Wednesday, December 9, 2009

A Sermon for the Season

Once I have finished with my finals here at Duke it is my earnest intention to resume furnishing this blog with posts that are both original to it and of a less exclusively theological nature. Until that time, however, here is a Christmas Eve sermon that was part of the final project in my preaching class. This sermon was conceived as the culmination of an Advent sermon series on the theme "Learning to Long for Jesus;" each Sunday's sermon was titled by a different line from "O Come O Come Immanuel," and each service would include a reading from the Song of Songs. If I have not disgusted Origen I have done well.

“Rejoice! Rejoice!”

Song of Songs 8:1-2, 6-7; Luke 2:1-20

Here at First UMC we have been learning this season of Advent how to long for Jesus and every week in these four Sundays of waiting for the birth of Christ we have read from the Song of Solomon, the Song of Songs. As you heard me say when I read the scripture, the poetry of this book has been always understood in the tradition of the church to speak of the love between God and his people. These are the words we can turn to as models for our own love of God and as assurances of his love for us, as testaments to its richness and passion. For it is not a love that is measured or restrained or controlled or a love that holds anything back. And likewise the love of the Bride, our model, whose words we heard read this evening, is neither lukewarm nor cautious, but gives recklessly of itself all it has to her Husband, our God.

Yet the love of the Bride is a love that we so often, all too often cannot feel. The love of this Song of Songs is a love we all would choose, a love we would all receive eagerly, and a love we would all happily, joyously give if we could only feel it truly in our hearts. For it is the love we know would quench that longing at the foundation of all our longings, the longing to love God and the longing to be loved by him. The love of God—how we long to have it! How we long to be able to give him our love! How we long to know surely that he loves us!

For it seems to us, doesn’t it, that there could be no love between this God and us. The differences are too vast, we are so small, our troubles are so small, our needs, our wants, our hopes, joys, disappointments are so small and he is God, the Maker of all that is, the Ruler of all that is, the One, so we are told, to whom the prayers of all the world go up. What time would he have to love us? What compassion could he have for people who go through commutes and reports and e-mails, who take the kids to piano lessons and then sit down for a basketball game at night, when he holds the galaxies in his right hand and all infinity in his left? What place could there be in that lofty heart for the love of us? And how could we love him? What joys would we share with one who is beyond all joy, what would we talk about with one who is ineffably beyond all we could ever think or say or do?

It is a convenient and helpful disappointment when we console ourselves and say that God is so far, so infinitely far above us and beyond us that there could never be love between us. It is a convenient disappointment because it rationalizes our distress, builds a cage in our minds for our longing so that it cannot disturb us or trouble the smooth schedule of our lives. And once we have decided there is no hope of sharing love with God, once we have squared ourselves (as we think) to the reality of things, it is so easy to pretend that old desire is no longer there, that it has gone off, that it has faded from our hearts. It is easy to pretend we have reached maturity, when we learn to say and think that God could never love us, that it would not be prudent for us to fall in love with God. We learn to live effectively, if not well, by assuring ourselves every hour that the distance is too great and the difference is too great, that God is up there and I am down here and love cannot pass the breadth of our separation.

It is a denial the mind can make easily, but which the heart will always resent. Could there be some way, we will always ask. God, we say, could there be some way? Or, like this:
“O that you were like a brother to me,
Who nursed at my mother’s breast!
If I met you outside I would kiss you,
And no one would despise me.
I would lead you and bring you
Into the house of my mother,
And into the chamber of the one who bore me.
I would give you spiced wine to drink,
The juice of my pomegranates.”

They would deride me on the street if I ran up to him and kissed him, if I embraced the God of all like that I would be laughed at. They would say to me “Don’t you know who he is?” And I fear that I would say it too, even to myself. But O that were my brother! O then I would run up to him and kiss him and embrace him and there would be not a whisper of disapproval, then I could be with him and no one would think a thing of it. Then love between us would be easy and natural; then I could love him and not feel as though I shouldn’t. Then I could give him the gifts that I have always wanted to give him, then I would bring him into my mother’s house—O that he were my brother! O that there was a way that I could love him, that all the boundaries and distances and differences could fall away and I could feel his love and feel within myself real love for him.

O that he were my brother! It is a wish we never lose no matter how we try to cloak it and deny it, no matter how we try to keep it hidden away where others cannot see it, where we ourselves may sometimes forget that it is there. And how else could we live with this desire smoldering within forever within us if we did not try by every means to smother it with resignation and the set jaw of despair? So we teach ourselves and we are taught that he can never be our brother, that the love we want so fiercely could never be. We train ourselves to stop longing for that love, to stop longing for his love, to stop longing to be able to love him. “O that he were my brother!” No, no, we learn to laugh that off. “O that I could kiss him in the street, that I could bring him into my mother’s house!” But no, I cannot do that. There is too much distance between my heart and God’s—I have never heard him really say he loved me, and I, however much I want to love him I cannot. O that he were my brother! O that he were my brother!

And if he were our brother, would we even know how to kiss him? If we suddenly found that all this crippling distance were collapsed, could we bring ourselves to lead him to our mother’s house, would we be ready to offer him the juice of our pomegranates? Or would we let him pass, and convince ourselves that it was nothing more than our imagination? And if we, in a moment of surprising courage, had the strength to embrace him when we saw him, had the strength to ignore our long-developed reflexes of denial, would it even then be long before old habits took up their places again, and we turned ourselves to a new effort of forgetting and denying? But O that he were my brother! O that he were!

I hardly think the shepherds expected they would see their God or that a chorus of angels would announce especially to them that a Savior had been born in Bethlehem of Judah. For surely the announcements of God are not given to shepherds, to men whose labor is among the beasts. No, surely if God would speak to anyone, he would speak to the men who work with armies and not animals, the men who balance the wealth of nations and whose voices are heard in the Senates and Parliaments of the earth. There could be no message from an angel to a shepherd because what could God say to a shepherd, what could God feel for a shepherd? And what would a shepherd do with God? All he knows are sheep. But the angels spoke and they said to the shepherds “These are glad tidings!” And the shepherds could not say otherwise, for they ran into town and they found the child and told his parents all the angel had said. And Mary, who had loved the child nine months, treasured all of it in her heart, the Bible tells us. For those hours the shepherds had forgotten it was foolish to think you could love God or that God could extend his love to you. Maybe one of them forgot so well that he took the baby in his arms awhile, while Mary stood there by him all full of love, love for her child, her son, and love for that foolish shepherd because he too, in that moment, loved her child.

But the shepherds left. The shepherds left and Luke tells us that they praised God for what they had seen and heard. For a night in December they allowed themselves to think they could have love for God, and for that evening they did not chide themselves when they felt that God loved them. But soon they were back to assuring themselves that such feelings are more wishes than reality, that the distance between a shepherd and God cannot be bridged, that he is so far from us that there is no way we could really love him, that we are so different from him that he would never love us ever in return. Perhaps some thirty years later one of the shepherds would let this wishful longing get the better of him again, and he would go to see a man who was healing the sick and preaching the kingdom of God. Perhaps another put his longing up forever and shouted with the crowd to crucify that man who dared to claim he was God’s Son. But most of them, I guess, like most of us, went on about their lives and only sometimes, when their guard was down, would find themselves crying “O that he were my brother!” O that he were a person I could love! O that I were to him and he to me that there could be love between us! O that he were my brother and I would embrace him and eat with him in my mother’s house! Then I could make him a part of my life and he would make me a part of his—O that he were my brother! O that there could be love between us! I would give anything that I could love him, and if a man offered me all the wealth of his house for that love I would utterly scorn him.

O that he were my brother! O that he were my son! He was Mary’s son. And when she felt him stirring about inside her, she loved him, and she loved him, O how she loved him when she held him in her arms that first time, her child, her son. And there was nothing feigned about that love, nothing false, nothing inauthentic or insincere about that mother’s love for her baby and her God. And Joseph loved him when he first put his hand upon the belly of his beloved, and he loved him when he set him in the manger, the son of the one whom he loved and the Son of his God. Here was God and nothing could stop Joseph and Mary from loving him; here was love from God and no one could have convinced them what they felt was not true.

And what is the distance of a thousand years or a thousand miles when the distance has been bridged between the ineffable majesty of God and those first coughs and cries of a newborn infant? And what does it matter that he is not here to shake your hand when you know that his face was once a face that human eyes could see, and that his face will be seen again? Why shall we not greet him in the streets of our lives with the kisses of our souls, why shall we not take him into our homes to treat him lovingly? O that he were my brother!—we have cried it, we have shouted it and wept it, but he is! He is our brother and he is ours to love and he has for us a love which is strong as death, as fierce as the grave, many waters cannot quench his love, nor can floods drown it. He is our brother and he calls from us that love we have been hiding all our lives, that love we were taught was foolish. But he is born among us and he is here for love, and though I cannot promise if you love him there will not still be those who think you are foolish, I can tell you they will only think so because they do not know what we know, that he is our brother, that we may love him, and he may love us. We know he is our brother because we have all heard tonight the story of Mary’s boy in Bethlehem! We know he is our brother and let us take him into our mother’s house and cherish him this Christmas, for we know that the Man who was born of Mary is a God that we may love. Rejoice! Rejoice! These are good tidings of great joy. Amen.