Dec. 24, 2019 – sermon

Posted by on Tue, Dec 24, 2019 in Christmas, Sermons

The Eve of the Nativity of Our Lord Jesus Christ

December 24, 2019

Like many of you this year I unpacked our nativity scene or crèche, arranging Mary, Joseph and the shepherds, even a tiny bird. It is a ritual our family has always done, and maybe yours does too. The one here at church has detailed figures that invite children to touch and inquire, and we bless animals and figures as they come each week to the crèche. Yours may be very different, perhaps handmade, or from far away, maybe the indestructible Lego version. Artists create them as if the first Christmas happened in their own country, to people and animals looking like their neighbors. Each culture makes it their own, thereby placing us in the scene. Bringing it into our homes means Jesus’ story becomes part of our own story too. Earlier tonight we brought it to life with our children’s Christmas pageant, a tradition dating back to the middle ages, and another way we place ourselves in Jesus’ story, like kin from down the road. Nativity scenes and pageants are not about historical accuracy or getting scripture perfectly right, they are about entering the Christian story, because in Jesus’ birth he placed himself in ours. “God is with us,” so say Isaiah’s words in Joseph’s dream; the one born this night is will be “Emmanuel,” meaning “God is with us.”

We celebrate his birth in the deep darkness of winter when the symbol of God’s light shining in the darkness is not lost on us. The scriptures remind us that even in this darkest time—that darkness does not overpower the light. The stories of Jesus’ life and birth were told by our forebears so that we would know the importance of who he was and why he came. The story doesn’t require tinsel on a tree or presents — those are all lovely human embellishments of our celebration of this gift from God, but they are not the big story. Tonight, just before we go back out into the world, we will sing of the real crux of it; “Joy to the world! the Lord is come: let earth receive her King.” God’s work is to come and be with us, ours is to receive this gift.

All of this; beautiful fragrant decorations, singing cherished carols, carrying out traditions— all this is our celebrating the arrival of God with us. Do we take it too far, or start too early? Why does it mean so much to make this holy day, this story so big? Because we crave meaning in our lives, and we yearn to share news of that which is meaningful with others. We place ourselves in the greatest of the stories which speak to us—as we do with the creche and holy family. Rachel Held Evans (Christian columnist and author) writes, “If the biggest story we can imagine is about God’s loving and redemptive work in the world, then our lives will be shaped by that epic. If the biggest story we can tell is something else, like nationalism, or follow your own bliss, or the one who dies with the most toys wins, then our lives will be shaped by those narratives instead.” We are here tonight. Our undeniable presence says we at least want to consider placing our lives in the story of God’s love born in this infant in a Bethlehem barn. Whatever drew you here, whether a frequent or a seldom attendee, or here for the first time, you are part of the story of ‘God with us’. Yes, revel and enjoy the merriment and profound traditions, and then recognize the miracle of finding God has come to be with us.

The great theologian, philosopher, and leader, Howard Thurman, reminds us that we are doing more than trim the tree and sing carols; we are witnesses, agents of God’s love and care, and it is a year-round gig. We are acting out Jesus’ story by showing up and doing what we can for the love of God. He wrote, “Celebrating Christmas affirms our solidarity with the whole human race in its long struggle to become more humane and to reveal the divinity in which all humanity shares.” It is so much bigger even than all of this! Thurman continues, “to the strong and the weak, to the happy and the sorrowful, to the believer and the unbeliever, the Christian and the nonChristian, there is the ever-present hope that tidings of great joy will find their way into the human heart.” (The Mood of Christmas and Other Celebrations, Harper and Row, NY 2011 edition)

If you are one who holds “hope that tidings of great joy will find their way into the human heart” I give thanks. I give thanks because such people are usually instruments of that joy. Tonight, I ask you to think of how you are that instrument for another person in some way. As such, we know ‘God with us’ through you. It might be something easy or that we think too small to matter, and yet to the receiver those moments are when God comes to life. I look out at you and could probably name a hundred I’ve seen you do, and then some. You do so more often than you realize, which is good because these moments are also fleeting. Perhaps this is by design, my colleague Bishop Mariann Budde says. “They give us a moment, not a lifetime, of clarity…a moment, not a lifetime of joy” and then it’s gone, leaving room for the next giving and receiving of love and care. Surely God could make these things last longer, no? Gather all of this goodness and light together to overcome the darkness once and for all?! That would be the magic wish-granting god, and not the God of loving transformation. In Jesus’ coming, God is not giving us all the answers, but rather giving himself. God is not changing the world from on high, but from within—by changing us. One act of care at a time, we affect our world, and doing so changes us into people who increasingly live and walk in the light we have seen. We have the power to create venues for peace and light, and that light is real no matter how fleeting. We find God is with us in those moments, and while they may pass quickly, we know these moments of joy are divine grace.

The other day I passed a man asking for money at the bookshop entrance. It was quite cold out and the shop was warm. What was wrong with me?! I dug out a couple of dollars and went back out. He thanked me, asking why a woman was wearing a priest’s collar. ‘Anthony’ requested for prayers to find housing, and then said something incoherent about Jesus. Off I went to my meeting, but thinking I’d missed something. On my return I asked what he meant, listening carefully even while calculating how much this conversation would delay my beating traffic out of Seattle. He asked if I believed Jesus wept in the Garden of Gethsemane. “Yes, I do,” I said. “Was it blood or tears? Was it for himself or for me?” Traffic be damned, I got was he was talking about, and while he shifted in and out of mental disarray, we had these moments of mutual clarity. The knowing was in our eyes more than our words. I regretted my stinginess—it was so cold. We shook hands; mine ridiculously soft touching his, which felt like a hard, leather-bound book, unyielding but not unfeeling. Human touch is often a ‘God with us’ moment, especially for those who live with isolation. And just like that we reflexively embraced. Something changed. I felt joy, and there were tears in his eyes as he mirrored it. “May I?” he says, as he bends to brush off my shoes with his bare hand giving me a blessing. I bless him back. He calls me ‘Mother,’ and thanks me for the talk, and tries to give me back my two limp dollars. Cold, hungry, and homeless—but he craved a real faith conversation, he needed the joy of human connection, so much so that he was offering to pay me back for it. This time the tears were mine. We hugged good-bye and I slipped the money back into his coat pocket, wishing again it was more. Were we in God’s living story or had I imagined it? The light came and went quickly and yet I’d been suspended in it. He went from being a nameless beggar to a brother in Christ, but the transformation was in me-not him. Light and hope shared. I could dismiss it as words with a stranger or I could let it matter to me. Our encounter was not an interruption in a busy day, it was a moment of God with us.

If we choose for our lives to be part of this epic narrative of love God wrote in Jesus’ life there will be responsibilities and entanglements—because it’s messy, this God-with-us love. Tonight’s gospel began with Emperor Augustus showing exercising his power over his subjects by declaring a registration forcing people to travel with no real reason given. Joseph and Mary obeyed his dictate though it meant an exhausting journey in her final weeks of pregnancy. With no one to shelter them she gave birth among the animals, using a trough for a bed. They surely had moments of light and joy seeing Jesus’ safe arrival, the angelic visitors and shepherds. Then their return was impeded trying to escape violence and threats. From birth, Jesus’ life was touched by struggle and political discord, yet it also reveals God’s presence when darkness threatens. We all must keep tending the light by our own actions; we are those God has sent to keep hope alive and lightness shining forth.

Keeping God’s message of love as our big story in an increasingly doubtful world these days seems a monumental task. We just want the light to prevail and stay bright, vanquishing all that threatening darkness, but that’s not how God’s purposes work. It is in these hardest of such times that it is most important, that those fleeting moments of God’s light must become more numerous! Think of it this way; when the church goes dark tonight and we sing Silent Night, imagine just one candle among all of you. How many could see by its tiny flame? What if there were three candles, or maybe ten? Better, but still not enough to make the carol’s hope come to life; Silent night, holy night, all is calm, all is bright… Now what if you held the first candle, received the light, and then passed it to the next and the next? You are receiver and giver of God’s great love this night, born in the person of Jesus.

For God to be with us, transform us, depends on you. You who choose this as the biggest and most glorious story you could be part of. Live as one carrying the light of Christ into the world, kindling it brighter as you share it. May you illumined by Christ this night, here and now, so that when we leave it will be as both witnesses and instruments of his love, no matter what darkness might be out there.

Our carol sings its truth; Silent night, holy night, Son of God, love’s pure light, radiant beams from thy holy face, with the dawn of redeeming grace, Jesus, Lord, at thy birth. Jesus, Lord, at thy birth.

© 2019 The Rev. Katherine Sedwick. All rights reserved.

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