sermon preached at Church of the Good Shepherd, Federal Way, WA
by the Rev. Josh Hosler, Rector
Christmas Eve, December 24, 2018
Have you ever asked a question that you knew you’d never get a definitive answer to? “Hey, Google … what is the meaning of life?” … “Siri, tell me which religion is the right one.” … “Alexa, please add fulfillment and happiness to my shopping list.”
We inventive humans now have so many ways to try to manage our environment. But we still can’t manage everything, and that’s frustrating. Some days, it feels like we can manage nothing at all—not the kids, not the pets, not the spouse, not the boss, not the weather, not the government, not the passage of time, not the loneliness and anxiety.
That’s the point at which many of us turn to God, if we haven’t done so already. We cry out, “Help me manage all this!”
We all do this from time to time. I have a non-religious friend who said recently that she was gardening, and for each seed she dropped into the earth, she took a moment to think of specific types of people who have been victimized in our country recently. And she hoped that people of hateful words and actions might experience a moment in the night when they rethink their effect on people. She prefaced all this by saying, “I don’t pray. I vote.” As if the two things were mutually exclusive.
We all pray—and not necessarily because we think it will fix things. We pray because we’re human, and that’s what humans do. We pray because we can’t help it. We pray when we feel out of control. We may also pray when we feel an inexpressible joy! We retreat, we meditate, we keep silence, we burst out with unbidden exclamations. We pray in so many ways, because we don’t have all the answers, and no artificial intelligence will provide them for us.
Jesus also prayed, a lot: we read in the Gospels that he often went away by himself to pray, sometimes all night. Sometimes he stayed away so long that people got really anxious. I don’t know about you, but for me, making time for prayer almost always feels like shirking responsibility. It feels unproductive—like I’m wasting time. I think that’s because it should be a waste of time. To pray is to surrender what little control we have left.
Prayer has been on my mind a lot, so when I hear the Christmas story tonight, a certain line jumps out at me: “But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart.”
Mary: a teenager from Nazareth, minding her own business … suddenly she’s going to become a mother. So is her elderly cousin Elizabeth. When the two of them get together for some quality pregnancy time, instead of wondering how to keep her back from hurting in a few months, Mary sings a song about how God works against the rich and powerful and stands on the side of the poor and the oppressed.
So Mary’s not one of these supposedly tuned-out teenagers: she’s thought about this stuff. She knows her Isaiah: “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light.” She knows that political and military leaders have no power over God. She knows her psalms: “Then shall all the trees of the wood shout for joy!” She has been given the promise that was given to Abraham: that her people will be blessed, and that they will be a blessing to all the peoples of the world. Mary’s done a lot of pondering in her short life. Maybe that’s why Joseph loves her. Maybe that’s why God chooses her.
Well, the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree. Mary will give birth to Jesus, who will also spend a lot of time pondering. In him, the people will see not just a thoughtful man, a prayerful man, a wise man. They will see the very face of God.
And the very face of God needs to pray. What does that mean? You’d think that if anyone would need no prayer at all, it would be Jesus. But that’s to misunderstand, as if the purpose of prayer were to get something we might not otherwise be able to have. That wouldn’t be prayer; it would be a magic spell.
Prayer, on the other hand, doesn’t cause or convince God to give us something. It enables us to recognize what it has been God’s good pleasure to give us already. We pray because we love, and there’s only one place love could come from—from the one who created us out of love in the first place. We pray to be in relationship, because prayer brings us closer to God and closer to those for whom we pray. Prayer breaks down the barriers between us. It even breaks down the barriers between life and death.
And yes, sometimes we pray to ask God for stuff. This is about being honest not only with God, but also with ourselves. When we can only see one acceptable way forward, we let God know that: “Please: save my mother’s life.” When we have no idea of any way forward, we let God know that, too: “Help me! I’m lost!” We ponder in our hearts, and given enough time and practice, we trust God to hear and to respond.
I can imagine Mary there by the manger, Joseph sitting nearby. The shepherds, a bunch of rough, smelly men, have finally ended their joyful visit after going on and on about their encounter with angels. Now perhaps Joseph is nodding off, as he does in Giotto’s famous painting of the Nativity. But Mary is wakeful. She has made it through the uncertainty of pregnancy and birth. She is in Bethlehem, and she misses the comfort of her bed in Nazareth.
The prophet Micah said that a descendant of David would come from Bethlehem and would rule forever—a good shepherd to his flock, a man of peace. Mary chuckles to herself: her little family isn’t really from Bethlehem. They’re just here temporarily for the census. It’s a technicality. Of course, now Mary needs to heal from the process of giving birth. That’ll take at least a few days—enough time to ponder much more what this child may become.
But she can’t take too long to heal, because they’ll need to circumcise the boy on the eighth day. Maybe that can happen here in Bethlehem. Then comes the presentation on the fortieth day, and they’ll have to go to Jerusalem for that. Another journey, so soon—not as far as Nazareth. As is the duty of all observant Jews, they will bring their 40-day-old child to the temple and symbolically offer him to God.
Mary doesn’t yet know that when they arrive at the temple, an old man named Simeon and an old woman named Anna will swoon over the little baby—not just because he’s a cute newborn, but because they, too, will see on him the very face of God! Simeon will say that he can now die a happy man. But he will also say something frightening to Mary: “A sword will pierce your soul, too.”
Oh, the beginning of a new life. All the promise and hope. All the anxiety, too. You know, you can’t give birth to anyone without expecting that person to suffer a lot of pain over the course of a lifetime. If we all thought that pain was the worst thing that could happen, we’d never have children. If we all thought that death was the big enemy, we’d say it was better never to be born in the first place. But like so many of us, God apparently thinks pain and death are worth it for the sake of all the joy that will come with them. So God offers himself to us. Jesus is offered in the womb and in the manger long before he offers himself on the cross.
Do you ever ponder these sorts of thing in your heart? Do you ever ask questions you know you’ll never get a definitive answer to? People who show up at church tend to be ponderers, at least some of the time. It’s an important part of what we do here. We gather, we share ancient stories, we ponder the stories. We wonder together what they might mean for us. We pray—wasting an hour on a Sunday morning because we know can’t ever manage our lives as efficiently as we’d like. We are assured of God’s love for us, and then we share a small amount of food together—bread and wine, and if you’re willing to accept it, the very flesh and blood of God, uniting us, nourishing us, preparing us to go back out into the world again.
Out there in the world, we’ll go on living our lives, but we’ll do so knowing that God is with us and has always been with us. This will give us courage to live not just for ourselves, but for the sake of others. Like Mary, we will carry Jesus in our bodies, and we will show to the world the very face of God. Christmas has made this possible. Amen.