Sermon preached at The Church of The Ascension, Rockville Centre, NY on December 24th, 2016.
A few decades ago a team of archaeologists descended upon the little town of Clones, Ireland, which is in County Monaghan, right on the border of Northern Ireland, in search of the remains of an old castle.
They knew that there had been a castle there at some point. It was referred to in some historic documents and it was featured on one 18th century map, but the visible remains had long since disappeared, or so they thought. The team brought their shovels and buckets and after doing their best research they began digging where they thought the castle should be, but despite their best efforts they came up empty handed. They assumed that the castle must simply have been destroyed, so they packed up their gear and went home. Case closed.
This past spring an amateur historian, decided that she would take a look around Clones, and she met an elderly local man who pointed her in the direction of a pile of rubble that he had always thought was significant, but that had always been dismissed by others as unimportant. After they managed to clear away some of the underbrush and pull back the ivy, lo and behold, there were the remains of a 16th century castle.
But here is the really fun part of this story: the remains of this so-called lost castle were sitting in plain sight. They weren’t buried underground. And furthermore, they weren’t off in the distant countryside, they were right near the center of town…on castle street…right behind a building called castle house…in a place that children used to pretend was a castle. Whoops.
The experts were so confident in their own research and so convinced that the castle must lie somewhere underground, deep and hidden, that they overlooked all the signs that pointed right to it. They were so determined that it must be hard to find, that they completely missed that it was starring them right in the face.
My point here is not really to make fun of the researchers, and it is certainly not to make fun of the Irish. The discovery of Clones castle is a perfect example of something we are all capable of: missing what is right in front of you.
A few years ago I was at dinner with a group of Ascension parishioners, and one parishioner, who shall remain nameless, simply could not find her keys at the end of the meal, despite only having one glass of wine. After several minutes of searching she found them…in her hand. You all may laugh but you know that it is the sort of thing that you have probably done yourself: searching for your glasses when they are on your head; looking for your cell phone when you are talking on it. We lose things in plain sight all the time, it isn’t a sign of senility, it is a sign of humanity. We even have phrases that refer to this phenomenon: to miss the forest for the trees, or we refer to something as “being plain as the nose on your face” it’s right in front of you, obvious to everyone else and yet, you can’t see it. You literally over-look it.
The people in the village of Clones, Ireland had been looking at that pile of rubble for so long that they had ceased to appreciate what it was. The experts that came looking for it paid no heed to the signs that had been left to them; and the words of little children and old men were dismissed as being mere fantasy or irrelevant. And all the while, the very thing that people were looking for was right in front of them.
I would venture to say that most of you here tonight think that you know the Christmas story. You have seen Christmas pageants, heard the scriptures, sung the carols, and watched the movies. Christmas, and all of it’s traditions and trappings, is familiar to you, and there is much to be said for familiarity. Things that are familiar are comforting; they make us feel secure; they help create stability in an unstable world and in unstable minds. Our traditions are living links with our ancestors and they should absolutely be honored and respected. But, there is one great danger to tradition that we must always be aware of: sometimes when things become such a regular part of our lives we forget that they are even there, or we stop appreciating what they really mean to us.
It is as simple as leaving your sunglasses on your head…after a while you get so used to the feeling that you stop feeling them altogether. I think that sometimes that is how many of us experience Christmas as we get older: something that becomes more familiar, and yet somehow we feel less. Maybe that is how many people experience their faith as well: they think they know what Christianity is all about, but no longer appreciate its true meaning or power.
Has the Christmas story, or the story of Christianity itself, become too familiar to you? Has it become like that castle in Ireland, something that we completely overlook because we are so used to seeing it? Have we allowed the weeds and ivy of daily life to cover and mask it?
There are a lot of people in this world that are searching: searching for answers, searching for truth, searching for meaning and faith. You might be one of those people. You may look at the church as an overgrown pile of rubble on the side of the road, its purpose long forgotten, a place for the fantasies of children or the dismissed ideas of old-men, but before you move on, stop for a moment, pull back the ivy and look deeper. What you are searching for may not be so hard to find afterall.
Look at the manger tonight with fresh eyes; try to hear the hymns the same way you might have first heard them as a child. Listen to the Christmas story as if you have never heard it before. Remember that this story is full of wonder and magic.
Children are born into the world every day, under all different sorts of circumstances, but this wasn’t just any birth. Prophets and preachers have walked the earth from the beginning of time, but this wasn’t just any prophet. The story we are telling here tonight is a supernatural story. God, the source of all life and the creator of the universe, looks at sinful, quarrelsome human beings and decides that despite their failings, he loves them anyways; loves them so much that he chooses to be born among them, as one of them. In Jesus Christ we are able to see the face of God in a way that we never could before; In him we are invited into a living relationship with the author of all creation; here we can finally take hold of that outstretched hand that seeks to save us from ourselves. What a powerful gift. That is what this night is all about.
Tonight we remember that our experience as humans is one that God shares. Everything from our first breath to our last, from birth to death, hunger, fear, joy, laughter, pain…our God has experienced it all and he made that choice to be born into this world, out of love for you and me. This child is born into the world because God wants to have a relationship with you. That is an amazing story.
That story is why we are here tonight, that story is why this building is here; people have died to tell that story. Our scriptures, our hymns, our church itself these, are all signs and symbols that have been left to us from generations past to point us in the right direction, to guide us to the manger and to say to us across time that this is a place where we have found God, and you can find him here too. As we gather together tonight, as Christians have gathered for over 2000 years, let us not take for granted this truth that we proclaim, not for a second. Do not let the fact that this story is familiar to you, blind you to the amazing news that is being shared.
Do not dismiss the carols as being the fantasies of children or the scriptures as being the outdated thoughts of old men, but see them as holy and sacred signs directing you in your search for God, if you can only see them with fresh eyes. The discovery of Clones Castle can teach us an important lesson, not only about looking for objects that have been lost, but about looking for God as well: always remember that that which you are seeking may not be as hard to find as you first imagine: the answer may be right in front of you.