God is with us

In a few days, we will celebrate the winter solstice.  The winter solstice is when the tilt of the earth’s axis keeps us away from the light of the sun for the longest time of the year.  Many of our traditional winter celebrations including some of our Christmas traditions point us back to an ancient Roman solstice celebration called Saturnalia which was a festival of lights dedicated to the god Saturn who was referred to as the sun-star. In the height of it’s festivities, Saturnalia was a weeklong party that included feasting and gift giving.  One of the cool things I read about this festival is that slaves were allowed to participate and even greater than that, some of the masters turned the tables and served their slaves.

In an effort to replace the worship of the sun, Christian’s during this season speak about awaiting Jesus, who we call the Light of the World. But before the Light of the World comes, we must face the darkness that covers our planet and the darkness that we find in our hearts.

In my yoga community, we celebrate the winter solstice every year. I love this practice because it is very dramatic! During the practice, we start with all the lights on bringing awareness to the summer solstice which is the longest day of sunlight. Then as we move and breathe, I slowly extinguish the lights so that by the middle of our practice, we cannot see anything. We are surrounded in darkness and I invited my students to close their eyes and draw inward. The winter solstice invites each of us to get still, to be quiet, to go deep within so that we might become aware and let go of beliefs, patterns of thoughts, ways of being that are holding us back from expressing our best self. Then, as we move and breath to the end of the practice, I begin to add in a tiny bit of light and we begin to think about who we want to grow to be in the new year recognizing that the seeds we plant today need to be nurtured everyday, just like seeds in the earth need water, sun and rich soil to grow.

The winter solstice is a recognition that mother earth is on a journey to the longest night of the year and we who live through her abundant gifts take this journey into the darkness with her while clinging to the hope that the light of the world will once again come and illuminate our skies and our hearts in a most radiant way.

Today, we know that the sun will return and we trust that the days will grow longer, but back when the solstice celebrations began, they did not fully understand how or why the sun returned. It was a time of magic and wonder. Today, as Christians we know that the Light of the World is Emmanuel, God with us, but back in the time of Mary and Joseph this Good News reoriented the poorest and the wisest. It was a time of magic and wonder where angels sang to poor frightened shepherds and stars guided the wise men.

Not only do we journey with mother earth at this time of year, but a part of our holiday traditions is to travel for our celebrations. We journey home for celebrations. We journey to new destinations. We take shelter in places that are not our homes and rest our heads on pillows that are unfamiliar.

In our scripture, Mary and Joseph are on a journey to Bethlehem.

Mary and Joseph are taking a journey to the place of Joseph’s ancestral heritage.  They are headed away from the comforts of home into that which is uncomfortable and utterly new.

But let’s think about who else is on a journey. In this week of Advent, we recognize that the Son has left his place at the side of the Father and is making the uncomfortable journey to be with us.

The shepherds are minding their flocks when they are compelled by the angels to travel and seek.

Even the Magi make the uncomfortable journey outside of their faith tradition and outside of the place that they live to follow a star that tells them of the birth of a newborn king.

Through our journeys, we are learning the significance of Emmanuel, God with us.

We are in our third week of advent and our theme for the advent season is Radical Amazement. Advent is about awaiting and anticipating the birth of Jesus, but I think most of the time we await something we think we already have or already know most everything about. And so we have broken down radical amazement into 3 parts.  First, we explored the idea of reclaiming our childlike eyes so that we might view the birth of Jesus with wonder. Second, we joined Mary and Joseph in a Joyful baby shower celebration. Today, we will notice that a part of living in Radical Amazement is remembering.

Our scripture this morning talks about Mary and Joseph’s journey to Bethlehem, but it also reminds us that Joseph is of the line of David. So as we think about the journey of our planet and the journey of the characters in the story of Jesus’ birth, we also remember that the ancestors of our faith took many journeys following God into unknown, uncomfortable, and foreign places.

I love Psalm 136 because the psalmist is giving us the opportunity to remember the story of the ancestors of our faith. The practice of remembering is deeply embedded in our faith tradition and our way of remembering is not just to recount the facts of the story but it is to look back through the lens of faith that we might see Emmanuel, God with us.

Here some of the words written in Psalm 136

What HUGE story did this psalmist not write about? The call of Abraham to leave his family and his land, journey to a new place so that he might be a blessing to others.

The ancestors of our faith were experiencing Emmanuel, God with us.

Bringing it a little closer to the present day, let’s just think about our own history because Heights Christian Church did not always worship in this space. At the very beginning of our church in 1912, we gathered in a room above Dexter’s Grocery Store on 17th and Rutland. In a few months later, they purchased three lots on the corner of 16th and Rutland and met under a tent while a wood frame was being constructed.  They called this wooden frame a tabernacle.  Then, they purchased the property where we are currently located and in 1927 built our first sanctuary what we now call Lambert Hall. Then in 1965, they built our current sanctuary. Then in 2020, the pandemic moved us from inside our building to meeting on zoom. Then on Easter of this year, we began meeting outside. Over the past 6 months, we have met in person in our sanctuary and in Lambert Hall and online for prayer and study.

In remembering the journey of Mary, Joseph, the Son, the shepherd, the magi, the ancestors of our faith and those who established our church, we realize that we come from a long line of people following God on a journey.

And as we retell our sacred stories….

We are remembering Emmanuel, God with us.

If you were to look back over the year, would you say you are learning that no matter what God is with you? How would you articulate that?  How would that prepare you for what is ahead?

When our family gets ready to take a journey to one of our family’s homes at Thanksgiving, my children always ask me what they should pack.  And so I find myself using words like, “Well, remember that Nana likes us to dress nice for Thanksgiving dinner, so please pack 1-2 nice outfits.  Oh, remember Papa likes to go for a hike, so pack your tennis shoes and outdoor clothing. Remember that Grammy likes to play games, so pack a few games that you would like to play.”  Remembering is super helpful and yet we can’t stop there.  Then, we have to prepare for what the weather will do this year. We can remember times when it snowed in Missouri at Christmas and times when it was 65 degrees, so that is not helpful in choosing what to bring.  We have to look ahead to what this new holiday, this new thanksgiving will bring so that we pack our suitcase with all the things we will need to make us comfortable when we arrive at our destination.

In our text today, we see Mary and Joseph set up a home in Bethlehem, an unfamiliar place and doing the best they can to bring comfort to a most uncomfortable barn. We read about the shepherds and later the wise men talking about this unusual and quite foreign experience like they are visiting old friends in a comfortable space. A few verses later in our text it says, “There was no room for them in the inn and this reminds us of when a grown Jesus says to the teacher of the law who wants to follow him, “foxes have dens and birds have nests but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head.”  In the end, God with us, Emmanuel, did not find a permanent home in Jesus either, but died and rose again as the Christ breaking our ideas about what is sacred and what is secular that we might see this new thing that God has done!

One thing that this story can teach us is that when we feel uncomfortable or dislocated or not at home, that we remember that our true home is with Jesus.  This story reminds us that wherever the child who was born for all people lays…that is our true home. We can trust that as we become aware that Jesus truly is Emmanuel, God with us, then wherever we find ourselves, even in what is new, even in the uncomfortable, even there our unsettled spirits can find rest and joy and peace. 

The sacred text that we have read today makes me wonder if we have grown too comfortable, claiming our homes, our place of worship, our money for ourselves instead of saying, “my home is not my home…my home is with you Jesus and so I am open to using my home in a way that honors you.  My church is not my church…it is your church Jesus and so I am open to using my church in a way that honors you. Our money is not our money….it is your money, Jesus and so I am open to using our money in a way that honors you.” This may be a new way of embodying the message Emmanuel, God with us.

Maybe as we look to 2022, we need to pack lightly, bring with us only what we can carry and welcome dislocation and feelings of discomfort by joining Mary in saying, “Here I am, the servant of the Lord. May it be according to your word.”

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