Sermon from Christmas Eve 2010

"Nativity" painted by Albrecht Durer, 1504

Love Among the Ruins?

Luke 2:15-20

Can love be born among the ruins?

Glory to God in the highest – so sang the multitude of the heavenly host

and on earth peace, among humankind the very favor of God.

Is it?  May it?  Could it possibly be?   True?

Luke goes on to say Mary pondered and treasured up these things in her heart.  Will you do that with me tonight?

Love born among the ruins?  Is it?  May it?  Could it possibly be?

Albrecht pondered these things.  In the year 1503 he pondered these things and begged the question, is divine love to be found among the ruins of earth?  Is the favor and peace that is the very heart of God to be found among the sometimes vulnerable, despicable carnage of our lives?  He begged that question in a painting of the nativity.  In other words, he both asserts a question and answers it at the same time.  Albrecht Durer was a mathematician and a logician of sorts, a gifted craftsman and artist, an extremely intelligent guy but he didn’t prove the point with absolute scientific proof; instead he asserted it by faith by means of a hauntingly hopeful poignant piece of art.

This particular painting is reproduced in your bulletin insert tonight.  I hope you’ll pay it some attention and ponder it in coming days.  It depicts Jesus being born not into a stable in 1st century Bethlehem of Judea but in the ruins of his own time.  You see, on one side there is crumbling European architecture of his present day, and on the other side ruins of the Greco-Roman classical world.  The bridge between the two you see decaying and practically gone.  For Durer’s time the stability and structure of society, the hope of the world was seen to be in this cooperative bridge between European cultural advancement and the mining of the brilliance of the Greco-Roman world.  You ever feel like the very foundations and structure of our society is falling apart all around you.  Durer felt like that.  Yes it was a heady time of renaissance and reformation yet what people had thought was always certain was no longer certain.  You ever felt like most of your life, every thing you pretty much counted on started letting you down all at once?   And not merely in spite of the ruins, but precisely there Durer depicted a mother and child.

Love born among the ruins?  Is it? May it?  Could it possibly be?

So Mary had pondered these things.  You see, in Mary’s world, the fragile bridge between the Roman Empire and a renewed nation of Israel was also crumbling.  It would indeed in just a few short decades fall completely apart with the destruction of Jerusalem temple in ad 70.  Mary might not have analyzed it like that but she knew what it was like to have her world falling apart.  Just imagine the most stressed out you’ve ever been in your life about anything.  Just assume that Mary was that stressed out and more that night.  We don’t know if she actually heard the angels singing that night glory to God in the highest, on earth peace, among humankind the very favor of God.  It was no doubt loud and raucous and yet somehow comforting-thrilling, like the halleluiah chorus times a million.  And yet as one pastor recently suggested we know Mary sang that night, because all moms sing.  Oh yeah some of you moms out there say, no I can’t sing, but we see you when silent night is playing and candles are lit.  All moms sing to their children some how some way.  Not in raucous thrilling hallelujah chorus, but as James Howell puts it, “The voice, the words when a mother sings to her child, is barely audible.  But it is audible, but it is not so loud as to awaken the child.  The child stays asleep.  What we call this is grace and love and peace.  It is a witness to what is in the very heart of God.”

What if God himself – one in whose face and breath we see and hear the heart of God – what if he really came that night and comes still — God with us, for us, one of us, to take our place and show the way?  As Howell continues, “What could be a more shimmering presentation of what is in the very heart of God than for God to take off his crown and his sumptuous robes and to step down as an infant into the arms of his mother, into that small sphere that is love?  And she would sing.  And he became one with us, hearing her voice, being held.  It’s an echo to the angels.  It’s love from the very heart of God,” amid the ruins (Dr. James C. Howell, from a Homily for a Service of Lessons and Carols, Myers Park United Methodist Church, Charlotte, NC, December 12, 2010, online:

And so, Mary sang amid a crumbling world around her and pondered these things.

Is it?  May it?  Could it possibly be?

I don’t know about you but I’ve had this weirdly hopeful feeling this Christmas.  Historians tell us we’re in one of those everything predictable falling apart times in history between the modern era and the postmodern era, whatever that means, and whatever that will end up being.  All I know is I’ve known more persons and families whose outward circumstances, financial and otherwise are bad this year than I ever have.  And yet amid the ruins of this outward stress, inwardly there seems to be a little less anxiety than normal.  It’s weirdly hopeful.

It has made me think back to some other Christmases.  The first or second Christmas I was in the pastorate I remember December seemed to be the month of everything crumbling apart around me.  We had a young woman in the congregation diagnosed with terminal cancer and I’d never dealt with such acute pain before.  She would pass away later that winter yet not without amazing love.  Everything seemed to be crashing around me and I began to wonder if I was cut out for this kind of work.  One morning though I woke up in our parsonage to cloudy murky air and the acrid smell of oil smoke.  Our oil furnace had basically blown up but in those half-sleep waking moments I thought maybe the world had ended; then I just got grouchy and grumpy.   Later that evening, though, I was working in my study on the second floor of the church, and at one point I looked out the window, and there were Donald and Billy setting up a crèche scene in the vacant lot across the street.  Now it was bitter cold out and Donald probably shouldn’t have been out there doing anything strenuous because he’d had multiple open heart surgeries and we’d almost lost him twice.  Now Billy was one of these guys, now in his 70’s who probably never held a steady job in his life, though he always seemed to make ends meet.  He was the kind of guy who would never have much to brag about at class reunions but smiled anyway.  They’d recently asked him to serve as an usher once a month at the church for the first time in his life in his 70’s and he was so proud of that , took it so seriously you’ would’ve thought they’d invited him to lead tours of Buckingham palace.    And I looked out.  And as I saw them lovingly adjust a spotlight on that beautiful scene amid the many dilapidated and vacant houses in that town, and I swear, for a moment in time it was as if I could hear the singing.

Glory to God in the highest on earth peace, and among human- kind the very favor of God.

Can love be born among the ruins of our lives?  Is it, may it, could it possibly be?  True.

I have one thing to say to you tonight.  If you didn’t somehow believe it were true somewhere in your heart, I don’t think you would’ve come tonight.

Study the Scripture.  Ponder the painting.  And as you do that one more thing: with people like Donald and Billy, Albrecht and Mary – O come let us adore him…

Can love be born among the ruins of YOUR life?  Listen for the singing.  You’ll have your answer.


Rev. David B. Humphrey

Asbury United Methodist Church, Smynra, DE

December 24, 2010

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