Luke 2:15-20 

Our theme song for Advent has been the hymn, “Infant Holy, Infant Lowly.”  You’ve heard it every week during the lighting of the Advent Wreath.  Tomorrow night on Christmas Eve we are going to sing it.  The hymn ends with these words:

Thus rejoicing, Free from sorrow, Praises voicing Greet the morrow;
Christ the Babe was born for you. 

Those words describe the shepherds that Christmas night after they had gone with haste to Bethlehem “to see this thing” which the Lord had made known to them.  There they found Mary and Joseph and the babe lying in a manger.  Then they returned “glorifying and praising God for all they had seen and heard.”  Music educator Edith M.G. Reed paraphrased a Polish carol into English, using short rhyming phrases to describe the experience of the shepherds after they saw the Christ child face to face.  “Thus rejoicing, free from sorrow, praises voicing greet the morrow; Christ the Babe was born for you.” 

Last Sunday in my sermon I described a current exhibit at the National Gallery of Art featuring the paintings of the nineteenth century English artist, J.M.W. Turner.  This week I want to tell you about another exhibition at the National Gallery of Art, this one in the East Building, featuring the paintings of a twentieth-century American artist, Edward Hopper, who died in 1967.  The Hopper exhibition runs through January 21, 2008, so you have a few weeks left to get down to see it if you are interested. 

Like J.M.W. Turner, Edward Hopper excelled in watercolors and oil paintings, and he also incorporated contrasts between light and shadow in many of his works.  But there any similarity between the two artists ends.  While Turner’s landscapes were infused with a sense of majesty and mystery and awe and fear, the paintings by Edward Hopper seem flat and stark and strangely inanimate.  The brochure for the Hopper exhibition says that his pictures are “filled with audible silences and pregnant pauses.”  Many of his paintings are of vacant buildings with no sign of human life—whether lighthouses and cottages in New England, or deserted streets and empty storefronts in Manhattan.  Where Hopper’s paintings do include human figures, they are usually isolated.  Even when Hopper portrayed more than one person in a painting, the subjects seem detached and emotionally disconnected.  There is little joy in the paintings of Edward Hopper.  One art critic saw the exhibition in Boston.  He overheard a young man complaining that “not one person in these pictures is happy.”  The critic observed, “this is true.” 

In one painting, titled Automat, a woman sits alone in a Manhattan restaurant, staring at a cup of coffee.  In another, titled Chop Suey, two women sit across a table in a Chinese restaurant in New York City, but they seem to be staring right past each other, with no words being spoken.  Isolation, emptiness, stillness, and silence are recurring themes in Hopper’s works.  The mood is often one of solitude, melancholy, alienation.   When someone asked Hopper if he had deliberately infused his paintings with symbols of isolation and emptiness he replied, “unconsciously, probably, I was painting the loneliness of a large city.”  In the paintings of Edward Hopper, there is no rejoicing.

Some months after our son Marc moved to New York City to begin a new job there, Linda and I went up to visit him for a couple of days.  Marc showed us all over Manhattan, and we had a great time experiencing the city through the eyes of a “local.”  Whether it was riding the crowded subways or negotiating our way along sidewalks packed with pedestrians, Marc got us from place to place with amazing efficiency.  It wasn’t our first time in the big city, but it’s still daunting to deal with all the hustle and bustle.  You dare not stop, or you’ll be carried along by the moving crowd.  New York is a very exciting place, but I can see how it could be a very lonely place too, even in the midst of all those people.  

One morning we were scheduled to meet Marc at a subway station midway between our hotel and his apartment.  Linda and I arrived there a few minutes early, so we were standing on the street corner watching all the people go by.  To our surprise, a native New Yorker came up to us and said, “You look lost!  Can I help you find your way?”  We were surprised first of all because we really weren’t lost (even though we may have looked like it).  Even more we were surprised that a Gothamite would stop to offer to help some befuddled tourists.  It kind of restored our faith in humanity that even in such an uber-urban setting, someone would stop to help his fellow man (and fellow woman).

What I’m talking about here is our fundamental need for human contact, for community, for meaningful relationships with other people.  The poet John Donne wrote that “no man is an island,” but in the paintings of Edward Hopper, and in the experiences of many people, that is not true.  Isolation and alienation and estrangement and loneliness and emptiness are common feelings for many people.  Even in a crowd it is easy to feel disconnected and alone.

Jesus was born to change all that.  Jesus was born to create community, to draw people into meaningful relationship with God and with each other.  It began when those shepherds made their way to Bethlehem to the manger where Jesus lay.  The shepherds said to one another, “Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place.”  Let us go—“us,” the basis of community.  When they found Mary and Joseph and the child lying in the manger, they made known what been told them—“they made known,” communication, the beginnings of community.  And all who heard were amazed—a response to communication; a relationship was begun. 

I used to think that it was all quiet around the manger, but now I’m not so sure.  Now I’m guessing it was a pretty lively place—shepherds babbling, cattle lowing, maybe even the baby crying (despite the carol that implies Jesus didn’t cry—I’m sure he did cry at times, because he was fully human).  We know the shepherds raised a ruckus when they left the place—the scripture says they were glorifying and praising God.  No, I doubt it was all that quiet that night—angels singing, shepherds praising, maybe even a few animals raising their voices too. 

On the night that Jesus was born, a lively community began to form around the manger, and in a sense that community continues today.  That’s part of the reason for the existence of the church, to provide a place for community to develop and grow.  In a sense every time we come together we gather around the Christ to worship him and to tell our stories of what the Lord has done for us and to share in a common experience of faith.  And in that worship and telling and sharing we rejoice.  We rejoice for what the Lord has done.  We rejoice that we are not alone in our faith; we rejoice that we have fellow worshippers around us to share in our joy. 

Christmas is a community experience because our joy is meant to be shared.  We do not rejoice in isolation but in community and in relationship with one another. 

Walter “Buddy” Shurden, the eminent Baptist church historian, was asked why involvement in a local church was a priority with him.  With all of his teaching and preaching and speaking and writing, why does he still choose to stay active in his local congregation?  Dr. Shurden replied that he agrees with the biblical scholar, Marcus Borg, who wrote, “The single most important Christian practice is to be part of a congregation that nourishes you even as it stretches you.”  The single most important thing we do as Christians is to be part of a local church!  Buddy Shurden also quoted his wife, Kay, who said that even if we woke up on Monday morning and discovered that the atheists were right—that there is no God—we would still need to meet in church the next Sunday because we so desperately need each other.

Of course, the atheists are not right—there surely is a God, for he sent his Son Jesus to show us how much he loves us.  And when we do meet together Sunday after Sunday here in church, we meet to nourish one another, and to stretch one another, and to rejoice with one another in the good news of great joy that we have to share.

Thank God that we who follow Jesus are not alone in our journey of faith, but we are in community with other Christians who nurture us and encourage us and challenge us and walk beside us as we rejoice in Christ together.  No Christian is an island, alone unto himself or herself, because we are all part of a church, a community of fellow believers who become a family of faith.

When those shepherds gathered around the manger the night that Jesus was born, they were the beginning of the Christian community that continues even today.  Jesus was in the business of drawing people into relationship with himself and with each other, and we who love and follow Jesus are in relationship with him and with each other too.

So, from the very beginning Christmas has been about drawing people together.  Our family gathering this year is not as large as it has been in years past, but we are still coming together.  My mother has come up from Texas to be with us, and Marc has come down from New York.  Amy will not be able to come home from South Korea to be with us this year, but tomorrow night, after the Christmas Eve service, we’re going to go home and call her in South Korea, so that we can share Christmas together at least in that way.

Whether you are part of a large family, or whether you are a family of one, you are not alone this Christmas.  You are part of Christ’s family, and in this community we gather around the manger and worship the newborn King.

Thus rejoicing, Free from sorrow, Praises voicing Greet the morrow;
Christ the Babe was born for you.

Bruce Salmon, Pastor, Village Baptist Church, Bowie, Maryland
December 23, 2007

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