Plymouth Congregational Church, UCC
The Rev. Jane Anne Ferguson
Here at Plymouth our Christmas Eve service is always such a beautiful, mystical collage of carols, candle-light and communion swirling around the miraculous story of the birth of Jesus – Yeshua in the Hebrew, meaning “deliverer.” What it mean this Christmas after this horrendously unique year to hear the story and receive the gift of Jesus, Deliverer?
As in years past, we heard the call of the prophet …”the people who walk in darkness have seen a great light!” We heard the story of the miraculous birth …”she brought forth her firstborn child and laid him in a manger”… and at this point I always think to myself … really, isn’t every birth miraculous because every birth is a risk!
We sang joyfully together with the angels and the shepherds the good news of God’s presence among us in the tiny child. Soon we will marvel once at the gifts brought by exotic strangers who followed a star of hope to find this particular babe. Then the gospel writer John will proclaim, ”In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God” – HE – not a concept or a philosophical idea this revelation, the Word of God, but a person. A human person of flesh and blood who is God’s light and life and love, the Holy Incarnate, God-with-us, for all people. And this revealing Word in human flesh is light shining in the darkness “and the darkness cannot overcome it.”
What does the promise of this delivering light of God-with-us mean in the midst of this horrendously unique year?
In December of 1973, the late novelist, spiritual writer and poet, Madeleine L’Engle wrote a Christmas poem reflecting on the past year and the story of the Incarnation. Some of you may remember the news of that year. For others its part of the history book narrations of the Vietnam war, the Cold War, the Space Race, the Watergate scandal and a national energy crisis. Listen with me to L’Engle’s reflections in her poem, “The Risk of Birth, Christmas, 1973.”
This is no time for a child to be born,
With earth betrayed by war & hate
And a comet slashing the sky to warn
That time runs out & the sun burns late
That was no time for a child to be born,
In a land in the crushing grip of Rome;
Honour & truth were trampled by scorn–
Yet here did the Saviour [the Deliverer] make his home.
When is the time for love to be born?
The inn is full on the planet earth,
And by a comet the sky is torn–
Yet Love still takes the risk of birth. [i]
Here in December 2020, we might say with L’Engle, This is no time for a child to be born! And I don’t need to enumerate why…we have all lived through this horrendously, uniquely hard year. We each hold our private and collective fears and griefs and heartaches.
Yet my friends, I say to you this night….it is always time for The Child to be born…the child sung to by angels and shepherds, the child who was blessed and hailed as born for greatness by elders in the temple; the child who grew to be the boy of twelve astonishing rabbis with his wisdom; the child who grew into the young man who was called away from an obscure peasant life into a path of mystical, revolutionary and revelatory ministry with the Living God that changed his times and has changed the world. The child who became the innocent man beaten and unjustly condemned by the powers of oppressive empire to carry his own execution cross, the dying man praying for the world and the dead man laid secretly in a tomb by his loved ones. The Child who as God-with-us is the Risen One, the Deliverer, proclaiming and embodying Love that conquers Death.
It is always a good time….the best of times….for Love to risk birth in the story of the Child, God-with-us! Every time we dare to tell his stories, to live into the ways of the realm of God that Jesus taught, to follow in hope the star of God’s dream for a peaceful, just, and compassionate world, to act on that dream, we are participating in the Incarnation, the Word made flesh among us.
A friend of mine and a friend of Plymouth’s, the Rev. Dr. Linda Privitera, who led our Lenten art retreat two years ago, recently sent me a wonderful prose poem she wrote this Advent in the voice of the angel, Gabriel. It seems that Gabriel is complaining to God, saying….
“I have tried – really, I have - to deliver Your message.
If I may say so I am wondering why once wasn’t enough –
You know we had such an excellent response to your invitation to bear the Holy One,
Blessed be he, into an unlikely geography where holiness is not always a given.
But…this repeating of your desire for incarnation in every generation has resulted, lately,
In some disappointment on my part.”[ii]
Gabriel goes on to wonder if he needs an updated wardrobe to get people’s attention, confessing that he has worn those special shoes with the swhoosh on the side to see if that works. Still, he says, it seems that most of the folks God has sent him ask to be God-bearers, are too distracted by their phones and Zoom meetings and Gabriel is mightily confused about what digital platform to use to get their attention. He can’t keep all the passwords straight in his brain. Then, he up and questions this new list of God-bearers that God has given him. He says to the Holy One….
“And I am wondering too about your newest lists. They are a little long and are now peopled with women of a certain age – not young – and there are men here too. That’s new … I am [still] looking for Woke. …. I see where you are coming from; does the shape for the home for the holy really have to be as it was in the past? Haven’t we seen an impressive bunch of folks who were amazing shelters for the Holy, bearing it into the world in diverse ways?”[iii]
Finally, Gabriel realizes all this God work takes more patience and he cheerfully agrees to try again and again. He ends his complaint saying, “Thanks for hearing me out. I love you, Gabe.”[iv]
My friends, we are the diverse and impressive, amazing shelters for the Holy Gabriel is being sent to find. We are the ones invited to risk birthing Love in the world. This is my image of hope on this Christmas Eve in 2020 when the earth is still betrayed by war & hate & pandemic. I leave it with you…Be delivered this year by the story of Jesus, the Deliverer, God-with-us…so that you may risk birthing, delivering, life-changing Love to the world.
Merry Christmas and Amen.
©The Reverend Jane Anne Ferguson, 2020 and beyond. May be reprinted with permission only.
[i] Madeleine L’Engle, “The Risk of Birth, Christmas, 1973”, The Weather of the Heart, (Harold Shaw Publishers, Wheaton, IL: 1978, 47.)
[ii] The Rev. Dr. Linda Privitera, ”Gabriel’s Complaints”, unpublished poem, all rights reserved.
Associate Minister Jane Anne Ferguson is a writer, storyteller, and contributor to Feasting on the Word, a popular biblical commentary. Learn more about Jane Anne here.