Myers Park Baptist Church
Charlotte, North Carolina
December 24, 2006
Texts: Isaiah 62:4-5, 10-12; Luke 2:8-20
"Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart."
This is what Luke would have us do with sacred scripture. Treasure
it and ponder it. Treasure these words of life handed down to us
across three thousand-plus years. And ponder them, receiving them as
bread and wine. Reflecting upon them, asking all the questions we
need to ask. Then letting the scriptures ask questions of us. At
least these three: Who am I? What is God calling me to do, to be?
And who is my neighbor?
Another way to ask the questions: What is the grace of God to me
in these words? And where is this grace leading me?
The story begins with the annunciation and the "Call of Mary."
The poet Denise Levertov forms into poetry what she describes as
"the astounding ministry she was offered":
...to bear in her womb
Infinite weight and lightness; to carry
in hidden, finite inwardness,
nine months of Eternity; to contain
in slender vase of being,
the sum of power - -
in narrow flesh,
the sum of light.
Then bring to birth,
push out into the air, a Man-child
needing, like any other,
milk and love - -
but who was God.1
"Hail, Mary, full of grace" is how Catholic liturgy has
transported the words of Gabriel to Mary. "Greetings, O favored
Do you know this is also Godís word to you? O you, formed by
grace, filled with grace, loved infinitely, completely,
immeasurably, unendingly, loved fiercely and tenderly by God.
Do you know that you - male and female, young and old - are
offered this same ministry? To bear in your inmost parts the Christ,
to let him be formed in you Ďtil you are formed in him, then push
him out into the air and, holding him in your arms, present him to
the world and say, "Look at him, just look at him!"
"ĎTil Christ be formed in you" is exactly how Paul put it in his
Christ-mysticism: Christ formed in us as a child in a womb, then
degree-by-degree we are changed into his kind of glory.
Ireneus spoke of the mystery of the Incarnation, as the new
calling of all humanity: "God became human that we might become
divine." Not become God - - that would be idolatrous - - but
like God, transformed by grace to enflesh the character of
God, to be like Christ, "surprise of Mercy, outgoing Gladness,
Rescue, Healing and Life."2
This is the mystery of the Incarnation which is not just Maryís
possibility and Jesusí actuality but also the Spiritís invitation to
us: God inhabiting our flesh, spirit and matter wed, the holy and
the human interpenetrating one another.
You may draw back, bad religion and lifeís experiences having
smothered your spirit. But Gabrielís words to that young Galilean
maiden echoed Godís earlier words to captive Israel in Isaiah 62:
Nevermore shall you be called "Forsaken",
Nor shall your land be called "Desolate".
ut you shall be called "I delight in her"
And your land [called] "Espoused."
[As one given and giving in marriage.]
As a bridegroom rejoices over his bride,
So will God rejoice over you....
You shall be called "Sought Out"
- - "Desired" - - "A City Not Forsaken."
God loving us for better, for worse; for richer, for poorer; in
sickness and in health; to love and to cherish, all our days.
The Incarnation proclaims, to use the words of Rowan Williams,
that despite appearances to the contrary, God and the world
belong together,...that there is no place the love of God cannot go.
Then there are the shepherds to treasure and ponder. More migrant
worker than rosy-cheeked choir boy, more Merle Haggard than J.S.
Bach, more Hank Williams or Alan Jackson than Friedric Handel.
Theyíd more apt to be singing "Help me make through the night" than
"Savior like a shepherd lead us." They lived on the fringe of
society, like those who subsist on day work. They were the last to
be hired, the first to be fired, the last to go to college, the
first to go to war. They were of bad reputation, not allowed to be
witnesses in courts of law. But the angel appeared to them.
"Be not afraid, fear not!" were the first words of the angel,
knowing how close fear lives to our hearts; knowing that to do
anything worth doing for ourselves or for the world, we must walk
through our fear.
Then the words, "For, behold, I bring you good news of great joy,
which shall be to all people." It is to them and it is to
all people. "For unto you is born this day in the city of David
a Savior, who is Christ the Lord."
You need to know how these words - - Savior, Lord, Son of God - -
church words, Christmas card words to us, were heard in the
first-century world. They were names given to Caesar Augustus and to
Caesars before and after him, words of the liturgy of the theocracy
of the Roman Empire. Augustus was called "savior of the whole
world." Of his birthday an inscription reads: "The birthday of the
god has marked the beginning of the good news for the world."
Luke is preaching a counter-theology subversive to the politics
and religion of the empire. The Savior of the world, Son of God,
Lord of all, is not seated on the imperial throne in Rome but is
lying in a cowís feeding trough in a Jewish village named Bethlehem.
Jesus, not Caesar, is Lord.
How this birth, as Maryís song, turns everything upside down!
Power is weakness and weakness is power. Jesus is Lord and Caesar is
a pretender. Weíre not saved by politics; government is not our
Redeemer. "Trust not in princes," as the psalmist says. Politics is
where we work out the human shape of justice and thus is important.
But Jesus isnít a Democrat and God is not spelled G.O.P.
What Iím speaking of is the de-absolutizing of politics,
whether the secular political religion of communism, or the various
strains of theocratizing religions which put Godís name on their
desire for domination. Holy monotheisms become conquering
monotheisms. People in Godís name aim to rule.
We see what was at stake in a document called the Acts of the
Scillitan Martyrs, dated about 180 C.E., from North Africa.
A Christian named Speratus is brought before the Roman governor.
The governor says: "Swear by the deified god of the empire."
Speratus replies, "I do not recognize the empire of this world...
for I know my Lord, who is emperor of kings and all nations."
He believed in an alternate empire and gave his life for it.
I remember the small courageous "Confessing Church" of Germany as
it separated itself from the German Christian majority who had
fallen under the thrall of Hitler and Nazism. They issued what they
called "The Barmen Declaration," which said, in short: We confess
that Jesus Christ alone is Lord of Life. Jesus, not the Fuehrer, is
It seems important to be reminded today, two thousand years after
the reign of Augustus, in a world that still believes that "Might
makes Right," still genuflects before power, still trusts that
violence is the only answer to violence: We with millions this day
sing our birthday carols not to Augustus but to Jesus, not to Caesar
but to Christ.
What amazing news to the shepherds that holy night: For unto
you, yes, you, is born this day in the city of David a Savior,
who is Christ the Lord.
Then thereís the birth itself to treasure and ponder, the birth
in the shed where people kept their animals.
Ox and ass before him bow
and he is in the manger now.
The manger, a cowís rough feeding trough, a makeshift crib for a
Even the word "manger" made echoes in the Hebrew mind. Isaiah had
used the word in his challenge to Godís people:
The ox knows its owner,
and the donkey the manger of its master,
but Israel does not know,
my people do not understand.
Sometimes we lose our way so bad we cannot find our way home.
Home has come to us. Sometimes our minds lose their understanding.
We get so confused we no longer know who we are, much less who God
is. And God shines a light.
"Son of God, loveís pure light."
Then thereís the baby wrapped in swaddling cloths. Literally, the
child "is swaddled." Wrapped in bands of cloth. Itís what we do when
a baby is born. First, swaddled in our arms, then swaddled in warm
Babies need to be swaddled. We all need to be swaddled.
Our body and skin need it. Our central nervous system needs it. Our
soul and psyche need it.
We swaddle one another with affection and touch, with compliments
and encouragement, with smiles and hugs, with day-by-day ordinary
love. When you go home today ask someone you love, How can I swaddle
This may seem to some like infantile regression, but scratch the
surface of our made-up lives and there is in all of us a child who
needs to be swaddled.
I think thatís what Jesus did when he held children, and forgave
cast-out sinners, and befriended tax collectors, and called women
and fishermen to be his disciples, and touched lepers, and made
Samaritans heroes: He swaddled them.
Thatís what You, O God, did for us on this holy night when You
came as a child, letting us love You as a child, as a child in our
arms, love You, that we might love every person as a God-child, and
ourselves be loved.
Christ was born for this,
Christ was born for this.
1Denise Levertov, "Annunciation" in Selected Poems
(New York: New Directions, 2002), pp. 162-4.
2 George Buttrick, Prayer (Nashville: Abingdon Press,
1942), p. 83.