This is a transcript from the December 16, 2018 sermon, so it contains the character of live, spoken communication.
This morning I want to focus a little bit about angels. Angels are essential to the Christmas story. Have you noticed? Have you ever tried to tell the Christmas story without including angels in it? It's impossible, you can't do it. Angels play every role, from the Annunciation to Mary, to the shepherd and throughout the story, angels are showing up. They are part of the heavenly host, and we sing about them. You can't sing about Christmas without singing about angels at one point or another.
When we ask, "What are your favorite Christmas hymns" again and again, you're going to find yourself singing about angels. You're going to sing about angels even if you don't know what they're saying. When you're saying, "Glory to God in the highest" and, "In excelsis Deo" you don't even know what that means and you're singing it. When you sing, "Gloooria", it's okay because that's what the angels do and we get caught up in all of that. That's part of Christmas. You can't get away from it. You can't get away from all the different ways that angels have been shown even when it seems a little absurd.
And then, of course, you can't have a Christmas pageant without angels. If you're doing the classic Christmas pageant, you know that you work your way up. You work your way up from the sheep, who just wander around as sheep do, when you're about this tall and then you graduate and maybe at one point you get to become a shepherd, that's pretty good. But you know you've arrived in the hierarchy of pageants when you get to be an angel. You get to speak, you get to sing.
This is a big thing, you've got to have angels at Christmas. They are the essential part except nobody knows what to do with them. They're part of a sentimental Christmas but I bet that if somebody would ask you, "What's the relevance of angels in your life today?" We'd be hard pressed. We might not even be sure that we believe in those kinds of angels. Angels are essential in Christmas until they get in the way of the message of Christmas. Sometimes when we sing and get into that sentimental zone of Christmas, we sing about angels, we talk about angels, but we never really even think about them and we wonder , "For this Christmas, what's the role of an angel and does it really matter?"
Can you tell the story of your Christmas this year without angels? I'll bet you could. This sermon and this part is where we're talking about the playlist of the church. This sermon that has to do with the singing and the talking and the message of angels is either going to be the most irrelevant thing that we could talk about, 10 days out from Christmas or less, or it might be the most important.
There's a couple of problems when we talk about angels. One is this- one is that when we talk about angels, the first problem is the problem of language. A lot of the Bible is in what some people call, "Night language", the language of night. It's the language conveyed of what happens in Revelation. It happens in trances, it happens in visions, it happens in story. A lot of what happens around the conveying of truth in the Bible comes in what's called night language, as opposed to what you and I mostly run around in, which is the day language.
Day language has to do with facts, figures, data, research, and verification. In truth, they're both important, it's when you try to make one do the job of the other that they get in trouble. If you want to send a satellite to the moon or to space, you better do better than just relying on a vision. You'd want facts, you'd want numbers, you want verification but if you want to talk about something that is wondrous, beautiful and truthful, you might want to talk about that in a different way. They're both important.
The problem is when we try to talk about what is being conveyed in the Bible with daytime languages as if you could prove that. How do you prove an angel showed up to a bunch of shepherds in the middle of the night? Well, you don't. Some people think, "Well, then it's just irrelevant." I think that misses the point. I think the point is that there is something that is going on that is wondrous. I love this quote from the guy who's the Archbishop of the Orthodox Church, Kallistos, where he says, "It's not the task of Christianity to provide easy answers to every question, but to make us progressively more aware of a mystery. God is not so much the object of our knowledge as the cause of our wonder."
What the Bible is portraying here is the cause of wonder. It is something that grabs people's attention. It cut them up, it changed their attention, it turned their head, it opened their heart. The real question for me is not whether they were angels or whether there still are angels who show up in the sky with wings, you don't need a sermon for that. If that happens, it's going to happen. You don't need me to tell you about it. The real question is, does God still talk today? Does God still give messages today? If so, how do we know? Because in the end, the second problem is that we get in the way of the Christmas message when we focus too much on angels, wings, skies and heavenly host and wondering if that could happen or not happen. We are confusing the container with the contents. It's the contents.
Angels by definition are messengers. It is an entity that is bringing a message, it is trying to get our attention. The question is, does God still try to get our attention? What is the source of our wonder today? What was the last thing that caught you, spun your head, opened your heart? Would you know it if it came? When we think that the only way that God speaks is when the sky rips open and heavenly hosts sing songs to us, then we may miss all the other ways that God is trying to speak even today even right now.
How does God talk? How does God speak to you? Is there a message for you? That's the only interesting question for me when it comes to angels and Christmas. Not so much whether we can prove what may or may not have happened 2,000 years ago but whether it has any relevance in 2018, in Douglas County, in your life and mine. What's the message that God is still trying to get across?
There are lots of ways it comes across when we are paying attention. One of the things that a pageant does, one of the things that a child does, is it causes you to pay attention. Just watch what happens to new parents. Watch what happens to grandparents. Watch what happens to any adult when a child is in there, and all of a sudden everyone's paying attention.
The ultimate messenger, of course, is the same as the ultimate message, it's Christ. Christ is the message; coming as a child, as a messenger, but the point is the same. God's trying to open your heart. God's trying to speak into your life. God has a message, can you hear it? What I have found in my own life is that it is not so much the big and the flashy, where I begin to notice and the nudges of God and the message, it's when I can be still. It's when I can tune out all the voices and all the claims on my day, on my agenda. It's when I'm able to somehow let all that fall off.
I want to talk about not just the message but what is it that being conveyed? We're doing a series called, "The Playlist of Christmas", the music that we listened to and we've had some fun- maybe you've had some fun comparing the lists of different people around and what's your favorite music and why? I think you could have a wonderful conversation around the table, around a group if you just talked about your most essential songs and why and where they came from and you'd go for hours because this stuff gets deep into us.
The church has a playlist. This morning we are looking at Hark the Herald Angels Sing. What is the message that this music is trying to convey? While there are lots of verses and lots of things, the thing that grabbed me this week was,
"Veiled in flesh, the Godhead see; hail, the incarnate deity. Pleased with flesh is flesh to dwell, Jesus our Emmanuel."
There is a great mystery here and if we stop and think, listen or open ourselves up, that's one that will deepen us again and again. The idea of Emmanuel, that God is with us, and that there is a great mystery that is going on, that this reveals the very heart of God. It wasn't that in those days nobody believed in God, everybody believed in God. They believed in gods but the thing that everyone believed is somehow that God was out there up in the sky; God was away and apart.
What was revolutionary about Christmas is now that God is right here among us. God is right here in our midst and Christ has come to be one of us. That's pretty revolutionary. That means there is no part of you where God is not involved; that God is in our life, around us, through it, that God is living in and through us.
Now, when we get to this part, that God is with us, I think it changes the way we do Christmas. It's a great place to start but we shouldn't stop there. Because here's what I found, that as long as we still have this idea that there is a God who is out there and only out there; who is only ultimate and not also intimate, then it's pretty easy to say, "Yes, I believe God is with us. Not so sure about them. God is with me that is the revolution and that is the thing that brings the Christmas."
What really changes the world is when I can begin to believe that God is also with you and begin to live accordingly. The very image of God is with you and that if I want to encounter God, I'm going to encounter God, among other ways, maybe even primarily through you or the person I don't even like. James Finley says, "Each person, through the generosity of God, is worth all that God is worth." That is the message of Emmanuel that God has come and the very worth of God is now given to every human being.
When we begin to wrap our minds around that, when we get to get our hands and feet walking in that truth, that begins to change things, doesn't it? Because it's one thing to say, "God is with me and God is with us but what about them? Well, sure, they can be with God. God can be with them as long as they become like us. As long as they believe what we believe. As long as they partake and look like what we look like and partake the way we partake."
But how many times in the name of God have we divided, have we persecuted, have we dehumanized other people because they weren't like us? They didn't believe the same thing or the right thing. They didn't do the right thing, they weren't the right color, they didn't live the right way. We somehow keep putting up divisions where God keeps trying to break things down and open it up.
It is one thing to begin to believe that the inestimable worth of God is residing in you and that God loves you and that is an important message. You should hear that and if you hear nothing else today hear that. I hope you will also hear that the implications of that also is true for the person who's sitting next to you, who is across the street from you, who is across the world from you; who you may not like, you may not know. It is there too, that God came and there is no place, there is no person on this earth for which God did not come; that God did not sweat, that God did not believe, that God did not die, that God did not rise.
If that's true, that changes everything because it is one thing to capture this message of the God who is with us and the God who is here and the God who loves me. That deepens and that changes and then it becomes Christmas for me every time I capture that. But it is when I begin to believe, see and respond accordingly to that truth out there, well, that begins to transform the world and that changes everything.
There is a book that came out over 15-20 years ago now, it's called "The Rise of Christianity" by Rodney Stark. He's a sociologist and what he was trying to do is explain how Christianity went from this small, little, marginalized, "Jesus movement", as he called it, in this obscure place to suddenly becoming a dominant force within just in a couple 100 years. It turns out it wasn't because there was just such great preaching going on or great worship services or great anything, what happened was people began to, as he described it, actually began to live as if that stuff were true.
What I meant by that is this, in those days if you got sick nobody understood anything about sickness other than you were somehow cursed. So, people would leave the city in droves and it was two huge, huge incredible times of great sickness and plague. We don't know all of what it was but by the descriptions of the people, the first one in about 160s was smallpox and then measles probably in the early 200s and it just decimated between a quarter and a third of the entire known world. People didn't know what to do so they were leaving.
Everybody was leaving everyone except this one group. They were called the Galileans because they believed that they needed to take care of these people because that's what Jesus said you should do. Because Jesus says, "Whatever you've done it to the least of these, you've done it to me", so they were going and taking care of people. They began to see not someone who is cursed, they began to see the presence of God; that this is where God was going to meet them. As it turns out, in a lot of these diseases, if you just get basic nursing and care, if you just get someone who gives you water, keeps you warm, comforts you and cares for you, a lot of people will get through it.
Here were these people who are recovering and they considered it a miracle and why? It is because these Galileans came. Even as these Galileans, these people who were coming and seeing this, even as they were then getting sick and dying, all they saw was that this is what Jesus did for us. They were the messenger and their life was the messenger. This is who God is and it was considered just the same as martyrdom. This is, "I'm giving my life, I'm taking your disease off of you, I'm giving it to me, this is what Christ did." This caused a revolution.
It caused a revolution when in those days where infanticide was practiced again and again and particularly when the children were baby girls and they would be just tossed out onto the street or taken to the dump areas. It would be these Galileans who would go. Why? Because they believed that somehow there was this inestimable worth of a human being right there. This is where they were going to encounter Christ. All these girls were being raised by all these Galileans.
As it always happens when people try this dumb experiment, now there are not enough women. Who's being married? It's these women who know about Christ and who've been raised on this and this becomes one of the ways that the message spreads. It becomes spread because in the cities where there was fighting and rioting going on because of all the different languages and cultures, because, evidently back then, if you were different, people didn't trust you. They might even fight you and call you names and denigrate you and do all those things.
What they did was this group that said, "No, you're different because that's where Christ is". Paul is able to say, "In Christ there is no east or west, there's no slave or free, there's no Jew or Gentile, there's no male or female." This became the place where that could all come together. He was just showing with his charts and all these things, if something changed in the ancient world, it wasn't one religion's ideas versus another, it was the embodiment and the living out of this truth that each person, through the generosity of God is worth all that God is worth. Now, go and live accordingly and they did and it changed the world and it still does.
There is this message that isn't just for Christmas. This is a message for 365 days of the year and it's not just to bring a time of sentimental joy on a day, I hope it does by the way, but it's supposed to do so much more. This is supposed to change the world. It changes the world when that message gets taken out. It begins to change the way we see everything, including the people around us and including the problems. I saw this quote years ago and it has stuck with me, maybe you have seen it as well. It begins to make sense when we say,
"I screamed at God for the starving child until I saw the starving child was God screaming at me."
I can believe that if the inestimable worth of God is in every human, then I need to listen because out there that's where I encounter God.
We do some amazing and wonderful things around here around Christmas. We gather for worship, we have incredible music. On Christmas Eve, we gather and we have candles, we sing Silent Night and I love those times. But if that's all we've got, we might as well just pack it up now, put it on the shelf because it's really not doing anything except just kind of giving us our Christmas fix for the year.
We have something that is so much more valuable. We have a message, we have a way of living that the world is needing, that the world is screaming for or maybe, maybe it's God who's screaming through the world at us.
Does God still speak today? Yes, you bet God speaks. One of the most powerful ways God speaks is through messengers. This week, this year that means God is speaking through your life and my life and your words. I don't know about winged creatures that show up and tear open the sky in the middle of night, again, you don't need a sermon for that but I hope we hear this, that you are the message of God. People will judge who this God is and who they are worth by that God by the way that we act or we don't, what we say or don't, where we show up or don't.
This year, this Christmas, may the God of wonder interrupt and catch your attention. May that wonder extend not only to the love of God that is in your life but that is conveyed into the lives of all those around and even the people we don't know or see and just know that God is there. That's where we encounter Him. May you be that messenger of that good news. Because the messengers of Christmas still play a vital role in this story and the next chapter is about to begin.