This is the message from our Christmas Eve service. Links to the texts for the evening can be found at the blog post: Great mercies for a world in need of mercy.
Every time I sit down to work on my Christmas Eve sermon I think of my daughter Megan who lives now in New York. Pretty much every year on Christmas Eve she sends me an irate text message about the sermon she has just heard while going to church with her husband’s family and asking me to send mine. I think, too, about my daughter Anna’s observation about the preaching she heard in another church that she described as three stories from Reader’s Digest and a “Yea God!”
I feel a lot of pressure on Christmas Eve to get this right. And while it’s probably true that as long as I don’t say something offensive, you would go home happy for the chance to light candles and sing “Silent Night”. But there is more to this night.
President Trump has taken credit for allowing us to say “Merry Christmas” again – which I find totally comical – but maybe his comments provide us the opportunity to make a distinction between the mid-winter cultural holiday of American society and the mystery of the child who is born this night. There is a difference between Santa and Jesus. There’s a difference between the gifts under the tree and the gift in the manger.
There has been a conversation going on among the staff about the length of the worship services in Christmas. A piece of that argument is the statement that “People have things to do.” And while I understand and respect that reality, my gut reaction is that this is what we have to do. Dinner is important. Family is important. Present are fun. But worship is what we have to do.
Our worship tonight and tomorrow and through this season is not just one of the baubles on the tree that makes up our holiday; it is the tree.
If Christmas doesn’t involve us coming to hear the story and to kneel before the Christ child, then something is deeply wrong. If Christmas doesn’t have at its center some sense of the majesty of God’s kindness and mercy and love, then something is deeply wrong. If Christmas doesn’t invite us into a greater kindness and a deeper compassion, then something is deeply wrong.
We have seen Nazi’s marching by torchlight this year. At the center of our response to that must be the lighting candles and singing “Silent Night.”
We have seen an immense greed grab for the wealth of this nation, this year. At the center of our response to that is the worship offering and the gifts to the children at the family shelter, and the gifts to the children at the Fisher House, and the gifts to help Iris’s family’s congregation in Puerto Rico, and the work of the ministries we support among the Kurdish people in Turkey and the education of children in Rwanda. Where there is greed, the core of our response is generosity.
We have heard an endless stream of lies and falsehoods this year, and the core of our response to that is the tell this story of the one who comes to us “full of grace and truth.”
We have seen a stunning hardness of heart this year, and our answer to that must be to tell this story of sacrificial love.
We have seen bitter battles for power this year, and our answer is to tell this story of Herod who would kill all the children of Bethlehem to preserve his power – and of the Christ child who will wash feet and lay down his life for the sake of the world.
We have seen way too many weapons of war this year and our answer to that must be to tell of this prince of peace.
We must answer all the ugliness of the year by kneeling before the Christ child. We must find the Christ of Christmas and not just the Santa of our cultural celebration. We must see the Christ who enters the world as a fragile child – and we must lift up this truth that God chose to come to us as one of the most vulnerable in life.
God doesn’t come as a strong man. God doesn’t come in the courts of Herod or the palaces of Caesar Augustus. God doesn’t come to the home of the High Priest. God comes to us in a vulnerable child in a vulnerable family. God comes as a peasant child at a time when most children won’t make it to adulthood. God comes to us in a peasant child in a country occupied by foreign troops. God comes to us in a peasant child whose parents have been dislocated from their home by the greed of empire. (The census isn’t about keeping track of people; it is about keeping track of what everyone owns so that Caesar can take what he wants.)
This is where God chooses to show his face – in the weak, in the poor, in the vulnerable. And so Jesus, in the last week of his life according to the Gospel of Matthew, will use that vivid image declaring that when the Son of Man comes with the holy angels, “all the nations will be gathered before him and he will separate them from one another like a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats.” And he will say to those at his right hand:
I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’ (Matthew 25:35-36)
And when he is asked when they saw him, he will say “as you did it to the least of these…you did it to me.” Or, “as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.”
God chooses to show his face in a child, helpless, poor, lying in the manger of a peasant home when they are, for all intent and purposes, refugees.
And yes, this is about politics, but it’s not about political parties. It is about the body politic. It is about the way we live together as human beings – not only in our country but throughout the world. It is about the values and the ideas that shape our understanding of the heart of human existence. It is about what we worship, what we trust, what we treasure, what we serve.
The most important thing we do this night is to kneel before the Christ child, to say this is who we worship, this is who we trust, this is who we treasure, this is who we serve.
We gather tonight not just to light the candles and sing “Silent Night’ but to tell the story and bear witness that the heart of all existence comes to us in a child, in the most vulnerable of all people.
We gather to remember and declare that God’s arms are open to all who are vulnerable – and to us in the places where we are vulnerable, where we are weak, where we are poor. God’s arms are open to the grieving. God’s arms are open to those in pain. God’s embraces us when we feel far away, when we fear, when we despair, when we fail.
God embraces those living in the pain and devastation of war. God embraces those where food is used as a weapon. God embraces those bound in North Korea or sold into slavery in North Africa. God stretches wide his arms – God stretches wide his arms – to embrace the world in all its sorrow.
And God’s arms are open to us also in every moment of joy and sweetness. In every moment of delight. In every act of kindness. In every moment of intimacy. In every experience of beauty.
God comes with open hands not a closed fist. With an open heart not a closed heart. With and open mind not a closed mind. With compassion not judgment. With truth not ideology.
God comes to save.
This word ‘saved’ is important. In the third chapter of John, Jesus says: “God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”
There is so much about this verse that is important. It doesn’t say that only those who believe in him will be saved through him. It doesn’t say only those who do the right things will be saved through him. It doesn’t say that only those with the right Christian label will be saved through him, but that the world might be saved through him.
And this Greek word ‘saved’ – it means to be healed and restored. So when someone is healed from a disease, they are saved.
The creation story is not a tech manual about how God made the world, it is a confession that the world was made a garden – and we messed it up. Deeply and profoundly, we messed it up. But God comes to mend what we have broken, to unite what we have divided, to raise up what we have cast down, to heal the wounded, to open unseeing eyes and hardened hearts. God comes to restore the human community and heal every human heart.
This is why we are here tonight. This is why we light the candles and sing the songs: to give voice to this truth that the creative power and eternal heart of the universe has come to us, has entrusted himself into our hands, has opened the path and shown us the way back to our true humanity.
We brought my daughter, Megan, home from the hospital on this day in 1983. Her two-and-a-half-year-old sister, Anna, wanted to hold her. We wanted to let Anna do this, but we also knew how vulnerable Megan was, how important it was to hold her properly, to hold up her head. It is a scary thing to trust your newborn child into another’s hands. But God has entrusted himself into our hands. And he has entrusted us into one another’s hands.
He is trying to tell us how to hold each other properly. He is trying to tell us how to forgive one another fully. He is trying to tell us how to love each other truly – as he has loved us.
We must find this Christ child.
We must come to kneel before him.
Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AGuido_Reni_-_S%C3%A3o_Jos%C3%A9.jpg Guido Reni [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons