Dec. 24, 2018 – Christmas sermon

Posted by on Mon, Dec 24, 2018 in Christmas, Sermons

The Eve of the Nativity of
Our Lord Jesus Christ

December 24, 2018

Note: This sermon was preached at services both on Dec. 24 and 25 by the Rev. Dr. Ann P. Lukens, Rector Emeritus, as The Rev. Katherine Sedwick was ill.

“Without courage,” said Maya Angelou, “we cannot practice any other virtue with consistency. We cannot be kind, true, merciful, generous, or honest.”

We need both faith and courage from cradle to grave, to get us up when we tumble, to restart us when we fail, to continue on even in the face of danger and fear—to find that light which shines in the darkness and focus more on the light than the dark. It may have taken courage to come here tonight! It is one of the qualities I most appreciate because it is so closely tied to our becoming who one really is, and courage is necessary to really know oneself. Let me be clear, it’s not about the courage to try and then succeed, it’s about courage to act knowing you may not succeed, not get what you want, and we may not like what we end up with. Every person in the Christmas gospel reading tonight shows courage in the face of danger or difficulty.

A very young woman (likely around 14-15 years old) is unexpectedly visited by an angel so stunning that the first thing he says is not to be afraid! Can you imagine this happening to you? She is to bring God’s own child into the world and raise him, and she is not yet married even. Do not be afraid? What else could one be? Her ‘yes’ speaks volumes of her faith and courage.

Joseph we can imagine is horrified at his betrothed being pregnant, and not by him. He plans to break with Mary quietly, until an angel comes to him as well, telling him not to be afraid to marry her because the child will be of God, they will raise him as their own. I can’t say this is any easier on him than on Mary, and yet he does so, possibly to the scorn or derision of others. Faith and courage, again.

Then the requirement for all men to register in one’s birth city, being under the authority of Roman occupation—this isn’t a paper census to fill out and mail in, it’s to flex their power and inspire fear. He could have left Mary behind, and perhaps he was afraid of what might happen if he did, or maybe it was she who wanted to go. We don’t know, but such a long journey at the end of a pregnancy would not be undertaken lightly or without great risk. Be it on foot or donkey, 90-odd miles would mean – Faith. Courage.

I’ve long wondered why relatives didn’t take them in, if it was the place of Joseph’s birth. But they did not, nor did the inn, so this young woman goes into labor far from home and family, and delivers this child among the stabled animals, Joseph perhaps helping, and then using a feed trough for his bed. Birth in a state-of-the-art hospital surrounded by family and medical professionals can be daunting, but this? Faith. Courage.

Then comes the terrified shepherds, having been surprised during the dark of night by an angel of the Lord shining in glory—and again, “Do not be afraid.” And they hear the message that changes their fear into something entirely other and go as told to see for themselves if it is true. Faith and courage their guide as well.

Tonight’s story stops here, but later the magi go to seek him, asking in Jerusalem the whereabouts of the child born to be King of the Jews. Brought to ruthless and power-hungry Herod, who knew nothing of this child he thinks comes to usurp his throne, they are instructed to return with the infant’s location. When they do not, he sends soldiers after the Holy Family, and so warned in a dream Joseph and Mary journey yet again, now with this child and fleeing for their lives. No wonder this dynamic and spectacular story of courageous characters is told so many ways in so many places! 

It is the blueprint for how God eagerly breaks into the complexities and pungent mess of human life—then and now. From those places of messy challenge God calls us out to take a divine journey with him, and as with that first Christmas, does so using our faith and gifts of each along the way to fulfill what can be, most often what we cannot yet see. Jesus birth is the miracle and joy we celebrate tonight and yet there is another miracle we sometimes overlook; how each of them responded in faithful courage and were caught up in the hope of divine love. It allowed their ‘yes’ to God’s purposes, to God’s invitation, and tonight inspires us to take courage as well. 

Oddly it was an episode of ‘Blue Bloods’ that reminded me of one of my favorite quotes about courage by Theodore Roosevelt, “It is not the critic who counts” he says. Rather the one who “is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming…who spends himself in a worthy cause…who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly.” We who are in the nitty gritty of this world know what this feels like, and if we have the courage to let Christ into our hearts, we know how dramatically it all changes. Not that it’s all roses and puppies, but deep spiritual joy in answering the call to illumine Christ’s love in this often broken world.

I may not know what you grapple with, but the Holy One does, and is right there with you. Deep down in the place you shutter in all the hard parts and sadness, all those things that you fear most, and also where you keep the most treasured memories and greatest joys, that is your manger. It is where the Christ Child enters in and is pleased to dwell. Jesus knows full well what it means to live from courage even in that place. His coming into the world is always light, be it a flicker we struggle to see in our darkness or that brilliant overwhelming light which startled the shepherds and shone over that barn in Bethlehem. Tonight is a time we all step closer to that light, whether you’re here visiting or come only occasionally or are here every week; we get to bask in that light together right now. See if you don’t feel it too when you hold your candle symbolizing Christ’s light in you as we sing Silent Night together after receiving Communion. This is when we lean into his story that inspires our faith and draw courage from it, breathe deeply of joy and travel the path for the journey he calls us to, just as it did for Mary and Joseph, the shepherds, and the magi. It may not be where we want to go, our journey may be though injustice, poverty, uncertainty, chaos or confusion, but those are the very places where God tries to bring light and love, warmth and compassion, and tries to do so through you. Receiving this Christ Child tonight takes courage because he now asks you to follow him in faith. 

We began hearing this gospel as an ancient story, “In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus …” days which were governed by fear, and we are drawn into the story, knowing fear of the Emperor Augustus is not so different from fear of terrorists or political power or people you think are different from you, or even fear of death. But then we hear the good news of the birth of this Messiah, and that which sounded like an age-old story changes and comes into the present tense in the angel’s words; “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.” The first words spoken after Jesus’ birth are “Do not be afraid!” and with this good news we can be people of divine courage. My prayer for you is that you breathe deeply of that gift, feel the rest given us knowing he is born even if we don’t feel ready, and I pray that gratitude for those gifts, for what God has given you, and for who you were created to be, fills your Christmastide. My prayer is that once you’ve uttered your own courageous ‘yes’ there will be no other path you’d rather travel, not seeking perfection but in faithful presence. May you have faith and courage to become who God calls you to be, to receive this Christ, and to follow where His light shines forth to lead you. Amen.

Maya Angelou, as quoted in Diversity: Leaders Not Labels (2006) by Stedman Graham.

My thanks to the Rt Rev. Marianne Budde for her posted wisdom which helped shape some of my thoughts this night.

© 2018 The Rev. Katherine Sedwick. All rights reserved.