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The Heartbeat of God -- Luke 2:8-20 (Christmas Day)

Updated: Dec 26, 2022




What a blessing it is to be here together on Christmas Morning, while our Christmas Eve celebrations are still fresh in our memory. We can almost hear the echo of last night’s singing – the carols, the choir – our children, youth, and young adults reading the Christmas story to us – the shepherd joy and angel song – it’s all still in the air.


In the midst of all the ways we celebrate Christmas, this morning we have this moment – together – this space, to take a breath and let Christmas settle in – deep into our bones before the day goes on by.


That’s how it is for Mary in this morning’s scripture. This morning’s scripture tells us that, at some point, the shepherds go home. It’s been quite an event, this first Christmas. There’ve been angels singing in excelsis Deo. The angels go get these shepherds, who come into town to celebrate and to see what’s going on. And the stable fills up. Cows and sheep. Angels and shepherds.


And, in the midst of it all, there sits

· Mary – who has just given birth to a baby. In a barn.

· Mary – who has just travelled from Nazareth to Bethlehem – maybe on a donkey – but probably on foot. While she was 8 or 9 months pregnant.

· Mary – who has got to be tired.

Here Mary sits, in the stable, receiving angels and shepherds. So when they finally all go home –don’t you know that Mary has to be just a little relieved?


At some point, the angels finish singing sweetly o’er the plain, and the mountains finish echoing their joyous strain. At some point, the shepherds go home. And this morning’s Scripture tells us that Mary takes it all in. Mary treasures all these things and ponders them in her heart. At last, Mary is alone with her thoughts, and alone with her newborn child.

In the first hours of that first Christmas, Mary at long last finds herself alone with Jesus.


Can you imagine what that must have been like?


Joseph is sacked out on a pile of hay. The cows are moving around a bit. But, now, it’s just Mary and Jesus. And Mary takes a good look at his face. Maybe she counts his toes and fingers again – just to make sure. Jesus gurgles some sound up at her, and then drifts off to sleep in her arms. And Mary ponders these things in her heart. As Mary holds this new life, she gently rests her ear on Jesus’ chest, and there in the quiet of that stable, Mary listens . . . for the heartbeat of God. [silence]

In the moments and days after the first Christmas, Mary rests her ear on Jesus’ chest, and she listens for the heartbeat of God.


Now, I came upon this notion of “the heartbeat of God” in an entirely different context. I first encountered it in the spirituality of the Iona Community. Twice now, I’ve had the opportunity to go and spend some time with the Iona Community – on a tiny, wind-swept island off the West Coast of Scotland. The Island of Iona is an ancient place – a place where Christianity arrived in Britain. The Iona Community is an international, Christian community that gathers in this place as a part of their continuing work for peace and justice in the world. It has been an important spiritual home to many. In this community, we prayed their evening prayers during Advent.


The Iona Community has a Celtic spirituality that sees all of life as one whole – the presence of God in every bit of it – the presence of God in all creation. And so, the ancient Christian spirituality of the Iona Community emphasizes listening for the heartbeat of God in the whole of life – and particularly (as John Philip Newell describes it) listening for the heartbeat of God in the whole of creation. [1]


Maybe you’ve experienced something like that

· standing on the beach as the waves crash in, OR

· sitting for a while and watching the sun set, OR

· catching a glimpse of a full moon that seems too big for the sky to hold.

We stand before the vast expanse of all that God has made, and we sense that there is something bigger than us – and we listen for the heartbeat of God.


OR maybe this happens for some of us – this listening for the heartbeat of God – maybe this happens for us more in community. Maybe we experience that in gathering food for our community fridge, or in the challenge and conviction of our anti-racism work. We roll up our sleeves, try to keep our privilege in check, and we get to work. We listen to those who have been harmed by systems we have participated in, and we join the work of repair, and there, there, we listen for the heartbeat of God.


We do that here in this place – in worship. We gather together around the Living Word, around this table, and we sing, and we pray, and we worship, and we serve. Together we listen for the heartbeat of God.


And, maybe – as the Iona Community notices – this happens sometimes in the ordinary, quiet moments of daily life. Maybe this listening happens for us when we pray, or in our daily work, or in an easy conversation with old friends, as we get kids ready for school in the morning, or as we take a meal to someone who is sick. As we do what we do, everyday, we listen for the heartbeat of God.


And maybe, sometimes, we listen for the heartbeat of God, when we most need to hear from God. Maybe this listening happens in the very hard places of life. When we are broken or hurting. When we are struggling with loss. Maybe we listen for the heartbeat of God when we most desperately need to hear it. When we need to know there is a God, when we need to know we are not alone. We long to hear something from God, and so we strain as hard as we can, out of the silence, we listen for the heartbeat of God.


That’s what we’ve heard this Advent as we have listened in the Hope of a Starlit Night. In the world into which Jesus is born, the people have been waiting for One who will come and comfort the people, and stand with them, and stand up for them, and set them free. They have been waiting and listening for the heartbeat of God – the liberating, redeeming, saving heartbeat of God. Out of the silence – when Zechariah is freed to speak again – he sings: “The dawn of God’s tender mercy is breaking forth even now.” Mary listens to an angel’s message, and sings of how God is bringing down the powers, and lifting up the lowly.

And in this moment, on the first Christmas morning, in the first moment of quiet and calm, Scripture says, Mary takes it all in. Mary treasures these things, and ponders them in her heart. In the moments and days after the first Christmas, Mary rests her ear on Jesus’ chest, and she listens for the heartbeat of God.


And from this point the Gospel story takes off – what Mary hears in those first days after Christmas will draw her out into the whole of the life of Christ. Mary raises Jesus through childhood and adolescence. She struggles with her teenage son. Another Gospel tells us that Mary and Jesus go to a wedding where the wine runs out. Mary tells her son Jesus to do something about it, and Jesus turns water into wine. Mary is there to experience the miraculous in the life of Christ.


And, Mary travels with Jesus ultimately to Jerusalem, where Jesus is arrested and tried. Mary is there for the whole of the life of Christ. Mary is there at the foot of the cross, and she watches as Jesus dies. (The great pietas that artists have created over the centuries – Mary holding the crucified Christ – give us a glimpse of this moment.) The soldiers take Jesus down from the cross, and Mary holds Jesus one more time. And, there, on a dark day, hope against hope, Mary rests her ear on Jesus’ chest, and she listens for the heartbeat of God. [SILENCE]


And on the third day, Mary experiences the heartbeat of God – yet again – in Resurrection. With Mary, we hear the heartbeat of God in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

This is the Good News of Christmas – the heartbeat of God pulsing in the fullness of humanity. God loves us this much: At the moment when the world stands most in need of consolation,

· when we most need to know that violence will end, and that the hungry will be fed

· when we most need to know that there is something bigger than us and that we are not alone,

· when we most need to know deep in our bones that we are loved –

God comes to us. God comes to us in Jesus Christ.


Jesus comes to us, and lives life with us. Jesus walks with us, and touches us, and heals us, and teaches us, and corrects us, and forgives us, and suffers with us, and climbs up on a cross and goes with us even unto death.

And on the third day, Jesus brings us out of the grave and into new life. The heartbeat of God in Jesus Christ brings us new life

God’s love for us as vulnerable as a newborn child,

God’s love for us stronger even than death.


The heartbeat of God gives us life – and not just any life – the heartbeat of God gives us the life of Christ. When we listen and when we hear, this heartbeat of God draws us out, and invites us into, and calls us to live – to live the life of Christ in and for the world. That’s how it works: The heartbeat of God calls for our response.


And first it calls us to listen. To listen for the heartbeat of God in the whole of life. We listen for the heartbeat of God this morning – in our worship, in our prayer, in Holy Scripture, in the quiet of each other’s presence. AND, we listen for the heartbeat of God as we move from this place out into the world – we listen for the heartbeat of God in our work – in our homes – in our conversations – in the words we use with each other. We listen for the heartbeat of God in the deep need of the world.


And where we listen, the heartbeat of God calls us to live and to act. Now I’m going to say something I used to wrestle with, because it seems almost too radical to say, but I have come to believe that it lies at the very heart of the Gospel. And it is this: As we live into the life of Christ, in the power of the Holy Spirit, we become the heartbeat of God in and for the world.


God’s heart beats where the hungry are fed.

God’s heart beats where those who need shelter find a home.

God’s heart beats where those who have been pushed out are welcomed back in.

God’s heart beats where unjust systems are dismantled and justice rolls down like a mighty stream.

God’s heart beats where all who mourn find comfort, and where all who are broken find healing.

You know, we make a pretty bold claim as the church – we say that we are part of the Body of Christ. So if you want to listen for the heartbeat of God in the Body of Christ,

You need only place your hand on your own heart,

Or take the hand of the person sitting next to you,

Or feed the hungry,

Or welcome the stranger,

Or set the captive free,

Or bind up the brokenhearted.

This is the Good News of Christmas:

the heartbeat of God pulsing in the fullness of humanity

in and for the world God loves.


In the moments and days after the first Christmas, Mary listened for the heartbeat of God. And what she heard, and what she saw, and what she held in her arms, changed the world.


And especially on Christmas – and especially in this space – we know that, in all this, we are not alone. We move into the world together, and – in the words of an ancient Celtic prayer you have heard paraphrase once or twice – we move out into the world:

Christ beside us. Christ behind us. Christ before us.

Christ within us. Christ beneath us. Christ above us.

Christ in the breadth, height, and depth of life.[2]

Christ with us – as near to us as the beating of our own hearts.


On this Christmas morning and in the new year just around the corner – with Mary and with each other – may we listen for the heartbeat of God, and may the heartbeat of God in Jesus Christ bring new life – in us and to us and to the whole world.


© 2022 Scott Clark (an earlier version of this sermon was first preached in December 2012)



[1] See J. Philip Newell, Listening for the Heartbeat of God: A Celtic Spirituality (Paulist Press, New York), 1997. [2] Adapted from a prayer commonly known as St. Patrick’s Breastplate.



Photo credit: Kelly Sikkema, used with permission via Unsplash

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