Saturday, December 30, 2017

Sermon: "The Force is Strong with This One"

The Rev. Maureen R. Frescott
The Congregational Church of Amherst
December 24, 2017 - Christmas Eve
Luke 2:1-20

“The Force is Strong with This One”

A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away…
A baby was born.
A baby who would one day become a people’s only hope for liberation.
The one destined to carry the light that would overcome the presence of darkness in the world.
The one who would embark on a mission to teach others to carry the light and to use the forces of good – love, compassion, and grace – to overcome the forces of evil.

This Christmas, millions of people all over the world will flock to theaters to see this story come alive through the character of Luke Skywalker in the latest movie in the Star Wars franchise - George Lucas’ classic tale of good vs. evil.
But on this day, millions more will flock to churches like this one to hear a similar story written by another famous Luke, an ancient tale of light overcoming the darkness that has been told and retold for thousands of years.
The story of the Nativity.

It’s a story of hope, and peace, and love, and joy.
A story of a baby born in a stable to parents with no money and no power.
A baby who would grow up to save the world.

And as we stand among the witnesses to this ancient and familiar story –
among the shepherds, the angels, the wise men, and Mary and Joseph themselves – we might imagine peering into the manger at this tiny baby who radiates light, and saying those iconic words, 
“The Force is strong with this one.”

As I listen to our teens retell the story of Jesus’ birth – as they do every year at our 7 pm Christmas Eve service –  I wonder, as I do every year, how much of this story resonates with them, and how much of this story do they actually believe to be true?
How much of this story do any of us believe to be true?

I wonder – do we really believe that Mary gave birth to this baby two thousand years ago?
Do we really believe that this baby was God in human form?
Do we really believe that this baby had the power to save the world?

Do we really believe that we too are a part of the story – that the light and the love that flowed through Jesus also flows through us?

A few weeks ago, a friend of mine tagged me in a post on Facebook.
It was a link to an article that claimed that at least one aspect of the Nativity Story could be proven to be true.
The article was titled,
“Biological Evidence that Jesus Actually Was Born in December.”

As a pastor, I often have people sending me links to articles containing newly unearthed proof that something that occurred in the Bible actually happened just as the Bible said it did.
Articles with headlines like:
“Could This Mountain be the Final Resting Place of Noah’s Ark?”
or “Archeologists Discover the Location of the Garden of Eden”
or “Chariot Wheels and Human Bones Found at the Bottom of the Red Sea – Proof that Moses Destroyed the Egyptian Army.”
With God’s help, of course.

While these articles often draw us in with the promise of offering empirical evidence that something we’ve always taken on faith actually happened,
it often takes only a quick search on Google or to discover that the “evidence” cited is based on pure speculation, or inaccurate information, or was entirely made up and circulated as satire or fake news, which was then shared hundreds of thousands of times by those who believed it be true.

So it was with a keen sense of skepticism that I clicked on the link to the article that promised biological evidence regarding Jesus’ date of birth.

You may have heard it said that Jesus was NOT in fact born on December 25th – that this date was chosen by the Christian church in the 4th century, and adopted over time because it coincided with existing Pagan festivals that celebrated the Winter Solstice and the ancient Sun God.
During these celebrations, people burned Yule logs, dragged evergreens indoors, drank heartily, and welcomed the light returning to the world on the shortest day of the year.

The church – it has been said - was determined to co-opt this existing winter holiday and overwrite it with the celebration of the birth of Christ – the true light of God coming into the world.
The modern theory is that Jesus was actually born in the springtime.
This is based somewhat on the timing of the birth of John the Baptist,
but it’s also driven by the presence of the shepherds and the sheep in the Nativity Story we have in the Gospel of Luke.
Shepherds, we’re told, would not have been awake in the fields at night watching their flocks unless the sheep were about to give birth,
and, as every shepherd knows, sheep drop their lambs in the springtime,
not on a cold winter’s night in December.

But hold on – says the article promising proof of Jesus’ December birth - there is a certain breed of dessert dwelling sheep that does in fact give birth in the winter.
In fact, it is the only breed of sheep that is indigenous to the area of the Middle East where Jesus was born.   
So there’s the proof.

The author of the article celebrates this bit of biological evidence, saying it satisfies her desire for something concrete to hold onto in the Nativity Story.
She writes: “Long ago, I accepted the idea that December 25 was probably not the actual date of Christ’s birth. It was just one more sad thing about being an adult, one more little bit of wonder gone from life.”

It is sad when we lose that sense of wonder that we have in childhood.
When we stop believing in fairy tales and discover a growing desire for concrete evidence on which to base our beliefs. 

While that desire is well placed when it comes to ideological, political, historical, and scientific beliefs – it can be misplaced when applied to religious beliefs – because religious beliefs are often rooted in story.
Stories that are a woven tapestry of myth, meaning making, and metaphor, with an underlying message containing the truth that we seek.

The Nativity Story in particular is one that is multi-layered and pregnant with meaning and metaphor. Pun intended.
I would argue that trying to pinpoint a birth date for Jesus based on the mating habits of the sheep mentioned in the Gospel of Luke is like trying to pinpoint the birth date of Luke Skywalker based on the appearance of "womp rats" in George Lucas’ original screenplay of Star Wars.  
Sometimes the sheep – or the womp rats - are there because they’re meant to point us towards something else.  
A later plot point, a deeper meaning, a metaphorical marker that gives us insight into who the main character is.

While Jesus is not a fictional character, like Luke Skywalker, the Gospels we have that contain the stories of his birth, cannot be categorized as non-fiction.
They were never intended to be historically accurate accounts of his life.  
And they’re not biographies in the same way we write biographies today.

The Gospels were written as proclamations of Good News – the Good News contained in the message and teachings of Jesus and the saving action of his life, death, and resurrection.

For our ancestors – who lived in a largely myth-based and oral-storytelling culture, it was the message behind the story, not the details of the story, that contained the truth.
The details could change based on who was telling the story and who was listening to the story. Because the details were just a vehicle to help the listener grasp and understand the underlying truth.

It’s hard for us to wrap our minds around this - given our modern desire for accuracy in the printed word and the level of importance we place on factual details.
Especially in this age we live in where alternative facts and alternative truths confuse us and set us against one another.
As we search for something concrete on which to hang our beliefs it’s tempting to want there to be real sheep in a real field tended by real shepherds on a cold winter’s night.

Because then we can say – without doubt – that God really was born into this world - and through Jesus - has gifted us with the power to change it.

Luke believed this to be true. 
(the Gospel writer, Luke, not Skywalker Luke).
Luke so believed it to be true he crafted an amazing story that transported his readers back in time to the moment it happened.
To the point where they could almost smell the animals, and feel the cold, and see the shepherds breath hanging in the air.

Those shepherds were there for a reason.
In Luke’s time, being a shepherd was thought to be the most menial, demeaning, and filthy job that anyone could take.
It involved living out in a field day and night for years on end, without shelter in all kinds of weather. 
It was a life of stepping in sheep dung, sleeping in mud (and worse), birthing lamb after lamb and hoping to find a source of water to clean up the mess afterwards.
It required being away from family and friends and sometimes not seeing or speaking to another human being for long stretches of time.

Those who took the job of shepherd were truly desperate – for the money to send home, for the food they foraged in the field, for the solitude, for the time and space away from whatever it was they were fleeing. 

Perhaps Luke had shepherds present at the birth of Christ because they were the least likely to be welcomed at the birth of a King.
At the moment God was born into the world, the first to gaze upon him, and bless him, were the ones with the least value, the lowest status, the ones with absolutely no power.
The ones whom Jesus had come to liberate, and lift up, and save.

The story of Jesus coming into our world in the form of light and hope and love should be told and celebrated every year just as we do.

Personally, it doesn’t matter to me if he was born in December or April,
and being able to say with certainty that any of the details of the Nativity Story are true in a concrete way, adds nothing to my faith,
just as NOT having certainty about the details takes nothing away.

The Star Wars movies have a powerful message behind the overarching story they have to tell even though we know the details of the story are largely the product of George Lucas’ imagination.
The story has meaning and incites wonder and awe for the millions who allow themselves a few hours to step into it and be carried away by it.

I approach the Nativity Story in the same way.
God is in the feeling we get when we hear the story, year after year.
God is in the wonder and awe – and in the joy and relief that the shepherds feel – and that we feel - when we realize the wheels of change have been set in motion by the legacy Jesus left in place for us.

Every year, on Christmas Eve, Jesus is born again in our imaginations and in our hearts.
And we in turn carry his light and love and grace out into the world with us.

And no political posturing,
or power grabs,
or acts of injustice,
or expression of greed, 
or hostility, 
or bigotry, 
or fear of any kind,
can overcome this light that shines within us, and through us.

May the force of Christ be with you all.

Thanks be to God, and Amen.