Psalm 96: O sing to the Lord a new song; sing to the Lord, all the earth. Sing to the Lord, bless God's name; tell of God's salvation from day to day. Declare the Lord's glory among the nations, God's marvelous works among all the peoples. For great is the Lord and greatly to be praised, to be revered above all gods.
For the gods of the people are idols, but the Lord made the heavens. Honor and majesty are before God; strength and beauty are in God's sanctuary.
Let the heavens be glad, and let the earth rejoice; let the sea roar, and all that fills it; let the fields exult, and everything in them. Then shall all the trees of the forest sing for joy before the Lord; for the Lord is coming, coming to judge the earth; to judge with righteousness and the peoples with truth.
Isaiah 9: 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. You have multiplied the nation, you have increased its joy; they rejoice before you as with joy at the harvest, as people exult when dividing plunder. For the yoke of their burden, and the bar across their shoulders, the rod of their oppressor, you have broken as on the day of Midian.
For all the boots of the trampling warriors and all the garments rolled in blood shall be burned as fuel for the fire. For a child has been born for us, a son given to us; authority rests upon his shoulders; and he is named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, the Prince of Peace.
Luke 2: There were sheepherders camping in the nearby slopes. They had set night watches over their sheep. Suddenly, God's angel stood among them and God's glory blazed around them. They were terrified. The angel said, “Don't be afraid. I'm here to announce a great and joyful event that is meant for everybody worldwide: A Savior has just been born in David's town, a Savior who is the Messiah and Lord. This is what you look for: a baby wrapped in a blanket and lying in a manger.”
At once the angel was joined by a huge angelic choir singing God's praises: “Glory to God in the heavenly heights, Peace to all men and women on earth who please God.
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Then, as now, it comes when we least expect it, most need it, and in the most surprising forms. Long ago, the Assyrian armies conquered the holy land and God's counter-intuitive announcement was that those who had suffered the darkness of war, chaos, and economic and spiritual collapse would find their hope not in strength of arms but rather in an infant whose ultimate attribute was peace.
Later, the Roman Empire conquered the holy land and there followed cultural disintegration and a steep decline in faith, hope, and love. People wanted vindication, security, and change. They wanted a victorious warrior God. They got a “baby wrapped in a blanket and lying in a manger” who turned their world upside down.
The graphic images of those times were stark contrasts to the prophetic and angelic eyes: darkness, despair, and death set against light and life and joy in the birth of a child! Revelation to blue collars not potentates; revelation in person not in divine theatrics; revelation from a trough behind a tavern not a palace nursery – God in an infant! What's with that?
Two messages from God clearly echo from Isaiah to the manger and from Bethlehem to Tiburon: First, don't be afraid and, second, look for your fearless hope in the simplest and most human of places. Don't be afraid: do not embrace an angry, vengeful, tyrannical warrior God. When was the last time you were terrified by an infant? When did you last find hope in wars and rumors of war? Hope in the simplest and most human place: when was the last time an infant or child opened your heart, swelled it with awe, and bathed it in faith, hope and love? You get the point, right?
The faith, hope, and love that emerge from brokenness in life or from global provocations are birthed in the creative wonder and preciousness of new life that inspire the soul to awe and wonder never to fear and trembling.
During the barbaric war in Kosovo remember how Barbara, a team of dedicated church folk, and the children of the congregation plotted to get a family out of that horrific mess, to embrace them unconditionally and surrounded them with hospitality. I shall never forget the eyes of the precious Vila family children at SFO: small, wide eyes that beheld the staggering challenge of a new land, city, language, and people. But wonder of wonders, hope of hope, warm embraces, gifts and a home, words and gestures of love and peace turned strangers into friends. The sacred hope we finally beheld was in the eyes of Saud Vila born here, far from genocide -- “look for a baby wrapped in a blanket and lying in a manger.”
The immense, multi-layered crises in Iraq and Afghanistan do not inspire hope. Al-Qaeda and other provocateurs offer only the promise of death and destruction. Westminster teamed up with the Ruth Group and UCSF to change that. I shall never forget the penetrating, telling eyes of little Mustafa when we first met in this sanctuary. His hearing obliterated by a bomb that exploded beside his Baghdad home, he came to a strange and distant land unable to hear, faced countless strangers, an imposing hospital, surgeries, and the absence of his beloved mother and siblings. The hope we finally experienced was in the eyes of a vulnerable child safe from war – “look for a baby wrapped in a blanket and lying in a manger.”
Just as the Hebrews needed a symbol of hope and found it in an infant; just as the holy land under the Romans found a symbol of faith, hope, and love in the joyous birth of the infant Jesus, so we, too, need experiential symbols that open and fill our hearts. The simple Christmas message of the prophet and of the manger expose the soul and purposes of God: first, do not fear God, second, do not live in fear and terror in the world, and third, find your peace and claim your faith, hope, and love in the most basic expressions of life.
Tonight, wars rage on around the world, our sisters and brothers in the military continue in harms way, terrorists plot, the economy roller-coasters, we each face personal challenges, but there are many precious moments when something pure and good sparks hope in our souls and moves us in faith and love to lives of kindness and compassion. Short on hope? Look long and deep into a child's eyes. Imagine, as Isaiah, the shepherds, and the angels did, that from a humble manger would come justice and peace, joyous beloved communities of caring and grace, purpose, and meaning. Do you need to jack-up your joy? Take in a baby or child and then sing with the angels, “Glory to God in the heavenly heights,” and with the psalmist, “Sing to the Lord a new song…. Sing for joy before the Lord.” Do you need to refuel your resilient soul? Roll up your sleeves, show up and be present, and unabashedly commit consistent deeds of generous loving kindness.
God bless you one and all, and may the spirit of Christmas descend into your soul, cast out what you most fear, and fill you to the brim with faith, hope, and love! Merry, Merry Christmas!
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