Strangers in a Cafe

“How do you know when you know the will of God? That’s a question that I’ve been grappling with this week (my whole life, really), and I’m not sure that there’s a straightforward answer. But perhaps it’s a little bit like being a stranger in a cafe: you reach out your hand to God, in a moment of uncertainty, and God reaches back.”

Sermon Preached: Sunday, Jan. 1, 2023 at Trinity on the Green

Christmas 1: Numbers 6:22-27 | Galatians 4:4-7 | Luke 2:15-21 | Psalm 8

May I speak in the name of Jesus Christ, Emmanuel, God with Us. Amen.

I wonder if you can think of a time when you were supposed to meet someone in a public place, and you had never seen that person before. Perhaps you went to extreme lengths to be recognizable – you sent them a message beforehand and said: just look for the person in the bright orange sweater and the lime green jacket. Maybe you tried to Google them online, to get a sense of what they look like. Maybe you sat, lonely at the table in the cafe with a red rose at your side – though that might set the wrong mood for a business meeting. 

Every now and then I find myself in a situation where I am waiting for someone, and I have no idea what they look like. It’s always a similar feeling: a little fidgety, looking down at my phone or a book, looking up at the door. And then there’s that inevitable moment when someone walks in, and you think it’s them. You lock eyes. Point at them – point yourself – point at them again (keeping all very casual). You hope to God that it isn’t a stranger you’ve just connected with – but you brave it out. You put out your hand and say, “hello!”

I wonder if this experience is familiar to you – or maybe you are way more confident than I am. If you don’t resonate with the awkwardness, perhaps you resonate with the uncertainty. You don’t know this person. You’ve never seen them before. You don’t know if they will be late, or early, or right on time – and you don’t know what the meeting will be like. You don’t know what happens next.

This week, I’ve been reflecting on that unique experience of meeting someone for the first time in person, specifically as it relates to our Gospel passage for today. Today’s passage picks up immediately after an amazing thing has happened: a group of shepherds living in the fields, living close to the land where their own sheep would sleep and graze, were keeping watch in the middle of the night. Suddenly, an angel of the Lord appeared and the glory of the Lord shone around them. Now I don’t know what the glory of the Lord looks like, but it seems to be some kind of light. We might think of a bright blinding light, like the flash of brightness that the apostle Paul will see, a few decades later, on the road to Damascus. Or we might think of a light like the sun rising, or a shooting star, or something wondrous – like the Aurora Borealis, a dance of luminous, pastel light against the night sky. Whatever it was, it was glorious. And the angel came with a message: “Do not be afraid, for see, 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. This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.” Suddenly there was more – more light, more angels – a heavenly host praising God.

Our story then picks up with the words we read today: “When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, ‘Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.’” The shepherds travel – with haste, the scripture says – and there they find Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in a manger.

I have to wonder what that moment was like. Did they behave like people sometimes do, when meeting a stranger in a cafe? Did they do that awkward pointing thing? Did they rotate their shepherds’ crooks in their hands and scratch the ground, trying to ease the tension of the moment?

Well, holy scripture isn’t written with that level of detail. It isn’t written like a twenty-first century screenplay. But we who believe can do our best to look at what’s there, and what’s not there. We can use our imagination, and we can trust the Holy Spirit to fill in the gaps: to bring more insight to what this scripture passage means for us, in this moment.

One thing I notice, about the original text, is that the shepherds don’t ask whether the child they have found is the savior, the messiah. They don’t ask – they tell. The scripture says: “When they saw this [Mary, and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger], they made known what had been told them about this child; and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them.” This doesn’t sound like the awkward greeting of a stranger in a cafe. Instead, it sounds as though the shepherds approached Mary and Joseph with confidence; with authority. “They made known what had been told them about this child,” trusting that they had a role to play in sharing the good news that they heard proclaimed by the angels out in the fields. They had had an incredible experience – a moment of insight and clarity. Rather than holding back they followed that insight – that deep and holy intuition – and they shared it with others.

After hearing these things, the people gathered around the manger were amazed. The scripture says that Mary, in particular, treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart. Now this isn’t the first time we have seen Mary “ponder” in the Gospel of Luke. You may remember the story of the Annunciation, just one chapter earlier, when an angel appears to Mary and tells her that she is favored; the Lord is with her. Mary is perplexed, and ponders what sort of greeting this might be. The angel goes on to tell her that she will bear a son, saying that “He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High.” All of that to say that the words of the shepherds are not completely new to Mary. She knows, to some degree, the significance of the child she has just given birth to. And still, Mary ponders these things in her heart.

I am fascinated by this pondering, and by the role that the shepherds have to play in helping her understand how God is moving in her life. Mary stands at the center of an incredible story, the story at the heart of our Christian faith: this is the story of how God chose to become human, to live among us, to love us, and to save us. Mary’s understanding of her role in this story seems to have grown and changed over time. Her understanding comes in stages: a flash of awareness, a period of reflection; a flash of awareness, another period of reflection. 

I think it is worth noting that the word “ponder,” although it appears as the same word in our English translation (the New Revised Standard Version), is a different word in Chapter 1 and Chapter 2. In Chapter 1 the word is διαλογίζομαι, a word that shares a linguistic commonality with the English word “logic.”  διαλογίζομαι has a range of meanings, including: to reason with, to debate, to consider. By the time we reach Chapter 2, Mary is still pondering – but the verb here is συμβάλλω. Literally: I throw together. This word also has a range of meanings, including: to ponder, to encounter, to dispute, to put together. It’s clear that Mary is still wrestling with the magnitude of all that this means. But she is also putting it together, over time. She is growing in her understanding. She is discerning.

Discernment is a word that Christians love to use, and have spoken and written about for centuries. It’s a word that we use to describe how a monastic, a deacon, or a priest comes to understand their unique role, or vocation. But this word isn’t simply limited to clergy or religious professions. All of us discern. And discernment is this, in a nutshell: it is the process of coming to understand God’s movement in our lives. It is the process of coming to understand God’s movement in our lives – and what we want to do about it. How do we each step up to the plate? How do we say “yes” to the kind of abundant life that God is growing in each one of us? How do we move with God?

Discernment feels like a particularly fitting topic for today, New Year’s Day. This is a season when people look back, and look forward. It is a season when some of us commit to New Year’s Resolutions, or set an intention for the coming year. Whether or not you are a New Year’s Resolution kind of person, this is a season of discernment. We are all somewhat aware of the person we have been this past year. And all of us might wonder: who do I want to be? Who am I becoming?

Our Gospel passage for this morning contains an important reminder: no one does discernment alone. Even though discernment does contain some introspection – some pondering, you might say – we are still doing that work in the context of the world around us. Every now and then God sends us a flash of clarity. That clarity might not come in the form of the Angel Gabriel – but still, every now and then, we get a moment of clarity. It might come in the form of a feeling, a coincidence, a hunch, an intuition. It might come upon you when you are looking at the beauty of creation. It might come upon you in the silence of prayer. And sometimes, clarity comes to us in the form of another person. Sometimes God sends us messengers, like the shepherds in the field, who come to us and make known how they have seen God acting in our lives, and in the world around us. They might call to mind the gifts and talents we have, that we ourselves cannot see. They might make known a point of ignorance, a place where we have to grow. They might reinforce something that has been stirring in the back of your mind already – confirmation of a change that God is working on in you.

I invite you to consider, this week, the places in your life where you are actively discerning. What are you pondering these days? What are the questions that keep you up at night – questions about what to do next, who to be with, where to live, where to work, where to give back to others. These are important questions. Listen for the will of God in your life through scripture. Listen through prayer. Listen for the word of God through the voice of a trusted loved one, or even a stranger. Sometimes we are in the role of Mary, pondering all these things; and sometimes we are in the role of the shepherds, messengers of God to other people. Will you have the courage to be like the shepherds? Will you share your insight with others – your discernment, your wisdom, your wonder? 

Don’t expect discernment to be some grandiose thing. We don’t all get a host of angels singing praises out in a field. But we do have each other. We have moments of insight and clarity and connection— moments when God’s presence feels so immediate and so real. Hold onto that feeling. Share that feeling. Watch for that feeling in the small things and the quiet moments, too.

How do you know when you know the will of God? That’s a question that I’ve been grappling with this week (my whole life, really), and I’m not sure that there’s a straightforward answer. But perhaps it’s a little bit like being a stranger in a cafe: you reach out your hand to God, in a moment of uncertainty, and God reaches back.

Keep pondering. Keep discerning. Keep making known the things that you have come to understand about yourself, about others, and about God. Maybe you don’t need a New Year’s Resolution this year – just an open heart and open eyes to see what God is doing in the world, and the desire to be a part of it. Amen.

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