Sunday, December 24, 2023

The Lullaby Sung Over Us


A Christmas Eve Sermon in Two Parts...

Last February, our family went to visit the Holy Land. We stood in the town where Elizabeth greeted Mary and the child in her womb leapt for joy, and walked the streets where Joseph led the donkey through the darkness with his pregnant wife.  We looked up at the same sky that was filled with angels on the night Christ was born, over the very hills in Bethlehem where the shepherds were keeping sheep.  I brought back olive wood crosses for the congregation carved by people who trace their Christian ancestry back to those same shepherds, and we used them to pray with during Lent.

I say that because tonight, we cannot gather here apart from the poignant pain, violence and anguish people are suffering in the very place where Christ came into the world to bring peace to us all.  We belong to each other, all of us. All of us. And Christmas is shallow and stupid if it doesn’t have something to say to the real horrors of life, and the evil we human beings can do to one another.  

 

I have no more energy left for polite cheer, sentimental tradition and shallow “good will.”  If this all doesn’t mean something bigger and more powerful than death and destruction, then it’s just a mockery of those who are suffering, and I’d rather skip it.

 

So I want to begin tonight by saying, that it does. That what happens here, and all over the world this night, is a strange, subversive and upside-down power.  We’re here tonight to claim that God comes not with might and muscle, to destroy enemies and rule by force, but in weakness and vulnerability to be loved by we who love one another, to be killed by we who kill one another, and to take all the world’s suffering into God’s very being, so that nothing – not the worst that can happen – can separate us from love.

 

This Advent we’ve let Lullabies lead us. They’re sneaky, lullabies, unlike their gentle and sweet sound, lullabies’ power is fierce and grounding, linking us to the ancient song of joy that the universe still sings, giving shape and structure to our hope, and keeping us connected to God and each other because lullabies come from love, and trust in love, and lay over the tired beloved a blanket of love.

 

So all through Advent, we’ve been singing. We’re singing to stay connected to hope, to seek peace and justice, and to remember that this whole world and everyone in it belongs to God.  We’re singing to counter despair, cynicism, and meanness, to stay soft and open to the world that God loves, ready to be used in the service of love.  As we sing tonight, I want us not to be the one bearing the message, but the ones hearing God’s lullaby sung over us.

 Tonight we are here to receive the God who comes in. God comes into this moment. And in this moment when God comes in, we are joined together with all those who’ve gone before—from those we’ve each loved and lost, to those who lived these moments thousands ago that we’re recounting this evening, through all those in the centuries in-between, the ones who wrote these carols from the 4th to the 19th centuries, and all those who sang them through the world’s wars, storms, and tragedies, along with quiet and contented Christmases gone by, to all those who are singing them around the world this very day. We’re all connected, and we are all held in the love of the One whose story we this story we sing and tell tonight. 

 

So we receive that gift too, in whatever way it appears. Tears, laughter, ambivalence, silence – it’s all welcome here, as we, and they, and God, celebrate God breaking the barriers of life and death and coming into this life alongside us, with us, and for us.

 

Now, to prepare our hearts to receive, I want to turn to the carols, or, as we are hearing them tonight, the lullabies, themselves. 

 

A few years ago, when the world was feeling particularly exhausting, I was driving down the freeway with carols playing on the radio, and the line jumped out at me, “a thrill of hope, the weary world rejoices.” And I felt such longing arise in me that it brought tears to my eyes. Yes! I thought. I want this.

 

Because these songs that have been sung in the world for centuries, have become the background sound of shopping and movies, we’ve largely stopped hearing the words of truth and comfort about who God is and what God is doing. 

 

So we are going to pause a moment and prepare ourselves to really hear the words of these familiar carols. We are going to listen to the cosmic lullaby that is coming at us in many tunes tonight. 


For the next couple of minutes you’re invited to page through the bulletin with your highlighter and highlight some lines that resonate with your soul – a few messages you need particularly to hear, lines that ignite longing, or hope, hunger, or gratitude. Anything that has energy around it for you or jumps out at you, highlight it now. 

 

And then we’ll begin.



Following Lessons & Lullabies...


When our son Owen was born, the nurse handed Andy the tiny, swaddled child, red-faced and crying. Andy instinctively began bouncing him, and then spontaneously sang what was to become Daddy’s bedtime lullaby over Owen for years to come, “Owen dear, do not fear, do not fear, your Daddy’s here. You might be sad, you may be scared, but you’re not alone.


It is a fearful thing to live and one day die.  As my young nephew quipped to his mother, “I did not consent to being born.” We just begin, and one day, quite regardless of whether we consent to it or not, our earthly life will end. And from our first breaths, we already sense how precarious all this is. Even before we can say so, we already feel scared, and we feel sad, and we feel alone. 


Being human is fundamentally, existentially, terrifying.  If we’re not currently afraid, we undoubtedly have been, and we most certainly will be again. We are united in this human experience with Mary, with Joseph, with the shepherds, and the vulnerable Christ Child. With Palestinian children, and Israeli grandmothers, with Russian moms and Ukrainian dads, with all who suffer starvation and war, and all who are trapped in depression or entombed in addiction, with beloved ones whose minds and memories are slipping away, and with all those whose bodies are ravaged by illness, with those teetering on the threshold of unknown, and those grieving the loss of what was. All people, throughout all time, are, very often, afraid.  


Two thousand years ago, a child is born into a time of upheaval and strife, under the shadow of an oppressive empire, into an insecure and unstable moment, in a less than ideal delivery room far from home. Ready or not, the child comes.  His parents welcome him in pain and joy, acutely aware of their perilous circumstances.  


And what a dangerous thing it always is, bringing a child into this heartbreaking world, filling our hearts with love, and guaranteeing our lives will know loss and sorrow and so will theirs.  


Two thousand years ago, in the darkness a new mother sings a lullaby over her newborn son.  She does not know what lay ahead for him.  Shushing his cries as she bounces him in her arms, in her own mixture of wonder, exhaustion, and fear, the young mother gazes into the face of her tiny son and sings, Jesus, dear, do not fear. Do not fear, your mommy’s here. You might be scared, you may be sad, but you’re not alone.  


And in the way of human children, our God is welcomed in.


"The crux of our Christian faith is this mind-boggling story that the Almighty crept in beside us. Came into this world as a helpless baby, into the arms of those he came to save, to share this life with us, to be with us. And then Jesus dies, taking all that separates us from God, all destruction and brokenness, even death itself, into God’s very being. Then Jesus rises from the dead. And the power of death and division is shattered by the unquenchable light and incarnate love of the world. And there is nothing, nothing, nothing that can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus."


There is nothing stronger than this. No army can defeat a mother’s love for her child. No technology or weapon is stronger than the bond between true friends. There is no terrorist or demagogue, no corruption or evil, no illness or suffering, of any kind, that can stop love.  All over the world, through next door neighbors, and kindergarten teachers, and great uncles, and little sisters, and strangers reaching out to help each other, the transformative power of love leaks between the cracks, and spills over the edges, and rises up between us with healing and tenderness, and even in the midst of terrible bondage, love sets us free.   And as anyone who has lost a loved one can tell you, not even death itself ends love. Love cannot be stopped. 


While nations rage and powers shake, in every place at every moment, love is breaking through, people are sitting with one another in their suffering, celebrating with each other in their joy, listening, seeing, sacrificing, embracing, joining God right where God already is. God’s love is embodied. We are part of that love. We are held in that love. This is God’s way.  From love we came and to love we will return. And in between, when we love, we are joining in the greatest force on earth.


Like a lullaby in the darkness, love holds us fast. This doesn’t make it feel any less like darkness.  But in that darkness, the light shines.  Because into that darkness God comes.  


Do not fear! The angelic chorus proclaims over the whole world, Do not fear, your God is here! You might be scared, you may be sad, but you’re not alone!


PRAYER

Holy One, we entrust ourselves, 

those we love dearly, 

all those we belong to throughout the planet, 

and the very world itself, 

into your arms, you who holds us all in love. 


Help us receive your love and care, 

and let your love shape our living.

Attune our hearts to the infinite and unbroken lullaby, 

sung by the Spirit over all the earth, 

embodied in God-with-us. 

Amen.


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