Sunday, December 24, 2017
© Stacey Steck
Most etymologists believe that the word Noel comes from the French by way of the Latin, and is related to the word for birth, and thus became associated with Christmas, the birth of Jesus. In France, Merry Christmas is proclaimed joyeux noel. However, there is an alternative origin of the word Noel that helps make a little better sense of the hymn we just heard Charles and Alice sing. You see, if Noel means birth, they just sang “birth, birth, birth, birth, born is the King of Israel.” But if that alternative origin of Noel is employed, we sing the much more sensible, “News, news, news, news, born is the King of Israel” because the other possible origin of the word Noel comes from the French word nouvelle, which means “news.” And what was the first line of the hymn? “The first noel the angel did say,” in other words, the first utterance of the good news of Jesus’ birth came from that angel to certain poor shepherds in fields as they lay: “Do not be afraid; for see, I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah.” That was, and remains, the world’s biggest news story. The world’s greatest scoop. And yet it barely registered a blip on the consciousness of even the people closest to its occurrence. Sure, they were overjoyed and amazed, but it was a pretty local thing, and once Mary, Joseph and the baby returned to Nazareth, things just returned to normal there in Bethlehem. It would take another thirty years for that piece of Good News to resurface and start to spread like the wildfire it surely was.
Yes, for reasons known only to God, some two thousand odd years ago, an out of the way place called Bethlehem became, ever so briefly, the Good News Capital of the World. Not Rome, not Babylon, not even Jerusalem, but Bethlehem, a place you could only generously call a suburb of Jerusalem. In fact, Bethlehem is still making news, this week even, during the Christmas season when thousands of tourists flock to the Basilica of the Nativity, all in the midst of a great deal of uncertainty since the announcement of the move of the US Embassy to Jerusalem. Yes, things are heating up again in Bethlehem and not in a good way. The news out of Bethlehem these days is of anger and protest, even as that city tries to signify the peace and harmony of the season. Maybe Bethlehem will always be in the news for one reason or another, and, God willing, may it once again be the place from which the very best news comes, but at least for this year, barring some last minute miracle, the title of Good News Capital of the World has to fall to some other locale somewhere else. And where, O where should that be? Some global capital? Some place like Switzerland? I mean, they’ve all those huge bank accounts for the world’s wealthiest people! Some place like Pyongyang, North Korea? They’ve got the newest nuclear weapons on the block? How about Hollywood? They’ve got the biggest blockbusters. Surely one of those important places should be selected, right? Some place that represents the power and the glory that angel announced.
Well, one of those places might work if it was human power and glory we were talking about, but in fact what the angel announced was the power and glory of God, and those only turn up where God wants them to turn up. So, if we take Bethlehem back in Jesus’ time as an example of the kind of humble place the power and glory of the Lord tend to turn up, where might that really be these days? Maybe it would be in that small village in Tanzania, where Justin, Kristin, Fiona, and Whitaker Raymer are serving as missionaries. That’s a pretty humble place. Or maybe in the village in Pakistan where the Ray family is serving. Or maybe Sumatra, Montana, the smallest town in that huge state, or Lake Wobegon in Minnesota where “all the women are strong, all the men are good looking, and all the children are above average.” Or how about Mill Bridge, on the outskirts of Salisbury, North Carolina. Maybe we could have the honor of being this year’s Good News Capital of the World. I mean, it has to be somewhere.
So let’s form a committee and make our pitch. I mean, that’s the way it works for the Olympics, right? Every so many years, cities from around the world compete to host the Olympics. Not only is it a pretty big economic boost to a city, but there’s a lot of honor associated with being able to call yourself an Olympic host city. Granted, it doesn’t guarantee you much. Just look at Sarajevo these days, but still, it’s a pretty big deal. So, maybe the Church should host a worldwide gathering every four years and invite every location to put its best foot forward and show why they should be named the Good News Capital of the World. The competition would be pretty strong, you say? Oh, I think we could hold our own. We got it going on here. I mean, we have the Young Disciples, and the tutoring ministry, and the Youth, and the Sunday School program, and the Scouts, and the Deacons. Nope, can’t forget the Deacons. They’ve brought us a lot of good news this year. We have centuries of Good News buried out there in the cemetery, and centuries more in the Museum. I mean, we’re not Vatican City, but we do OK. Besides, God tends to pick out of the way places. We got a shot.
There wasn’t much good news around Bethlehem for that first Noel. There was a lot of suffering, a lot of uncertainty, and a lot of taxes, and none of that was good news. There was a lot of anticipation of Good News, but probably not really much hope of hearing it. The census was the big news of the day, and all the shuffling around of people it seemed to require. Just like today, celebrities and scandals probably occupied most of the news cycle. A pregnant, unmarried teenager like Mary wouldn’t have moved the needle unless she was King Herod’s daughter. Who knows what the town crier was crying, but it wasn’t the liberation everyone hoped for. No, people were just accustomed to the same old bad news day after day, maybe even like it sometimes feels for us in our own time, with rising crime and corporate corruption, reports of war and famine coming from around the globe, neighbors and friends coming down with cancer and Alzheimer’s, jobs moving overseas, trains derailing, hurricanes and fires destroying cities and islands, a thousand bits of demoralizing news a day that just suck the life right out of you. We actually have it worse in our own time because our news comes from every corner of the world, 24/7, in so many more ways, always demanding a response from us. Yes, the Noel we usually get is the bad news variety. We need some good news don’t we?
Well, it’s Christmas Eve, the time to remember that first Noel, and its good news that that Savior of the world was born. So long ago, so far away, a child in a manger wrapped up in bands of cloth. Babies are always good news, aren't they? Especially in those days, but even now, the birth of a baby reminds us that we’ve survived, our family has survived to live another generation, and the mother has survived those perilous nine months. And word spreads that Mary’s given birth! It’s a boy! His name is Jesus, which means God saves! Yes, and Mary’s doing fine too, thank God. Joseph? Well, he’s still recovering, but he’ll be fine too. Life goes on. But of course, this birth comes with more good news than usual. This child is destined for great things, to move and shake a world, to “scatter the proud in the thoughts of their hearts…to bring down the powerful from their thrones, and lift up the lowly…to fill the hungry with good things, to send the rich away empty.” Good news, to God’s way of thinking. Good news that lifts people’s spirits, and sets their hearts free, and stirs up their imaginations about what could be, what could be. Good news that makes life livable against the onslaught of bad news.
Bethlehem may not be the Good News Capital of the World again this year, and there’s no competition to replace it. In fact, maybe the best news out of that good news of long ago is that when Jesus is born in our hearts, when we come together as the church in any locale to sing again the first Noel, we become centers of good news every bit as important as Bethlehem, and maybe even moreso precisely because we have at our disposal such a vast array of ways to share God’s good news. The good news is still good. And it’s still news. And who can’t use more good news?
I’m honored tonight to share with you some good news about what God is doing in this corner of the world. For the last year or so, we’ve been listening while God has revealed little by little the divine vision for this congregation’s ministry, how we are called to express our faith in Jesus Christ with all the unique gifts and passions of this group of people in this place, in this time. God has spoken, and we have listened, and the Session, after prayerful consideration, has affirmed that the vision God has for us is none other than to be the Good News Capital of Western Rowan County, to be the manufacturers, broadcasters, purveyors, peddlers even of the kind of good news that angel announced in the fields outside Bethlehem. If someone needs good news, we’ll have some for them. If someone wants to celebrate good news, we’ll share it. If someone needs help making good news, we’ll be their partner. And so on. Our vision is that when people around here think about good news, they think about Thyatira. This is the place they’ll come with haste, like the shepherds who heard the first Noel, to catch a glimpse of what God is doing in this world through the grace of Jesus Christ. And we’ll be so busy making and sharing good news that we won’t have time or energy for the bad news, and if we do, we’ll use it be thinking and dreaming about how to transform it into good news.
Is it a little presumptuous to call ourselves the Good News Capital of Western Rowan County when there are eight others churches on the road to Salisbury, and still others within shouting distance? Sure it is, but I don’t think God will mind that kind of pride. And hey, if it’s a competition, it’s a friendly one. This is the kind of distinction we won’t mind sharing, if they too want to get in on the action. But it won’t be a distinction any church in the county achieves if it’s just a slogan. No, this is God’s vision, an audacious vision that needs us to believe that God’s given it if it’s going to transform us and our community the way God transformed the world beginning in humble Bethlehem. On the first Noel, the angel did say, “Do not be afraid; for see, I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah.” For this Noel, let me say, “Do not be afraid; for see, God is bringing us good news of great joy for all the people: to you is revealed this day a vision in the city of Millbridge: to proclaim the Savior, who is the Messiah.” Because who can’t use more good news? Amen.
Sunday, December 24, 2017
2 Samuel 7:1-11, 16 and Luke 1:26-38
© Stacey Steck
Some of you who were English majors may remember reading Alexander Pope’s famous essay from 1711 called “An Essay on Criticism.” In that essay, Pope coined the now-famous phrase, “Fools rush in where angels fear to tread” as part of his own criticism of careless critics of the days’ literary works, whom, he believed, were poisoning an otherwise delightful new literary era with untimely, uneducated, unkind, and most importantly, unnecessary words. Pope believed that the critics of his day had just a little bit too great an opinion of themselves which they expressed in tearing others down, rather than building them up. Perhaps invoking God to save himself from being a victim of his own criticism, Pope also included another famous line which many people now attribute to the Bible, “To err is human; to forgive divine.” There is some debate as to how Christian was this Pope, but he seems to have been on to something when he wrote these lines which have persisted in our consciousness for these past three hundred years.
When he commented on fools and angels, Alexander Pope most certainly wasn’t thinking about Mary, the mother of Jesus, but perhaps he should have. No, when Pope was condemning his critics, he was using the word “fool” in its more traditional sense, as an insult. But Mary, as we read, was a fool of another kind, the kind we celebrate, the kind the apostle Paul holds up as examples of those who really get it about God, who see through the shallowness of everyday concerns to the depths of the divine, a fool for Christ. In fact, she was the very first “fool for Christ,” because she trod that road even angels were afraid to travel. Remember, “Fools rush in where angels fear to tread.” Mary is the first fool for Christ, stepping in for inadequate angels. OK, so it is true that Mary didn’t exactly rush in to say yes to the angel Gabriel’s annunciation, nor did God really assign the task of bearing the son of God to an angel who declined with trembling wings, but isn’t it interesting that despite possessing all kinds of power, Gabriel did not have the power to bring life or light into the world? That was left to Mary, and her probably 12 year old womb.
In the Bible, angels are clearly an important part of the story, but they have their limitations. Overall, the role of angels is simply as their names in the original Hebrew and Greek languages suggest: they are malach, angelos, messengers for God. They are sent by God to bring both warning and good news, the kind we heard today. Contrary to popular images that may be on the tops of your Christmas trees, the Bible depicts them as pretty fearsome or otherworldly beings, so fearsome or otherworldly that their first words usually needed to be, “Do not fear!” There is some debate as to their true nature, whether they are created beings, or purely spiritual beings, members of some kind of heavenly council. But in any case, as we learn in Psalm 8, they were, in the overall cosmological scheme of things, somewhere between God and human beings. What is it the psalmist says? “What are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them? Yet you have made them a little lower than angels, and crowned them with glory and honor.” Some angels have names; we heard about Gabriel this morning, and Michael can be found in Daniel and Jude and Revelation, and Raphael and all the rest can be found in other Christian writings. Angels have fascinated human beings since God only knows when, and probably will forever. Witness the popularity of that television show “Touched By An Angel,” which ran for nine years and in its time was the sixth highest rated US TV show. How many classic works of art feature angels? How many times have we heard stories of “guardian angels” whom people believe have saved them from danger or death? How many Cupids have we seen shooting arrows into lovebirds on Valentine’s Day. Angels have almost replaced the Holy Spirit as the third person of the Trinity, although they are in close fight with our obsession with the so-called “fallen angel,” Satan, for that honor.
Perhaps our fascination stems from a kind of jealousy that they are higher than we are. We never want to be in second place to anyone. But if that is true, we have no reason to be jealous or yearning for a higher place, for truly, we are at least as important as they are, but in a different way. You see, the Bible makes clear that angels can’t do everything that needs to be done, or at least there is no evidence that they have been sent to do it. From the same Psalm 8 we learn that it was not to angels, but to us, that God gave dominion to care for the earth. It was not to angels, but to us, that God gave the tasks of feeding the hungry, giving water to the thirsty, visiting the sick and the prisoner, and all the rest. If there is something that God gives angels to do that we should best leave to them, it seems to be executing God’s justice, as the angel of death did over the firstborn of all Egypt, or when various armies were routed ahead of the Israelite lines, or as we read in Revelation of the cosmic battles to come. God has the right team for justice and vengeance, and thank God it need not be us. But all in all, the evidence about angels suggests that there are areas in which angels fear to tread. And that means God needs fools to rush on in.
You see, the angels aren’t going to do very much for us. If they could, they already would have and there would be no need for us. We are needed for even so glorious a thing as procreation, something the angels might want to reserve for themselves if they could. Mary is, of course, the exception in terms of divine pregnancies, but in all the other Biblical stories of barren women becoming miraculously pregnant, there is always a very clear indication that so and so “knew her husband” or so and so “went in to his wife,” those wonderful Biblical euphemisms for intimate relations. But remember too that it was not the angel Gabriel who “went in to Mary,” but that she was “overshadowed” by the Holy Spirit, the power of the Most High. We do not hear stories of angel excursions to the homes of those who pray to God for children. Yes, human beings are still very necessary in God’s scheme of things, but even more than that, it is fools who are necessary, if the world is to be a more humane place to live.
In the Old Testament, there is not much nice said about fools; you wouldn’t want to be one. But in First Corinthians, chapters three and four, the Apostle Paul has something different to say about wisdom and foolishness: “Do not deceive yourselves. If you think that you are wise in this age, you should become fools so that you may become wise. For wisdom of this world is foolishness with God.” Later, he goes on to say rather ironically, “We are fools for the sake of Christ, but you are wise in Christ” when he implicates some in the Corinthian church for thinking a little too highly of themselves. He is poking those who we might say have an angel complex, who think that through their piety, or their divine election, they have ascended in that divine hierarchy, that they are now a little higher than those who are a little lower than the angels. These are those who think they are angels; who do just enough good deeds to make themselves appear to have bright and shiny wings, at least in front of their own mirrors, and occasionally to other people. Maybe you have met some of these people. But when the moment comes to prove it, the truth that lies deeper within is revealed, that they really are afraid to get in and get dirty, to help when it is really needed. They fear becoming fools for Christ, taking that risk, that plunge. They hide behind issues of security, and family, and health, but in the end, appearing angelic is as far as they get.
In Tim Russert’s book, “Wisdom of Our Fathers,” a collection of stories he pulled together about people’s remembrances of their fathers, he records the story of Mr. Strawberry, as told by Joseph Kelly. “When I was ten,” Mr. Kelly writes, and helping out at my dad’s liquor store, a man walked in looking disheveled and confused. He told Dad that he had no money, his car had broken down, and he was trying to get home. Without hesitation, my father gave the man twenty dollars and called him a cab. “Dad,” I said, “that guy was a bum. Why did you do that?” He said he could see from the man’s eyes that he was telling the truth and was in trouble. The following Christmas Eve, flowers were delivered to our business, addressed to Joseph Kelly and his son, wishing us a merry Christmas and signed Mr. Strawberry. For the next forty years, the flowers came without fail. I finally asked Mr. Strawberry, who had become a regular customer, why he sent us flowers every year. He told me that on one of the worst days of his life, on one of the hottest days of the year, his car broke down and he, a black man, was then mugged by three white teenagers while he was trying to get help. His insulin was low, he was dazed and confused, nobody except Dad was willing to help him, and he would remember that as long as he lived.”
It would be nice to think that angels would have attended Mr. Strawberry, but apparently, they were otherwise occupied, or on strict orders not to help, or perhaps even too afraid to step into a situation like that. We’ll never know. But we do know that Joseph Kelly was a fool, a fool who rushed in where those angels feared to tread. And we know too that Joseph Kelly was no angel, for if he had been of that class that thought of themselves as angels, Mr. Strawberry might not have survived to send flowers each Christmas Eve for the next forty years.
And this is where we must come back to Mary, and her visit from Gabriel, and her words that show us she was the world’s first fool for Christ. “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” You see, the world doesn’t need more angels. It needs more fools, more people like Mary who say “Yes” to God, despite the consequences. We are well aware of what was at stake for Mary to become pregnant when, and how, she did: social and religious ostracism if not violence, the very real possibility that no one would marry her, and thus that she would have to fend for herself in a far more hostile economic environment than single mothers face even today. One would have to be a fool to risk all of that by saying, “Yes!” to an angel, and we must be grateful she did. It was not the eighteenth century author Alexander Pope, but rather the twentieth century Pope Paul VI, who wrote: “The Virgin Mary has always been proposed to the faithful by the church as an example to be imitated, not precisely in the type of life she led and much less for the socio-cultural background in which she lived and which scarcely today exists anywhere. Rather she is held up as an example to the faithful for the way in which in her own particular life she fully and responsibly accepted the will of God, because she heard the word of God and acted on it, and because charity and the spirit of service were the driving force of her actions. She is worthy of imitation because she was the first and most perfect of Christ’s disciples.” The church has long acknowledged that Mary was the first fool, but she cannot be the last.
You see, angels, whether heavenly or earthly, aren’t going to do what needs to be done. They are not going to appear like human beings like they were portrayed on “Touched by and Angel.”
And they are not going to…tend to a sick child all night long.
They are not going to…stand for years behind a death-row inmate wrongly convicted.
They are not going to…sit down in the cafeteria beside the new kid sitting alone whose clothes mark him as being from the wrong side of the tracks.
They are not going to…engage in civil disobedience to call attention to unjust laws that degrade human dignity.
They are not going to…pay out of their own pockets for teaching materials because their schools cannot afford them
They are not going to…you name it. Angels won’t be there to do those things, and if they won’t, who will? It will be the fools of the world, those who rush in where those angels fear to tread, who accept that the coming of Christ means the end of the world as they knew it. May we all be such fools this Christmas, and say with Mary, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” Amen.