Love came down at Christmas,
Love all lovely, love divine;
Love was born at Christmas,
Star and angels gave the sign.
In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. All went to their own towns to be registered. Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.
In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, ‘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, the Lord. This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.” And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!” When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.”
A Reading from William Sloane Coffin’s Book Credo
Socrates had it wrong; it is not the unexamined but the uncommitted life that is not worth living.
Descartes too was mistaken; “Cogito ergo sum” – “I think therefore I am”? Nonsense!
“Amo ergo sum” – “I love therefore I am.”
Or, as with unconscious eloquence St. Paul wrote, ‘Now abide faith, hope, love, these three; and the greatest of these is love.’ I believe that. I believe it is better not to live than it is not to love.
A PDF of the sermon as distributed at Calvary is available for download and printing.
Throughout this Advent season, this congregation has been placed on heightened awareness of the angels among us. We have been on the look-out for the flurry of wings and the voices of angelic choirs that are always singing if we’d just tune our ears to them. These angels, which means “messengers,” have brought us signs and tidings of “more hope,” “more peace,” “more joy,” and this week “more love.”
Love, as we understand and experience it in scripture, is not a sentimental or fickle feeling that comes and goes. Rather, love holds fast to what is good. Love is the root of all justice and peace. God is Love. And this love has the power to transform the world. In fact, it is the only thing strong enough to overturn injustice and to ultimately defeat hate and evil.
We desperately need more of this radical, unconditional, relentless love in our lives and in this world. God thought so, too.
God saw a people broken and divided, unable to understand, let alone love each other; a people more willing to uphold systems and structures of oppression and abuse rather than risk and help those in great need; a people more interested in being right and revered over being kind and compassionate. God saw a people whose fear had stifled their ability to love. So God sent a sign.
A sign that more love was and is possible, even for a broken and weary world.
On this fourth and final Sunday of Advent, we find angels among sheep and lowly shepherds. And this time, rather than just one angel sharing a message of God’s arrival on earth, the message that Love has come, that one angel is joined by a “heavenly host,” a multitude of angels that sing and praise God for this wondrous thing.
But that grand and glorious sight of angels was not the sign. They were the messengers, simply relaying what the sign will be.
And the sign is this: “This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger,” (Luke 2:12). The sign that more love is possible is a newborn baby swaddled and lying in a feeding trough.
When we seek signs and wonders from God, we often want a burning bush, a host of angels, pillars of wind and fire, something that breaks the laws of physics, something beyond the ordinary, challenging our notions of what’s possible.
A tired new mom, a nervous new dad, and a newborn baby crying in a stable? It’s not exactly a scene that seems like a sign from God. Not like the burning bush which caught Moses’ attention and drew him in with its wonder and miraculous happening.
But this? Three displaced people in a barn? That’s not something that would draw me in closer.
In fact, I’d probably walk quickly by, averting my eyes wondering, “what just happened in there?” But too scared or too polite to really inquire.
Or, sadly, if it did draw me in, it would probably be to notify the authorities: “Excuse me, Bethlehem PD, I think two young, brown people just had a baby in a barn that isn’t theirs. I’m concerned about the welfare of the baby, and I’m concerned that they might be squatters. You should probably go check it out.”
My hermeneutics of suspicion would keep me away. But in avoiding that which I don’t understand or that which I fear, I’d miss the sign altogether.
And not only that, I’d miss the truth that the sign points to which is this: not only is more love possible, but more love is already present and is the answer to all that we have been seeking.
See, I believe the opposite of love is not hate, but fear. “Fear says that I have to be better than you to feel worthy. Fear says that I must use power in all the stereotypical ways in order to gain the approval and safety that I seek.”
Fear drives death-dealing policies from the halls of power, like those from Herod in Bethlehem and those from our own government in Washington.
Fear shuts out refugees who are seeking asylum and hope in a new and safe place.
Fear puts myself and my wants and my privilege over the basic needs and human rights of others.
Fear has the need to be grandiose: bigger and better and greater.
Fear bans words and limits how truth is told.
But love is fear’s antidote.
Love is vulnerable, humble, generous and sacrificial.
Love says there is enough for everyone.
Love fears not.
And this curious nativity scene which we celebrate this season embodies the humility, the vulnerability, and the abundance of love.
A mother, a father, a baby, and some barn animals.
Most of you know, that not too long ago, actually exactly six months ago since today’s the 17th, my own family welcomed a newborn baby into the world.
Our little Rose came screaming into our lives changing me, our family, and perhaps even the world, forever. People tell you you’re supposed to sleep when the baby sleeps. And most newborns, on that first night trick you because most of them do sleep. It’s like they’re exhausted from the day’s events and haven’t yet realized they’re hungry or something, so they’ll actually sleep. (Of course, they won’t for months to come, but that first night, they often will.)
That first night after Rose was born, nurses came in, checked my vitals and told me I should rest. Mike encouraged me to sleep, offering to take her, and he did for a bit. But I couldn’t sleep.
I had carried this baby for nine months, wondering what she looked like, dreaming of who she’d be, praying and hoping and longing to meet her. And here she finally was, in my arms, healthy and mostly peaceful, so I couldn’t sleep.
I needed to hold her, stare at her, take her in, and breathe deep that new-baby smell. Mary Englebreit, an artist and activist calls babies, “they who are so fresh from God.”
I believe babies, all babies, not just the Emmanuel, are proof that love is expansive. Just when you think your heart is full and couldn’t possibly have room for more love, they enter your life, breaking open your heart a little more, allowing it to grow and bloom like never before.
Parker Palmer says, “The holiest thing you offer the world is a broken-open heart, emptied of fear and vengeance, filled with forgiveness and a willingness to take the risks of love.” I think Mary and Joseph, and those shepherds experienced that, that first night that Love came to be with us and dwell among us.
And whether you have babies, or long to have a baby, or whether you know you never want a baby of your own, that baby in a manger is for us all. That baby, tiny and vulnerable, completely dependent on others and laying in a manger, that baby is the sign that more love is not only possible but already readily available in my life, in your life, and in this beautiful but horribly broken world.
As we consider angels among us, I think we need not look up, but around. Because anything and anyone who points us to the sign, the sign that more love has come to be with us as God incarnate, that is an angel.
In our Women of Calvary Bible Study this past Thursday, we studied angels as we find them throughout scripture, but mostly as they are talked about in the book of Hebrews. Hebrews 13:2 says, “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing so, some have entertained angels without knowing it.”
This verse is a reference to the story of Abraham and Sarah when three strangers come to their home. They extend hospitality to these strangers and learn from them that Sarah will be expecting a child. Later, these three men turn out to be not just regular people, but angels, messengers of God whom they’ve entertained without even realizing it.
Who is pointing you towards more love today?
Where are you finding proof that love abounds?
These are the angels among us, oftentimes showing up in simple and ordinary ways.
Last month, I was having a particularly busy week. I was tired and rushed and feeling unable to do basic things like get gas. I was running on empty, both literally and figuratively.
But one day, I found that my in-laws had used the car and before bringing it home, filled up the gas tank for me. This very mundane act felt like a brush of angel’s wings.
Maybe it’s someone who holds a door open for you; a stranger who buys you a cup of coffee; an unexpected note in the mail; California firefighters, or voters in a different state making their voice heard.
Right in the middle of our every day, ordinary lives, feathers, invisible to the untrained eye, are all over the place, leaving traces of God’s message of love, joy, hope, and peace.
“The angels in Luke’s birth narrative are the “story-tellers.” They declare to the shepherds what has happened.” But in turn, the shepherds, after having gone to witness and experience this sign of Love, they then become the story-tellers.
Later in today’s gospel lesson Luke records that, “The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told [to] them.” (Luke 2:20).
As a result of having seen and heard these things with their own eyes and ear, “the shepherds themselves become messengers, mirroring the songs of the angel multitude.”
So, yes, I believe there are angels among us. Because each of us has been called to be witnesses to abundant and unconditional love. This compels us to proclaim God’s glory, to be sent out as messengers of love, flying in the face of fear.
Do not be afraid. Spread love. Amplify love. And here, on earth, echo back the songs of the angels.
One way we do this is through actually singing, singing those songs we only really get to sing once a year. So, I invite you to sing together a song about angels that perhaps helps us to hear their song better and to even echo back their singing.
Please turn to carol number 38 in your maroon bound books which is the hymnal.
And let us sing with a chorus of angels, “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear.”