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Saturday, December 24, 2011

Divine Intervention

God’s intervention into our world which we celebrate at Christmas is the opposite of what most expect from a god: God comes without our knowing, in a way we’d never guess, and that is the source of all our hope.

Pr. Joseph G. Crippen, Eve of the Nativity of Our Lord; texts: Luke 2:1-20; Isaiah 9:2-7

Sisters and brothers, grace to you, and peace in the name of the Father, and of the + Son, and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen

The Roman poet Horace in the first century BCE warned playwrights not to use deus ex machina to resolve problematic plot impasses.  Deus ex machina means “God out of the machine,” and it refers to having some miraculous or surprising or divinely-created event happen at the end of a play which resolves all conflicts and solves any problems in the plot.  (The “machine” part comes from the ancient practice of lowering actors on a crane when they portrayed gods.)  And it doesn’t have to be divine intervention – any unrealistic and convenient plot device that serves this purpose is considered to be deus ex machina.  Yet even with this warning, to this day far too often a story in a book, movie, or play has been resolved in this unbelievable manner.  The advent of the 22 minute sitcom in U.S. television, where every plot difficulty needed to be resolved before the final commercial break, pretty much guaranteed a lot of this cheap kind of writing.

The reason for avoiding this plot device is not necessarily based on its entertainment value.  There are enough movies and books and plays written which attract a wide audience because of their convoluted yet manipulatively satisfying endings.  It’s just that when one does this, one isn’t telling a true story.  Rarely in reality do complicated twists and turns of the lives of people on this earth resolve themselves simply and cleanly.

The odd thing is that quite often we expect the true God to act in this way anyway.  When people wonder “where God is” or ask “why doesn’t God do something?” it usually is in a context where God’s intervention is desired for a particularly difficult problem, where God could come down, as it were, and make all things right.  It’s a little like a child plaintively asking if something they inadvertently broke into hundreds of pieces might be fixed.  Unrealistic, yes.  But to a child, a parent has powers beyond knowledge and miracles can happen.

The wonder of Christmas for me is that it is the anti-deus ex machina in almost every way you can look at it.  If the Jewish people were looking for a true Messiah, an anointed one from God, who would rid them of oppression and restore the rule of King David, restore the kingdom of God’s chosen people, if they were hoping for God to intervene and make all things right, well, they wouldn’t have chosen the story of Jesus of Nazareth.

But in fact, we proclaim that this event of 2,000 years ago, this simple birth of a human child in impoverished circumstances in an occupied nation to two people of a long-defeated race was divine intervention of the highest order.  Not “God out of the machine” intervention, God dramatically moving in and fixing all things.  Rather, divine intervention in a way perhaps even old Horace would have approved: God enters the story, joins the plot, and walks with the people of God.  All the complications of our lives, all the twists and turns and difficulties of our journey, God undertakes.  Including the tricky and often life-threatening event of being born.

So how do we learn to appreciate this?  If we want the flashy, fix-it-all approach, and God chooses another?  I actually think that we often find ourselves in a third option, that we are living our lives the best we can, and whatever God was doing in Bethlehem two millennia ago we tend to think it isn’t likely going to change our reality – not in a flashy deus ex machina, but not in any other way either.

But I wonder, then, if we don’t have compatriots in this familiar story from Luke, companions on our journey in life, from whom we might learn to see this wonder that God is doing, this wonder we’ve come to celebrate tonight.

I find myself drawn to the shepherds this year.  Because they seem to me to look like us more than the others in the story.

If you’ve heard a lot of Christmas preaching, you likely know the reality of these folks.  You’ve heard about their lowly status.  While an important part of the economy and the faith life of the people, providing lambs for the Temple sacrifices, these were lower class people, rough, not acceptable in polite society.  You know the routine.  The fact that Luke tells us they receive the benefit of the angel’s announcement and not the nobility of Jerusalem is a significant point.

But what I kept coming back to this week was Luke’s simple words: “There were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flocks by night.”  See, these folks weren’t looking for God to do anything.  They were just about their work.

When this happened they were probably sitting around a fire, most likely passing a bottle around, and telling stories about life, talking about their problems.  If they ever thought about what God could or couldn’t do for them, or what God would or wouldn’t do for the world, it would be remarkable.  It’s likely that if they ever contemplated the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob acting on behalf of the people they would have assumed it wouldn’t have helped them or changed their lives very much.

And yet, an angel comes to them, a messenger of God, and tells them some pretty fantastic news.  The angel tells them not to fear, that the Savior of the World has been born in nearby Bethlehem – and not only born, but born for them.

Most days, I think that’s our situation.  We go about our work and lives, and we really don’t expect that God will do much in the way of miraculous.  And maybe that’s good – if we’re hoping for the big flashy fix-it, I’ve already said that’s not usually how God operates.

But here’s the amazing thing: God still comes to us, too, even when we don’t expect it.  God has come to be with us, even when we didn’t think it was possible.

For us, like the shepherds, God’s answer turns out to be the thing we really needed.

And like them, perhaps, we didn’t know that.  We didn’t know that if God came in a different way it would make such a difference.  We who like our gods coming from machines and fixing everything, or better yet, like our own ingenuity and strength and prowess to be the answer to the world’s problems.  We who believe that only power can truly get things done.  We thought our way was the only way.  We thought we knew best what God needed to do.

And what we hear tonight is completely different: God has come, God has intervened – but as one of us.  One who understands how we get distracted by our lives, by our world.  Who understands how we begin to believe that nothing can be made right, that peace cannot come.  One who enters our existence, and joins our story – who enters the very plot of the life of the world.

This is what we can say about God’s intervention at Bethlehem from our distance of 2,000 years of time: it tells us God’s true hope for saving the world.  The reason God doesn’t come with a big rescue, a power move that makes all things right, is that God’s way is the only way to be true to our story, to the life God has given us.  By entering our story and living with us, God is able to show us a way of life that leads to life, a way of being that brings justice, a way of loving that makes peace.

For God, the only real outcome worth hoping for in coming to be with us is that we all find our way back to love of God and love of neighbor by our encounter with this Child who is born.

So even the announcement to the shepherds is significant to God: whatever the rest of their society thought of them, God’s way of life had to include even those on the fringes.  Good News for all people.  And this Child, when grown, spent most of his time on the same fringes, reaching those who had no right to hope for anything from God, those who had been told by others that they were of little or no worth.  That very fact of God’s coming is part of how God is reshaping the story of the world from within, beginning with this birth.  The triune God is declaring all of God’s children worthy of God becoming one of us.  That’s the miraculous divine intervention we experience here.

Like the shepherds, we had no idea that we even needed this from God, or wanted it from God.  But it turns out that the marvel is there is no other way we could have known God.  As much as we long for an intervention from God which cuts through all the complications of our lives and fixes everything, God’s wisdom for us is that such an intervention would not satisfy.

Nor would it achieve what God hoped.  Using power and force to achieve the love God hopes to see between us wouldn’t create such love.  It would only force us to behave as if we loved.  It’s the difference between a parent forcing a child to make up with another child, and a parent modeling forgiveness and grace in such a way that a child learns it and acts it in the world.

Or think of it this way:  In Isaiah’s great declaration we just heard, that the people who walked in darkness have seen a great light, the prophet declares that the boots of the tramping warriors and the garments rolled in blood will be turned into fuel for the fire.  This is at least as powerful a promise as swords being turned into plowshares, yet somehow this verse is often the overlooked part of this beautiful passage we hear each Christmas Eve.  We go quickly from the light in darkness to “Wonderful Counselor, Prince of Peace,” and pass this one over.

The power of this promise is that it seems to me that the only way that all army boots of all warriors would be turned into fuel to warm people, along with all their uniforms, is if the armies of the world themselves disband.  If they take off their boots and give them for burning.  And that can’t happen by force, but only by willing participation.

So if God’s ultimate desire is a loving relationship with all the people of this world, the people God has made, where we all are a part of God’s plan of justice and peace, the only way God could see that happening was by actually becoming one of us and showing us the way.
That means that only by having God walking with us as one of us could we truly know the face and voice of God, hear the words of love and grace that came from the mouth of this Child who grew up to teach us the truth about God, the truth about us.

Only by experiencing the transforming love of this One whose birth we celebrate can we even dare contemplate the love of God.  A love which is so committed to loving us that this Child ultimately faces death at our hands, only to rise from death in love and continue to call us to his side.  There is no other way God could have shown us such love.

Only by experiencing the touch of this Son could we learn what it means to be enfolded in the arms of God.  An embrace which is embodied in the gift that this Child gives in his resurrection that we are now his Body, his arms, his love.  So we are touched by God by the love the Spirit creates in our hearts, and we not only become part of God’s saving and healing of the world, we literally become God’s loving embrace to each other.

Ultimately, what we know tonight is that God in fact has done something.

For all our prayers and all the cries to God to intervene, this is God’s answer: I have come to be with you.  To love you, to lead you to a new life, and to empower you to be my life in the world.
It’s a way of intervention that takes more time than a magical wave of the wand, or an explosion of divine power.  But if the healing God is seeking for the world is to happen, it has to happen in its own way, and time.

And so like the shepherds, we come to see for ourselves what God has done.  We gather in the midst of this Body our Lord has created with our bodies and lives, and we come to the Table this Child has set for us, to see for ourselves.  To be fed with life and grace and forgiveness.  To be changed by the love God gives us.  And to be filled with wonder at what we have seen and heard, what the Lord has made known to us: God is truly with us.  And everything will be changed.

In the name of Jesus.  Amen

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