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The Face in the Sky

A sermon by Keith Herron, Pastor, Holmeswood Baptist Church, Kansas City, Mo.

The Fourth Sunday of Advent

Luke 2:8-12

December 22, 2014

Isaiah 7:10-16; Psalm 80:1-7, 17-19; Romans 1:1-7; Matthew 1:18-25

Here’s Barbara Brown Taylor’s lively rendition of the birth story:

God had a novel idea: Why not create himself as a human in form of an innocent baby as a way to show his love? He tried out the idea on his cabinet of archangels and at first they were all very quiet. Finally, the senior archangel stepped forward to speak for all of them. He told God how much they would worry about him if he did that. He would be putting himself at the mercy of his creatures, the angel said. The baby idea was a stroke of genius, the angel said, but it lacked adequate safety features.

God thanked the archangels for their concern but said no. He thought he would just be a regular baby. How else could he persuade them he knew their lives inside out, unless he lived one like theirs? There was a risk; he knew that. Okay, there was a high risk, but that was part of what he wanted his creatures to know that he was willing to risk everything to get close to them in hopes they might love him again.

It was a daring plan but once the angels saw God was dead set on it they broke into applause – not the uproarious kind but the steady kind that goes on & on when you’ve witnessed something you know you’ll never see again. While they were still clapping, God turned around and left the cabinet chamber, shedding his robes as he went. The angels watched as his midnight blue mantle fell to the floor so all the stars on it collapsed in a heap. Then a strange thing happened …

Where the robes had fallen, the floor melted and opened up to reveal a scrubby brown pasture speckled with sheep, and right in the middle of them a bunch of shepherds sitting around a campfire drinking wine out of a skin.

Looking down at his human beings who were all trying to hide behind one another, the angel said in as gentle a voice as the leader of the archangels could muster, “Do not be afraid; for see – I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people; to you is born this day in the city of David a savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.”

And away up the hill, from the direction of the town, came the sound of a newborn baby’s cry.[1]

The child is born in the night – the mother’s exhausted flesh, the father’s mute silence, the child’s sweet breath, and the steaming dung of beasts. The child was laid in a manger and nothing has been the same again.

The manger is a feeding trough, and it’s not difficult for us to understand he will be food for the world’s great hunger. Even Jesus knew this much:  At the final meal, he identified himself with the broken bread and the wine poured out.

God entered the world through the womb of a common young girl who had no reason to expect God would choose her for the job of raising this little boy. Unexpected? No doubt … The mold of expectancy was broken, shattered in the hay in that darkened cave where Jesus was born.

Meister Eckhart called this, “the way of paradox,” because when we gather around the table we are reminded we are “border walkers.” We are reminded we live on the boundary of the physical and the spiritual.[2] Another way to say this is to say that the soul has two faces … One face looks to God and the other looks at the world.[3]

In the opening scene to Federico Fellini’s movie, La Dolce Vita (“The Sweet Life”), a helicopter flies slowly through the sky, just above the treetops. Hanging in a harness beneath the helicopter is a large statue of a robed man with his arms outstretched. It is a statue of Jesus being toted to St. Peter’s Cathedral in Rome. Jesus looks as if he’s flying through the air.

As they pass over some men who are working, they recognize Christ and whoop and yell and shout in Italian, “Hey, it’s Jesus!” and they take off running along following Jesus as he flies above them.

The helicopter then flies over an apartment building with a rooftop swimming pool where a number of girls in bikinis are sunning themselves. The helicopter pilots are of course very interested and they try to get their phone numbers above the roar of the rotors, explaining they are taking the statue to the Vatican but they would be very happy to return when they’ve dropped off the statue.

It’s the juxtaposition that’s arresting: “There’s the sacred statue dangling from the sky with arms, on the one hand, and the profane Italians and the bosomy young bathing beauties, on the other hand – the one made of stone, so remote, so out of place there in the sky on the end of its rope; the others made of flesh, so bursting with life.”[4]

That’s Fellini’s comedic opening but the movie is deeper than just another silly Italian comedy and so he immediately switches to a dramatic scene as the pilots continue flying on their way as the great dome of St. Peter’s looms ahead. The camera slowly zooms in on the statue with its outstretched arms until at last the face of Jesus fills the screen with his bearded face and open eyes. He is now a face in the sky hovering above the world, arms outstretched.

What do we do with that close-up vision of the face of Jesus causing us to come to a mute stillness to take it in? The face is meant for us to remember that God came in the form of a child born in the night among beasts. “And nothing is ever the same again.”[5]

[1] Adapted from Barbara Brown Taylor, Bread of Angels, “God’s Daring Plan,” Boston: Cowley Publications, 1997, 34-35

[2] Evelyn Underhill, “The Spiritual Life,” Modern Spirituality: An Anthology, ed. John Garvey, Springfield, Ill.: Templegate, 1985, 16

[3] Cyprian Smith, Meister Eckhart: The Way of Paradox, Paulist Press, New York, 1987, 103

[4] Frederick Buechner, The Hungering Dark, “The Face in the Sky,” New York: The Seabury Press, 1981, 13

[5] The illustration of La Dolce Vita and this quote are adapted from Buechner, ibid., 11-13