It is so good to be together in this beautiful place with friends and family, with people you’ve known for ever and a day, and with people you’ve never seen before. And every one of you with your own story and with all of its twists and turns that have brought each of us and all of us together tonight. This is probably the first time ever that this particular group of us have ever been together in exactly this way. And I suspect it is also the very last time that we will ever be together like this. So give thanks for this time that we get to be together.
And it is good for us to be here in our church. It is warm and neat as a pin. The lights of the candles are glowing. The altar guild has shined and pressed and arranged everything for us tonight to be a feast for our eyes. The choir is rehearsed and has tuned their voices to their hearts to inspire our own hearts to sing out with them and with the angels.
In this warm comforting happy place, this night, we are here for something so important. We are joining together on this night with the Church all over the world to hear again the story of the birth of Jesus. It is the story that tells all that we can say that is most true about God and what is also most true about each of us. On this night, a night just like this, heaven and earth are joined and the heart of God and God’s desire and purpose for this world find perfect expression in the face of a new born baby. And with this birth is the holy promise that God has, and is, and will be working his purposes out, and at every moment that purpose is to heal the whole human family. The whole human family. Grace by grace. Christ is born for this, even on this very night, God is working his purposes out. So, we are here ‘go even unto Bethlehem to see this great thing’.
Last Sunday and again today John the Baptist is front and center calling for God’s people to, ‘prepare the way of the Lord’, and to ‘make straight his path in the wilderness’. And you know – maybe I’m hopelessly hopeful or sadly naïve – but I think we would, truly, if we knew what that meant for us and how to do it. If we could only hear, in the cacophony and contentiousness and wilderness of this world we’re living, if we could only hear this one voice calling.
When I was little and my family was heading to North Carolina or West Virginia to visit our grandparents, we four children and my parents crammed into a station wagon with all our bags and sometimes pets and headed off on what was usually a five hour drive. Before driving off, we often got lined up outside the car for a little talking to. My mother usually took the lead and would say things like, ‘look, no fighting, keeps your hands to yourself and no picking on each other’. And then she or my Dad would add, ‘if we have to pull over to straighten you all out, it will be a ‘reign of terror’ I promise you’.
Of course, there was no way we could make it five hours in a car like that as little angels. Inevitably, at some point flying down the road in the middle of some fracas or brouhaha in the back seat, we’d sense that the car was abruptly slowing down, the blinker was on and we were pulling off the road. This brought a sudden hush to we four kids and one or the other of us would say, ‘uh oh, reign of terror’.
In her beautiful sermon last week, Amelia McDaniel reminded us that the time in which we live is sacred; which means that God’s hands are on it and that God’s own Spirit leads the times of our going forth and our coming home again. Now of course, the ticking of a clock leads us forth too and brings us home, because children have to get up and off to school and we have work to go to and meetings to make. But we do live lives upon which God is writing the life of his son, Christ the Lord, through the times of our lives: times of being lost and being found, times of healing and being healed, times of darkness and the light of revelation. God’s redeeming love is woven all through the living of our days as we are given eyes to see and ears to hear.
And today it is the beginning of the season of Advent, the first season of the new Church Year. The word Advent means ‘coming’ which directs us to shake off any sleepy-headedness and look to the future with a holy hope for the Lord’s own coming into our lives. We are people called to be alive and awake with hope in this sacred time, and not fall asleep. The Bible readings for this Sunday couldn’t be clearer. The Apostle Paul writing to the Church in Rome says, ‘you know what time it is, how it is now the moment for you to wake from sleep’. In the Gospel reading, Jesus’ jarring images: a flood, a kidnapper, a thief sharpen the same point – stay awake; for the Lord is near.
Several years ago I found myself buckling myself into my seat as the big commercial jet I was in was taxi-ing out onto the runway at the airport. The man sitting next to me was probably my age, a cheerful healthy looking guy in a sporty blazer and smart tie. A few minutes later as the jet’s engines began to rev to get us turned out onto the runway for take-off, he turned to me and said, ‘well if this thing falls out of the sky, I’m not worried – I am ready for heaven!’ He sat there beaming at me broadly waiting for me to say something. But what he had said, he had said with a kind of kind of exuberance and excitement that left me not sure what to say. So I only sat there with a half-hearted grin til he gave up and turned away.
It was a big jet with two aisles so I had a good view of those sitting nearby. Just across the aisle, a mom I guessed was buckling her three or four year old daughter into her seat and then brushing back her little girl’s bangs from her face and leaning in speaking with her reassuringly. The little girl’s eyes were as large as saucers. Nearby, was an older couple their two hands clasped together and perched on the armrest between them. His head was leaned back, his eyes closed. She stole a glance at him and a smile came across her face. In another seat, a man was scanning an Excel spread sheet on his laptop screen and then scrunching up his face thinking about something with a small little ‘worry-line’ that came creeping across his forehead. What was he thinking of: an especially important presentation on which much was riding professionally and personally? the hope to get home soon and get off the road and see his wife and kids for a few days? Right at hand, two young people – maybe college kids – dressed pretty eccentrically, tapping away at their SmartPhones with one of them saying something to the other in a funny made-up accent. Towards the front, I could see the two flight attendants sharing something funny and then one of them shooshing the other. The one looked momentarily worried that she’d said something wrong til the other placed her hand on the other’s forearm reassuringly.
At Shrine Mont (our diocesan retreat center) in the summertime on the very last day of each session of camps for our kids and young people a special thing happens. On that last day, the kids gather at the Shrine of the Transfiguration an outdoor church of stone and trees and open sky. All the campers and their counselors gather for a closing ceremony where they share singing and laughing and shouting and praying together. And they share something else too. Everyone gathers in a really big circle and connecting that big circle of kids and counselors running all the way around that circle of people is a thin little cord of braided colorful threads. One of the counselors explains that this bright, colorful circle of woven threads shows them that they are all connected to each other as members of the Body of Christ. They are connected just like a toe is to a foot or hair is to your scalp. And then that long braided cord of threads is divided up in to five or six inch pieces which are then tied around the wrist of each camper and each counselor. It’s a friendship bracelet that each person wears home. It’s there, right on their wrist, to remind them when they get back to the real world of how they are still a member of a holy fellowship of love and belonging in the Body of Christ.
I was there one year for this closing service and after it was over, parents gathered up their kids and we all began to troop to our cars for the journey home. Just before we got into our car, I remember seeing two girls saying goodbye to each other. And oh were they ever feeling this goodbye. There were just crying and crying at their parting. They kept falling into each others arms and then stepping back to look at each other one more time, drinking in the sight of each other one last time.