December 24, 2018
Merry Christmas!! Christmas has always been one of my favorite times of year. My family, inparticular, my Mom and my Pap, used to go all-out with the decorating. We still have Pap’s beautiful hand-made and huge nativity set, which he made for us a number of years before he died. Every year, we would go to Rocky Ridge, a York County Park, for their “Christmas Magic” festival; we’d walk around the park to see the magnificent light displays and to meet Santa Clause. Gram and Pap would arrive so early on Christmas morning, so that they would be there before my brother and I even woke up; they found so much joy in seeing their grandkids opening their gifts. Beyond the traditions and time spent with family and friends, we always went to Christmas Eve services - both of them. The early service because it was the service in which the Kids choir sang - and I typically was in the Kids choir. And the late service (at 10:30pm) became part of our tradition - I think because at one point Dad played the trombone in the brass quintet - but that late service became one of my favorite services of the year - next to Easter Sunrise.
It is a joy to celebrate the birth of Christ with you on this beautiful night - to be part of the traditions here - and to create new ones. It is wonderful to see families and friends gathered. To see visitors who come to hear the story of Christ - again - or maybe for the first time. I love singing the familiar carols and hearing yet again the stories of Christmas. I’ll admit, it is a bit different (in a good way) celebrating on this side of the pulpit for the first time. But I am thankful to be here with you this evening as we commemorate the birth of our Savior. Tonight is a moment to stop, in the busy-ness of the season (and in all of the social expectations and distractions that come with the season), we stop, to gather together, to sing, and to reflect on what Christ’s birth really means for us, for our communities, and for and the world.
Something hit me as I was working on my sermon for yesterday. We were talking about the Magnificat - Mary’s song of praise in which Mary proclaims the role reversals that come with the arrival of Jesus. Mary knew that the birth of her Son would have lasting effects for individuals like her, for her community, and for the world. The proud are scattered. The powerful are brought down from their thrones, and the lowly are lifted up. The arrival of her son inaugurates the reign of God in this world - one where relationships between God and between neighbor are restored, where poverty and oppression are eradicated, and the world becomes what God always intended it to be. In her song of praise, that we heard yesterday, her vision for the world became united with God’s vision for the world.
In the birth of her son, the incarnation of God in her baby, this evening, that vision starts to become a reality. I hadn’t really thought of it quite this way before: but God puts this role reversal that Mary sings so eloquently about into reality in Godself. In other words, in the birth of Jesus, God participates in this role reversal. God doesn’t expect the world to do what God isn’t willing to do Godself. In love for all of God’s people, God comes down from God’s own throne, and becomes really and truly human. God humbles Godself, not just in becoming human, but even more in becoming a baby in Jesus - vulnerable and totally dependent on everyone around him. God is willing to risk everything that being human m
eans - including risking death - a death that Jesus will face on the cross. If we really think about it… How absurd is that? A God that risks death to show love to God’s creation? Yet tonight, We proclaim a God that risks it all - vulnerability, the dirt and grime, the messiness of human relationships (including calling disciples that will fail him), even death - to show God’s love to ALL people, everywhere.
God does this new and radical thing to turn the world on its head. And to turn our expectations of God on its head. Tonight, we can say, with the baby in the manger, no longer does God remain distant but rather God says yes to our humanity and to everything that comes with this humanity. Divinity and humanity become one and can no longer be separated. And our humanity - the best and the worst of it - can no longer be a barrier to God’s love for us nor a barrier for God’s working in us and through us. In the birth of the Christ Child, God is solidly and firmly with us - working to bring salvation and liberation to us and to all people.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, in his Advent Devotional, God is in the Manger puts it this way: “God becomes human, really human. While we endeavor to grow out of our humanity, to leave our human nature behind us, God becomes human, and we must recognize that God wants us also to become human—really human. Whereas we distinguish between the godly and the godless, the good and the evil, the noble and the common, God loves real human beings without distinction…. God takes the side of real human beings and the real world against all their accusers…. But it’s not enough to say that God takes care of human beings. This sentence rests on something infinitely deeper and more impenetrable, namely, that in the conception and birth of Jesus Christ, God took on humanity in bodily fashion. God raised his love for human beings above every reproach of falsehood and doubt and uncertainty by himself entering into the life of human beings as a human being, by bodily taking upon himself and bearing the nature, essence, guilt, and suffering of human beings. Out of love for human beings, God becomes a human being. He does not seek out the most perfect human being in order to unite with that person. Rather, he takes on human nature as it is.”
Jesus’ birth is confirmation that God is not willing to abandon God’s beloved creation. Jesus’ birth is confirmation that God is willing to do the unexpected to connect deeply with humanity, to bring humanity to back to Godself - with grace, mercy, and forgiveness, and to do the hard and messy work of restoring this world to what it should be - restoring people - especially those on the margins - to their rightful place in community. In Jesus, God is let loose in the world, turning this world upside down - starting with our expectations of God godself, and continuing to work, til creation is what it was always intended to be.
This is the good news that we celebrate tonight. God doesn’t pick the most upstanding person as the Mother of our Lord. Mary was unwed, poor, from the margins of society. And further, that Good News of God’s arrival as a baby in Jesus - goes first to those that the world considers less-than human - Shepherds - dirty, dishonorable, and thought of as thieves. The angels said to them, “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 Good News of God’s yes to humanity goes first to the margins - to the lowly - to those considered to be outside community - to those who need to hear it most. Their place in the world is no barrier for God’s work. They are loved, they are redeemed, they are promised salvation and a place at the table. Their response to the Good News is to go with haste to see the baby lying in the manger - to see that baby that will turn this world upside down. They want to see for themselves the baby that ushers in God’s new reign in this world.
So tonight, Christ’s birth is a yes to our humanity - and to everything - the joys and the sorrows, the hardships and the celebrations, the life and the death - that humanity brings. We know, that in the incarnation of God in Christ, God has experienced all that humanity brings. In Christ, nothing can any longer separate us from God; tonight, we have the promise that God will show up - in our darkness and in our light - perhaps in the ways or the places we might least expect. This is the good news of Christmas, not just for tonight, but for every night and every day. As we approach the baby in the manger, as we taste the gifts of God’s forgiveness and love in the real presence of Christ in bread and the wine, we call upon God to continue to come into our world, to continue to usher in the world that God promises, to break the bonds that bind us and that keep our neighbor oppressed. We call on this Christ child to equip us to participate in God’s vision for the world. And we call on this Christ child to inspire us to live so deeply into our humanity so that we live in solidarity with the neighbor and the stranger in their humanity. And we call on this Christ child to equip us to be agents of God’s peace, of God’s justice, and of God’s salvation.