Christ Episcopal Church, Valdosta
“The Rising of the Grace of God” (Luke 2:8-16)
In the Name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
So glad to worship with you this Christmas! I’m going to begin by juxtaposing an episode of the classic television comedy The Office and a song Bruce Springsteen performed as part of his acclaimed solo concert series on Broadway this year.
In the Christmas episode of the first season of The Office Michael Scott, the manager of the Scranton, Pennsylvania branch of the Dunder Mifflin Paper Company, is wearing a Santa hat and enthusiastically proclaims, “Presents are the best way to show someone how much you care. It is like this tangible thing that you can point to and say, ‘Hey man, I love you this many dollars’ worth.’”
Later in the episode the office staff is exchanging their Secret Santa gifts. Michael had gone way overboard on his gift for Ryan, who opens his present, “Whoa, a video iPod.” Michael confesses, “Someone really got carried away with the spirit of Christmas…It was me, I got carried away with the spirit.” Ryan feels really uncomfortable, “Wasn’t there a $20 limit on the gift? This is four hundred bucks.” “You don’t know that,” Michael replies. “Uh, yeah, you left the price tag on.” Michael acts surprised, “I did? Oh well, who cares? It doesn’t matter what I spent. What matters is that Christmas is fun, right?”
The awkward tension is palpable as the neurotic Dwight Schrute, wearing elf ears and elf hat, hands Michael his present. Michael grins, “Oh hey, for me!” and unwraps it, “What’s in here?” It’s an oven mitt. Michael puts it on and is so disappointed, “Ah, come on.” Phyllis pipes up, “I knitted it for you!” He holds it up and glares at Phyllis, “An oven mitt?” Michael then storms out, tossing his Santa hat onto a couch and complains, “So Phyllis is basically saying, ‘Hey Michael, I know you did a lot to help the office this year but I only care about you a homemade oven mitt’s worth.’ I gave Ryan an iPod!” Michael then returns and changes Secret Santa into Yankee Swap, which only makes things worse and turns the whole office gift exchange into a train wreck. Of course in South Georgia, Yankee Swap would never work simply because it’s called Yankee Swap.
A couple weeks ago Bruce Springsteen completed the last of 236 performances of his highly acclaimed solo acoustic concert series “Springsteen on Broadway,” summarizing his legendary five decade career in music he has described as his “long and noisy prayer.” Near the end of each performance he sang a haunting version of his song “The Rising”, a song he wrote in the wake of 9/11, a song effusive with hope. He begins:
Can’t see nothin’ in front of me
Can’t see nothin’ coming up behind
Make my way through this darkness
I can’t feel nothin’ but this chain that binds me
Lost track of how far I’ve gone
How far I’ve gone, how far I’ve climbed
On my back’s a sixty pound stone
On my shoulder a half mile of line
Come on up for the rising
Come on up, lay your hands in mine
Come on up for the rising
Come on up for the rising tonight
Springsteen then sings about what many of us do when can’t see in front of us or behind us, what we do as we make our way through the darkness with whatever chains bind us—he sings about looking up at the sky:
Sky of blackness and sorrow
Sky of love, sky of tears
Sky of glory and sadness
Sky of mercy, sky of fear
Sky of memory and shadow
Your burnin’ wind fills my arms tonight
Sky of longing and emptiness
Sky of fullness, sky of blessed life…
Come on up for the rising
Come on up for the rising tonight
(Title track of his 2002 album The Rising)
The world is full of people who feel lost in the darkness, who cannot see what is behind them or in front of them, who feel weighed down by chains that bind them, chains perhaps only God knows about. Numerous studies have demonstrated that the current generation of Millennials is the most anxious generation in American history. As we near the close of what has been a particularly stressful year for many people, as trite as it may sound, we need more than an oven mitt, even more than a $400 video iPod or a game of Yankee Swap. We need the gospel.
Christmas is all about the gospel, the good news that God loves us so much he sent his Son Jesus Christ to save us. Every year on Christmas we read about what the shepherds saw when they looked up at the sky on “the night of our dear savior’s birth”:
In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. Then an angel of the Lord stood before then, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them, and they were terrified. 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; to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign for you; you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger” (Luke 2:8-12).
The shepherds looked up into a “sky of fullness, a sky of blessed life” as the angels proclaimed the rising of the grace of God—the rising of the grace of God for those who cannot see anything behind them or in front of them, the rising of the grace of God for those who only feel the chains that bind them, the rising of the grace of God for anxious Millennials, the rising of the grace of God for the whole world.
The shepherds saw the sky filled with angels proclaiming, “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!” You could also translate “on earth peace among those whom he favors” as “on earth peace among those whom he gives grace”—the favor of God is the grace of the God, the rising of the grace of God—and those whom God favors includes you.
Then the shepherds hurried to Bethlehem and “found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger” (Luke 2:13-16). There the shepherds saw Love personified, our newborn savior Jesus Christ, there the shepherds saw what we sing in “Silent Night”: “the dawn of redeeming grace.”
This past week BBC News published an article about Christmas grace:
A family was left shocked to find their late elderly neighbor had left Christmas presents to give to their (two year old) daughter (Cadi) for the next fourteen years. Ken, who was in his late 80’s, lived near Owen and Caroline Williams for the last two years. The couple said Ken “doted” on their two-year-old daughter Cadi. He died recently and on Monday evening, his daughter knocked on the Williams’ home to deliver the presents.
“She was clutching this big plastic sack and I thought it was rubbish she was going to ask me to throw out,” said Mr. Williams. “But she said it was everything her dad had put away for Cadi, all of the Christmas presents he had bought for her. I brought it back in and my wife was on FaceTime to her mum in Ireland. My wife started to tear up and I started to tear up, and her mum started to tear up. It’s difficult describing it because it was so unexpected” (December 22, 2018).
Who knows? Maybe one of Cadi’s presents will be an oven mitt. What Owen Williams said though about their late neighbor’s grace for Cadi is true about the gospel of the rising grace of God for all of us: it’s difficult describing it because it is so unexpected.
As absurd as Michael Scott of The Office could be, there is an element of truth when he said presents are “like this tangible thing that you can point to and say, ‘Hey man, I love you this many dollars’ worth’” because the gospel is about “a tangible thing you can point to”, or rather, a tangible Person you can point to by whom God says, “I love you this much.” On Christmas night the rising grace of God was manifested in the unexpected form of a newborn baby. Jesus himself said, “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life” (John 3:16).
And on Good Friday, the rising grace of God was manifested again in an unexpected way as this same newborn baby, now a grown man, gave his life on the cross for you, swapped places with you, to ensure that year after year not just for the next fourteen years but for the next fourteen millions years and beyond, you will receive the grace of God.
On Good Friday above the cross the same sky in which the angels had earlier sung, “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and earth peace among those whom he favors” had become “a sky of blackness and sorrow, a sky of love, sky of tears, sky of glory and sadness, sky of mercy, sky of fear”—but above all “a sky of blessed life.” And after his death Jesus, who as a baby had been “wrapped in bands of cloth” and placed in a manger was once again “wrapped in bands of cloth” but this time place in a tomb.
And then the rising grace of God appeared in in yet another unexpected way, by the rising of Jesus from the dead on Easter morning.
Some may dismiss the gospel as a “big plastic sack” of rubbish to throw out, but be careful what you throw out, because the gospel is actually the good news of the unexpected grace of God.
So this Christmas, even as you continue to make your way through the darkness in your life, remember that the Risen Jesus is in front of you and behind you, the Risen Jesus is there to break the chains that bind you—and the Risen Jesus is beckoning you to come on up for the rising grace of God.