#Occupy our Billboard

December 24, 2011

Clay Nelson

Christmas Eve/Day     Luke 2:1-14

Video available on YouTube, Facebook


This sermon started out being about the relationship of the Christmas Story to the #Occupy Wall Street movement but then our billboard went up.


It seems to have become an annual tradition for us to create a bit of a kerfuffle around the globe at Christmas time. From press reports we are either loved or despised for doing so. I decided it would look pretty strange if I ignored the last 10 days.


During this time our detractors have challenged our right to be called Christians, and labeled us blasphemous publicity-seeking heretics condemned to burn in hell for all eternity for ruining their Christmas.


It seems the crime we have committed is in suggesting that Mary might not have reacted with ecstasy on hearing of her immanent pregnancy. So exploring that charge is the sermon you get.


Christmas is a time of myth and magic and poetry, even at St Matthew’s. It is a time that speaks of the power of love, and through that power we call each other to visions of justice and truth and freedom and love. It is a time of rebirth and renewal. Even with all the darkness and anxiety that surrounds us, we are given reason to hope, reason to gaze deeply into the light and claim its power for our lives and for the lives of those we love.


The Christmas Story resonates deeply with the human spirit because at its core, it is about relationships: Parent and child, wife and husband; humans and God. It is about how we relate to each other, and how through our relationships we make beautiful things happen in the world. In the Christmas Story the beautiful thing that happens is not just due to divine initiative. It required human choice and consent. 


Prior to the event portrayed on our billboard the angel Gabriel comes to Mary and says, "You are to be favoured by God." At first she is perplexed, and wonders what this could possibly mean. When the angel says she is to give birth to the Son of God, she questions the angel. "How can I give birth to a child?" she asks. Only when the angel shares with her news of her cousin Elizabeth, is she convinced. Only then does she lay aside her suspicions and consent to what she is being asked to do. Only then does her heart open and her deep and worrisome ponderings give way to trust and openness.


Just as Mary hesitates and needs persuasion, so too does Joseph. When he hears that his fiancée carries a child, he questions Mary, and dismisses her claim that she has conceived by the Holy Spirit. He seeks to release himself from his obligation to her. But then the angel Gabriel visits Joseph with the intent of persuading him otherwise. The angel tells Joseph of the larger vision, the promise that accompanies the birth of Mary's child. Joseph is convinced and makes the choice to consent to the angel's demand that he remain with Mary.


It is hard not to be impressed by the power of choice and freedom in the relationships that develop between Gabriel, Joseph and Mary, and how integrally these values are woven into the circumstances of Jesus' birth.


Many of us wish those values were found in the religion inspired by that baby. Too many of us have found the church focused on control and oppression, calling us to blind trust and unquestioning obedience. Centuries of theologians have emphasized Mary and Joseph's simple obedience to the will of God. They have succeeded in convincing too many of our detractors that that is the whole story.


But, a close reading of the Scriptures they claim to believe is the Word of God shows us something quite different. Joseph and Mary question. They ponder. They resist. They hesitate. They struggle. They carefully consider what is being asked of them because consent means that their lives will change forever. And what meets their careful consideration? Does Gabriel condemn or judge them as blasphemers? Does he threaten them with eternal punishment? No. Gabriel reasons with them. He seeks to persuade them. He provides them with the truth as best as he can tell it. And then, and only then, both Mary and Joseph open themselves to consent to what is being asked of them. They move from questioning and resistance to trust and openness and I would hazard a guess that the reason they move in this direction is because their initial resistance was met with openness and with respect.


There is no passivity in the Christmas story. There is no servility. No one is forced into obedience. There are no puppets. Both Mary and Joseph are free and willing and informed participants in this story. Jesus was a wanted and a welcomed child. The magic and the poetry in the myth of Christmas is embedded in this kind of love. It is embedded in freedom and in acceptance. It is rooted in openness and receptivity, in trust and in gentleness. It is rooted in the room given to be human – to question, to ponder, to consider, to hesitate, and even to change your mind. This is the way I have experienced the holy working in me.


When we talk about the wonder and magic of Christmas, when we call each other into rebirth and renewal, when we respond to the light that is held out to us, we call to each other as Gabriel called unto Mary and Joseph. We stand in places of choice and that means that when we say yes, it is a consent that is rich and full and trusting and open to the wonders of life. The god I experience does not hang over us as a ruler. The spirit of life is not a creed or a code. The essence of humanity is not a set of immutable laws. We are co-creators of the divine, inspired not by command but by invitation.


And so this morning I invite you to be the replacement for our damaged billboard. Occupy our billboard, if you will. Invite the holy into your life. Invite the spirit of Christmas to move through your choices, through your bodies, through your hearts. Claim this Christmas day your title, Emmanuel, God with us. Through your freedom, your choices and your questions and through your hesitations and your resistance and your courage to move through it, you live the message. You embody the breath of God. You manifest the spirit and the essence of goodness and light. You are the perfect Christmas billboard proclaiming “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!” You are the Christmas Story.


Happy Christmas.

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