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Glory to God in the Lowest

The meaning of Christmas is best pondered in silent humility.

Christmas is a time of surprises. A lady was preparing her Christmas cookies. There came a knock at the door. She went to find a man, his clothes poor, obviously looking for some Christmas odd jobs. He asked her if there was anything he could do. She said, "Can you paint?"

"Yes," he said. "I'm a rather good painter."

"Well," she said, "there are two gallons of green paint there and a brush, and there's a porch out back that needs to be painted. Please do a good job. I'll pay you what the job is worth."

He said, "Fine. I'll be done quickly."

She went back to her cookie making and didn't think much more about it until there was a knock at the door. She went, and the obviousness of his painting was evident: he had it on his clothes. She said, "Did you finish the job."

He said, "Yes."

She said, "Did you do a good job?"

He said, "Yes. But lady, there's one thing I'd like to point out to you. That's not a Porsche back there. That's a Mercedes."

Well, Christmas is a time of surprises — things that take your breath away. I think that's a good thing, because life at its best is not really measured by the breaths you take, but by the breaths you miss. It's those times of amazement and astonishment when suddenly your attention is carried away and your breath as well. It's times like Christmas, fantastic times, when there's a song in the sky and a baby in a feedbox and everything is gloriously , when the things that cannot be are.

I don't think it's remarkable at all that at the time of the first Christmas, Mary couldn't speak. She talked with an angel in Nazareth, and she sang with her cousin Elizabeth in the hill country of Judah. But in the whole narrative of Christmas, there is no word of Mary recorded. It is as if what happened to her was too deep to be encompassed by syllables. It just says, "She kept all of these things, pondering them in her heart." She was caught up in some kind of speechless ecstasy that centered upon God.

That kind of experience is uncommon in the church today, of course. We spend much more time doing than being. Our faith has become a very exterior thing with much more commotion than devotion. It seems to me that our expression of our love of God has become very much an extroverted, external thing. We sometimes chide adolescents because they are in love with loud horns and roaring exhaust pipes. And yet, it seems to me that in some ways those things have become the symbols of the church: loud horns and roaring exhaust pipes.

But, my friends, eternity is silent. It's only time that is noisy, and speed and noise across the history of the race are almost invariably symbols of weakness. Christmas is the kind of time when the best that we can do is to sit back and contemplate a silent Mary, who held her to her breast, and leaned against the warm damp earth, and pondered everything that happened in her heart.

God reveals himself in silence.

I think she pondered, first of all, the lowliness of God's approach. He did not come with noise and clamor. There was no Bethlehem spectacular. It's interesting that we read nowhere in Scripture that God knocks anyone's door down. Instead it says, "Behold, I stand at the door and knock; if anyone hears my voice and opens to me, I will come in to him."

There's a painting of that by Holman Hunt (it hangs in the British National Gallery in London): Jesus standing there, gently rapping at a door, the door unopened. A little boy was standing in front of the painting with his father. "Daddy," he said, "why don't they answer the door?"

The father said, "I don't know why."

There was a moment's pause. Then the youngster said, "Maybe they're making too much noise to hear him knocking." And that might be true.

You see, the infinite power of God always moves in silence, like those tides that cleanse our shores and launch our ships pulled by the silent silver moon. The innocent moon, which nothing does but shine, moves all the laboring surges of the world. When springtime comes, it doesn't come with banners and with the rolling of drums and the sounding of trumpets. God moves in quietness. That's the reason we best think about him when we look at flowers, or walk in woods at evening, or listen to soft poems or the gentle breezes that blow about high mountains. He is where the least noise is.

That's how he most often speaks to us, isn't it? He nudges us in our experiences. He whispers to us in the sweetness of common sense. He appeals to us through the gentleness of some new idea. He sobs to us throughout the voice of society, what Wordsworth called "the still, sad music of humanity." God insinuates the sweet odor of himself into the gentle things of life, not in the eros of big moments, but in the agape of the S times.

Just as he is with us, so he was with Jesus. He spoke to Jesus through the gentle words of his mother Mary. He spoke to Jesus through he lilies of the fields. He spoke to Jesus through an inner voice that was the commanding guide in all of his days, even to a cross. These are the moments in which God touches the quick of our lives.

This is a special anniversary for me. Seven years ago today, at this very hour, I was on the operating table in the Presbyterian Hospital, and they were cutting their way into my heart. That operation was a lot longer than it is now, and it took quite a longer time to come out of the anesthesia because they gave you so much more of it. I can remember the process of coming to consciousness. At first, I was aware of my existence only by my thoughts. That is, I had no sensory data on which to depend. I could not hear or see or smell or taste or touch. Yet I could think. Descartes says that's enough — "I think, therefore I am." It seemed true to me at that moment.

And then hearing came. The first thing that I heard was a strange beeping, which I later identified to be a heart monitor recording the beating of my own heart muscle. The next thing I heard was the sound of singing. It was the sound of a Christmas carol, and it was being sung softly and far away. As I listened, it got closer and closer. They stopped the carol, and they began to sing a song written by a good friend of mine, Jester Hairston—a song called "Amen," which he wrote for a film called Lilies of the Field. And even though I had a great tube going into my mouth (for the machine was doing my breathing for me), I began to try to form clumsily with my lips the words of that song, "Amen, Amen."

Then I opened my eyes, and there above me was a great, smiling black face. And a woman said to me, "Love, you're singing with us. And Jesus is born. Amen! And she bent down and kissed me. It was one of those moments that touched the very center of me.

It's in that kind of quietness, the time when the Spirit is all about you, that great things fashion themselves. That's why Christmas silence is the best. Christmas is still the time when the whole world holds its breath and tries to hear once again the soft cry of a baby. So hallowed and so gracious is this time that Mary could not say a word. She just pondered the lowliness of God's approach.

Christ came in humility.

And I think she thought also of the lowliness of his arrival. He came to an inn. An inn in those days was simply an open courtyard surrounded by stalls. The innkeeper provided nothing but fire and fodder for the animals, not for the people. But Joseph and Mary and the infant didn't even have those comforts: "And they wrapped him in swaddling cloths." That's a rough square of cloth with a diagonal band coming from one end. The child is put in the square of cloth. The end is folded over and then the band wrapped about the package. And then they laid him in a feedbox, close to the dirt and the dung and the cold and the darkness of a barn.

We have an observatory in California called Mount Palomar, where there's a great telescope that can look out into space and pick light for it to make even the faintest impression upon a photographic plate — tremendous capacities for focus in that telescope. But that is nothing compared to the way in which God focused himself in that baby.

One little girl said Jesus was the best picture that God ever had took. And Mary looked at him, the red and wrinkled face of a holy child.

I read about a little boy who was in his first Christmas pageant. He was 5. He was one of the shepherds — you know, they wear their bathrobes and their sandals and carry cardboard crooks — not a lead shepherd, just a common shepherd standing in the back. But when it came time for the Nativity, he crowded around to the front so that he could see. Then, having seen, he stepped to the footlights and, looking out, cried out to his parents, "Mommy! Daddy! Mary had her baby, and it's a boy!" It was a boy. And with her hair, she wiped his birth blood away.

There was a European monarch who, a couple of times each year, would take off his royal garb and, dressed as a peasant, go out amongst his people. The courtiers worried about this, but the king said, "I cannot rule my people unless I know how they live." But God came as a baby in a barn.

I read of a Hindu who could not believe in Christianity because he could not contemplate a God who would so humble himself. Then one day the Hindu came upon an anthill. He tried to get close enough to it to study it, but every time he bent low, his shadow caused all the ants to scurry away. He recognized to himself that the only way in which he could ever come to know that colony of ants would be if he could somehow become an ant himself. And that was the moment at which is conversion began.

I wonder — and please don't think it's blasphemous for me to wonder this — if Jesus hesitated. When the only begotten Son of God stood there on the balcony of heaven and counted the cost of coming, of emptying himself (that's what Paul says, like a pitcher pouring out all its riches) we had been pale shadows standing somewhere there in the background and had seen him at that he pause before he came?

John Milton says, in his great poem Paradise Lost, that when Lucifer stood upon that balcony, he hesitated and then fell from heaven, trailing behind him a great tail of sparks but clutching in his hand one flame with which he lighted the fires of hell and set an ache into the heart of God. Well, so Lucifer hesitated.

But I really don't think Jesus did, anymore than a father hesitated when his prodigal son came home again. I think he looked down and saw it all, including the Cross and the shame, and jumped into the arms of a waiting humanity — tumbled into our midst, taking all of our wars right into the midst of heaven's peace. And when Mary thought about that, I wonder if, in the simple mind of a Jewish maiden, she might not have prayed, "Oh God, I do not want heaven, if you are here on earth."

Christ came to the unworthy.

And I also think that Mary pondered the lowliness of his audience, of how the first ones to learn of him were shepherds. If he had been born in his hometown of Nazareth, after the custom of that day there would have been musicians to serenade the birth. But it was not so in Bethlehem. Only shepherds.

Now, the Pharisees of that time said that there were six professions that were unworthy. One of those was being a shepherd. A shepherd was not permitted to give testimony in a court of law. A shepherd was not permitted to enter a synagogue, because his activities were considered ritually unclean. People did not have dealings with shepherds.

God's coming to shepherds with the Word would be much like picking up the newspaper tomorrow morning and finding this story: a group of hoodlums got together to count all they'd stolen from the pocketbooks of Pittsburgh. While they were sitting there counting their loot, suddenly the angel of the Lord appeared to them and said, "Behold, I bring you tidings of great joy, for unto you is born this day a Savior."

The shepherds, of course, did not grasp what had happened. You can't capture Niagara in a teacup, or the ocean in a single straw. But they were the first to know of it. And had they not heard of it, well, then we would be, all of us, without hope.

At the center of the gospel is the truth that the knowledge of God is not essentially an intellectual experience. It's not something that is given only to the powerful or to the 400. It's to the shepherds. It's to the "ungood."

I came across a collection of letters that children wrote to Santa Claus. Some of them were pretty good. One said, "Dear Santa, you did not bring me anything good last year. You did not bring me anything good the year before that. This is your last chance. Signed, Alfred." My favorite went like this: "Dear Santa, there are three little boys who live at our house. There is Jeffrey; he is 2. There is David. He is 4. And there is Norman; he is 7. Jeffrey is good some of the time. David is good some of the time. But Norman is good all of the time. I am Norman." But we aren't Normans. We're shepherds.

Al Masters lives at the other end of our state. He's married and had a little boy and a small business. He considered himself very blessed. And then just before Christmas some years ago, his little boy was killed by a 15 kid driving a car without a license. Al Masters was filled with a deep desire for revenge. And even though that 15 years not be brought before the full power of the law because he was a juvenile, Al Masters wanted the very book thrown at him. Then, on Christmas Eve, his wife got him to come to the church. He listened to the story of the Word coming to the shepherds. He recognized that he was one of the world's ungood. And he began to weep. When he went out of the church, the next day, on Christmas, he set out to find out more about the boy who killed his son. He found that he came from a broken home, that he lived with his mother, who was an alcoholic. He went and he met the boy. He gave the boy a job in his shop, and then later took him into his home. And that boy, now a young man, says that Al Masters is the most saintly person he'd ever known.

That's what a saint is. A saint is an ungood person who goes about doing nice things for ungood people in the name of the God who came at Christmas to an ungood world.

I'm not very anymore. I read about the immensities of space and realize that my life is only the flaring of a match against eternity's darkness. I have no political significance. I have no distinguished vocational accomplishments. I look at my inner life and I see weakness and ugliness and sin.

But Christmas speaks to all of that. Christmas says that God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise, that he chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong, that he chose that in the world that is low and despised, even the things that are not, to shame the things that are. Christmas is the announcements that we were worth enough to God for him to come.

I look out into space and I read about the journeys of our spacemen and our vehicles, and they tell us, as they go behind the moon and see parts of it never seen before, that it is aching and black and broken and cold and nothing but death. These vehicles we send off carrying sophisticated, exotic equipment send back signals that tell us other atmospheres are acrid and heated, and there are volcanoes that spew forth noxious fumes, and there's nothing in these places but fog and ash and ice.

Then I look at our world, where there are friends and fields and forests and fruits and seas and mountains, and musicians that hum songs, and painters that paint pictures, and philosophers that think thoughts that haven't been thought before, and dreamers who dream, and visionaries who build castles in the air, and engineers who go out and put foundations under I suddenly realize that we live on the visited planet.

And C, some people clap and dance, and that is good. I cannot clap; I cannot dance. I just enjoy their enjoyment. And some sing the carols, and I would rather listen than sing.

Most of all, I like its silence, to ponder like Mary — gentle Mary, who is ready for anything because she put her trust in God; lovely Mary, who didn't hesitate to say that she needed the help of others because she knew that the greatest waste of life is to try to go through it all alone; strong Mary, who sang the victory song of the human spirit, which announced that the proud will be put down, and the righteousness and the justice of God will finally prevail; and, at the end of that night itself, loving Mary, who kept all these things and pondered them in her heart.

If I could give this morning a gift to each of you, it would be the pondering heart of Mary, who lay there silent on a damp straw and suckled her and though of the lowliness of God's approach, and the lowliness of his arrival, and the lowliness of his audience. Glory to God in the lowest.

From my heart I wish to each of you a Mary Christmas. Do you understand what I say? God bless you and give you a Mary Christmas.

(c) Bruce W. Thielemann

Preaching Today Tape #75


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Bruce Thielemann is the former pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Pittsburgh, PA.

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Sermon Outline:


I. God reveals himself in silence

II. Christ came in humility

III. Christ came to the unworthy