Tonight’s the Night the World Begins Again

Christmas Eve Sermon, 2016. 

I’ve been thinking about some Christmas gifts…and by that I mean some of the gifts that Christmas gives us.

It’s a season of giving – yes, it’s over-commercialized –but in the right spirit that can help us develop a habit and spirit of generosity.  And that’s a gift.

The months leading up to Christmas are a good time to practice delayed gratification.  Don’t buy that now…Christmas is coming.   I know I need to practice that sometimes.  So that’s a gift.

For some it’s a change of habit just to be thinking about what to get for other people, thinking more about others—who they are, what they need.  It can feel like an obligation but it can become a healthy, joyful, even life-giving habit.  That’s a gift.

At Christmastime we are intentional about asking people what they want.  That’s a good exercise for keeping us from being “curved in upon the self.”

Christmas, itself, is a gift.  It’s a change of focus.  It comes with some built-in themes that are important.  Giving.  Receiving. Gathering.  Family.  Peace. Hope.  Joy.  Love. Remembering.  Birth.  The Presence of God.  Wonder.

I don’t know about you, but I  really need the gift of Christmas, itself, this year. It’s been that kind of year.

I need to be reminded to stop and breathe and think about giving and receiving and gathering and family.  I need time to stop and remember.

I need to let words like hope and peace and light fill up my soul for awhile.

I need a time to stop and listen to songs about beauty and joy and angels and promises fulfilled…and God showing up in surprising ways and surprising places.

I need the wonder of it all.

I need the songs.  I especially need the songs and carols… because the music goes straight to my heart and heals me and rekindles my hope and my joy and my faith faster than words alone can ever do. “Those who sing pray twice,” said Martin Luther.

Do you have a favorite Christmas song or carol? Is there one—or maybe there are several?—that touch you in some particularly powerful way?

There are a lot of Christmas songs and carols that I dearly love and I listen to them over and over and over again.  But there’s one Christmas song in particular I keep coming back to these past few Christmases.  And this year, especially, I’ve been listening to it a lot.  In fact I’ve been listening to it off and on all year long.

It’s fairly recent—it came out in 2005, so by Christmas Song standards it’s almost brand new.  It’s called Better Daysby the Goo Goo Dolls, written by John Rzeznik.  Yeah, I know.  Goo Goo Dolls.  Silly name, but a great band.  And a powerful song.  Listen to these words:

And you asked me what I want this year

And I try to make this kind and clear

Just a chance that maybe we’ll find better days

 

‘Cause I don’t need boxes wrapped in strings

And designer love and empty things

Just a chance that maybe we’ll find better days

Better days.  When all is said and done, isn’t that what we all want?  For ourselves, for our families and friends?  For….  Everyone? Better days.

I need some place simple where we could live

And something only you can give

And that’s faith and trust and peace while we’re alive

Those are some pretty good gifts we can give to each other.  For Christmas.  For every day.  And the song is right… we’ll only have faith and trust and peace while we’re alive if we give those things to each other.  Faith.  Trust. Peace.  But the song knows we need something else if we’re going to be able to give each other faith and trust and peace…

And the one poor child who saved this world

And there’s ten million more who probably could

If we all just stopped and said a prayer for them

The one poor child who saved this world. That’s why we’re here tonight. That’s what we’re here to celebrate. But we’re also here to be reminded that because of that child, Jesus, Emmanuel, God With Us, we have the example and the power to save the world together.  God came in person to give us what we need so we can give each other the gifts of faith and trust and peace. 

 I wish everyone was loved tonight

And we could somehow stop this endless fight

Just a chance that maybe we’ll find better days

The thing is, everyone is loved tonight—loved by God, at least.  But they don’t all know it and they certainly don’t all feel it.  If they did, if they all felt loved, if we all felt loved, maybe it would stop the endless fight that seems to be the curse of the human race.  But the only way for that to happen is if we take the love God gives us and let it be real and meaningful in our lives.  And then give it to each other in real and meaningful ways.

Brené Brown said,  “Jesus comes to show us what love looks like.  God is love.  But God knows that if God just comes down and says I am love and I want you to love each other, we’re going to go straight to hearts and unicorns.  We know it’s difficult and we don’t like difficult, so we’re going to romanticize it.  Hearts and unicorns.  But love is difficult.  So Jesus comes to show us how to do it.  He comes to show us that love doesn’t tolerate shaming.  Love doesn’t exclude people because they’re different.  Love reaches out and touches and embraces all the people we don’t want to touch or embrace. Love does the hard work.  Love does the hard things.”

But there’s something else that God shows us about love by coming as a baby, by coming, especially, as a poor baby.  Right at the beginning—Jesus shows us, God shows us, that love is willing to be vulnerable.  Love is willing to let down all its defenses.

When you think of all the ways that God could have come to us–all the ways we imagined throughout history that God would come to us—most of that imagery is all about power and royalty and thunder and smoke and lightning.  And then God shows up as a baby.  A poor baby. In a poor country.  A homeless baby.  A migrant born on the road on a journey his parents were forced to take.  A refugee baby forced to flee for his life.

One poor child who saved the world.

I haven’t quoted the refrain that runs through the song.  It’s repeated twice between the verses, but the song ends with it, too.  It’s both a promise and a call to action:

So take these words and sing out loud

‘Cause everyone is forgiven now

‘Cause tonight’s the night the world begins again

Take these words and sing out loud.  That’s the call to action.

‘Cause everyone is forgiven now.  That’s the promise. It’s also another great gift of Christmas.  In this baby, who is God With Us, we have a chance to start over with a clean slate.

In this baby, who is love itself coming to us in its most human and dependent and vulnerable form, we can find forgiveness and we can learn to give forgiveness— and if we can forgive and be forgiven, if we can let go of old hurts and forgive others, then we really can give each other the gifts of faith and trust and peace while we’re alive.  And then there really is a chance that maybe we’ll find better days.

So take these words and sing out loud,

‘Cause everyone is forgiven now.

And tonight’s the night the world begins again.

 

Tonight’s the night the world begins again.

The Gift

The little boy stopped in his tracks and pulled his mother’s hand tight to his chest.  His father, catching up to them, stopped and rested a hand on the boy’s shoulder.  The fog of the boy’s breath sparkled for a moment with a halo from the streetlamp before vanishing into the cold night air, and his glistening eyes reflected a kaleidoscope of colors from countless lights on the amply decorated houses competitively decked out for the season.  A passable version of Jingle Bells wafted down the street from a group of not-too-bad carolers but was soon overwhelmed by an odd assortment of recorded music pouring out of various holiday displays, some sacred, some not so much.

The thing that had stopped the boy as he skipped down the street was not the seemingly endless cascade of colored light nor one of the comical inflated cartoon characters in Santa hats, nor even the impressive electric train set and miniature Alpine village filling an entire front yard.  The thing that stopped him stone still there on the cold December sidewalk was an old-fashioned crèche, a simple manger scene.

Compared to all the other neighborhood displays the crèche was almost embarrassingly understated.  There were no shepherds or angels or magi in this tableau, just Mary, Joseph and the baby Jesus.  Their figures, though, were particularly well crafted and cunningly lit.  They looked so real that one had to do a double-take to make sure that they were, in fact, sculptures and not human actors holding a pose.  The figures looked decidedly Middle-Eastern and even, if such a thing is possible, a bit dislocated in time, as if they had been transported to this sanitary American cul de sac from a dusty, distant, Palestinian past. But perhaps the thing that was most arresting was the way they looked at you if you stood just where the boy and his parents were standing.

Mary is usually depicted with her hands on her heart as she ponders her child in the manger.  Joseph, too, is most often shown gazing at the baby.  But this scene was different.  The boy, the mother, the father almost felt as if they had intruded, as if they had inadvertently stumbled into something serious and secret and would now have to be initiated into its mysteries.  Joseph seemed to be giving them a stare of careful appraisal and assessment as he looked directly into their eyes. “Can you handle this?  Can you treasure this precious thing you did not ask for, this responsibility, this honor, this gift that will give you everything and also demand everything? Can you stay with him when it would be easier to walk away?” he seemed to be asking.  Mary, too, gazed intently, unblinking, into their eyes and seemed to be asking, “Do you understand the weight of this gift?  Do you even begin to understand what you have here? Do you know what is happening here? Do you know who he is?  Will you let him show you who you are?”

And then there was the baby.  How to describe this baby?  He, too, seemed to be looking straight into their souls, but in his face there were no questions.  There was instead an indescribable mix of innocence and wisdom.  There was promise and foreshadowing.  There was the shining hint of divinity and the burbling drool of humanity.  There was life, organic and messy, full of merriment and ecstasy and pain and tears and plain everydayness.  There was light, revealing, illuminating, probing, warming, piercing and soothing, burning and healing.  There was love, gentle and compassionate, fierce and yearning, ruthless and gracious. Love in all its purest shades.  Love in all its joy.  Love in all its anguish.  There was all that in that baby face and something else.  Deep in those eyes was God’s own Yes.

They stood transfixed at the crèche for what seemed like a long time—a moment out of time—one small family regarding another across and through time, still-life speaking to life in a held breath of stillness, until the not-too-bad carolers drew near and broke through the little family’s reverie with  tidings of comfort and joy that were a just a bit rushed ever so slightly out of tune.

A few minutes later, without much thinking about it, the boy, the mother and the father found themselves in their car making their way home.   The father drove a little more slowly than usual as they rolled across the familiar bumps and dips of familiar streets.  The boy watched the reflections of Christmas lights dance and swirl across the windows of passing cars.  And the mother’s eyes were focused on something only she could see as she softly hummed Silent Night.

When John Came A-Wassailing

So here it came a singing toward us, the third Sunday in Advent. Gaudete Sunday. Rejoice Sunday. The Sunday we light the pink candle in the Advent wreath, the candle of Joy. As I looked at the lectionary texts for the week, it was easy to pick up the theme of joy. Well, it was easy to find joy in the first two readings anyway.

The first reading was from chapter three of Zephaniah. I think we only hear from Zephaniah maybe once every three years in the lectionary, but it’s worth waiting for. Did you hear that marvelous line in verse 17? “He will rejoice over you with gladness, he will renew you in his love; he will exult over you with loud singing!” What a picture!  Have you ever imagined God singing about you? To you? I sing to my dog sometimes just because he makes me happy. He seems to like it.  It’s kind of fun to think of God singing about us, to us, like that. So there’s some joy. That one was easy.

And then came the second reading from Philippians, that wonderful passage from St. Paul’s love letter to the church at Philippi: “Rejoice in the Lord always; again, I say Rejoice!” Well that’s pretty clear, too. So okay! Right there in those first two texts I’ve got plenty to work with to lay the groundwork for Gaudete –Rejoice- Sunday.

But then comes the Gospel reading from Luke 3, and, frankly, John the Baptist kind of sucks the wind right out of rejoicing. “You brood of vipers.” “Bear fruits worthy of repentance.” “The axe is at the root.” “The chaff will be burned with unquenchable fire.” Yeah. That’ll take you right to your happy place.

So I’m thinking about these texts and about Rejoice Sunday and about trying to tease some joy out of grumpy old John the Baptist, and in the middle of all that I found myself thinking about… wassailing.  What can I say?  It’s that time of year.

When the pagan Anglo-Saxons migrated to Britain in the middle of the 5th century, they brought with them the tradition of wassailing. Wassailing, of course, eventually became Christmas caroling, but it started out as something very different.

The word wassail comes from the Saxon phrase Wæs þu hæl which means, “be thou hale” or “be thou healthy” or “be thou well.” At their celebration of the Winter Solstice, the Anglo-Saxons would go out into their orchards and sing to their cider trees, their apple and pear and cherry trees, to wake them up from their winter sleep and to encourage them to be healthy, to produce good fruit so that they could have a plentiful harvest of good cider. “Wæs þu hæl!” they would sing. “Be thou healthy.” And it occurred to me as I thought of all this, that this is kind of what John the Baptist was doing as he was preaching at the Jordan. He was wassailing. He was singing out that it was time to wake up and be healthy. So maybe there is some joy there somewhere between “You brood of vipers” and “the chaff will be thrown into the fire.” Or at least a calling to joy.

With all that in mind, I began to re-imagine my picture of John preaching by the Jordan. Instead of seeing him as a voice of foreboding, instead of hearing him cranky and impatient, I imagined him singing. I imagined him wassailing to wake the people. So I decided that this was what I would do in my own orchard, my own parish, on this third Sunday of Advent. I wassailed to them.  I sang to them.  And it went like this…

When John Came A-Wassailing

In the fifteenth year of sovereign rule of the Emperor Tiberius,
In a time of ruthless potentates and wrongs both small and serious,
The Song of God fell into John, the son of Zechariah,
And he sang it out so strongly they thought he might be Messiah.

But he said, “No, I am not the one you all have been expecting.
I am just the song that sings out where our paths are intersecting.
I’m not worthy to receive him or to tie his sandal thong!
He is the Maker of all Music and I am just one simple song.”

Like a wassailing in the orchard to wake the cider trees,
The song of John cut through their crust and brought them to their knees
As they heard a new reality and began to realize
That the reign of God might now unfold before their very eyes.

So he sang them to the river, saying time was of the essence,
And immersed them in the cleansing flow of forgiveness and repentance,
And his song filled up the wilderness with a Word to spear the heart
Until the crowd was all convicted as their masks were torn apart.

He sang, “You children of the covenant, you children of the promise,
You children of the circumstance and times that are upon us,
All you questing, anxious seekers, all you folk both awed and flawed,
Are you ready to stand naked in the searching gaze of God?

“All you tax-collecting schemers, all you servants of the sword,
All you noble trees and saplings in the orchard of the Lord,
Yes, your roots go deep as Abraham and you’re clothed in your tradition
But that’s not enough to save you from your pathway to perdition.

“O you brood of sneaky vipers, O you children of the snake,
Who warned you of the wrath to come? Who told you what’s at stake?
Did you think that life was something you could skate through or could fake?
Well, my sleeping trees of Zion, it’s time for you to wake.”

Then in dismay the people cried, “John, tell us what to do!
If our heritage means nothing is our fate left up to you?”
And he said, “No that’s not in my hands, but it is somewhat in yours,
For the Winnower we’ve waited for is at the threshing floor.

“So now’s the time to change the way you think and see each other,
Now’s the time to change the way you treat your sister and your brother,
Now’s the time to change your heart and mind and show it by your fruits
With more honest and more decent and more generous pursuits.

“So give away your extra coat to the person who is shivering,
And give up half your sandwich to that hungry kid who’s quivering,
Don’t take more than what you’re meant to take, don’t lie, extort or cheat,
For the Winnower is coming and he’ll sift us all like wheat.

“Yes, the time has come to bear the fruit of new life and repentance
For you’ll reap the harvest that you’ve sown, you’re writing your own sentence.
Even now the axe is at the root, even now your options dwindling,
So will you produce good cider? Or will you be so much kindling?

“For the One who fashioned every soul finds a use for each and all.
Will you be the cider in the cup or the fire that warms the hall?
Will you be the sweet aroma drawing others to the table
Or dissipate as so much smoke in a cautionary fable?

“And I know this all sounds frightening– to be assessed, appraised and weighed–
Every one of us has cause to fear, but I sing, ‘Be not afraid!’
For the one who does the winnowing, the one who does the sifting,
Is the Soul of grace and love and life, the Giver of all gifting.

“And I’m simply here to tell you in this wild and holy place
You have another chance to be made new, a chance to live in grace,
For one who does the sifting does not come here to condemn
But to find every seed of love and good and make it grow again.

“So this song that sounds so ominous, it really is Good News!
For the God of second chances hopes that you will not refuse
To change your heart and mind and ways and show it by your fruits
With more loving and more honest and more generous pursuits.

“For the one who does the winnowing, the one who does the sifting,
Is the Soul of grace and love and life, the Giver of all gifting.
Yes, the one who does the sifting does not come here to condemn
But to find every seed of love and good and make it grow again.”

—–

So now as the lights of Advent, hope, peace, joy and love light your way to Christmas, Wæs þu hæl!  Be thou hale.