Dec 25, 2018

“Seen and Heard, as Told” 12-25-18

Luke 2:8-20
Christmas Morning
December 25, 2018

The appearance of the heavenly host to the shepherds in the hill country near Bethlehem has to be one of the most dramatic experiences of transcendence recorded in Scripture or otherwise experienced in human history.  There are other angelic visitations to the main characters in the Christmas story and too many others in the unfolding of God’s plan of redemption.  But it is rare indeed to meet the heavenly host.  Perhaps the fiery chariotry that surrounded Dothan in the days of Elisha (2 Kings 6:17) might have rivaled the “awe” power of Christmas night.  But, the horses and chariots of fire were visible only to the eye of faith and they brought no joyful announcement.  The heavenly host came not only with news, but to join heaven and earth in worship.  As the writer to the Hebrews reminds us, “When he brings the firstborn into the world, he says, ‘Let all God’s angels worship him." (Heb. 1:6)

To read of the heavenly manifestation to the shepherds inspires our imaginations.  It also brings to mind an important topic in contemporary theology—namely, the power of divine encounters to form faith.   For example, in Encountering God: Christian Faith and Turbulent Times, Andrew Purves describes how a divine encounter drew him to God and into the Christian ministry.  Purves tells how he dropped into a church service essentially out of curiosity born of boredom with the course of his life.  He continues, “The minister ascended into the pulpit.  He gripped the edge of the pulpit and in a firm voice said: ‘Let us worship God.’  Those words came cannonading over my teenage head with a mighty roar.  I cannot say that I heard the voice of God as an aural noise.  I can say that I hear the voice of God in an interior way, invading my life, demanding my attention in a manner I could not avoid, turning my ordered life upside down.  I knew immediately with utter conviction and clarity that God had called me to be a minister.  I was called to preach the gospel before I was even a Christian.  This encounter with God is the initiating and defining moment that has given shape, direction, and meaning to my life...”

Now Purves is a Presbyterian theologian who teaches Reformed Theology at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary.  His emphasis on the importance of divine encounter is obviously related to his own experience; however, he also has very specific theological reasons for approaching the Christian faith through the doorway of encounter.  Foremost among them would be a concern to preserve the freedom of God.  After all, an encounter is a kind of meeting, but what makes it distinctive is that it is unplanned, at least from our side.  Moreover, the notion of encounter also entails a certain lack of control over how the meeting will play out.  An encounter may not always be “safe.”  For Purves, encounter is the appropriate way to speak about God’s sovereign, saving approach to people in Christ.  We are not in control.  Instead, God chooses to meet us in his way, in his time, in his own freedom, much in the same way that God met Andrew Purves in the church service that Sunday morning.  In this respect, Purves is pushing back against certain ways of presenting the gospel or understanding the Christian life that appear to have God “in a box.”   He wants to challenge the idea that becoming a Christian can be reduced to a formula or a series of predictable steps, or that God’s grace is some sort of commodity that churches have or dispense. 
In addition to guarding God’s freedom and exalting his sovereignty, the emphasis on encounter also obviously resonates with a widespread longing in Christian circles for something “real.”  People want more than just ideas or sermons or empty ritual.  They long for an experience of the presence of God.  Now Purves wants to encourage Christians to be confident of the presence of God in the daily course of life.  Our memorable encounters point us to precisely this reality.  Moreover, encounters don’t have to be dramatic—like St. Paul on the Damascus road, or Andrew Purves wandering into a church service, and certainly not like the shepherds in the presence of the heavenly host.  What is important is that those palpable experiences of God’s presence—however quiet or intense—remind us that Christ is always present.  This should give us confidence to serve others in Jesus’ name.  We don’t have to find a formula that will ensure that Jesus “shows up.”  He is already there in his freedom.  Our privilege is to participate in the work that Christ is doing in the world, wherever he sends us in the daily course of life.

The theological emphasis on encounter has a clear counterpart in the contemporary conversation about worship.  (Whether there is a clear line between the theology of encounter and trends in worship, I cannot say for sure.)  It is not at all unusual now for those who write about worship practices or lead worship service to speak of corporate worship as a time when the congregation encounters God. 

Here one can sense the same cultural longing for something “real.”  What may be missing, though, is the theological emphasis on divine freedom.  While serving a church in Western Michigan I frequently drove past a megachurch which had a neon sign by the road that read, “Come in and experience God.”  It strikes me as ironic that the longing to experience God moves some churches in the direction of finding ways to “package” this.  If this experience can be so confidently offered, what does this say about God or the nature of the experience?  And, how are we to respond to this as a trend that drives increasing diversity in the church?  Worshipers now align themselves as contemporary or traditional, or something in-between or beyond, most often because in their chosen alignment they feel most “connected” to God.  This is not a new phenomenon, but its disruptive impact on churches which are already struggling to “hold on” to members is stressful, to say the least.

All of this presses, of course, on the nature of Christian experience and its relationship to assurance.  It is hard to imagine living the Christian life without some taste or genuine awareness of the presence of God.  The Heidelberg Catechism insists that true faith is more than “a sure knowledge” of the truth of the Gospel.  (QA 21)  It also involves the inward testimony of the Holy Spirit.  “The Spirit bearing witness with our spirit” strongly suggests some sort of awareness of the presence of God.  On the other hand, experience can be open to doubt.  We may be mistaken about what we considered to be an encounter with God, (though a genuinely divinely initiated encounter will leave, as Purves says, an indelible mark on our souls.)

In the narrative of the angels and the shepherds, though, we have an opportunity to appreciate not only the gift of those special times when God makes his presence known in remarkable ways, but also a fairly predictable way that God leads us on into faith.  Put simply, he gives us “a sign.”   Here I am not speaking about the custom of some to ask for a sign, or to put out fleeces as a way to generate a sign.  I am referring to the signs that God offers.

The angel said to the shepherds, “This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.”  (Luke 2:12)   The words echo a sign announced eight hundred years earlier by Isaiah to doubting Ahaz.  “Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel.”  (Isaiah 7:14)  A sign points us to God’s work in the world.  It gives us a place to look.  Who knows how many babies there might have been in Bethlehem on Christmas night?  How would the shepherds know where to find him?  Well, if you remember the message from last night, the lack of room in the inn led to the unusual circumstance of Jesus being laid in a manger.  That narrows the field, so to speak, for shepherds looking for a particular baby.  The angels did not send the shepherds off to look for gray cats in the fog.  They give them a sign that would help them find the child.  The sign had to be unusual enough to separate the baby from other babies in Bethlehem.  On the other hand, note that it still leaves the door wide open for faith!

We can be sure that the baby Jesus looked like most other newborn babies.  Certainly Mary would have been able to tell him apart from other newborns, but to the eye of the shepherds there was nothing about the baby himself to make it manifest that he was the savior of the world.  The shepherds had the word of the angels that the baby in the manger was the savior.  They see the sign, but at the end of the day, they must decide whether or not to believe the angel.  The sign is meant to lead them to faith, not lift them beyond faith to some sort of scientific certainty.  We may also think of the others who journey to see and worship the Christ-child, the Magi.  In ways that are not disclosed to us, they had learned that the King of the Jews had been born and they followed the sign of a star.  They eventually arrive in the presence of Christ and find a confirmation of the faith with which they begin their quest.  It is the convergence of word of promise and a sign of confirmation that God is pleased to use to bring people to Christ.  And so, Luke says, “The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had seen and heard, as it had been told them.”

God still announces a savior for the world today.  And, he gives the world a sign—a clue about where to look to see where he is savingly at work in the world.  He points them to something in the ordinary world that is a bit out of the ordinary.  In this instance, he points to the church.  In the company of a people who are set apart by baptism and who live by the standards of another realm, the world is invited to seek a savior.  This sign, admittedly, creates a wider door for faith than the manger in Bethlehem—wider in the negative sense that it can often require more faith by virtue of so many shameful contradictions.  We do not always exhibit the humility and lowliness of the savior we profess.  Our lives are often so much like the world that our distinctiveness by baptism is easy to miss.  Yet the Lord makes his dwelling among us when we acknowledge our weakness and long for his presence.  May it be that our memory of the first Christmas will assure us that he is indeed present among us, and with that assurance, live in a way that enables others to find a sign pointing to Christ, a convergence between what God declares to be the way of his kingdom, and what people see and hear in us.  Amen.

Pastor Paul Copeland
Faith Presbyterian Church
West Lafayette, IN 47906