God comes to us in unexpected ways and unexpected times, and the people around these close encounters of the divine kind don’t always recognize what is going on and really don’t get it. In our gospel passage today, the shepherds following an encounter with angels make haste to Bethlehem in search of Mary and Joseph and the special child. They declare to the parents and everybody else present what the angels had told them about the child, and everyone was amazed at what they heard. Mary treasured everything that was said and pondered them in her heart. The angels then returned pretty pumped up with awesome wonder, praising God for all that they had seen and heard.
At this wonderful pageant scene only, a handful came to recognize what was going on, a few shepherds and a few wise men from the East. There were so many travelers that there were no vacancies available. I’m sure many people were camping out in camps along the river, in people’s barns and anywhere else suitable they could. Fortunately, Mary and Joseph found a stable, but only a few recognized what was going on in this stable. What made this stable so special over all other lodging sites in Bethlehem was Jesus.
Eight days after his birth, Mary and Joseph take Jesus to the temple to have him circumcised according to Jewish law and custom. The temple is the center of all social and religious life in the city. People are coming and going all the time, perhaps hundreds every day. So, when the Holy Family enters the temple, they are not alone. There are people going and coming from all directions, family groups, big groups, smaller groups, individuals, priests and temple clergy. In this entire hubbub’ at least two people have a close encounter of the divine kind. We are told that Simeon recognizes the child, a child that he had been waiting to see, with a message that had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit. He now shares that message with Joseph and Mary. Then we are told of another prophet named Anna, who never left the temple, but prayed and fasted night and day. When she saw Jesus, she recognized him immediately. She too began to praise God and tell others about what was in store for this baby named Jesus. “Jesus is in the temple!”
This Sunday is also the first Sunday after Christmas Day. The gospel passage for the first Sunday after Christmas is from John 1. I love the first chapter of John because it sheds light on the gospel stories. John is such a lighthouse of information that sheds light on scripture, creation, and the birth of Christ; bringing out the inner truths of the nativity. The message is “God is with us”. Jesus has come to live among us and to be with us. (John 1:14) That is God’s desire. That was Gods desire from the beginning. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it”. (John 1:1-5) God has spoken and it has come into being.
In the 3rd chapter of Genesis we read that in the “cool of the day”, the best part of the day, the time that Adam and Eve, and the time that God looked forward to: Walking with each other in conversation, enjoying each other’s presence in the cool of the day, having a close encounter of the divine kind, recognizing God every day in their lives. God wants to spend time with us.
He desires our company. He desires our fellowship, to live among us and walk among us and befriend us. Another example a few chapters later in Genesis is when three angels visit Abraham and Sarah. They did not know they were angels at first, but then their eyes were opened, and they too had a close encounter of the divine kind. One of the angels told Abraham and Sarah that they would have a child. Sarah laughed, and said: “how can this thing happen? I am beyond the age of having children. This is impossible.” The angel then told her that nothing is impossible with God and that even though she is old she will have a child, and he will be a leader of the people. And she did have a child whose name was Isaac, and who later is included in the genealogy of Jesus.
This encounter is like the encounter of Mary with the angel Gabriel. Gabriel announces that to Mary that she will have a child, and Mary says, “how can this be possible, I have never been with a man?” The angel tells her the same thing that was told to Sarah. “All things are possible with God.” Sarah thought she was too old to have children, and Mary thought she was too young and unmarried.
God comes to us in a lot of different ways, and in his comings the people around do not necessarily see or get it. When Mary was with child we are told that she visited her cousin Elizabeth, who was also with child. When Mary walked into the door, John leaped in the womb of Elizabeth. This child, yet in the womb recognized that Jesus had come into the house.
Jesus has come, but Jesus has also gone away. In the church we recognize the truths of Christ coming in our liturgy. We cannot remember his birth without putting into the context of Easter, Pentecost and the Second Coming of Christ. We use this phrase that has been a Memorial Acclamation in the first liturgies of the ancient church: “We remember his death, we proclaim his resurrection. We await his coming in glory. “You can’t tell the Christmas story without remembering the Easter story, and you can’t tell the Easter story without remembering the Pentecost story, and you can’t tell the Pentecost story without talking about the church.
“For the Word became flesh and dwelt among us” (John 1:14). Jesus has come to dwell, to abide with us; to make his tabernacle here in this place, in this church, in the community, in your home and in your heart. Welcome Jesus into this place. You are God’s holy people, but you are God’s holy people because Jesus dwells in His church. Scripture tells us that the church is the Body of Christ, and Jesus is the head of that church. Jesus dwells in this church collectively. All of us together, and individually, each of you are specific, special and unique members of this Body of believers. Jesus is in the house. Let us recognize him in our midst.
Let us recognize Jesus in our midst. May we say: “Jesus have communion with me. My time is now yours. The busyness of my life I lay at your feet. All the activities that are going on, all the things I must do, responsibilities and obligations, help me to lay them down., Come into my heart Lord Jesus. Have fellowship with me. Help me dear Lord to recognize and appreciate your presence in my life. May I too have a close encounter with you of the divine kind. Today we recognize the Holy Name of Our Lord Jesus Christ.
The Reverend Dr. David Madsen