Emmanuel – Takes One to know one

The Story of the Nativity: Christmas Paintings by Illustrator Michael Dudash

Fifty years ago on this very night, John McCain was a prisoner of war in Viet Nam.  During the 2008 presidential race, John McCain was asked by Time magazine to share his “personal journey of faith.” In his article McCain shared a powerful story of something that occurred while he was a prisoner of war in Vietnam:

“When I was a prisoner of war in Vietnam…my captors would tie my arms behind my back and then loop the rope around my neck and ankles so that my head was pulled down between my knees. I was often left like that throughout the night. One night a guard came into my cell. He put his finger to his lips signaling for me to be quiet and then loosened my ropes to relieve my pain. The next morning, when his shift ended, the guard returned and retightened the ropes, never saying a word to me.

A month or so later, on Christmas Day, I was standing in the dirt courtyard when I saw that same guard approach me. He walked up and stood silently next to me, not looking or smiling at me. Then he used his sandaled foot to draw a cross in the dirt. We stood wordlessly looking at the cross, remembering the true light of Christmas, even in the darkness of a Vietnamese prison camp.”  {Found on Christianity Today website}

“The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light . . . Those who lived in a land of deep darkness, on them light has shined.” – Isaiah.

Perhaps you find yourself wondering why you are here tonight.  Perhaps  you are moving beneath a cloud tonight.  Perhaps you wonder about yourself and God.  Be comforted; God’s story also begins with shadows and questions and fear and uncertainty.

I suppose there were many questions on this journey from Nazareth.

The makers of history are on the move; Emperor Augustus has placed himself at the center of the world issuing decrees.  Augustus is a Caesar, a master of all that he surveys.  He pulls the great levers of power.

In the ancient world some men were considered gods.  And some men considered themselves God.  In fact, today in Rome, there is an old crumbling stone.  It reads, “The birthday of the god has marked the beginning of the good news of the world.”

This stone does not celebrate the birth we celebrate tonight; rather this stone was raised by Roman senators celebrating the Pax Augustus, the great peace and prosperity brought about during the reign of Emperor Augustus.

The irony is that we don’t remember this Emperor because we are grateful for the peace that he secured for a political season.  The irony is that the living God is about to draw back the curtain on the imposters.  The irony is that we remember the Emperor because we celebrate a homeless child born on the edge of his empire. 

The would-be makers of history actually become the footnotes in the history written by God.  A sliver of light and beauty peeking through the empire’s armor.

At the feet of the winner, on the corner of his empire, where the great and powerful might feed their horses, in the forgotten place, a small corner of hay, grain, and dung, the unseen hand of heaven is very gently nudging the world. 

It is there that the unseen Mover – moves . . . and no one is really paying attention; no one is living with the appropriate situational awareness.

God delivers a Messiah who is not of the world’s own choosing; God comes to us as a child, so that we might learn how to become his children.  Out of the Father’s heart, this gift – while one man, an Emperor, is trying to wrap his arms around the world, and the other is coming to rule the world by being placed helplessly in its arms.

This baby is a “feather on the breath of God” in the words of Hildegard de Bingen.  He is a light and song at the feet of the world’s darkness and the decrees of the mighty.  For any who cannot or will not see God’s love, He will be the face of love;  he is the hand and feet for those who falling down through the cracks; he is the heart that breaks when our hearts grow cold; he shares tears with those who find that their tears are too heavy and too costly to give.

Being born and lying in the tiniest corner of the world, He is the gift that we cannot give to ourselves.  God has come for me, and for you, with the tiniest sliver of hope, light, beauty, and truth into a world covered in shadows.

Our Lord came down from life to suffer death;
the Bread came down, to hunger;
the Way came down, on the way to weariness;
the Fount came down, to thirst.
—Augustine, Sermon 78

At Christmas time there is a story that Paul Harvey used to share:

The man to whom I’m going to introduce you was not a scrooge, he was a kind decent, mostly good man. Generous to his family, upright in his dealings with other men. But he just didn’t believe all that incarnation stuff which the churches proclaim at Christmas Time. It just didn’t make sense and he was too honest to pretend otherwise. He just couldn’t swallow the Jesus Story, about God coming to Earth as a man.

“I’m truly sorry to distress you,” he told his wife, “but I’m not going with you to church this Christmas Eve.” He said he’d feel like a hypocrite. That he’d much rather just stay at home, but that he would wait up for them. And so he stayed and they went to the midnight service.

Shortly after the family drove away in the car, snow began to fall. He went to the window to watch the flurries getting heavier and heavier and then went back to his fireside chair and began to read his newspaper. Minutes later he was startled by a thudding sound…Then another, and then another. Sort of a thump or a thud…At first he thought someone must be throwing snowballs against his living room window. But when he went to the front door to investigate he found a flock of birds huddled miserably in the snow. They’d been caught in the storm and, in a desperate search for shelter, had tried to fly through his large landscape window.

Well, he couldn’t let the poor creatures lie there and freeze, so he remembered the barn where his children stabled their pony. That would provide a warm shelter, if he could direct the birds to it.

Quickly he put on a coat, galoshes, tramped through the deepening snow to the barn. He opened the doors wide and turned on a light, but the birds did not come in. He figured food would entice them in. So he hurried back to the house, fetched bread crumbs, sprinkled them on the snow, making a trail to the yellow-lighted wide open doorway of the stable. But to his dismay, the birds ignored the bread crumbs, and continued to flap around helplessly in the snow. He tried catching them…He tried shooing them into the barn by walking around them waving his arms…Instead, they scattered in every direction, except into the warm, lighted barn.

And then, he realized that they were afraid of him. To them, he reasoned, I am a strange and terrifying creature. If only I could think of some way to let them know that they can trust me…That I am not trying to hurt them, but to help them. But how? Because any move he made tended to frighten them, confuse them. They just would not follow. They would not be led or shooed because they feared him.

If only I could be a bird,” he thought to himself, “and mingle with them and speak their language. Then I could tell them not to be afraid. Then I could show them the way to safe, warm…to the safe warm barn. But I would have to be one of them so they could see, and hear and understand.”

At that moment the church bells began to ring. The sound reached his ears above the sounds of the wind. And he stood there listening to the bells – Adeste Fidelis – O Come all Ye Faithful – listening to the bells pealing the glad tidings of Christmas.

And he sank to his knees in the snow and opened his heart.

Emmanuel.  God is with us . . . forever.

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