Luke 2:8-14

The second verse of our Advent theme song, “Infant Holy, Infant Lowly,” begins:

Flocks were sleeping, Shepherds keeping Vigil till the morning new
Saw the glory, Heard the story, Tidings of a gospel true.

A couple of weeks ago Linda and I went down to the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. to see a special exhibition.  We actually saw two special exhibits of paintings at the National Gallery of Art that day, one in the original West Building, and another in the East Building, but I’m only going to tell you about one of those exhibits today.  Next week I will describe the other exhibit.  The special exhibit in the West Building features the paintings of the nineteenth century English artist J.M.W. Turner.  The exhibition runs through January 6, 2008, so there are still a few weeks left if you want to go down to see it.  If you miss it in Washington, you can catch it in Dallas and then New York next year. 

J.M.W. Turner, who lived from 1775-1851, was the leading British artist of his era.  He excelled equally in the media of watercolor and oil, and he raised the status of landscape painting to a new level.  The art establishment of his time believed that the most worthy subjects for paintings were scenes from history, the Bible, literature, and mythology.  Landscape was considered a lesser subject for artistic representation.  But Turner was drawn to landscapes (no pun intended), which he sometimes combined with historical or biblical or literary or mythological themes.  Among the 145 paintings that we saw were “Snow Storm:  Hannibal and His Army Crossing the Alps,” an oil on canvas painting completed in 1812; “The Battle of Trafalgar,” an oil on canvass completed in 1824; and “Temple of Poseidon,” a pencil and watercolor piece completed in 1834.  

As we walked through the exhibition and studied the paintings, I noticed two things about Turner’s landscapes.  First, almost every painting features the interplay between light and darkness, between brilliant bursts of sunlight and muted shadows often on the periphery of the canvas.  The second thing I noticed in all the paintings was a sense of awe or mystery or even fear created by his depictions of the untamed forces of nature.  I later came to find out that this sense of awe was deliberate, that Turner was fascinated with what philosophers of his day called the Sublime, the sense of being dwarfed, humbled, even thunderstruck by the unrelenting power of the natural world.  Turner was influenced by the philosopher Edmund Burke, who distinguished between the Sublime and the Beautiful.  The Beautiful, according to Burke, are things that are smooth, unthreatening, and pleasurable.  Fields of wildflowers or leafy trees reflected in a tranquil pond are beautiful, but they don’t really disturb us or shake us or move to fear.  The Sublime, on the other hand, are huge, vast, and overpowering, such as a volcanic eruption, a storm at sea, or a snow squall on a mountaintop.  It was the Sublime which Turner sought to portray in his paintings—a sense of the vastness and majesty and power of nature, beyond human control or comprehension.  Confronted with the Sublime humans react with shock and awe, and even terror, realizing that there is power far greater than ourselves. 

In our travels Linda and I have been privileged to witness many beautiful sights, but we’ve also experienced certain vistas that could only be called sublime.  Standing on the Canadian side of Niagara Falls, watching the thunderous torrent of water cascade down some 16 stories into the river below, how could you not be filled with awe and wonder?  Or standing on the edge of the Grand Canyon, seeing how the Colorado River carved a vast gorge into the rock miles wide and almost a mile deep, how could you not feel dwarfed by the majesty and grandeur of that?  No wonder Native Americans considered the site holy.  Niagara Falls and the Grand Canyon are more than beautiful; they are sublime.

 A few years ago on a trip to Ireland we took a ferry ride out into Galway Bay to the largest of the Aran Islands, Inis Mor.  Approximately twelve square miles in area, with a year-round population of about 900 souls, Inis Mor is known for its prehistoric stone forts dating back perhaps 3000 years.  The most famous of the forts is Dun Aengus, located on the northwest side of the island, perched on the precipice of a sheer cliff that rises 300 feet above the ocean.  The view from the cliff top was simply breathtaking, providing a panorama of 75 miles of coastline.  But as majestic as the view was, it was also terrifying.  You see, there is no railing at the edge of the cliff, no wall or fence, nothing to prevent the careless visitor from slipping and plunging straight down over 300 feet into the sea.  To add to the terror, the wind was howling, strong enough to blow a body off the cliff.  So, to keep my balance and to provide a low profile against the wind, I scooted out to the edge of the cliff on my belly.  Lying flat on my stomach I looked straight down to see the waves crashing on the rocks some 30 stories below.  Historians believe that the ancient fort was more than a military outpost, as impregnable as it seems.  They believe that the edifice also served as a ceremonial and religious site.  Again, who could not feel a sense of the sublime in such a place?

The scripture says that on the night that Jesus was born, there were shepherds in the fields, keeping watch over their flocks by night.  Suddenly an angel of the Lord appeared before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were filled with fear.  I’ve never seen an angel, and I’ve never experienced the glory of the Lord shining in that way, but I can imagine being overwhelmed with awe and wonder and terror at such a sight.  As I crept near the edge of the cliff top on Inis Mor, I was gripped with awe and wonder and terror at the same time.  Some experiences are so vast and powerful that we feel small and vulnerable.  Psychologists call such awesome experiences “galvanizing events” that can shake us to our very core. 

The appearance of the angel and the glory of the Lord was a galvanizing event for the shepherds.  Why would an angel of the Lord appear to them?  What had they done to merit such a manifestation of the divine?  No wonder the shepherds were terrified; they figured this angel had appeared to announce God’s judgment upon them.  After all, shepherds were considered a low class of people, ritually impure, sinners disqualified from attending the religious services in the Temple by the very nature of their work.  Never in their wildest dreams could they have imagined the Lord coming to them, except to condemn them.  But the angel said, “Do not be afraid!  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.”  The Messiah born for them!  It was almost too good to believe.

There is something about Christmas that is more than beautiful; there is something about Christmas that is sublime.  There is something about Christmas that should shake us to the core of our being.  To think that the Creator of the Universe, the Maker and Keeper of heaven and earth, the One who flung the countless stars into place across the infinite vastness of space, to think that God, the Eternal, the Divine, should come to us—how could we not be filled with awe and wonder and yes, even a holy fear? 

But no, we seldom feel that way at all.  We have domesticated Christmas.  We have turned it into Santa Claus and reindeer.  We have reduced it to holiday parties and fiber-optic artificial Christmas trees and piles of brightly wrapped store-bought gifts.  Christmas doesn’t terrify anyone anymore, except those who procrastinate and put off their shopping to the last minute.  Walk through the stores the day before Christmas and check out the expressions of panic, even desperation, on the faces of some shoppers.  Christmas may sometimes be beautiful for us, but rarely is it sublime.

 This year Christmas is going to be tough for a lot of people.  Some people are dealing with the loss of a loved one, and the Christmas season will bring back a flood of memories, and perhaps a flood of tears.  Some people are dealing with health issues, either their own or that of a loved one, and it is hard to celebrate when the future is so uncertain.  Others are facing economic difficulties.  The sub-prime lending crisis is having a rippling effect through many sectors of our economy.  The real estate, banking, and building industries are hard hit, foreclosures are rising to record levels, and tens of thousands of people are at risk of losing their homes.  The price of oil, the war in Iraq, the falling value of the dollar, and other factors have made Wall Street jittery, with the stock market rising and falling on a daily basis.  At such a time as this, we need a touch of the sublime, we need a reminder that God is bigger than all of our problems.  Yes, there are times when we all feel vulnerable and small, but we have a great God who sent his Son into the world to show us how much he loves us.

 “Do not be afraid!” the angel said.  “I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people.”  This third Sunday of Advent we lit the pink candle, the candle that represents joy, because we needed to be reminded that Christmas is really about good news of great joy.  Despite all the problems of life, despite all the worries of life, our Savior has come. 

 Yes, Christmas is more than we have made it.  We have tried to make Christmas beautiful, but the true meaning of Christmas is sublime.  Jesus came into the world, not just to fill our hearts with holiday cheer, but to change our hearts.  He came to love us, and forgive us, and remake us in his own image.  He came to give us a power beyond our own strength, and a new quality of life beyond our own imagining. 

 This year may you have more than a “Merry Christmas” or a “Happy Holiday.”  This year may you have an experience of the Sublime, as Christ comes to you anew, with love and power and grace.  And may you respond to his coming with the only gift that he desires, the gift of yourself.       

 Love so amazing, so sublime, demands my soul, my life, my all.

Bruce Salmon, Pastor, Village Baptist Church, Bowie, Maryland
December 16, 2007

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