December 19, 2010
"An Unlikely Place"
Rev. Dr. David A. Davis
“In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth.” An unlikely place. “But you, O Bethlehem of Ephrathah, who are one of the little clans of Judah, from you shall come forth for me one who is to rule in Israel.” Bethlehem. An unlikely place. “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus.” Now there’s an unlikely place. Mary’s Womb. Nazareth. Bethlehem. “He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob forever , and of his kingdom there will be no end.” The promise of God in the most unlikely place. “And he shall stand and feed his flock in the strength of the Lord, in the majesty of the name of the Lord his God. And they shall live secure, for now he shall be great to the ends of the earth.” All from such an unlikely place. “And he shall be the one of peace.” “For nothing will be impossible with God.” Promise. Security. Peace. Emmanuel. Messiah. Salvation. Nazareth. Bethlehem. Mary’s Womb. God and the unlikely place.
“O little town of Bethlehem, how still we see thee lie! Above the deep and dreamless sleep, the silent stars go by.” Phillips Brooks wrote the text for the hymn in the late 19th century. Details revealed in his collection of letters indicate that Brooks was inspired to write the hymn after a Sunday afternoon trip to Bethlehem on horseback from Jerusalem. He wrote in his letter of the beauty of the city as seen from the Shepherd’s field not far away and the hospitality received at the Church of Nativity which stands to this day as the traditional spot where Mary gave birth. “O little town of Bethlehem” he wrote, and generations since sing and imagine a place more quaint and sweet and pretty than it is unlikely.
When I traveled to the region a few years ago, my experience of Bethlehem was quite different. On a tour bus, not on horseback, our group waited to be processed through the security gate in the wall that surrounds Jerusalem. Soldiers boarded the bus to check passports. On the two or three story wall next to the gate into the area around Bethlehem was a mural painted that spoke of peace and goodwill to all. It was ironic art. The bus parked in a hotel parking lot and we headed up the steep hill toward Manger Square. Hundreds of young children surrounded us shouting for us to buy something, give them money. Vendors called out. Our group was separated a bit in the crowd. It was a chaotic, frenzied scene. Once in Manger Square we headed straight to the Church of the Nativity. The door to the Church of the Nativity is now so small that you almost have to crawl or at least stoop through. One can see in the door frame, in the arch, how smaller and smaller passageways were built at various points in history. “For security” was the only thing the doorkeeper/guard said. Inside the church my head was spinning, maybe from the incense, but more likely from the overload of the whole experience. And as we descended into the bowels of the church, toward the grotto, now an altar, where pilgrims gather at the site of the birth of Jesus, as we descended, a tour group ahead of us was singing Silent Night in English with candles lit.
As we came back outside to Manger Square, muslims were kneeling in prayer. Shop owners were peddling Christian kitsch. Soldiers with guns patrolled about. To stand outside in Manger Square is to stand pretty much in the center of the complexity of the Christian/Jewish/Muslim relationship. It is to stand pretty much in the center of the forever broken relationship between Israel and the Palestinians. There in Manger Square is to stand amid the history of violence; ancient history, recent history, and the very real potential for violence at any moment. The juxtaposition, the contrast of it all, made my stomach hurt. “how still we see thee lie”, really? To stand there in Bethlehem is to stand in an unlikely place. “And he shall be the one of peace.” “For nothing will be impossible with God.” The promise of the prophet, the promise of the angel, may be more like a plea.
Bethlehem and Mary’s Womb. An unlikely place. Mary asked how this could be and the angel said “holy”. Holy Spirit and Holy Child. The child to be born will be holy; he will be called the Son of God. A holiness described by Mary herself in her song, Mary singing of holiness; “scattering the proud in the thoughts of their own hearts, and bringing down the powerful from their thrones, and lifting up the lowly, and filling the hungry with good things and sending the rich away empty” The Son of God, the one there in her womb, he is the one who did “not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but who emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human form, humbling himself, becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.” (There’s an unlikely place.) The holiness in Mary’s womb was something other than precious and cute, something way more than meek and mild. The holiness was salvation and the kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven, and every valley being lifted and every mountain made low, and the light coming into the world and the darkness never overcoming it. The holiness in Mary’s womb was the kingdom of God breaking through in the most unlikely place.
How many of you have now watched on YouTube the Hallelujah Chorus sung in Wanamakers in Philadelphia? That’s about how many people sent it to me. You and 6.5 million people have watched it. It was connected to the Philadelphia Opera Company, billed as a random act of culture; the wonderful notes of Handel sung by hundreds of voices into the many floors of a department store that happens to be outfitted with an organ. A flash mob choir breaks out amid the early holiday shopping season. A performance of Handel at an unlikely time, in an unlikely place. The postings underneath the video on YouTube; the messages posted are cover the map in content. From short notes of thanks… to you made my Christmas… to how proud Handel would be… to it was the most beautiful thing ever…. to it was the most profound experience of my life ….to a debate about religion in the public square… to an argument about sound recording and whether it was all fake… to an enlistment of video in the so-called war on Christmas. I enjoyed listening to the clip, but seriously? Some of the postings were even removed due to inappropriate content. Can you imagine?
I’ve worked with enough musicians to know all those singers weren’t there singing their Hallelujahs to Jesus as an expression of their faith. And as long as people are dying in Afghanistan and Iraq and the Sudan and the Middle East and in the streets of Philadelphia or Chicago or Trenton….I for one am not much interested in a conversation about a “war” on Christmas. And with all due respect, an interesting, enjoyable random act of culture ought not to be confused with the inbreaking of the kingdom of God. It may be an unlikely place to sing Handel and sing it well, but the earth shattering, death conquering, Word made flesh promise of God is so far beyond our piety, it is so far beyond our desire for “all is calm, all is bright”, it is so something other than our attempt to make Bethlehem and Mary’s womb just another tradition to keep, just like last year, or just like when we were young, or just like that Christmas when it snowed, and the tree fell in the living room, but we sang carols by the fire all night long, and Grandma laughed so hard she…..no, an unlikely place is an unlikely place.
Bethlehem, Mary’s womb, God’s promise and the most unlikely place. “And he shall be the one of peace.” “For nothing will be impossible with God.” Angels and prophets in Advent speak of a confidence and a sure hope the God is still at work; and that God can still make all things new, and that the light of God’s reconciling Spirit still flickers, even in the most unlikely of places. Angels and prophets in Advent announce that the stage for this year’s Christmas pageant will be, as it has always been, the world God has made. As we again prepare him room in our heart, as the gift of the Baby Jesus transforms your life and mine, as we celebrate and sing and praise God for our salvation, angels and prophets in Advent point to a kingdom transformation and creation’s celebration and heaven and nature singing. The world we live in is the unlikely place and the promise of prophets and angels becomes an Advent plea. It is our Advent prayer. Come, Lord Jesus. Quickly come. Yes, come again in the fullness of time all your glory. But come now, in the power of your Spirit, and in all of your Wisdom, and by your grace. For you are the one of peace and nothing is impossible with God.
We had a memorial service here in the sanctuary yesterday for Jack Young. With the banners and the Christmas flowers, and with the Advent wreath lit and we sang “Joy to the World” and “The Virgin Mary Had a Baby Boy”, it was everything of a worship service held in the lingering days of Advent, including the proclamation of our resurrection hope in Jesus Christ. In preparation for the service, the family gave me a brief biography that Jack had put together in June of 2008. Jack’s wife Lois didn’t know he had written it, but there it was among the things you have to go through when death comes. It was pretty much a timeline with some description of work, and children’s birth, and family moves, and volunteer involvement from 1957 to the present. It was just the facts, no editorial comment, until the very last line. After Jack wrote “I enjoy cooking, and reading, and thinking”, he wrote “I struggle with the state of the world”. After reading several pages about his life, and after a service yesterday where those notes were so expanded in celebration of an abundant life in all of its fullness of joy and love and family and accomplishment, I take that last line, “I struggle with the state of the world”, I hear it as Jack’s Advent plea.
It sounds kind of odd to name the world as an unlikely place when it comes to the life-giving, life sustaining, life redeeming promise of Jesus Christ. But every year at this time, and probably a few other times a year, someone asks me about the historicity of the Virgin Birth. It could be a life-long question for a doubting pilgrim, a point of argument for hardened skeptic, a doctrinal hurdle for a graduating seminary student preparing a statement of faith, or just a burr in the saddle of someone I have never met who wants to ruin my night at the cocktail party at your house, “do you really believe in the Virgin Birth?”
I don’t have time to share with you the litany of my answers over 25 years, but this morning I am offering a fresh answer for the next time it comes my way. Answering a question with an another question. “What would be more miraculous to you? A virgin birth or a lasting peace in the Middle East? Or the leaders of the world filled with righteousness? Or no more war in Afghanistan? Or all of God’s people determined to end poverty? Or the nation of Haiti transformed to the peaceable kingdom? Because the biggest challenges to my faith are not about what God has done in the past, it’s about what I believe God will do in the future. What seems to be the more audacious faith claim to you? God and Mary’s Womb? Or God and the world right now? For a Christian in Advent, the bold vision is of the kingdom promise of God shining forth, breaking in, showering down, in an unlikely place.
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