This Sunday I’ll be teaching from the timeless story of the shepherd’s encounter with angels, and their visit to Jesus. Having been a pastor for 26 years now, there’s a special challenge to preaching during this season. I’ve done everything: Old Testament prophecies about Jesus, Elizabeth’s pregnancy, Herod’s jealous genocidal slaughter of children, along with all the classic texts. But really, after 26 years, is there anything new to discover?
Always. This week I’ve been pondering how truth changes our lives, wondering if words are enough. I use words all the time to share what I believe God has revealed to us that’s life-giving, and it’s surely true that words are important. But we live in an ocean of words. People use words to sell us stuff all the time, sometimes lying to us in order to get us to buy. Words are used to recruit terrorists, pass bad legislation, get a night of sex, start wars, end wars, and falsely frighten or comfort people. Words are , in other words, dangerous.
It’s no surprise that younger generations are rightly suspicious of words. So I ask the question: “What’s needed in order for Jesus’ words of life to be received, differently than the vast ocean of meaningless words?” Some light is shed on this subject in the story of the shepherds, where we discover words of truth, sandwiched between two experiences.
The words of truth: “Do not be afraid! Listen carefully, for I proclaim to you good news that brings great joy to all the people: Today your Savior is born in the city of David. He is Christ the Lord.” These are profound words because the doors of salvation are flung wide open. The good news is available “to all people”, and the good news is “Salvation” which means much more than a ticket to heaven, as I’ve shared elsewhere. Salvation from addictions, fear, shame, greed, our propensity to make stupid and self-destructive decisions, boredom, consumerism, isolation. Shall I continue? What a great salvation is offered us in “Christ the Lord”
This is “the meat” of the good news, the profound life changing content. And yet it wasn’t received in isolation. The meat was wrapped in a bun of experience:
The experience of mystery preceded the revelation. The Psalmist tells us that “deep calls to deep” and though that can mean many things, it surely means that there are times in our lives when all the longings and experiences of our lives converge to make us receptive to God’s revelation of truth. Other than getting married, my biggest turning point in life came at a Christian ski conference. The word delivered by the speaker became my “life verse” and is still a sort of ‘north star’ to which I return when confused and overwhelmed.
In retrospect though, I’m not sure I would have received that word had everything else not aligned to create a moment of mystery. The snow and the smell of fresh fir and pine awakened something marvelous from my childhood, and it was the first time I’d inhaled that scent since the death of my dad. I’d gone for a walk before the meeting that night, recalling how often my dad had driven me up to this very camp when I was a kid, how we’d play ping-pong once on the cement outdoor table, and then he’d drive away. I remember staring at the table, now covered with fresh snow, and something happening inside me – some sense of longing – some hunger. Then I went to meeting, and when the word was spoken, it changed the course of my life in every way.
We need to recognize our longings, our melancholy, our restlessness, our being struck my piercing beauty in a song, or a moment of silence under the stars. These may be precursors to receiving God’s word.
The experience of “seeing” followed the receiving the word. “Let’s go see this thing that has taken place.” The words are of no value whatsoever if, after hearing them, we don’t respond. That was what Jesus said over and over again in parables and stories. Then James took up the same thing.
When I hear the word and file it away as something interesting, without allowing it to alter my priorities, I’ve deceived myself into thinking that I’m different for having heard. I’m not different for having heard. I’m only different for having “seen”, and I’ll only see, by experience, the profound liberating life and salvation available to me as I get out of my existential chair and take a real next step: generosity, sexuality, forgiveness, seeking help where I’m stuck, beginning to build new habits of intimacy with God. Whatever it is, if I stay with my flocks of familiarity, the word will become stored away in my head, maybe even deceive me into thinking I’m better for having heard. But I’m never better for having heard… I’m better for having responded. What’s the response Jesus is asking of you today?
Truth sandwich means that revelation needs moments of mystery and response surrounding it, if our life if Christ is to be real.