Nothing is Impossible

This is the last in the Dickens of an Advent sermon series (Sermons 1, 2, 3, and 4).
Primary scripture: Luke 1:26-55

It’s become a bit of a running joke at our house.  

Something unexpected happens –
getting a parking space at the Trader Joe’s downtown,
a group picture with everyone looking the same direction and smiling,
a toaster appears the morning after the old one dies…
and you can be sure someone will pipe up with “It’s a Christmas Miracle!”

I suspect it comes from all the Christmas movies we’ve watched for as long as I can remember. You know, the ones in which, against all odds, someone makes it home on time,
a family is made whole,
the snow finally falls,
Santa’s sleigh appears or flies or both…

Some seemingly impossible thing happens.
Because someone’s heart opened to new possibilities of love.
Because someone believed.
Because it’s Christmas.  

Thus,  it’s a Christmas miracle.

We do seem to be a little more open to the idea of miracles around this time of year – even if primarily in our entertainment.I think there are a couple of things at play here…

First, the original Christmas miracle – the coming of God to dwell among us as one of us – involves the miracle of birth. While not all of us have seen a healing or a resurrection or a bush that burns but is never consumed… all of us can lay claim to having been born. And many of us have played some part in bringing another human into the world.

And then there is the childlike wonder with which we tend to approach the Christmas story. Not Ralphie’s story about the Red Rider BB Gun, the story of the nativity, the story of Christ’s coming.

This is a story that requires us to go back to a childlike willingness to take things at face value, to believe what is being said because we’ve not learned to be wary, because magic is just part of a child’s way of explaining the world.

This origin story requires us to have the undiluted faith of a child.  

It’s more than nostalgia, though, this remembering what it is like to hear the story as a child. It is remembering how to hear with new ears, to see with new eyes.

And sometimes, it requires an encounter with the Lord in our grown-up, non-Christmas ordinary lives, to become open once more to our very real need for redemption.

By the time Scrooge has been visited by the third Spirit, he is seeing the world through very different eyes. And by the morning, he was experiencing joy for the first time in a very long time.

Partly because he was in his home and safe and not a corpse on a bed with no curtains. But the joy also flowed from experiencing a depth of confession and repentance that allows one to live in the freedom of the redeemed.

Remember these words from Psalm 51?  The words that David poured out as he realized the depth of his sin?

You desire truth in the inward being;
   therefore teach me wisdom in my secret heart.
Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean;
   wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.
Let me hear joy and gladness;
   let the bones that you have crushed rejoice.
Hide your face from my sins,
   and blot out all my iniquities.
Create in me a clean heart, O God,
   and put a new and right spirit within me.
Do not cast me away from your presence,
   and do not take your holy spirit from me.
Restore to me the joy of your salvation,
   and sustain in me a willing spirit.

And now, listen to the opening words of Stave 5:

Yes! and the Bedpost was his own, the room was his own. Best and happiest of all, the Time before him was his own, to make amends in! “I will live in the Past the Present and the Future!” Scrooge repeated as his scrambled out of bed.

“The Spirits of all Three shall strive within me. O Jacob Marley! Heaven and the Christmastime be praised for this…”

Scrooge walked around his room, noting everything that remained, unable to think or function because of the joy that had filled him at the opportunity to live, not as he had lived, but as a new man. Then he laughed for the first time in a long, long time.  

Really, for a man who had been out of practice for so many years, it was a splendid laugh… a most illustrious laugh. The father of a long, long line of brilliant laughs.

“I don’t know what day of the month it is,” said Scrooge. “I don’t know how long I have been among the spirits. I don’t know anything. I’m quite a baby. Never mind. I don’t care. I’d rather be a baby.”

I wonder each time I read this section if Dickens wasn’t thinking about Nicodemus’ visit in the night to speak to Jesus.

John’s gospel describes Nicodemus as a Pharisee- a leader of the Jews. As they talked, he told Jesus he knew that the signs – the miracles  – Jesus had been performing had to be of God.

Jesus said to Nicodemus, “You’re absolutely right. And here’s the truth of the matter: unless a person is born from above, it will be impossible to see what I am pointing to, which is the Kingdom of God.”

Nicodemus took him quite literally, asking how someone might be born again in their old age. “Can anyone go back into their mother’s womb a second time?”

So Jesus reminds him that the Spirit is not about the physical world.  Here’s how Eugene Peterson rendered his response in The Message:
Jesus said, “You’re not listening. Let me say it again. Unless a person submits to this original creation— the ‘wind-hovering-over-the-water’ creation, the invisible moving the visible, a baptism into a new life—it’s not possible to enter God’s kingdom. When you look at a baby, it’s just that: a body you can look at and touch.

But the person who takes shape within is formed by something you can’t see and touch—the Spirit—and becomes a living spirit.

The second birth is not a physical birth, but a spiritual birth. And our friend Scrooge offers a beautiful  example of what this looks like. Once he had seen and understood the lessons taught by the three spirits and committed to living differently, he was like a baby – reborn, unable to make sense of his old way of being.  

Like David, he had cried out in the night:
Create in me a clean heart, O God,
   and put a new and right spirit within me.
Restore to me the joy of your salvation,
   and sustain in me a willing spirit.

And in the morning light, his heart had been renewed.  He is seeing the world through new eyes, childlike wonder restored, a willing spirit reborn.

What Fred and Bob and all those who knew the “old Scrooge” would have thought impossible, had happened. It was, as my family might say, a Christmas miracle.  In fact, Scrooge was pretty sure that some would laugh at the change in him. Let them laugh, he thought, just as his own heart was laughing.

Because the miracle of rebirth, like the miracle of Jesus’ birth, is cause for celebration, as Paul wrote to the Corinthians:

For the love of Christ urges us on, because we are convinced that one has died for all; therefore all have died. And he died for all, so that those who live might live no longer for themselves, but for him who died and was raised for them. From now on, therefore, we regard no one from a human point of view; even though we once knew Christ from a human point of view, we know him no longer in that way.

So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!

The great host of heavenly messengers that sang and gave glory to God in the highest at the birth of the Messiah, breaks out in song again and again as our hearts are born again.

I’m not talking about a one and done prayer of salvation – although that moment of understanding and claiming of Jesus’ redeeming love is beautiful and worthy of celebration.

I am talking about the joy in heaven each time we come to understand the fullness of what God has done and is doing through the willing spirits of the people who call upon the name of Jesus.

I am talking about the way that God does the impossible in our hearts – turning us from selfish, lifeless, drones into bearers of good news for the poor in spirit and those living in poverty, into bearers of water for those who thirst and those who thirst for righteousness, into makers of peace and into comforters of those who mourn.

We cannot separate the wonders of Christmas – as wonderful and joyful as they are – from the very real reasons the world needed God to love us enough to come to earth as a tiny, vulnerable infant.

The human heart has such great potential for love, kindness, peace and mercy… and such tremendous capacity for fear, violence, war, and hatred. This was true in the time of the Caesars, and it remains true today.

And so The Word became flesh. The Word dwelt among us.

These things are miraculous and true. And worthy of great celebration. But the work of the Word is not yet done, and it has been left for us to continue in the meantime.  

We must take those first awkward, halting steps toward reconciliation:
with estranged family and friends,
with people of different ethnicities and cultures,
and even with people across political lines.

We must speak those most difficult of words:
I was wrong.
I really am sorry.
I need help.

We must begin to ease the burdens of others rather than being concerned only about our own.

We must not become comfortable in this kingdom where we are among the most powerful and influential, and thus forget about the kingdom in which the first become last and the last become first.

Because that second kingdom is the one over which the baby whose birth we celebrate actually reigns.

That second kingdom is the one for which our deepest truest – most childlike  – hearts actually yearn.

So we will sing our Christmas carols. We will rejoice and proclaim the coming of Christ  throughout Christmastide and the whole of the year.

O come let us adore him!  Joy to the World, the Lord has come!  

And we will carry advent in our hearts, waiting, watching, seeking, preparing, hoping, as we do the work of keeping Christmas all year.

O Come, O Come Emmanuel

 

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