Monday, December 24, 2007

And the Angel Said: "I Bring You Tidings of Great Joy..."

Texts: Isaiah 7:10-16
Luke 2:8-14

Christmas time is here – bringing with it joy for many and sorrow for some, business for shops and carols in the street. For me, Christmas time brings in my family – the whole large, loud lot of them. Parents, grandparents, and this Christmas 4 out of my 5 siblings.

My family, as you may know, is not your traditional family. I have two biological siblings and 3 sisters who are adopted – though not in the legal sense. It can get confusing, I know. My blonde sprite of an adopted sister Dawn doesn’t raise too many eyebrows but I’ve gotten quite used to the puzzled looks that come when I introduce Neli and Nyembe – who happen to be from Zambia – as my sisters. Sometimes people understand right away what I mean; sometimes it takes a bit of explaining that even though we don’t share genes, these amazing women are my sisters.

I mention my family in part to warn you that the Summers-Minette clan has indeed descended upon poor Staunton town, but also because of what being a part of this family has taught me about our scriptures. It is in great thanks to my family that I understand what it means for a child to be born into one particular family but to be born for more than just that family.

In many communities, including the one where my sisters Neli and Nyembe grew up, your family wasn’t just your mom, dad, and siblings. Everyone, unfortunately for you as Neli says, is your parent. People you aren’t related to by blood look out for you, correct you, care for you.

The community Jesus was born into was more like my sisters’ community of origin than ours. When a child was born, he or she wasn’t just born for the particular parents, but for the whole community. The whole community would have a hand in raising this child, guiding this child, loving this child.

Jesus’ Palestinian-Jewish community also had a long tradition of understanding that children may be born with a purpose – they may themselves be a sign. The prophet Hosea had children whose birth and names told of the people’s unfaithfulness to God and the punishment that would come. Even before Samuel – he who is from God - was born, he had been dedicated to God and had been marked as the one who would preside as prophet under Eli.

And then there is the child Immanuel. During the Advent season we remember the child Isaiah spoke of, one who would be born as a reminder to the king of the time that God is with us. King Ahaz was faced with two powerful nations who had united to bring him and Judah down and was looking to align his and his nation’s fate with the current world power – Assyria. The child Immanuel – God-with-us – was born to remind the king that it is God and God alone who Judah needed to rely on for protection—for salvation.

It is no wonder the Gospel writers looked to this child hundreds of years later when Jesus was born. If this child Immanuel was a reminder that God is with us then Jesus is the ultimate reminder, the ultimate fulfillment of that prophecy. For in Jesus, God is with us in a most profound and unprecedented way.

In Jesus too a child has been born for more than just his mother and father – much, much more. Jesus is not just a sign or a reminder, not just one dedicated to God. In Jesus the idea that a child may be born for a people, for a purpose, is realized most fully.

“I am bringing you tidings of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, who is the Messiah, the Lord.”

When the angel speaks to the shepherds of a Savior being born for them – that a child has been born for them – these men in the field understand that this child can indeed – even though he is newborn – that he can already been known as Savior, as something greater for them. If Jeremiah can be called prophet while still in the womb, if Samson can be dedicated as a Nazirite before his birth, then surely at his birth, this child whose name the shepherds do not yet even know can be called Savior.

The world in which the angel brings tidings of great joy is a world where some, like the shepherds, can indeed look upon a child and see the Messiah. They may not yet understand what confessing Jesus as Messiah means, but this child born of Mary is indeed their Savior.

It is because of this child whose birth the angel announces that we are all bound together, regardless of our family, our age, even our location. We too, I hope, can understand how a child born into one family can be born for all of us. It is because of this one who was found wrapped in swaddling clothing that we call the person next to us brother or sister and know that we are theirs. Because of this child, we recognize each person as a child of God.

In the sacrament of baptism we welcome each child of God – whatever their age – as part of our family. We welcome each child of God and promise “to share in worship and ministry through our prayers and gifts, our study and service, and so fulfill our common calling to be disciples of Jesus Christ.” In baptism we proclaim through our ritual and our words that we are connected and that together we will strive to be faithful disciples of Christ.

Writer and poet James Agee said that “in every child who is born, the potentiality of the human race is born again.” We can say that in every child welcomed into the family of the church, the potentiality of the body of Christ is welcomed again. In every child we welcome, in every one of us, the potential for being the true and faithful church is here.

In every child we welcome and in every one of us, we may find both the comfort and the challenge that Christ, who is the head of our body, brought to his disciples.

Being a follower of Jesus is not just about rejoicing in the birth of the Savior. We don’t know what became of the child Immanuel that Isaiah spoke of, but we certainly know what happened to Jesus. Even in the birth story, the writer of Luke does not let us forget what will become of this child. The child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger foreshadows the man wrapped in linen cloth and laid in a rock-hewn tomb.

The babe whom the shepherds welcomed, who was raised by his mother and earthly father as well as his community in Nazareth, was rejected by those who once welcomed him. Jesus did not just care for the sick or the poor; Jesus challenged those who would be unjust and unrighteous. Jesus was welcomed as long as he was a sweet child, but when he became the revolutionary – a peaceful one mind – he was rejected with “isn’t this Joseph’s kid?” and run out of town.

Each child of God we welcome through the sacrament of baptism brings with him or her the full potential of being a faithful disciple. When we welcome this child, when we welcome one another, we don’t just welcome with hugs and prayers – we welcome what this child might say, what he or she might do, what he or she might move us toward. God works in and through each of us and as a child of God, each of us has the potential to continue God’s revolutionary work.

Being the church, the true church, is not a simple task and requires us to be open in ways that are quite painful. Your neighbor next to you may be the sister or brother who brings you a meal when you are ill, he or she may be the one who sits with you at Together on Wednesday, may be the person who teaches your Sunday school class or offers insights in class. This sister may also be the one who makes you uncomfortable because she suggest that we should first give to the church and then to ourselves. This brother in Christ may make you squirm when he asks why he hasn’t seen you in church lately. This child of God may make you question your values and priorities and you may be the child of God who – in love – helps to question others’.

Together as children of God we are called to grow as Christians. Together we are called love one another and confront one another. Together we are called to hear the words of comfort we long for and the words of challenge we need.

I bring you tidings of great joy for all people – to you has been born a Savior and to you has been born brothers and sisters who will help you follow that Savior. This Christmas I pray that we welcome both our Savior and our brothers and sisters in Christ. Amen.

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