Advent 2017 was a very special, early Christmas gift for me. In early summer, I met with two young artist who attend the church which I pastor. Adah Freeman and Asher McClain willingly endeavored to engage the vision I had for this year’s Advent season. It was my desire to help our congregation expectantly move forward through Advent by a weekly art installation which would focus us on the Advent themes of hope, love, joy, peace, and glory. It turned out better than I had imagined.
Asher McClain provided pyrography (wood burnings) which signified each week’s theme. He interpreted the themes masterfully and through them we saw things which he was not immediately aware but which bore the marks of God’s blessing.
Adah Freeman worked tireless hours on the portraiture which were to capture the moment in which each person heard the words, “Where are you?” Whether Adam and Eve, Abraham, Moses, Mary, or the Shepherds, she captured their turn, their raised glances, their surprise, and their wonder.
Lastly, Michael Kuehn, Grace’s worship leader, was inspired by these artists and the opportunity He wrote (was given) lyrics and music which served to beautifully capture the moments which we were seeking to illustrate.
The following is the text of the Christmas message which I delivered to the congregation on Christmas Eve. Though a little late, Merry Christmas!
The first man and woman lived in the lush green and safe garden of God. They had always been able to see God. When they sought him, they found him. When looked at Him, they always saw the countenance of his holy and loving face. God made everything that was, and he walked at leisure in the midst of the garden enjoying his creation.
At some time, one of God’s creatures came to the first man and the first woman and taught them to use their imagination: to imagine looking down, to climb up out of the dust, to stand tall, to be like God who from his place looked down on all he had made. They imagined and then they did the only thing forbidden them. Looking up they stretched out their hands, stood on their tippy toes, and did the irrevocable thing. They did that for which there is no excuse.
Though the first man and woman were deceived by the creature, their deception had already begun to arise in them. Their desire to be like God was not to emulate or honor him, but to be equal with and independent of him. In that moment after they disobeyed, their eyes were opened, and they would forever look down, not in greatness, but in humiliation and shame. Never again were they able to look up and bear the brightness and countenance of the face of God.
That day God walked in the garden in the cool of the evening and called to the man and woman, ‘Where are you?’ Ashamed and afraid of what they had done, the man and woman hid. They covered their eyes from the face of God. The used the good things which God made and given to them to hide themselves — from God and from each other. If they could, they would’ve stayed in the garden enjoying its comfort and goodness while trying to hide all the while from God. But God loved them too much to let them do that.
Though death was the punishment, they did not die that day, but the curse of death entered the world. And in that, the man and woman saw all the ugliness of their treachery and the ugliness of what they had let enter the world. Since that day, every father and mother has had to tell their children: “You are made of dust, and to dust you shall return.”
God however did not leave them in the dust with only the hope of raising something from the dirt. He gave a promise, that one of the woman’s children, would bear the wound of every wound, and in his wounding he would crush into the dust all the brokenness they had let enter the world and all the brokenness that was inside them but most importantly, the brokenness that drove them to hide from the face of God. In his gracious kindness, he made them clothes to protect them from the wild and unsafe world. And who has ever been wrapped in such protection by such a tailor?
Many children of the first man and woman later, there was another husband and wife. Who, being old as dirt and whose life was as dry as dust found themselves at the end of the line of those who knew God, and their heads looked down. God promised to bless the man and his wife and to give them many descendants so they followed God where he led. In some matters they took things into their own hands and tried to raise for themselves the fruit of God’s promise. Though failing some, they continued to trust God even as they waited long in the fulfillment.
It came to pass that the trust with which they trusted was tested. They had come to call God, God Almighty. God Almighty gave them a son when all hope of having a son was gone. But with such a desired and precious gift, a question needed to be asked. Though they trusted God Almighty could do anything, would they trust him with everything? Having gotten from Him what he had promised them, would they only trust themselves to keep safe the promise? The only way to tell was to ask for the boy back. If God Almighty could be trusted, the man would have to trust him with everything. He would give the boy back to God Almighty, even the son whom God Almighty had promised and given the man and his wife.
For three days father looked down the road. Father and son traveled the dusty road and with the journey the man carried the worry of what was to be done to the place God Almighty would show the father. The father and his son, climbed the mountain, and on that high place, the man looked down upon his son, his only son, and taking the knife, he moved to sacrifice his son as God Almighty had commanded. But in that quick moment, a voice called his name, “Abraham! Abraham!” Thankfully, Abraham did not reply as one may so often do when God Almighty speaks to us. We say, “Just a second! Can’t you see I’m busy?” Instead he looked up and cried, “Here I am!” And so the test was not if he could but whether he would. For who would love another so much that for the sake of that love would sacrifice their one and only son?
Many years later, and many grandchildren later the descendants of the man and wife went down to another land where they blessed many people and saved many lives.
Eventually the people of that land looked down upon the descendants of the promise. The people of the land enslaved the descendants, and forced them live in dirt and water and straw where they made bricks for a great king, Pharaoh, who with those bricks and on their backs built great cities and buildings that reached to the skies. These were buildings upon which people would look up and marvel and the king’s wealth and power, and they would think of him as a god. The descendants of the promise though, did not call upon him as god. For even as they heads were laid low, they raised their voices to God Almighty, “Deliver us!’
God Almighty heard their cries for relief and deliverance and he sent a child. This child was hidden and laid down in an ark and set to drift upon the waters of the Nile river where he was found by one of the king’s daughters. The daughter of the great king drew the baby boy out of the water and drew him into society and prestige, but God Almighty was drawing him into another story. He was drawn out of hiding, drawn into violence, and drawn away to exile to wander midst the dust of the desert as a shepherd. Burdened with the calling but broken by failure, the man’s countenance was drawn low, and he looked down.
One day when he looked up and saw a fire in the midst of a bush, but the bush did not burn. When the Lord saw that he had turned aside God Almighty called the man’s name. God Almighty gave the man his own name, I AM — or “The LORD”. The man was very afraid, and he doubted whether he could be used and whether even THE LORD could use him. The Lord, promised the man that he would use him as he desired, and that he would lift his eyes. The Lord said to the man, you will know that everything I’ve told you is true, when after doing what I send you to do, you will come back to this very place where I will lift up your head, and you will look up, see me, and you will worship me. The Lord did this and so many things for the man and the descendants of the promise. They came to know so many things about the Lord, they knew his name. And for the man he drew out? That man spoke with the Lord as one talks to a friend. Eventhough the man talked with the Lord as a friend speaks with a friend, he never saw the Lord’s face. For who could see the face of the Lord and not be crushed by the weight of that glory? Or bear the joyful radiance of his holiness? And though many were delivered from the rule of the great and wicked king, a generation died and returned to the dust of the earth before their children saw the land of their promise.
And many years and generations later, a messenger from above, one of the servants of the Lord named Gabriel, came to a young woman in small town far away from the center of her people’s world.
The young woman no doubt had her head down doing her chores, which probably involved moving dirt, preparing what the dirt had grown, and avoiding the dirt. Needless to say, she was doing the everyday things an everyday person does. Gabriel surprised her when he spoke high words, tall words of honor, “Greetings favored one, the Lord is with thee!”
The young woman was confused and surprised and amazed. She could not understand why this messenger would come to her, she who only fourteen, she had no influence, she was as humble as the earth.
Gabriel said,”Don’t be afraid, Mary, God’s grace is yours. See, you will conceive and bear a son, and you shall name him Jesus. For as written, “He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. And the Lord God will give to him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.”
But she couldn’t see it. Looking down, she asked, “How, can this be since I am a virgin?” And the messenger told her, that the Holy Spirit of God will in power overshadow you, and the new creation shall begin. For the child born to you will be called holy and Son of God. Even now, your cousin Elizabeth in her old age, Elizabeth who has born no children, carries a son. For nothing will be impossible with God. And the young woman, bowed her head — not in shame but in willing honor, in gentle humility, and she said, “Let it be unto me as you have said.” For what does the Lord give except that for which no man can take credit.
Only months later, the young woman and her husband made a ten day journey to the home of their ancestors, for the Empire who ruled and the governor who kept the people underfoot determined there should be a tax. The town to which they traveled was called, House of Bread or Bethlehem. Because there was no room, they found shelter on the dirt floor of a stable with the animals.
There were in the region outside of Bethlehem shepherds watching their flocks at night. It was their lot to try and make for themselves and their families a living from the earth. They were well acquainted with earth and its dirt. Some despised them and said that was exactly what they were: dirt. These shepherd-wanderers knew the earth’s dirt and dust from rocks and boulders to clods, loamy soil, and parched earth. They knew high meadows and watered valleys. They knew desert canyons and barren hill country.
The shepherd’s hands were calloused and dirty with work. Some were born into the life. Others were driven into the work by circumstance, necessity, or servitude. Some chose it by process of elimination, for they could not abide village life let alone city life. They needed the space and could stand the roaming and threats of the wilderness more than the closed in life of the city and the social and relational wounds.
This night was a night like many other nights: long and boring. Some nights were long and boring only to be interrupted with desperate minutes of fear and danger. Tonight seemed to be more of the previous. The stars in the night sky seemed to hang. They twinkled and moved in their fixed courses across the sky.
There was tingling sensation and then standing before them was a messenger. The brightness of his appearing in that night drove them back. As the glory of the Lord shone around them; they fell into the dust. The weight of the light and the goodness of the one who stood before them overwhelmed and then brought into focus all their hopes and fears. Their hope being to be able to bear this glory and walk in it — upright, joyful, clean of their soiled lives. Clean of what had been done to them and clean of what they had done and thought and wish they’d done. And with the awareness of that hope came the rushing of fear, that that for which they had longed, that for which was the root of all their longings would be lost to them forever. Fear of being really seen and known. Fear of being undone by this gaze of goodness.
On their knees, looking down, looking away, covering their eyes, shaking with fear and self-recrimination, they heard the kindest, most welcome word. This one of blazing light said, “Do not be afraid. Look here, I bring you good news, the greatest most joyful news which is not just for a few but for all people.” And at this their attention piqued.
Slowly they raised their heads, glancing at the others, trying to comprehend. “For all people?” was the word, but did it mean even for us people? Good news for us?
And the messenger continued, “Yes, to you! To you is born this very day, in the city of David a Savior, the Messiah, God’s special king, Christ the Lord?”
“But how can this be? How might we know?”
Here’s how you will know you are seeing this good news: if you seek him tonight, you will find a baby and this baby will be wrapped in swaddling cloths. And he will be lying in a manger.”
And then, like lightening, like a flash that didn’t fade, came the Light. It was as if the ceiling of stars had been torn open, there was singing and praising. The worship which was always taking place in the presence of God, God Almighty, the I AM, the Lord, that worship spilled like water, like waves crashing in flood, poured into the world — the world which God fashioned even as his own Word spilled into the world of his sustaining. The rising cry was, “Glory to God in the highest! Glory! and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased!” They stood bathed in the most lovely light, hearing the most beautiful sound, a song, the song, and it felt to them, that they had entered into the loving, worshipful heart and center of the universe. There they stood, still, looking up, no sound but the sound of the choir, and no words, but the words of their song.
Just as the tide rises and floods in rolling, increasing waves, the tide which had flooded the world receded into stillness and quiet. The night returned, the messengers departed, and the shepherds perception of the music became gradually lessened, but their skin still tingled, their faces still flushed, and their hearts remained full, and their minds were bright and clear. Almost with one voice, they said, “Let us go to Bethlehem to see!” Without delay, they went in search of the sign.
When they arrived in Bethlehem, they searched. The town was busy with travelers and the work of evening. The shepherds heard of a gathering at a stable where a mother had travailed through the day and night to deliver her child. The shepherds searched and found the mother, Mary, and her husband, Joseph. Again a wave of marveling washed over them, for what did they see? They saw the very sign of which they were told. A baby lying in a manger. How strange, this child wrapped in this swaddling robe and held up off the dirt floor of the earth by this wood frame and laid in that from which creatures feed, bowing their heads to receive the good food and grain which sustains through the long, cold winter of waiting until the high summer of mountain meadows and green pastures.
Those gathered with the couple and the child marveled at all that the shepherds told them. Speechless they looked up and listened and wondered with questions again and again.
But the mother, Mary, noted it. She saw it in all that had happened to her and was promised to her that this was the way of it. She saw it in herself, the glory seeping in through her own fears of the future and the wounding glances and side-words which she overheard or even louder in the silence when she entered a room. She saw it in Joseph who was hurt and fearful of the betrayal and the fear of a damaged reputation for marrying the maiden. She heard it in Elizabeth’s voice who, being beyond hope of ever having a child, had delivered a son, and now she sees it in these shepherds. The glory seeps in through the brokenness. Just as the glory rushed into this world on these broken shepherds — dirty and dusty with work, but clean and clear with understanding. They told anyone who would listen, and recounted to one another over and over again of all that they had seen and heard, and whom they had seen.
For all who heard and received the glory which poured into the world through promise and long-purpose and now poured into the dust of the world? There was hope, love, joy, and peace. For them, and for us, the glory and praising and wonder, does not let go. It may swell and recede, but the glory remains.
Michael Kuehn has collected his songs into an EP entitled, “Here I Am!” which you purchase on Bandcamp HERE.
Portraiture © 2017 Adah Freeman
Pyrography © 2017 Asher McClain
Music © 2017 Michael Kuehn Music
Story © 2017 Randall Edwards
ALL RIGHTS RESERVED