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How silently, how silently

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Luke 1:21-25

O little town of Bethlehem, how still we see thee lie
Above thy deep and dreamless sleep the silent stars go by.
Yet in thy dark streets shineth the everlasting Light;
The hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight.

For Christ is born of Mary and gathered all above
While mortals sleep, the angels keep their watch of wondering love.
O morning stars together proclaim the holy birth
And praises sing to God the King, and Peace to us on earth.

How silently, how silently the wondrous gift is given
So God imparts to human hearts the blessings of his heaven.
No ear may hear His coming but in this world of sin
Where meek souls will receive him still the dear Christ enters in.

O holy Child of Bethlehem descend to us, we pray
Cast out our sin and enter in; be born to us today.
We hear the Christmas angels, the great glad tidings tell;
O come to us, abide with us, our Lord Emmanuel.

This carol is so rich and full of beautiful imagery and phrasing that it’s difficult to know where to start to preach a sermon on it. I actually chose three phrases—one from each of the first three verses—and then looked for a scripture to go with it.

I was drawn to Luke 1. This is not a surprise to anyone who has been paying close attention to my choice of texts during Advent. This is my sixth Christmas here, and I’ve preached twice on Zechariah and once on Elizabeth. And the story is not even in the lectionary so I can’t blame anybody. I’m just drawn to this story. In case you’re not familiar, it’s a common trope—old “barren” couple, long past child-bearing age, is chosen to give birth to a special child. I hate to use that word, “Barren,” for I have known many, many women who’ve never given birth but who are, in fact, the opposite of barren. They are filled with life and nurture and abundance. But as you know, in that time period, it was shameful for a woman to be unable to conceive. (Never mind the fact that a couple’s infertility could be caused by the male; this was not part of their understanding.) In their view, if God did not give you a child, you were out of favor with God. You were an object of pity or ridicule, and your place in your family was in jeopardy. Men could and did divorce women who did not give them sons.

So this is the setting for Zechariah and Elizabeth’s story. Zechariah is serving in the temple when he gets a visit from an angel. The angel tells him that his wife will give birth to a special child, one who will prepare the way for the Messiah. When Zechariah asks a question about the angel’s message, the angel gets a little miffed and tells Zechariah that, as punishment, he will not be able to speak until these things comes to pass. This is where the portion I’ve chosen for today picks up. Hear verses 21-25. “Meanwhile the people were waiting for Zechariah, and wondered at his delay in the sanctuary. When he did come out, he could not speak to them, and they realized that he had seen a vision in the sanctuary. He kept motioning to them and remained unable to speak. When his time of service was ended, he went to his home. After those days his wife Elizabeth conceived, and for five months she remained in seclusion. She said, ‘This is what the Lord has done for me when he looked favorably on me and took away the disgrace I have endured among my people.’”

As I said, I’ve preached on this story quite a few times. But as I read the story this time I noticed something I had not paid attention to before. Verse 24 says that after conceiving, Elizabeth stayed in seclusion for five months. Why? This was not a common practice. There was no ritual requirement of seclusion. There was no religious reason why she would need to do this. Wouldn’t a woman who had been shamed because of her childlessness be eager to share the news?

Oddly enough, the carol O Little Town of Bethlehem helps me understand.

The first verse says to Bethlehem:
Yet in thy dark streets shineth the everlasting Light;
The hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight.

The song is talking, of course, about the hopes for a Messiah, the fears that came with living under occupation, and the fear that their prayers will not be answered. But I think those words also describe part of what keeps Elizabeth in hiding:
the hopes and fears of all the years.
All the years she had hoped for a child,
all the years she had prayed for a child,
all the years that she had feared for her place in society,
all the years she had feared for her relationship with Zechariah . . . and with God.
The hopes and fears of all the years kept her secluded, in hiding, perhaps unable to fully believe, for fear of her hopes being dashed yet again, not sure whether the tiny spark of hope within her could be snuffed out before it had time to grow. So she stayed away, in seclusion.

I think I’ve done that sometimes. I know I’ve gone into hiding when my fears were stronger than my will, when the fears of all the years—past, present, and future—have silenced me, caused me to hide. I also know there have been times when my hope has sent me into seclusion because it was too new, too small, too fragile, and I was afraid that any bump in the night could make it die. And the intersection between the two, when my hopes and my fears collide? Oh, my.

What about you? What are your hopes? What are your fears? Where do your hopes and fear connect? Or do they collide? Yes, we naturally fear whatever is the opposite of our hope. But I mean your deepest, most heart-felt fear. Is it being alone? Being insignificant? Do you fear failure?

O little town of Bethlehem, how still we see thee lie
Above thy deep and dreamless sleep the silent stars go by.
The people are so afraid they cannot even dream.
Yet in thy dark streets shineth the everlasting Light;
The hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight.

This is not a collision of hopes and fears. This is God’s response to them. This is where those needs are met: in the birth of the everlasting Light. So that fear you just named? The hope you’re afraid to share? God’s response is to come to you—Immanuel, God With Us.

Verse two says:
For Christ is born of Mary and gathered all above
While mortals sleep, the angels keep their watch of wondering love.

I am fascinated by that phrase, “the angels keep their watch of wondering love.” Does that mean they are in wonder about the love of God? They are in awe of the love of God, come to earth? Or are they keeping watch over Mary’s wondering love, meaning that Mary is the one filled with wonder?

I have never given birth, never held an infant in my arms that I had carried in my body. My daughter was six years old when I met her, and seven when I became her mom. At the time I wondered how I could love this child so quickly, and so much. My son was 3-1/2 months when I met him, and he wasn’t mine and I had no reason to believe he ever would be. And I wondered how I could love this child so quickly, and so much. I understand a little bit about wondering love.

Is that what kept Elizabeth in hiding? Maybe she stayed because, at first, those who shamed her would not be able to tell. She would have to be several months along before her claim could be confirmed. Maybe that’s why she waited five months. Or maybe she stayed in seclusion because she needed to be alone in her wonder. She needed space and time for awe. She needed to hold the miracle in her heart before she could share it with the world.

Of course, awe and wonder aren’t reserved just for pregnancy or parenting. We need space and time for awe. We need to withdraw from people sometimes to allow ourselves to be overcome . . . by beauty, by pain, by love. Keep watch of wondering love.

And finally, verse three:
How silently, how silently, the wondrous gift is given.
The birth of Jesus, though not silent for his mother, I’m sure, was silent to the world at large. There were no palace pronouncements, no royal baby showers. The only announcement came to shepherds, of all people, outside town. Yet the birth of this child changed history, changed us.

And we’re back to Elizabeth, for her solitude must surely have been a quiet one. Zechariah was unable to speak, so any deep conversation was difficult if not impossible. So the awareness of the conception, the coming to believe that it was so, the wondering love, the preparation for sharing the news—all this was done in silence. How silently, how silently, the wondrous gift is given.

What gift do you want to ask God for this Christmas? What gift does God want to give to you? Are they the same thing? Does the gift need a little silence? Will silence make room for this gift to grow, to multiply? God’s greatest miracles are not always flashy, at least not at first. They’re not always delivered by flaming chariot or marked by a neon sign flashing “Miracle on the way!” Often God’s greatest miracles come quietly, come softly, patiently waiting to be noticed. This Advent, take the time to notice. Take the time for some silence. Take the time to allow that wondering love to fill you up. That’s what we need to get to the fourth verse.

O holy Child of Bethlehem descend to us, we pray
Cast out our sin and enter in; be born to us today.
Don’t get hung up on that sin language. It simply means separation from God and one another.
O holy Child of Bethlehem descend to us, we pray
Cast out our separateness. Cast out our division. Cast out all that would cause us to build walls between us. Then we will be able to hear the Christmas angels, the great glad tidings tell;
O come to us, abide with us, our Lord Emmanuel.

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One thought on “How silently, how silently

  1. Dear Rev. Maddox,
    Thank. You for Christmas words that truly have meaning. This is a beautiful, touching sermon that connects to the realities of our lives and lets us reach way down inside and find the light of hope. A perfect Christmas message to send us forward sharing our hope and love with new courage.

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