|Today’s scripture reading: Luke 2:1-20||Sermon audio:|
Howard Thurman, the African American mystic, poet and spiritual leader, describes in verse a mother observing her small child doing his bedtime prayer. She says,
Each night my bonny, sturdy lad
Persists in adding to his, Now I lay me
Down to sleep, the earnest, wistful plea:
‘God make me big.’
And I, his mother, with a greater need,
Do echo in a humbled, contrite heart,
‘God make me big.’
We might all pray for such bigness this year on behalf of children everywhere: bigness of vision, of stamina, of grace, and of courage.
One of my favorite words in the Christmas season is “Emmanuel”. It’s a name for God’s promised Messiah, first spoken by Hebrew prophets and then used as a title for Christ, the divine incarnation, God with skin on. “Emmanuel” is a compound word, joining together the Hebrew “Emanu” (“with us”) and “El”, one of the Hebrew names for God. When I think about Emmanuel and its meaning of, “God with us”, I tend to focus on the “with us” part of that phrase. I reflect on the mystery that God comes alongside us, sharing our common lot, divinity recognizable in human form. But this year, what I’m longing for is God with us. I yearn for the “El” or “Elohim” of Scripture, who speaks with righteous judgment, who comes with sufficient power to set the world right. I want the magnificence and unmistakable presence of divine new life breaking into the world like the story says. I long to be one of those shepherds in the field whose hair is blown back by angel multitudes singing with amps turned up to eleven: “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace….” The promise of God’s New Life; that’s what I long for more than anything else this year.
This supernatural interruption captures my imagination because the world without it can seem so small. Two decades into the twenty-first century, the world feels tired and used up. Humanity appears anything but humane, sometimes indifferent to suffering, and sometimes downright cruel. People wound each other with abusive language, deceitful behavior, and all manner of things unspeakable in the presence of children. Yet children not only hear but live through such mean conditions every day. Great patches of human garbage float in the oceans, and every week brings more alarming weather caused by climate change that we are not moving fast enough to stop. We’ve turned God’s beautiful creation into a landfill. “God with us”? It seems like it would slander God to be associated with this at all.
Yet still God comes as the child Christ—into just such a world as this. Jesus knew a culture of chaos as well, with corrupt Caesars, warlike violence, and future generations as collateral damage. One of the most awe-inspiring texts from ancient Christmas liturgies is a Latin phrase that begins “O magnum mysterium”. “O great mystery and wonderful sacrament, that animals should see the newborn Lord, lying in a manger!” It is creatures such as ourselves who behold the great God of new life, breaking into the world this Christmas night. We bear witness to a God whose redemptive power humbles the world, a God big enough, with enough creative patience, table-turning magic, and joy, to transform the swamps of our common life.
Entering into creation, God’s arrival brings “both a superabundance and an ache”, according to preacher Matthew Fitzgerald. He also quotes the poet Richard Wilbur, who writes,
Joy’s trick is to supply
Dry lips with what can cool and slake,
Leaving them dumbstruck also with an ache
Nothing can satisfy.
In other words, Jesus both satisfies a thirst in us, and awakens insatiable hunger for a world worthy of his presence. That’s what we find in the manger on Christmas night. The joy of God come to earth with us even as broken as we are, and yet planting within us the seeds of Another Way, leaving us yearning for God’s divine life “on earth as it is in heaven.”
Our prayers and actions in response become that of the mother who sees the goodness of a child and the fragility of the world: “God make us big.” Big enough to care mercifully for the very young, the very old, and all those in between. Big enough to see no distinction in God’s eyes across borders, among strangers, or between enemies. Big enough to heal rifts within families or friendships, to prepare hospitality for guests of the season, those invited and those not. Big enough to feel all the feels—the wonder of music, awe at the everyday goodness of those doing right, and tears for the tragedy and beauty of it all. Big enough to hold a blessing for all this broken yet beloved creation.
This world will be made new, and our lives will be made new, by the power of God. God does not snap the equivalent of divine fingers and create anew, but enters in with Christ to transform the world, working with us here and now. So God make us big to live into the better angels of our nature, and to meet with grace all the moments before us in the year ahead, that God’s life might be recognized within tattered mangers everywhere. Amen.
Cover image: Christmas Eve altar at Edina Morningside Community Church, courtesy of staff member Jane Williams.