A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, George Frederic Handel joined forces with Charles Jennens a devout Anglican, known for frequenting the theater, who was born into money. Jennens compiled the libretto, or text of the Messiah, and passed it along to Handel, the composer of whom Jennens had subscribed to beginning in 1725. Receiving the words taken directly from scripture, Handel set to work imagining the sounds that could dramatize the story. Part 1 of this masterpiece was the story of the prophets’ promises being fully realized in the person and the birth of Jesus. The first nine movements lay the groundwork of the yearning for a Messiah. The people who have walked in darkness, stories of exile and defeat, realities that the people of God were all too familiar with: in the sixth century BCE when the prophets Isaiah and Malachi were preaching; in the first century CE when Jesus was born; in the 18th century when Handel was composing; and the 21st century of today.
Arise, shine, for your light has come.
Our lives are fleeting – like grass. We are weak and unfaithful. But God is faithful. God‘s word can be trusted.
Second Isaiah, which begins with chapter 40, brings good news to the people who have been in exile for 150 years. God has promised to rescue them from captivity and exile – and the time is near! To understand this, however, we need a understand the baseline of strength: we are weak, God is strong. We are unfaithful, God is faithful. The possibility of hearing God’s good news is predicated on us understanding this.[i]
We also need to know where we are located. This message of comfort and coming rescue was intended for the captives in Babylon – those who were oppressed, under the thumb of the people of a foreign land. It was not intended for a people not experiencing discomfort – those in comfortable homes of their own and living in affluence while others struggled to get by. Most of us are much closer to the situation of the residents of Babylon as we engage in rounds of holiday celebrations, than to the captive exiles for whom the message was originally intended.
HOWEVER, if we can understand the baseline: we are frail and in need of God – we may be able to hear the message for ourselves. We need to stop thinking about our own glory if we want to receive a message about God’s glory! “Behold your God!” We don’t catch glimpses of God in the pomp and circumstance of our own rulers.
“Behold your God!” we don’t see glimpses of God in our economic disparity, where not only do the rich keep getting richer on the backs of the poor and middle classes, but they tell us that this is actually how it is supposed to be.
“Behold your God!” we see it in the places where the community is at work to lift up those for whom life is a struggle: in our Thursday evening PADS program where the hungry are fed and the homeless offered shelter, in the delivery of Christmas gifts and food cards to families whose celebration this week would be rather meager, at Sarah’s Inn where women in ragged desperation experience support and find hope.
Phototropic plants grow in ways directly influenced by light. Positive phototropism is when plants grow towards the light. Negative phototropism is when plants, or most usually their roots systems, grow away from the light. The scientific explanation has to do with auxin collection being greater on the side exposed to less light, which allows the stem growth to curve towards the light. But any of us who have waited through winter days for the return of the light, or have lifted our faces to the light understand the principle at work. Something inside us longs for, and yearns towards light.
We frail and imperfect people rather desperately need a glimpse of God. Someone to believe in. Someone that can be trusted. God’s presence is glimpsed in places where light shines, where love is shown, dispelling fear. And we instinctively move towards it. That light offers us comfort and hope.
And the shepherds were on the hillside, keeping watch over their sheep when angels appeared…[ii]
In the tenth movement of the Messiah, Handel and Jennen’s story dives into the shepherds in the field who were keeping watch. He didn’t begin with Mary’s conversation with the angels or even Joseph’s dream, not with Elizabeth’s unexpected pregnancy or with a decree from the political regime.
The story of Jesus’ arrival begins with the shepherds. The shepherds were those who had literally experienced the darkest of nights. They experienced darkness in their position in society at the bottom of the social ladder. They experienced it through fears of whether or not the Roman Empire would tax them beyond their capacity to pay, and eventually imprison them simply for being poor. They experienced walking in darkness as they feared whether wolves or wild animals might deplete their flock if they fell asleep when it was their turn to keep watch. They experienced fears galore and when on an average night of work when the skies tore open and some unidentified shimmering being appeared right in the middle of their darkness with the brightest light they had ever seen – they were sore afraid.
Barbara Brown Taylor paints a picture of God’s Daring Act of choosing to be born in flesh. She suggests that perhaps the angels too were afraid, knowing the Almighty God, whom they worshiped was choosing to live and breathe, be nursed and coddled, bullied, and harassed by human beings face to face. They knew the Most High God more deeply than any other being in the universe and when God came up with the plan to be born as a baby – perhaps the angels took some convincing and were concerned how God in human flesh could be kept safe. The angels must have agreed to tend to him as often as possible.
Nevertheless, the angels and the shepherds find one another in the middle of the darkest night, and one of the angels finds words to say: “Fear Not, for behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be for all people.” I wonder if the shepherds had heard other missives and announcements made in the public square, tax cuts, incentives, health care, promises too good to be true…and only for some, certainly not for them. The Angels did not appear at the power center in town, not at the city gate where trials were held. The angels came to their field outside of Bethlehem, over 5 miles distance from Jerusalem, speaking of good news of great joy for all people. For the first time in a long time, they didn’t have to be afraid. The angels said it, and while they were almost certainly terrified at first, I wonder if while the angels sang, they didn’t start to feel peace, hope, joy, and love welling up from within their soul.
As the Angel sang on, they explained further – the good news for all people is this: a child is born, a Savior, right here, in the City of David. Momentum must have been building, hearts must have been racing. As the Angel continued the atmosphere must have tangibly shifted. The trepidation, the uncertainty, the doubts, the despair, the feeling of being afraid – melted away. And suddenly as if the grand finale had come, there were many many more voices, as the whole heavenly host sang together in harmony – “Glory to God in the highest and peace on earth, goodwill towards all people.”
To all people? This good news of a Savior born in a humble shelter wasn’t good news for Herod. He would have declared this angelic pronouncement to be treasonous. Angels as traitors. But then, they had a different allegiance. This was not good news for the oppressors or captors, not good news for those who had profited from the oppression of the poor. This is a new time. A new day – even a new order. And the old will pass away. The words of the prophets echo in the angels’ song…in the words of spirituals… “There’s a new day a’ comin’.”
Perhaps as the shepherds listened to the songs of angels, some of them had visions of the moments when it felt like peace on earth was a far-fetched dream told to children. Perhaps some had the cynical smirks and comments of their friends echoing in their minds when they started giving up on God. Perhaps they thought that they had gone crazy or had fallen asleep and were having some crazy wine-induced dreams. Did the degree of the darkness they had become so accustomed to dissipate gradually or in an instant as the angels filled the sky with song? Peace on earth. Goodwill, kindness, happiness, joy for all people – even for the lowly, smelly, dirty, homeless shepherds, even the poor and marginalized, even those who hadn’t been hopeful in a very long time. God is still God and God is here. Literally here.
One author contrasts the paradigm shift in Luke from the decree from Emperor Augustus for a census to the birth of a baby…there’s a marked shift in who’s in charge and what’s possible in the world. “With the Messiah’s birth comes a time characterized not by fear but by the freedom and joy of the announcement “Do not be afraid,” which is repeatedly proclaimed by the angels. “Those days” are governed by fear. The political powers, both in Jesus’ day and our own, play on fear to get their way – whether it be fear of the emperor, the fear of terrorists, the fear of the foreign “other,” or the fear of death. But with “this day” comes a new possibility. The first words spoken after Jesus’ birth are “Do not be afraid, for see – I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people.” [iii]
In our time, might the songs of the angels still have the power to break through our darkness? Have we become so hardened in our defenses, self-sufficiency, cynicism, and disappointments that we are stuck being sore afraid and unable to experience the radiance of the angels? Perhaps the rest of Bethlehem could have seen the angels singing too, but they were too busy, too jaded, too self-important. Can we see the signs of “This day”? Can we see the radiance of the angels? Can we hear their songs of praise? May we have our darkness and our fear, and our routines and our comfort, interrupted by the good news too.
[i] Every Valley, 25-26.
[ii] This movement of the sermon is largely the work of Rev. Carol Hill, Senior pastor at Park Ridge Community Church, and our beloved daughter.
[iii] Every Valley, 44-45.