Sermon: Tuesday, December 24, 2013: Nativity of Our Lord I — Christmas Eve

Texts: Isaiah 9:2-7  +  Psalm 96  +  Titus 2:11-14  +  Luke 2:1-20

I love traditions, and the holidays are full of them, but they come with a down-side.  They are, by their very nature, predictable.  We love traditions because they happen in a certain way, at a certain time, lending order to a chaotic world.

"National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation," Warner Bros., 1989.

“National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation,” Warner Bros., 1989.

This is also why traditions become such a rich source of humor — think “National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation,” “A Christmas Story,” or “Home for the Holidays.” We all know, on some level, that the illusory order promised by our most beloved traditions can never hold up to the chaos of the world around us.

Take, for example, one of my favorite Christmas carols, “Silent Night,” which we’ll be singing at the close of worship tonight.

Silent Night, Holy Night / All is calm, all is bright / round yon virgin mother and child, / Holy Infant, so tender and mild, / sleep in heavenly peace…

That’s lovely, but how could it possibly be true?  “Away in a Manger” perhaps gets a little closer to the truth with “the cattle are lowing, the baby awakes,” but it then goes on to imagine that “little Lord Jesus, no crying he makes.” In fact, the story told by scripture is filled with noise.

Finding no place in the inn, the Holy Family gives birth to their first-born child in a barn. Miles away, a group of working-class shepherds encounter an angel of the Lord accompanied by a multitude of the heavenly host who cannot contain themselves as they break into songs of praise, saying “glory to God in the highest heaven and on earth peace among those whom God favors!” The shepherds immediately depart for Bethlehem, where they find Jesus and his family in a stable.

Why do you suppose we insist on imagining that Jesus and his family were so different from the rest of us, especially when the story goes to such great lengths to show us that in Jesus, God enters the stories of ordinary people, just as they are, to show God’s extraordinary love.

For instance, the shepherds whom God chose to be the first to hear the good news of Jesus’ birth. Not only were they out working the third shift, keeping watch over their flocks by night; they were not welcome most anywhere else. Shepherds’ work was not highly favored, and the people who did such work were looked on with suspicion not only by the secular authorities who worried they were troublemakers, but by the religious authorities as well, since they were too busy working to come to worship and were ritually unclean, so unwelcome in the Temple. In other words, that first Christmas Night, the shepherds — unlike us — weren’t at church, and that’s who God chose to break the news.

Once they arrived at the barn in Bethlehem, I imagine they found a royal mess. Mary had just given birth in a barn. That can’t have been easy, or quiet. Joseph was a new father who hadn’t had the luxury of a waiting room, but had been Mary’s only companion (other than whatever other animals made their home in the barn) during her labor.

Tired, alone, afraid. The first guests to arrive as Jesus enters the world are a group of disreputable, untrustworthy shepherds with a story so strange it would have been unbelievable if Mary and Joseph hadn’t already had their own share of strange encounters with God’s messengers. As Mary listened to their story, committing their words to memory and treasuring them, pondering them, I wonder if she recalled her own reaction to the Lord’s angel, which had prompted her to sing, “God has lifted up the lowly, filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.”

No, we don’t generally sing Christmas carols like that on Christmas Eve do we? Ones that remind us how common and ordinary and poor Jesus and Mary and Joseph were. We sing songs that impose order on a messy story, that tidy up the image of those first heralds of the newborn king, turning them into kindly night watchmen instead of the unlikely, uninvited houseguests they really were.

And thank God for that, because as much as we may crave the familiar and the predictable especially during the holiday season when we gather together with friends and family, our world desperately needs something unlikely, uninvited, and unpredictable to happen. It needs to be saved.

And if the God whose praises the angels sang that first Christmas night in Bethlehem is only interested in saving the folks who manage to make it to church on Christmas Eve, then God is too small to deserve such praise.

But in Jesus “the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation to all” (Titus 2:11) which means even the people who weren’t looking for salvation, who weren’t welcome in church, who couldn’t make it in the front door of the hotel so had to squat in the garage. The grace of God has appeared to noisy babies and disappointed relatives and ungrateful children. The grace of God has appeared to tired parents, and third-shift workers, and messengers of every kind.

The grace of God isn’t predictable. It doesn’t impose order on our chaos or whip us into shape. It enters into lives like ours, and lives nothing at all like ours, and blesses them with the greatest gift we never imagined: new life, surprising love, and a lasting peace.

So I just don’t believe, not for a minute, that it was a silent night. I don’t think the infant Jesus was a quiet, well-behaved baby, because God knows he didn’t grow up to be a quiet, well-behaved man. I choose to believe he came into the world kicking and screaming and making some noise, just to put Bethlehem, and Israel and all of creation on notice that something totally uncomfortable and totally necessary was coming their way.

But eventually, once the shepherds had left and Joseph took his turn holding the baby, and Mary had a moment of quiet — in that moment of silence — she could look at the great treasure that had entered her life and ponder the gift of the unlikely community already coming into being around him. In that moment of silence I suspect she realized that the holiness of this baby’s birth had nothing to do with tradition, or order, or silence.

Maybe there will be a moment, if not tonight then some night soon, amidst all the noise and chaos of this season when you will find a moment of silence; and maybe you, like Mary, who are bearing God into the world, can ponder what it means for you that God comes to us just as we are, keeping watch over our respective and various flocks by night, and that each time that happens the world is saved and made new.

Merry Christmas and Amen.



Sermon: Monday, December 24, 2012: Nativity of Our Lord, Christmas Eve

Texts:  Isaiah 9:2-7  +  Psalm 96  +  Titus 2:11-14  +  Luke 2:1-20


Our worlds begin and end when a child is born.

314585_10200222683877889_1546527754_nIt seems dangerous to say anything about the end of the world after the Mayan apocalypse, scheduled for last Friday, failed to produce anything too spectacular.  I saw an editorial comic on Saturday that read, “Same job. Same friends. Same everything. Um… this afterlife really sucks.  Stupid Mayans!”  That about summed it up as far as I was concerned.  Lots of hype, but no real change.

Do you suppose that’s the reason doomsday predictions get so much attention?  That, deep down, people are longing for the world to end, or at least to change?

These days the predictions seem to spring up every other year or so.  The Jehovah’s Witnesses predicted the end of the world in 1975, then again in 1984.  Back in the 70’s, Pat Robertson predicted the world would end in 1982.  In the early 1990’s, Louis Farrakhan saw the first Gulf War as the beginning of a final war of ArmageddonHarold Camping has raked in millions of dollars over the years with doomsday predictions falling three times in 1994, then again in 1995, and yet again twice last year in 2011.  There were plenty of predictions of chaos and destruction in the year 1999, with everyone from Nostradamus to the Nuwaubian Nation weighing in — though pop/funk musician Prince seemed sure it was all going to be a big party.  

Looking ahead, there are already people who’ve gone on record saying that 2013 will be the year of Christ’s return. But most Christians will do that one better and say that today, this very night, God’s future breaks into the present once again as God takes on flesh in Jesus Christ, and that because of this eternal birth, the world as we know it has come to an end.

As much as Hollywood may prefer a fiery, explosive apocalypse, the rest of the world understands that there is no better sign or symbol for the end of one way of life and the beginning of a new one than the arrival of a baby.  Gone are the days of sleeping through the night, or spontaneous late nights with friends, or disposable income.  Everything is re-evaluated with reference to this new reality.  There is a baby in the house.

The birth we celebrate this night is the arrival of the baby of Bethlehem, who will be given many titles throughout his life.  

“He is named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. His authority shall grow continually, and there shall be endless peace…” (Isaiah 9:6b-7a)

The prophet Isaiah imagined a child who would come and signal an end to the world as he’d known it, a world defined by wars and conquests and occupations.  A world defined by violence.  The child Isaiah imagined would bring an end to war and usher in a new age of peace.

As we sit among children and grandchildren this Christmas Eve, we are all too aware of how fragile life is and how dangerous the world around us can be.  We are shocked by the increasingly frequent violence that has invaded our homes, schools and neighborhoods.  We grieve with those whose Christmases this year will be defined by their losses and we pray that this world, this one we’ve too quickly grown accustomed to, would end.

Some have proposed that our world will only become safer when each of us is as armed as the most dangerous among us.  That is not a new solution.  In times of fear, people have always been tempted to look for their security in the power of arms, armor and armies.  We look to kings and presidents and generals for assurances that we will be safe, that we will be saved.

The Christmas story gives us just the opposite.  During a time no less dangerous than our own, when families were torn apart by the violence of war and torn down by the economics of empire, God ended the world as we’d known it by setting aside power and wrapping God’s own self in flesh, to live a life like ours.  At a time when emperors and kings held all the power and called all the shots, God chose to be born into the world among the poor, far from home, surrounded by strangers.

Tonight each one of us is invited to see by the glow of our tiny candles that the world is not the same.  The future is not defined by the past.  The end of the world doesn’t take place all at once, but in each new moment as God takes on flesh in you, in me, in our church, throughout our neighborhoods, across the world.  In the birth of the baby of Bethlehem, and in each new life that enters this world, God chooses creation instead of destruction as God’s preferred method of ending the world as we’ve known it.

My prayer for each of us is that we might leave this sanctuary tonight, filled with the light and the life of this new world; that we would approach the new creation outside these doors with all the love we normally reserve for a newborn child.  Touch its wintery woods, smell its snowy air, pay attention to its firsts, encourage its faltering steps toward motion, snap photos of its growth, surround it with our love and protect it from all harm.

Our worlds begin and end when a child is born. 

Tonight the world is born again. 

O come, let us adore it.

Merry Christmas, and Amen.