Christmas Eve 2014: Lift up a banner

Isaiah 62:6-12 Psalm 97 Titus 3:4-7 Luke 2:(1-7) 8-20
Watchmen on the walls of Jerusalem, look for a messenger proclaiming great joy. Ministers, cry out in prayer to God, and don’t stop – let there be no stumbling blocks, no clogged roads along the way. Lift up a banner – the good news is almost here! The Jewish exiles from Babylon are almost here. This is excitement, the “almost victory” time of a people banished coming home.

Can you see this event from Isaiah? Experience it with me: city walls, guards, military regalia, soldiers against the backdrop of desert mountains as far as you can see. Night falls, and the sky is filled with stars more numerous than we can count. Still we see the guards, watchmen, standing and looking. We too wait, and watch; our heralds will tell us when someone is coming. Call on the Lord, Isaiah cries! Isaiah gives us words, images about waiting, and we know that the time is almost here. There is war imagery, God lifting God’s mighty and strong arm, watchmen looking out from the safety of the city walls.

We are a warring people. Yes, we really are a warring people. Little boys make “guns” out of sticks, grenades out of rocks, socks – anything that will ball up in their hands. Maybe girls do that, too. Who among us (other than me) doesn’t enjoy a snowball fight? Who among us has not made an empty wrapping paper tube into a light saber or other instrument of war as we bopped our friends over the head with it? We are people of war.

The Christmas story in Luke has war imagery, too. The shepherds “keep watch” in a parallel sort of way to their city counterparts. They, too, watch for thieves, foxes, and dangers that approach. Their weapons are shepherd hooks, their soldiers the others who herd and their vast knowledge of the desert in all times and places. The “heavenly host” comes in a multitude, a battle array of angels. Here the story changes. Instead of the sound of swords and battle cries, the heavenly hosts sings “Gloria! Glory to God on high and on earth peace goodwill to all! Gloria!” If this is a battle cry, it is a treasonous one, sung to God in heaven and not to Caesar. “Gloria!”

The ultimate victory has already entered the city gates, not with a battle cry nor with any grandeur, but in the form of a young girl, with child, on a donkey. Already our savior has touched our warring hearts.

7And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.

The shepherds must see this baby, this Messiah and king. Jesus is clothed in humility; this king is like no other. He needs no warring heralds; he is announced by angels, messengers of God, by a star, and sought after by earthly kings … and shepherds. That the shepherds see the infant Jesus is good news for you and I. Shepherds were the lowliest of workers: they had demanding landowners and smelly, stubborn sheep; low wages and long hours. It would be hard to be lower on the social ladder than a shepherd. That is such good news for us!

We, too, have access to this Messiah king. We, too, can come to the stable, “even if.” We come to see Jesus, to meet him, “even if we have:
no money
no hope
a pocket full of broken dreams
a heart full of disbelief
sorrow
anger
dirty clothes and noisy children,
laundry on the floor,
dinner in the oven,
or nothing to eat at all.

We are invited into this humiliating beginning, one so low that we all belong. Come close,
See the baby.
Come close,
See your king.
Come close
To a love so pure, strong, and true,
That our warring hearts are turned,
If only for a moment,
To the quiet beauty

Of a holy night.
Come, Lord Jesus.
Frederick Buechner:

Once we have seen him in a stable, we can never be sure where He will appear or to what lengths He will go or to what ludicrous depths of self-humiliation He will descend in His wild pursuit of men.

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