Friday, December 24, 2010

The Visited Planet

A sermon for December 24, 2010

Listen, I want to tell you a story.

I don’t think it is factual, but it might be true. It begins as all good stories do: “once upon a time…” Back in the olden days, good stories began with “it came to pass in those days…” That’s the old fashioned way of saying “once upon a time.” Anyway, I have a story to tell you, about angels and stars and a baby. It is the same story you hear every time this year, with all the same characters and the same plot. But first I want to tell it from a very different point of view, so come with me as we zoom out from the manger, out farther, and farther from the stable, over the city of Bethlehem, high into the dark night sky, and beyond, beyond time and space and geography into a dimension that we call heaven.

Now, listen. I want to tell you a story:

Once upon a time a very young angel was being shown round the splendours and glories of the universes by a senior and experienced angel. To tell the truth, the little angel was beginning to be tired and a little bored. He had been shown whirling galaxies and blazing suns, infinite distances in the deathly cold of inter-stellar space, and to his mind there seemed to be an awful lot of it all. Finally he was shown the galaxy of which our planetary system is but a small part. As the two of them drew near to the star which we call our sun and to its circling planets, the senior angel pointed to a small and rather insignificant sphere turning very slowly on its axis. It looked as dull as a dirty tennis-ball to the little angel, whose mind was filled with the size and glory of what he had seen.

"I want you to watch that one particularly," said the senior angel, pointing with his finger.

"Well, it looks very small and rather dirty to me," said the little angel. "What's special about that one?"

"That," replied his senior solemnly, "is the Visited Planet."

"Visited?" said the little one. "you don't mean visited by --------?

"Indeed I do.

That ball, which I have no doubt looks to you small and insignificant and not perhaps overclean, has been visited by our young Prince of Glory." And at these words he bowed his head reverently.

"But how?" queried the younger one. "Do you mean that our great and glorious Prince, with all these wonders and splendours of His Creation, and millions more that I'm sure I haven't seen yet, went down in Person to this fifth-rate little ball? Why should He do a thing like that?"

"It isn't for us," said his senior a little stiffly, "to question His 'why's', except that I must point out to you that He is not impressed by size and numbers, as you seem to be. But that He really went I know, and all of us in Heaven who know anything know that. As to why He became one of them – how else do you suppose could He visit them?"

The little angel’s face wrinkled in disgust. "Do you mean to tell me," he said, "that He stooped so low as to become one of those creeping, crawling creatures of that floating ball?"

"I do, and I don't think He would like you to call them 'creeping, crawling creatures' in that tone of voice. For, strange as it may seem to us, He loves them. He went down to visit them to lift them up to become like Him."

The little angel looked blank. Such a thought was almost beyond his comprehension.

"Close your eyes for a moment," said the senior angel, "and we will go back in what they call Time."

While the little angel’s eyes were closed and the two of them moved nearer to the spinning ball, it stopped its spinning, spun backwards quite fast for a while, and then slowly resumed its usual rotation.

"Now look!"

And as the little angel did as he was told, there appeared here and there on the dull surface of the globe little flashes of light, some merely momentary and some persisting for quite a time.

"Well, what am I seeing now?" queried the little angel.

"You are watching this little world as it was some thousands of years ago," returned his companion.

"Every flash and glow of light that you see is something of the Father's knowledge and wisdom breaking into the minds and hearts of people who live upon the earth. Not many people, you see, can hear His Voice or understand what He says, even though He is speaking gently and quietly to them all the time."

"Why are they so blind and deaf and stupid?" asked the junior angel rather crossly.

"It is not for us to judge them. We who live in the Splendour have no idea what it is like to live in the dark. We hear the music and the Voice like the sound of many waters every day of our lives, but to them - well, there is much darkness and much noise and much distraction upon the earth. Only a few who are quiet and humble and wise hear His Voice. But watch, for in a moment you will see something truly wonderful."

The Earth went on turning and circling round the sun, and then quite suddenly, in the upper half of the globe, there appeared a light, tiny but so bright in its intensity that both the angels hid their eyes.

"I think I can guess," said the little angel in a low voice. "That was the Visit, wasn't it?"

"Yes, that was the Visit. The Light Himself went down there and lived among them; but in a moment, and you will be able to tell that even with your eyes closed, the light will go out."

"But why? Could He not bear their darkness and stupidity? Did He have to return here?"

"No, it wasn't that" returned the senior angel. His voice was stern and sad. "They failed to recognise Him for Who He was - or at least only a handful knew Him. For the most part they preferred their darkness to His Light, and in the end they killed Him."

"The fools, the crazy fools! They don't deserve ----"

"Neither you nor I, nor any other angel, knows why they were so foolish and so wicked. Nor can we say what they deserve or don't deserve. But the fact remains, they killed our Prince of Glory while He was Man amongst them."

"And that I suppose was the end? I see the whole Earth has gone black and dark. All right, I won't judge them, but surely that is all they could expect?"

"Wait, we are still far from the end of the story of the Visited Planet. Watch now, but be ready to cover your eyes again."

In utter blackness the earth turned round three times, and then there blazed with unbearable radiance a point of light.

"What now?" asked the little angel, shielding his eyes.

"They killed Him all right, but He conquered death. The thing most of them dread and fear all their lives He broke and conquered. He rose again, and a few of them saw Him and from then on became His utterly devoted slaves."

"Thank God for that," said the little angel.

"Amen. Open your eyes now, the dazzling light has gone. The Prince has returned to His Home of Light. But watch the Earth now."

As they looked, in place of the dazzling light there was a bright glow which throbbed and pulsated. And then as the Earth turned many times little points of light spread out. A few flickered and died; but for the most part the lights burned steadily, and as they continued to watch, in many parts of the globe there was a glow over many areas.

"You see what is happening?" asked the senior angel.

"The bright glow is the company of loyal men and women He left behind, and with His help they spread the glow and now lights begin to shine all over the Earth."

"Yes, yes," said the little angel impatiently, "but how does it end? Will the little lights join up with each other? Will it all be light, as it is in Heaven?"

His senior shook his head. "We simply do not know," he replied. "It is in the Father's hands.

Sometimes it is agony to watch and sometimes it is joy unspeakable.

The end is not yet. But now I am sure you can see why this little ball is so important. He has visited it; He is working out His Plan upon it."

"Yes, I see, though I don't understand. I shall never forget that this is the Visited Planet." (J. B. Phillips, The Visited Planet)

Tonight on this, the visited planet, we remember again the visit, the appearance of the light of the world, shining through the darkness of a lowly stable, the glory of the Lord shining out into the night into the sleepy eyes of stunned shepherds.

The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness— on them light has shined. The light brightened the lives of the last and the least and the lost, brightened their days with healing and hope, and spread into the hearts to shine forever. The light shone into the steely eyes of those blinded by pride and power, and they tried to snuff it out, to bury it, to hide it under a stone. And it smoldered and went out for three dark days and they thought they had won, and then it arose with the dawn bursting brilliantly across the Easter sky, and it spread across that place, and shines still, and continues to flicker and glow in radiant faces, in luminous song, in glimmering moments in tiny flickering candlelight reflected in the face of one small child.

The light shines still; the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness does not overcome it. For it is the God who said, "Let light shine out of darkness," who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ. (2 Cor. 4:6)

Listen! I want to tell you a story… It came to pass…

1 In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. 2 This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. 3 All went to their own towns to be registered. 4 Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. 5 He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. 6 While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. 7 And 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. 8 In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. 9 Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. 10 But the angel said to them, "Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: 11 to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. 12 This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger." 13 And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying, 14 "Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!" 15 When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, "Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us." 16 So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger. 17 When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child; 18 and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them. 19 But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart. 20 The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them. (Luke 2:1-20)

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Love, Death and Resurrection

Today, on a wintry Saturday, we buried Helen Snow, who died just before her 94th birthday. By all accounts she was the kindest and most loving woman you could ever hope to meet. I've been reading Tom Long's book Accompany Them With Singing, and thinking a lot about the Christian funeral. It seems to me that at a funeral, we need to try to accomplish an awful lot in a very short time: we want to remember, to mourn, to give thanks. And as pastors, we want to somehow capture a handful of hope and pass it gently into the laps of those weeping people on the front row. We try to do that with our words as well as our deeds.

1st Corinthians 13: 4-8a, 13

4 Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant 5 or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; 6 it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. 7 It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. 8 Love never ends. 13 And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.

These verses come from a letter that the Apostle Paul wrote, to help the people of a new church learn how to live in harmony together. It was crucial that the church at Corinth understand how to live lives of love, because a couple of chapters later, he is going to teach them about death, and the Apostle Paul is pretty certain that folks can’t die well unless they have learned to live well. So he spells it out – what love looks like!

I did not have the privilege of knowing Helen. But as I listened to her family talk about her, about who she was, her warmth, her character, her hospitality, it was clear to me that Helen demonstrated all the traits of a loving person. You knew her – you’d agree, I bet, with some of the things they told me: She was always so warm, so welcoming. When you went to see her, she made you feel like it was the best thing ever that you came, and that you – you among all others in the entire universe – you were the most important person in her life at that moment. She made you feel special. She always let you know she loved you. When she died, an angel went to heaven.

You could just about read 1st Corinthians 13 as if it were written about Helen Snow: “Helen was patient; Helen was kind; Helen was not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. Helen did not insist on her own way; she was not irritable or resentful; she did not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoiced in the truth.”

Nonis told me that she had known Helen since she, Nonis, was four years old. Even as a young newlywed, still barely more than a girl herself, Helen was a kind, gentle, and loving woman. As I talked with Nonis and listened to the memories and stories she shared, I thought of another woman, a woman described in the book of Proverbs. Strength and dignity are her clothing, and she laughs at the time to come. She opens her mouth with wisdom, and the teaching of kindness is on her tongue. She looks well to the ways of her household, and does not eat the bread of idleness. Her children rise up and call her blessed; her husband too, and he praises her: "Many women have done excellently, but you surpass them all." (Prov. 31: 25-29) That was Helen, I think.

It’s always tough to lose someone so special to us; maybe even tougher on us in this Christmas season, when the world all seems so jolly. But in some ways, this season is an important reminder to us of the overwhelming significance of love. In this time of year when we remember Christ’s birth, we recall his self-giving love, a love which knows no end. As the old Christmas song says, “Love came down at Christmas.” That kind of love is at the center of Christmas, and it is the kind of quiet generosity that Helen lived out every day.

A poet once said, “A Christmas candle is a lovely thing; it makes no noise at all, but softly gives itself away.” (Eva Logue) In the gentle light of a Christmas candle, quietly, softly giving itself away, we see an expression of the embodiment of love. In the love of God, we learn how to love, and to be loved. That was a lesson that Helen understood and lived, her whole life long.

She wasn’t ever famous. She didn’t invent anything, or pilot a hot-air balloon, or swim the English Channel. She spent her time and energy on more important things. She finished high school in a time when few people did. She listened to her husband’s little sister when that little girl needed to talk. She loved her husband. She loved her children and grandchildren, and encouraged them, and taught them to be good people.

Helen was a homemaker in the genuine and lovely sense of that word: she made a home. Her family was always in her heart, and she was the heart of the family. She grew flowers, and she raised her family, and she held her arms open to all the people in her world. Through her hospitality and caring, she welcomed everyone she encountered in a way that made them feel unforgettable – in a way that made Helen unforgettable. She made the world a more beautiful place, because she knew what love was.

I think that I missed out on knowing a great woman. And I think if the Apostle Paul had ever met Helen Snow, he’d have been impressed. He might’ve said, “Hello, Helen, it is nice to meet you. I see you’ve read my book.” So as we remember Helen, and we grieve our loss of a dear mother, grandmother and great-grandmother, sister-in-law, and friend, even as we remember and cherish all that she was to everyone here, it is important that we remember the rest of the story, the story that the Apostle Paul comes to just two chapters on in 1st Corinthians.

In the 15th chapter, Paul describes the promise of resurrection. You see, the love that was born at Christmas was just the start. That baby in the manger didn’t stay a baby – they never do. He grew up to be a man, a man who was fully human and fully God, and he loved the world so much that he was willing to die for it. And it looked like the end.

But it wasn’t the end; it was just the beginning. Even though Jesus died, the love story continued in his resurrection. Because Jesus died, as we all must die, we will be raised, as he was raised! Death does not have the last word.

Our sister Helen, beloved of the Lord, a blessed woman who lived out Christ’s call to love God and love neighbors -- Helen will be raised in new life, no longer mortal but immortal, no longer perishable but imperishable, in the splendor and glory of the resurrection. There will come a day when we will see her again, and be reunited with her. Even though our vision today is clouded today by tears of grief, then we will have every tear wiped away from our eyes.

Even though we see only dimly now, then we will see clearly.

Even though now we only know in part, then we will know fully, and be fully known.

Helen is gone from us, into the presence of her Lord and Savior. But she will live within us, in every memory, in every gesture of hospitality, in every moment that we nurture our families, and listen to the stories of children, and care for those who need care, and extend an open hand of kindness to those around us, we will remember the life and witness of Helen Snow, a beloved and loving child of God.

“…now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love. Love never ends. Thanks be to God for the life and the resurrection of Helen Snow.