed in flannel bathrobes and toweled head gear, the shepherds proceeded to the altar steps where Mary and Joseph looked earnestly at the straw which contained a single naked light bulb that was playing the part of the glowing newborn Jesus.  With his back to the congregation, one of the shepherds said to the person playing Joseph, in a very loud whisper for all the cast to hear, "Well, Joe, when you gonna pass out cigars?"

The solemn spell of that occasion was not simply broken by his remark, it was exploded. Mary and Joseph's cover was completely destroyed as it became impossible to hold back the bursts of laughter. The chief angel, standing on a chair behind them was the worst of all.

She shook so hard in laughter that she fell off her chair and took the curtained back drop and all the rest of the props down with her.  The whole set was in shambles.

But do you know what?  The only thing that didn't go to pieces was that light bulb in the manger. ... it never stopped shining.

My dear friends in Christ, that baby in the manger is the light of my world, even when my world is in shambles...For in that baby the Divine and  the human cross paths.
The infant Jesus is our living, breathing sign of the immeasurable love that God has had for all of us from the very beginning.  Christmas is the living promise that we are never ever alone.  No matter where we are in life, no matter in what condition we find ourselves, no matter how far we might stray away, or how unfaithful we are, God, the supreme lover, will pursue us in love for eternity!

It's a love that never stops shining.

May God bless each of you and those you love this Christmas Season

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