“In the Wideness of God’s Mercy”
With no joking involved, I recently told a friend that the festival of “Festivus” has begun.
You may remember that this festival was an invention of George Castanza on the favorite sitcom, Seinfeld. George described it as: “a feast,” and then “feats of strength” where the head of the household must be pinned. The holiday is marked by an unadorned aluminum pole, as opposed to the Christmas tree. But the part of Festivus that I was referring to was the initial activity, “the airing of grievances.” In many places and in many ways, people begin this holiday weekend on the crabby side, and so it seems airing your grievances to other people begins our festival as well.
Remember how Charles Dickens began his novel, “A Tale of Two Cities”? It began, “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…” That is what Luke is saying here as he lays the groundwork for the story of the birth of Jesus.
Many of you have read Scott Peck’s book “The Road Less Traveled.” You may recall the opening line of that book, a three word sentence: “Life is difficult.” St. Luke is describing just such a situation here in Bethlehem. Luke is saying, “Life was difficult beyond belief in those days.” And life is again difficult in our day. The economy, although some say is recovering, is bad. Family life faces strains and stresses that we have yet to conquer. The difficulties for each of us are both of our own creation and beyond our control.
This text is unlike most stories about God. Usually there are folk watching the horizon for the comming of someone to fix the gone wrongness of the world. There is a hair shirt prophet telling people they had better shape up or God is going to come down here and straighten things out, and God is coming with a rod or with love, which is it going to be? So people have their gaze fixed, from earth to heaven, watching, waiting.
But this is not how this story goes…at least here in Luke. In Luke’s gospel, heaven is pointing down to earth, intruding, saying, “look, the Savior is here…in your midst.”
So it is with this festival here tonight. It is an intrusion into a world whose gaze, lets face it, is directed elsewhere. We have come to turn our attention to the announcement made to shepherds long ago: “look, in the midst of difficult days, in the wideness of God’s mercy, God sends us hope for the future.”
The coming of Christ into the world announces the wonderful news that God loves each one of us as if there were only one of us to love. Some of us may be tempted to believe that there is no God. Or, if God exists, God is an absentee landlord who has resigned from running the universe. We’re on our own now. We cannot expect any help from God. We must face life by ourselves. “Just look at the world,” they say. “Look at the cruelty, the violence, and the despair.” How can there be a God with such a world? But the coming of Christ into the world is proof positive that God cares for us and loves us. It shows that we matter to Him. It shows that although we are not worthy, God counts us as worthy.
This is not only hope for us as individuals, but also hope for the whole creation. You might replay all of the natural disasters we’ve heard about this last year. Maybe in your mind you are replaying violence between nations and their peoples, I don’t know. I do know that even if I was not leading worship here tonight I would still be here, because whatever pain or unworthiness I may feel, I want to be interrupted by the Word that comes from outside myself and begs me to see things differently.
In the wonderful operetta, Amahl and the Night Visitors, Amahl, hearing the description of the Christ child, cries in joy, “For such a king I’ve been waiting all my life.” Haven’t all of us been waiting for such a king? A king who can dispel our fears and empower us to live with hope and confidence? Now we can take heart. We need no longer be afraid, for to us “is born this day in the City of David a Savior, who is Christ, the Lord.”