December 23, 2012 – Fourth Sunday of Advent
University Presbyterian Church of Tempe, Arizona
Scripture: Micah 5.2-5a and Luke 1.39-55
The text for this sermon is also available in PDF by clicking here.
© 2012 by The Rev. Eric O. Ledermann. All rights reserved. Used by permission.
While much of Western Christian tradition places heaven and earth far apart, as much as between us here on the ground and the universe beyond our atmosphere, the ancient Celtic people of what is today Great Britain, who moved toward Christianity in the 5th century, spoke of places like the island of Iona being where the veil between us and God’s glory was very thin—literally only a few feet at most. They believed this thinness between heaven and earth gave people on earth opportunities to witness the glory of heaven from time to time. There were places on earth, they believed, that were even thinner, where one could step into this space and, while on earth, see and feel the glory of heaven. Maybe you’ve had that experience somewhere, like our own Montlure Camp in Greer, or maybe you’ve been to Ghost Ranch Presbyterian Conference Center in New Mexico, or maybe you have other places where you have gone and experienced the thinness of God’s presence, where the line between heaven and earth blur.
This sanctuary, these grounds, for some people is a thin place. Here we gather week after week, and many have said to me time and again that they meet God here. Here we come to be comforted, to receive spiritual nourishment, and even to find rest for our souls. We laugh, we play, we sing, we pray, we weep and we grieve—all here, in this place. Of course, if we believe what we say when we share in the prayer that Jesus taught us, “on earth as it is in heaven”, then these thin places are everywhere and all the time, where there is nothing but a thin veil at best between us and God’s kingdom.
Thomas Merton, a 20th century American Trappist monk who lived in Kentucky, once wrote: “Life is simple. We are living in a world that is absolutely transparent, and God is shining through it all the time . . . if we abandon ourselves to God and forget ourselves, we see it sometimes . . . the only thing is that we don’t (let ourselves) see it.”1 These thin places, glimpses of God’s realm, are everywhere, not just in our sanctuaries of comfort and protection, or the quietness of a mountain camp, or the stillness of a desert retreat.
In both our scriptures today we hear a call to awareness of those thin places and times: in Micah as the threat of invasion looms over Judah, and as the wonder and mystery of what is happening is shared in Elizabeth’s words. I can only imagine the fear running through the veins of the people of Judah, as well as Elizabeth and Mary as all these miraculous and even foreboding things were happening. In each of these circumstances, the promise of God’s hope lingers in the air, and the promise of peace weaves its way through every word. In each story of our tradition we are called to look to Bethlehem, a small out of the way place where God started something and is still doing it today: a thin place where the line between heaven and earth is blurred and the glory of God breaks through in the form of a tiny, defenseless baby—the most unlikely of heroes in times of crisis, the most unlikely of gifts when so much more is needed—or at least that’s what the people believed.
Micah is angry in the first few chapters of his prophecy—the words are dark and menacing, full of warning in response to misguided idolatry and terrible injustice. As one author wrote: “His vision of a ruler from Bethlehem who will be a shepherd and ‘the one of peace’ is not a sentimental abstraction suitable for a Christmas card greeting, but an affirmation that God’s gift of this ruler has to do with ending injustice and violent warfare . . .”2 And as Elizabeth asks why the Lord has come to her, Micah answers in the well known words of chapter 6, verse 8: “what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God.” Mary, at her young age, picks up quickly on what God is doing, only a few verses after Elizabeth’s question and pulling from her knowledge of Micah and the other prophets who sought to call God’s people to a better way, as she magnifies the Lord in her completely radical, and possibly treasonous, vision where the thoughts of the proud become scattered, the powerful are brought down from their thrones, the lowly are lifted up, the hungry are filled with good things, and the rich are sent away empty. In this vision Mary reveals a glimpse into one of those thin places where heaven and earth are one, where this no barrier and no dividing line between the two, what it is like when we God’s will is truly done on earth as it is heaven, when we live into the kingdom of God here and now, every day, when we live into our calling, our true vocation regardless of what we do for a paycheck.
How often do we walk through our lives day after day wishing the world were different—wishing there were no wars where families are destroyed by violence, where no mentally ill people spray bullets and take the lives of innocent people in movie theaters or schools, where those with mental illness received the treatments they deserve as children of God, where communities honestly acknowledge their dependence on one another and seek to build one another up rather than tear one another down, where there is hope instead of despair, where there is peace rather than heartache. Like Bethlehem, those thin places in our lives are often the most unexpected. It wasn’t Jerusalem, the capital and home of the great temples of Israel, where God’s promise would be fulfilled. It would be in the feeding trough in a stable cave full of animals in a small and seemingly insignificant place. Peace is not found in opulence, but in simplicity; it is not found in armies, but in the hearts of the people who would wage peace in the face of danger; it is not found in presents under the tree but in the presence of friends gathered to break bread together and share with one another; it’s not in the nice car in the driveway, but in walking across the street to check in with our neighbors and wish them blessings. It’s when we take the time to stop and look around at what is happening, take notice of what is taking place, and even looking for those thin places in our lives to where God is calling us and inviting us to step into, holding that door open as long as we can to let God’s light shine through into the darkness of this world.
In Jesus, the veil between us and God tore open. We do not worship a distant God, hidden by the clouds. We worship a God who is very present, who is not impressed by shiny things, but humbled by a loving and compassion heart, a heart that takes us to a stable birth and then to a cross, revealing the most obscure and unexpected thin places full of promise in our lives. Might we each take some time between now and tomorrow night, between now and the hurriedness of Christmas Day, to find a quiet place, to remember the peace promised by God, to know that God is not far, that the kingdom is very near, and allow ourselves to live in the reality of who God is and what God has done in Jesus.3
May your Christmas be thin!4
1Thomas Merton, as quoted in Homiletics, vol. 24, no. 6 (Nov/Dec 2012), p. 59, parenthesis in original.
2John M. Buchanan, “Fourth Sunday of Advent” in Preaching God’s Transforming Justice: A Lectionary Commentary, Year C, eds. Ronald J. Allen, Dale P. Andrews, and Dawn Ottoni-Wilhelm (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2012), p.26.
3Adapted from “Thin Places” in Homiletics, vol. 24, no. 6 (Nov/Dec 2012), p. 60.