Christmas Eve Sermon
Texts: Isaiah 9:2-7; Isaiah 11:1-9; Luke 2:1-20
It’s December 24 and we are still here. The world did not end a few days ago. Maybe the Mayans just got tired of making calendars out into the distant future. As I told the Tuesday morning Men’s Group awhile back, I didn’t think the potential end of the world would give me an excuse for not being ready for tonight’s worship services.
How many of your know REM? If you’re thinking it’s a kind of sleep, you are right, and I hope that my sermon helps you avoid it during the next few minutes. REM is also a band that began making music in the 1980s and just broke up about a year ago. One of their well-known songs is “It’s the End of the World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine).” I am not going to play it as I sometimes do, though I considered asking Tapestry/Bells if they might consider it. The song has never made a Christmas collection, to the best of my knowledge, but maybe it should
While the world may not have ended December 21 as some thought a Mayan prediction indicated it would, the message of Christmas is that it’s the end of the world as we know it. Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan in their book The First Christmas write: “Advent and Christmas are about a new world” (240). Advent and Christmas are about a new world. It’s the end of the world as we know it.
But how can this be? The world we live in is quite familiar to us – sometimes frustratingly and disappointingly familiar. There are still too many people who go hungry in our world. There are too many people who have no permanent place to call home. There are still too many people struggling with addictions. There are too many broken relationships. There is too much loneliness, even in our ever-crowded world. The world is frustratingly familiar in its violence. There are too many tragedies.
My heart is heavy tonight as I think about families in Newtown, Connecticut whose sons and daughters, first graders, will not be there to celebrate Christmas this year. I can’t just bracket them off. And the world is disappointingly familiar in some of our anemic responses to this tragic event. We have heard bad theology as the event has been blamed on systematically removing God from schools (Mike Huckabee), as God not going where God is not wanted (Bryan Fischer), or God allowing judgment to fall on America (James Dobson). Those who produce movies and video games may want to blame inadequate mental health care and guns – certainly not violent images in our culture. Those who speak for the gun manufacturers want to blame movies and video games and inadequate mental health care, certainly not guns. And if mental health care is part of the issue, how many are willing to make sure we as a county pay for better mental health care? We might have written the scripts of the responses to Sandy Hook Elementary even before we heard them
The end of the world as we know it? A newer world?
Christmas says that this is not the way the world has to be. The world does not have to be a place of hunger, addiction, loneliness, brokenness, violence, bad theology and unimaginative thinking. Christmas is the birth of someone who will announce and live a different way, a way in keeping with the grain of the universe. We can be different. There are possibilities for healing and wholeness in our lives that we can just barely imagine. Our world can be different. There are possibilities for community and connection that we have only allowed on the edges of our dreams.
Christmas says that we can be different, that the world can be different because God is at work, because God draws near. A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots. The spirit of the Lord shall rest upon him. (Isaiah 11). For a child has been born for us, a son given to us… and he is named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace (Isaiah 9). 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. (Luke 2)
God draws near. God is at work, and this is the direction of God’s work, the direction the grain of the universe runs. Good news of great joy for all the people - glory to God in the highest, and on earth, peace. (Luke 2) There shall be endless peace…. He will establish it with justice and with righteousness. (Isaiah 9). With righteousness he shall judge the poor, and decide with equity for the meek of the earth…. The wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them. The cow and the bear shall graze, their young shall lie down together; and the lion shall eat straw like the ox. The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp, and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adders den. They will not hurt or destroy. (Isaiah 11)
God draws near. God is at work, working toward a newer world where love wins, a newer world where, in the words of the Psalmist: steadfast love and faithfulness will meet; righteousness and peace will kiss each other (85:10).
God draws near. Joan Chittister writes: I realize more and more every year, it is the spark of the divine in life that Christmas is meant to celebrate. It is fragile life, holy life, that Christmas hallows (Living Well, 147) Christmas tells us that God is with us, that the spark of the divine in life is always there and that it is always working even in our fragile and sometimes frustratingly familiar lives to make our lives and the world new. The God of the Christmas story is not a God who turns away or a God whose primary activity is horrendous judgment so that we might pay God more attention. The God of the Christ child celebrates the spark of the divine in life, a spark that seeks to ignite flames of hope and healing in our lives and in our world. The spark of the divine in life works not so much in the palatial palaces of power as in the quiet places, through small miracles, in tender moments and acts of kindness and gentleness. God is there in those moments of awe when beauty is seen and new life is celebrated.
The Christmas story is meant to speak to us, not only about the past, but about our lives. We know the story, but what happens when we try to tell the story with children?
A pastor was once recruited to play the role of Joseph in his congregation’s Christmas program when the child playing Joseph fell ill. Getting ready to tell the Christmas story with these children, a kindergartner arrived wearing a feathery white swan costume. The director of the children’s program expected the pastor to discourage the child from wearing the swan costume. Who ever heard of a swan in the manger? The pastor knelt down to the five-year-old and asked if she wouldn’t rather be a sheep or a donkey. “I’m a swan,” she said. The pastor patiently explained that there were no swans around the cradle of Jesus in the manger. The child looked at the pastor with a thoughtfully furrowed brow and said calmly, “Don’t you think swans love Jesus too?” (The Christian Century, November 28, 2012, p. 10) The pageant had a swan that year, and I have heard of raccoons and giraffes appearing in other pageants. In the world as we know it, there are no swans or giraffes or raccoons in the Christmas story. Things need to be neat and tidy and the way they always have been. But with the God of the Jesus of Christmas, it’s the end of the world as we know it, and all have a place, and I feel fine.
Leo Buscaglia was a teacher and writer whose favorite topics were love and learning. He loved his demonstrative Italian family and loved to tell stories about lessons he learned from them. As Christmas 1982 was drawing near, Buscaglia went to the hospital for his annual exam. It was Christmas break from teaching and it seemed like a good time to go. It was something to get out of the way before a wonderful family Christmas celebration filled with food and laugher. While at the doctor’s office for his exam, Buscaglia suffered a heart attack. “It occurred quickly, without warning, and was totally incapacitating.” Buscaglia would have to undergo an emergency quintuple by-pass operation.
Buscaglia’s family immediately decided that there would be no family Christmas celebration that year. Not without Leo. But Buscaglia knew all the planning that had gone into Christmas that year, and so he convinced them they needed to go on, and they pledged to do so.
Buscaglia’s surgery went well, and his family supported him lovingly. Within days I was moved into a private room in the cardiac ward. A constant parade of loved ones made their way to my bedside. Each person was bearing gifts, things they were certain I couldn’t live without: baked lasagna, homemade sausage, salami, mortadella, pureed chestnuts, cut flowers, potted plants, and my favorite holiday treat – ‘frittura dussa’, breaded cornmeal with lemon peel, fried in butter (Seven Stories of Christmas Love, 108-109) Buscaglia felt surrounded by love and care. I have no idea what the cardiologists thought about his diet!
He continues his story. When visitors leave and darkness falls in a hospital, an eerie ambiance comes over the place. It was during one of these periods, while walking silently and cautiously around the ward, that I became aware of my neighbors. Seeing them alone, in semidarkness, I had the sudden inspiration to share my good fortune. To the elderly woman in the room immediately next to mine I gave my blooming poinsettia and a healthy serving of my sister’s best egg custard. With the man down the hall who had (I’d been told) lost the will to live, I shared my largest array of cut flowers. I also delivered a portion of ‘frittura dussa,’ which I was certain would add a new spark and perhaps an eagerness to try some more. The succulent wonder of that ambrosia is of itself reason enough to live. In a few hours we all became fast friends, bound together by the same mystery of the shared moment. (109-110)
Reflecting on this experience, Buscaglia writes: I shall never forget that Christmas…. I still have years ahead of me for giving, sharing, caring, accepting, loving. I want to live this allotted time in a holiday spirit. What better way to live? (110)
In the world as we know it, hospitals are not sites for joyous celebrations and the creation of community. With the God of the Jesus of Christmas, it’s the end of the world as we know it, and I feel fine.
In the world as we know it including a swan in a Christmas program or sharing custard and flowers are not considered significant. They don’t seem to be earth-shaking events. But with the God of the Jesus of Christmas, it is in these places of fragile life, holy life that the significant events happen. The world is changed as hearts are moved, softened, minds are sharpened and opened. It’s the end of the world as we know it and I feel fine.
Christmas reminds us that God draws near, that God is at work nudging, coaxing, inviting us toward a newer life, a newer world. God draws near and is at work in you and in me, in our fragile lives which can be holy lives. With Christmas, it’s the end of the world as we know it, and with the God of the Christ Child, I feel fine. I hope you do too. Merry Christmas. Amen.