Christmas Eve

Good morning, and happy second day of Christmas to you all! I hope that the holidays have been a time of happiness and love for all of you. In my sermon on Christmas Eve, I spend some time thinking about what the first Christmas must have really been like. Happiness and cheer probably weren’t on the agenda, but love most certainly was.

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and from the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

What a joy it is to see all of you! Your presence here tonight is a gift to us, and we are grateful that you have chosen to make St. Paul’s part of your Christmas celebrations.

As you came into church tonight, you may have noticed the nativity display just outside the worship area. If you didn’t, or didn’t have time to look at them, I invite you to take a few minutes after service to have a look.

We have over forty nativities from all over the world, each depicting the birth of Christ. Some are small, some are large. Some just have Mary, Joseph, and the baby Jesus, others have a whole host of characters and sets. Some are serious, others are more whimsical—including the whole Peanuts gang.

But to me, they all portray a sense of quiet and tranquility. Those are some of the first things that come to mind when reading the Christmas story, or looking at the nativities. Mary is always peaceful, often looking like she’s praying. Joseph stands strong and tall behind her, a comforting, protective presence. The shepherds are always clean, and maybe appear with a few very cute white lambs.

Last week at St. Paul’s, we had our Christmas pageant, and while I certainly wouldn’t call it calm or peaceful, it was every bit as beautiful as those nativities. A host of angels in shiny silver wings and halos, living stars bedecked in sequins. An adorable baby—clean, warm, and fairly peaceful.

That’s how it happened, right? Even the song says the newborn baby doesn’t cry, and all the animals peacefully attend the birth. Throughout the centuries of telling this story, of loving and cherishing this important story, we have, in many ways, domesticated Christmas. We’ve made it a calm and peaceful story, filled with happy, serene characters.

But when we do that, when we domesticate Christ, we miss out. Because the child whose birth we attend tonight was born into a world painted not in pastels, but in dust and blood. A world that was full of pain and heartache, love and hope, suffering and perseverance.

The story starts far away from Mary and Joseph, with the ruler of the known world, Caesar Augustus. This is a real story, that took place against the backdrop of real, important people and events. But for our story, Caesar and his governors are just the background. Our story doesn’t focus on famous, important people, but elsewhere, far away from the centers of power, in a small backwater town called Bethlehem, where two poor peasants are traveling.

Mary was young—really young, and having her first child away from home and without any help. She must have been scared. She and her equally scared husband can’t find any decent place in which to birth their first child, and so they are forced to take refuge with animals, with only dirty shepherds and their even dirtier sheep to notice.

I’m sure they were feeling all the things most people feel before a birth: anticipation, worry, excitement, nervousness. And they knew, because they had been told, that this child would be special. That his birth meant great things for many people. But on this night, it was just them and the animals. Births are already messy enough, without adding barnyard animals to the mix! Against all odds, our God was born in a feeding trough.

And once the child was born, this baby with so much resting upon his future, his birth was heralded not in palaces or courts or to rulers, but only to shepherds out in the fields. Shepherds were considered the bottom rung of the social ladder, people who couldn’t find what was regarded as decent work. These are the people tonight working the third shift, doing the things we’d rather not.

Shepherds were thought to be liars, degenerates, and thieves. And yet it was to them that the angels appeared. Perhaps because they were outcasts, they were able to believe and to trust that this baby born in the middle of a stable to two poor parents would in fact change the world.

God came into a messy world, into the middle of messy lives. God becoming human is not some spiritual, otherworldly concept, but instead it is the mystery of God present in a real human child. A child welcomed into a real world with all of its agonies and ambiguities and challenges and joys.

God becoming human and taking up residence among us took place through ordinary characters, unexpected situations, and real life messy situations. Things weren’t neat and perfect and ready for God, but God came anyway.

It is the same today: God continues to show up in our lives through unexpected people, in messy situations, in the middle of fear and anxiety and worry. Sometimes we are those unexpected people, letting God be born through us, through our lives and actions, to a world of chaos and uncertainty.

God can arrive in the midst of peace, and in the midst of trauma. In hope and expectation, and in fear and doubt. But always, always, does God’s arrival bring with it that great joy the angels proclaimed. Great joy that we are not alone. Great joy that God does not wait for perfect people or perfect moments. Great joy that we are chosen, alongside Mary and Joseph and the shepherds to continue to bear witness to God in the world. To continue to bring God into the world through our love and witness.

I will leave you with the words of Howard Thurman, in a poem titled, “The Work of Christmas”:

When the song of the angels is stilled,
when the star in the sky is gone,
when the kings and princes are home,
when the shepherds are back with their flocks,
the work of Christmas beings:
to find the lost,
to heal the broken,
to feed the hungry,
to release the prisoner,
to rebuild the nations,
to bring peace among the people,
to make music in the heart.

This Christmas and always, let us be bearers of that good news of great joy: a child is born to us, and to all people, to show forth God’s unexpected and world-changing love. Amen.