Christmas Day 2016: Hiding-in-Plain-Sight Continued
Holy Trinity Lutheran Church, Manasquan, NJ
Last night was not only Christmas Eve but also the first night of Hanukkah, the Festival of Lights. There are 9 candles on the menorah, the ritual candelabra, 1 for each night of the 8 day celebration and a “servant” candle in the middle, used to light the others. Hanukkah lasts 8 days because it recalls how scant oil, enough to burn for just 1 day, lasted 8 days, God’s miracle of multiplication of light.
The back story is that the Syrians invaded Israel under a crazy king, Antiochus IV, who called himself Epiphanes (as is Epiphany, showing forth of God – humility wasn’t his strong suit). To give you some idea of what he was like, his nickname was Epimanes, which means madman. “Winning hearts and minds,” befriending the locals was not his game plan. Instead, he not only alienated but horrified and infuriated the Jews by storming into the Temple and desecrating it, both by sacrificing a pig on the altar and erecting an image of himself in the sacred precincts. Jewish warriors called the Maccabees (a name meaning hammer) overthrew the occupiers and reconsecrated the Temple; however, there was only enough oil to burn the light of the presence for one day. Like 5 loaves and 2 fish feeding the multitudes, though, a little went a long way. The scootch of oil lasted 8 days, till a new supply arrived. God multiplied light.
How fitting, then, that we celebrate the birth of the Light of the world at the same time our Jewish brothers and sisters celebrate the Festival of the Lights! The timing of Christmas also coincides with the Roman festival of the Sol Invictus, the Invincible Sun. In the Book of the Prophet Malachi we read:
…for you who revere my name the sun of righteousness shall rise, with
healing in its wings. (Malachi 4:2a)
Our beautiful Christmas morning Gospel comes from St. John’s Prologue, in which he writes about our Lord Jesus, the incarnate Word of God:
All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it. (John 1:3-5)
Thomas Merton was a friend of Jesus who lived in the 20th century. He was a Trappist monk and an author. He wrote this:
“In Louisville, [Kentucky] at the corner of Fourth and Walnut, in the center of the shopping district, I was suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that I loved all these people, that they were mine and I theirs, that we could not be alien to one another even though we were total strangers. It was like waking from a dream. . . .
… I almost laughed out loud. . . . I have the immense joy of being man, a member of [humanity,] a race in which God Himself became incarnate. As if the sorrows and stupidities of the human condition could overwhelm me, now that I realize what we all are [: members of [humanity,] a race in which God Himself became incarnate…] And if only everybody could realize this! But it cannot be explained. There is no way of telling people that they are all walking around shining like the sun.
… If only they could all see themselves as they really are. If only we could see each other that way all the time. There would be no more war, no more hatred, no more cruelty, no more greed. . . . ” (Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander by Thomas Merton)
St. Matthew tells the story of Jesus’ birth in 8 verses, instead of St. Luke’s 70+. Before Matthew tells that brief birth story, he draws our Lord’s family tree. It has many branches!
· 14 generations from Adam to King David.
· 14 more generations from King David to the Babylonian captivity.
· Yet another 14 generations from the Babylonian captivity to the birth of Christ.
14 x 3 = 42 lifetimes, 42 names of forebears of Jesus. (To 9 & 11 p.m. worshipers: If you thought the Christmas Proclamation was long, it ain’t nothin’ compared to Matthew’s genealogy!) You’ll probably be surprised to hear Jesus’ ancestors are a mixed bag, a motley crew. God was hiding in plain sight in folks you would not necessarily choose to grow on your family tree. (As Pastor Beth said in her devotion at the Women’s Approach to Christmas, we can’t regift our family .) Here are some examples of Jesus’ less-than-perfect ancestors:
· Jacob lied to his father to steal his brother Esau’s birthright
· Judah sold his brother Joseph into slavery.
· Rahab practiced prostitution.
· David stole Uriah’s wife (Bathsheba) and ordered Uriah’s death, making him guilty of both adultery and murder.
The names of 13 of the final 14 people leading up to Jesus’ birth aren’t mentioned anywhere other than in the Messiah’s family tree. They are unknown and apparently unremarkable, except for their family relationship to Jesus– true for most of God’s people, including us. In them God was hiding in plain sight.
God was hiding in plain sight primarily and most wonderfully in Jesus of Nazareth, whose birth we celebrate. But God was also hiding in plain sight in the shepherds to whom the angels sang, in the people who occupied the rooms in the inn that were not available to Mary & Joseph, in the family back home worried about the first-time mother and her husband far from home, including those who still shook their heads over Mary’s pregnancy and Joseph’s acceptance of it. Here’s what author Gail Godwin has written:
“If so much powerful stuff can have been accomplished down through the millennia by wastrels, betrayers, and outcasts, and through people who were such complex mixtures of sinner and saint, and through so many obscure and undistinguished others, isn’t that a pretty hopeful testament to the likelihood that God is using us, with our individual flaws and gifts, in all manner of peculiar and unexpected ways?
Who of us can say we’re not in the process of being used right now… to fulfill some purpose whose grace and goodness would boggle our imagination if we could even begin to get our minds around it?”1
God is hiding in plain sight, in people who are walking around shining like the sun, including you.
Down through the generations, God is still hiding in plain sight. Down through the generations, people are still walking around shining like the sun. Dare to believe that:
God is using [you], with [your individual flaws and gifts], in all manner of peculiar and unexpected ways.
Dare to believe that through you, and not just through the shepherds, through Joseph & Mary, through Jacob and Judah and Rahab and David and all those others, God is:
…[fulfilling] some purpose whose grace and goodness would boggle our imagination if we could even begin to get our minds around it.”
Sometimes our purpose is hidden. This is a quirl. If it weren’t decorated with an evergreen sprig and a red bow, would you guess it’s a practical Christmas keepsake? Helga Yarnall lent this treasure to me so I could share it with you. It is made of wood and used as a whisk. Each year Helga’s grandfather, Christel’s great-grandfather, Casandra and Corey’s great-great-grandfather, would cut off the very top of the Christmas tree when it was taken down and carve a quirl for some lucky woman in the family. Helga’s mother mailed her this one across the sea from Germany…. Christmas is honored in Helga’s kitchen throughout the year, every time she uses her quirl!
Christmas is honored in our lives every time we allow God to use us for God’s purposes. Our purpose may not be obvious, but it is important. A common purpose we all share is to shine brightly with the light of Christ. We are to be like the moon, reflecting the light of the sun/Son. It’s not impossible, even if you feel unqualified. It’s already happening. Thomas Merton said, “There is no way of telling people that they are all walking around shining like the sun.” But I’m telling you today: you are. Because of Christ, who not only said, “I am the light of the world,” but also “You are the light of the world,” you are already walking around shining like the sun. “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness shall not overcome it.” Amen
1”Genealogy and Grace” by Gail Godwin in Watch for the Light: Readings for Advent and Christmas (Walden, NY: Plough Publishing House, 2001), pp. 163-64.
Pastor Mary Virginia Farnham