Christmas, Sermons

With Open Arms

(A sermon for the First Sunday after Christmas    December 28, 2008   Luke 2:22-40)

Last Sunday at my church back home in Maine, we had a Christmas pageant. The Sunday School teacher put together a program with scenes meant to be Christmas cards: carolers, cookie-bakers, shepherds, angels, kings and, most importantly, the Holy Family. We were tickled to get a happy “yes” from a young couple in the church, agreeing to play Mary and Joseph and to bring their baby son to play Jesus.

Little G is 10 months old. I baptized him in July. He is a young man of sunny and outgoing disposition, and he did not fail us last Sunday. During his portion of the pageant he smiled and pulled on the blue veil over his mother’s head and stretched his arms out to the congregation. People waved at him. People cried at the beautiful sight of him, a sign of light in the darkness of our Maine winter or the winter in their own souls.

At home we keep the baby out of the manger until Christmas Eve, tucking the little nativity figure into a drawer or other safe place when we set the scene on the mantel. His baby arms stretch out wide, just like my little neighbor’s a few weeks ago. Sebastian is two, a little fellow for his age, and he came out the day after an ice storm wrapped in a puffy coat. He walked toward me, smiling, his arms flung wide, not so much because he wanted a hug but because the coat won’t allow him to let his arms down!

I’m getting to that age where I’m not quite ready to be a grandmother, or rather, not ready for my children to be parents, but I can see what a pleasure it will be to have a little one to hold again, to take joy in knowing that life goes on, that new little people will get excited about Christmas and family and toddling outside on a sunny day. I can see what a joy it will be to accept the embrace of those open baby arms, arms that give only love because they have known only love.

When Mary and Joseph took Jesus to the Temple, he would have been 40 days old, almost six weeks, the first time his mother would have been allowed there again after giving birth. I think back to my own children at that age, the early smiles, the precious cooing, and the intent eye contact. Babies of six weeks don’t have much deliberate control over their arms, how they reach out to you. They use what charms they have, the ultimate set of survival skills, with their oversized heads and their soft faces.

At our house, we always chuckle at TV babies, the 6-month-olds cast to play newborns, but representations of Jesus in art and in sculpture and in our nativity figures do the same thing. We see alertness and coordination unusual in a new baby. He seems more like a tiny boy than a tiny baby. And that pose—you know the one I mean, don’t you? His arms are wide open, his knees bent, one foot on top of the other.

He is posed—poised—for the cross.

I find that bothers me, more than a little. Just for this week or so, just for Christmas, I feel content to reside in the mystery of God coming to be among us in the person of a baby. I feel content to ponder that wondrous story without rushing ahead to the next-to-last chapter and the crucifixion. I feel content to marvel at a baby’s feet, however he arranges them.

Simeon, a prophet, and Anna, a woman of great faith, waited at the Temple for a long time to see that face. Imagine old Simeon peering at the baby, perhaps holding him and examining his eyes, looking deep into his soul and far into the future before telling his parents what the future will hold.

Imagine Anna, waiting for her turn, tuned in just as precisely to the special nature of this baby, holding those little hands, perhaps fondling the precious feet, ready to go out and tell everyone she can find the good news.

These two people of mature years understood how separated from God the world had become, how broken and alone people felt, and they gave thanks for the child who would bring about our reconciliation, our healing, our salvation.

When I’m working at home, I often have one eye on MSNBC, and you don't have to watch much news to conclude that we live in a broken world. If I began to list the areas of concern on the news in the past few days—the air strikes in Gaza, the man in a Santa suit attacking his ex-wife’s family—and carried on to the quiet turmoil that doesn’t make the headlines—the hungry children who depend on that lunch at school, the family wondering how to make the mortgage payment because one of the parents has lost a job—we might wonder when the healing will come, once and for all. We might be inclined to turn inward, to cross our arms protectively across our chests instead of reaching out to others and to the world.

What can we do with the time left for us, no matter how long it might be, to share the light of revelation so long waited for by Simeon and Anna? Throughout history there have been people who shared that light of love, arms open to God, arms open to humankind, arms open to all creation.

Great mystics like Julian of Norwich wrote prayers that still have the power to touch us. She lived as an anchoress, not a sister in a convent, but a person committed to living quite literally in a walled-in cell attached to a church. Three windows gave her contact with the sanctuary, a servant and the outside world. She prayed and wrote and gave counsel to ordinary folk through her window. She left behind an account of her visions of God, beautiful words describing an embracing love God has for all people. “All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well,” she wrote, words that continue to comfort the afflicted nearly 600 years after her death. Like Anna in our gospel lesson, she lived a life unhampered by the domestic responsibilities that weighed on most women of her time, a life tied permanently to the church but with a connection to the world that allowed both Anna and Julian to share the good news with us: God loves us dearly.

Howard_thurmanHoward Thurman, a 20th century African-American pastor and poet, wrote these words in a poem called “The Work of Christmas”—

 When the star in the sky is gone,
When the Kings and Princes are home,
When the shepherds are back with their flocks,
The work of Christmas begins.
To find the lost,
To heal the broken,
To feed the hungry
To release the prisoner,
To teach the nations,

To bring Christ to all,
To make music in the heart.

In 1944, Dr. Howard Thurman helped found the first intentionally interracial church in this country, where he served as co-pastor with a white clergyman. A professor as well as a pastor, he became the spiritual advisor to the next generation, including Martin Luther King, Jr. Like Simeon, he had a long life of prophetic ministry. Simeon waited at the Temple for the world to come to him, while Howard Thurman went out into the world and engaged leaders of other cultures. But both knew an essential truth of God’s love for us: when we see it made manifest, some of us will not like it.

That little baby’s destiny, Simeon told them, was “to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed–and a sword will pierce your own soul too.” (Luke 2:34b-35)

“Who would not love thee, loving us so dearly?” It’s one of my favorite lines from “O Come, All Ye Faithful.” But a sword will pierce our own souls, too, even his mother’s. We will be pushed to the limits by his love for all people, even the ones we wouldn’t want to know or acknowledge. He will sit down at the table with them, and spread his arms wide in greeting. He will challenge us to do the same, to meet the world with the open arms of his love.

Jesus presented in the temple
And so we come back to the Baby Jesus, the little fellow carried to the Temple by his parents in an act of obedient devotion and faithful practice. At my house growing up, one of the nativity sets had a Jesus much like this one, ready for the cross, his one little foot on the other. I always thought of the baby's arms being stretched out to his mother, when I was a little girl. When Anna and Simeon rejoiced to see him, when I put his little figure in the manger, when Julian and Howard wrote their poems of love and heart music, we understood the Good News in its most elemental form: God loved us enough to endure the risks and vulnerability of being simply human.

I want to live in a world where a person so full of divinity can live, rather than die, where the open arms can mean embrace rather than surrender, however purposeful. And we can be part of making that world, along with Anna and Simeon, along with Julian and Howard, if we will do what they did and risk sharing the news of love and risk showing the light shining in the darkness. All we need to do is open our arms. Amen.

Simeon and Anna Praise the Infant Jesus, Arent de Gelder
Jesus is Presented in the Temple, African Gospel Mafa

11 thoughts on “With Open Arms”

  1. Those southerners listenin’ to a yankee preacher tomorrow will be hearing a great sermon

  2. really great. I love how you were able to moved from anna and simeon to julian and howard, and then back to the world and open arms.
    thank you.

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