Reflectionary

Pleased as Man

(A sermon for the First Sunday after Christmas, pondering some ideas that have been a theme of Advent and Christmas for me, and which may have appeared first here or in my Christmas Eve message. I’ll be preaching at St. Casserole’s church this morning.)

I will recount the gracious deeds of the Lord, the praiseworthy acts of the Lord, because of all that the Lord
has done for us, and the great favor to the house of Israel that he has
shown them according to his mercy, according to the abundance of his
steadfast love.
For he said, “Surely they are my people, children who will not deal falsely”; and he became their savior
in all their distress. It
was no messenger or angel but his presence that saved them; in his love
and in his pity he redeemed them; he lifted them up and carried them
all the days of old.
(Isaiah 63:7-9, NRSV)

When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, he was infuriated, and he
      sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under,
      according to the time that he had learned from the wise men.
(Matthew 2:16, NRSV)

89I don’t know if it’s my age, or the fact that my children are now 12, 17 and 21, but I couldn’t muster much enthusiasm for the gift-giving side of Christmas this year. No one in our house suffers from a lack of necessities or even small luxuries. Sure, a new sweater is always nice in our cold climate, and I found a book for each one, as I always do. I usually tell them it’s not what they give me, but the idea they are thinking of me, that really matters.

But this year was different, and all through December, I had a sense there was something I wanted this Christmas, though I could not have told you what it might be.

I began the month with a period of nostalgia for my late mother-in-law. She was born in this country to parents who both came to the U.S. from Sweden, and over the years she adapted many of their Swedish traditions to share with her children and later her grandchildren. She has been gone for nine years, and it has taken almost that long to figure out what Christmas is without her. Early in December, I stepped into a store where they sell Scandinavian gifts and saw a display of the little wooden ornaments painted red, and I missed her as much as I might have the first year she was gone.

Soon I found myself longing for the sights and tastes of my own childhood in Jane Austen’s Village, and our menus for the days around Christmas ended up reflecting an odd mixture of Swedish meatballs and ginger snaps with the favorites of my Southern girlhood: cream cheese with red pepper jelly on crackers, green beans with almonds, and the all-time old-fashioned favorite, baked cheese grits.

My mother, when she was dying, carefully penned the recipe into a volume called “Grandmother Remembers,” to be sure my children would have it someday. Every Christmas they ask, “When will we eat those cheese grits?” And we re-member her, we bring her back into the flesh for a little while, as we gather the ingredients and marvel over her beautiful penmanship, and I wonder what both grandmothers would think of these nearly grown children, if they could be here now to give them a good looking-over.

Because we lost both grandmothers in their 60’s to cancer, we lost some of the literal traditions from the two sides of our families, but I don’t believe we lost the spirit of them, and it is that spirit we feel when we cook and decorate in our own new ways–for I must admit I use butter instead of the margarine my mother wrote down in her instructions almost fifteen years ago. Times have changed, and the ways we do things with them. Remember when butter was the worst thing in the world? Now we worry about what is in margarine. But the baked cheese grits remain, even though they are changed.

Our Old Testament reading comes from the third section of the Book of Isaiah. We understand Isaiah to have been written by three different people over three time periods. The theme of all three is the relationship between the people of Israel and God, in various stages of disconnection and reconnection. The first section shows Isaiah receiving the task of telling his fellow Israelites that they are out of relationship with God, and it is a precursor of the destruction of the Temple and the enslavement of much of their nation in Babylon. The middle section, which provides many of our favorite Advent passages, celebrates a renewed relationship with God as experienced when the captivity had ended. And this final section which we hear from today encourages the creation of a new community during the re-building of Jerusalem, when those who had stayed behind and those who had been in exile had reunited.

The exile of the Jews in Babylon occurred in three waves over almost twenty years, and the order to allow them to return to Jerusalem came 47 years after the last of them.

I wonder, as I return to the Gulf Coast for a third visit, what it is like for the people who have been rebuilding community? Are there strained feelings between those who stayed and those who left? Have barriers been built up or broken down by the destruction of the hurricane? I know good things have happened, and I know bad things have happened, too. I know each person has stories of seeming miracles and horrible disappointments along the way. But two years and then some down the road, what is it like to rebuild the community?

Even from my distance, I know it has to be the hardest kind of hard work. I hope it is some consolation to know that human beings have been doing just this kind of spiritual work almost ever since there were human beings at all.

How could a community re-build after half the people had been influenced for three generations by a culture as foreign as the one in Babylon?

How in the world would a community re-build after the slaughter of innocent children?

I believe they did it the way we try to do whenever we experience loss, through a faithfulness born of God’s presence among us. That’s what we celebrate at the Christmas season. We rejoice in the Word made Flesh. We rejoice in our belief that God loved us not only enough to create the world but to send some part of God’s self to live in one of our bodies, to walk the path of a human life, to experience physical hunger and emotional betrayal and ultimately, death, out of love for us.

A few minutes ago we sang a carol so familiar to our ears that we may not really think about the words. And in the second verse we sang these:

Veiled in flesh the Godhead see: hail, the incarnate Deity,
Pleased as man with men to dwell, Jesus, our Emmanuel.

God was "pleased" to dwell with us, to come and live among us in Jesus.

How can we perceive such a thing in our minds?

God was "pleased" to dwell with us, to come and live among us in Jesus.

It’s no small gift, is it? Think about the world into which he came. We don’t know if the story about King Herod is true. It may be the sort of over-stated tale that is like one of our apocalyptic movies about zombies! But it makes the point that terrible things were thought of, even then, that the world of 2000 years ago was as dangerous in its own ways as the world is today. The weapons we might use are different, but people are the same: broken, unconscious, selfish, separated from God and in desperate need of saving from themselves. God came to dwell with us in full knowledge of our brokenness and our disconnection from each other and from God.

Isaiah wrote:

It was no messenger or angel but his presence that saved them.

God was pleased to live with us, as one of us.

I’m not at all sure we can grasp it on our minds, the Incarnation. Like the touch of a baby’s little hand on his mother’s face, it is more than an idea. We have to feel it to believe it, feel it in our hearts. We have to let it reside in our flesh. And because it’s so hard to take in, we build our traditions to remind us of the times we experienced a flash of it in the past.

We bring out the nativity set that reminds us of the days we were little children, or we serve the foods our mothers served, or we get out the Spode plate or the snowflake serving dish that make Christmas an idea we can touch with our hands and taste with our mouths and see with our eyes and hear with our ears.

And I believe it is right to do those things, even if some of them may seem a little silly at times. What do grits have to do with Jesus? But this year more than any other I have come to understand all the things we do as our own ways of bringing the love of God into reality, of embodying the Incarnation. I know it is what I needed for Christmas, and so do we all, because we forget so easily, distracted by the bad news world in which we live. In our actions we remind ourselves and each other of the good news of God’s presence. We make God’s love something we can experience with our own senses, and in those acts we remember Jesus Christ, who was pleased, as one of us, with us to dwell. Amen.

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