Sermon preached Christmas Eve, December 24, 2013
Texts: Isaiah 9:2-7; Isaiah 11:1-9; Luke 2:1-20
Again, welcome. It is good to be together again. It’s been a year since last we gathered here like this. I don’t mean this as some sort of scolding pastor remark to those I may not have seen since last Christmas. There is enough of that around in other places. I genuinely mean that it has been a year since we gathered together as a Christmas community on the Jesus way. It is good to be together like this.
What did you bring? It is an interesting question and one that should only be asked in certain contexts. If you are gathering with friends for a meal or celebration where each person brings something to the feast, it is appropriate to ask, “What did you bring?” In that case you hope not everyone brought the same thing. Perhaps you gather with family or friends for a game night, inviting people to bring their favorite game, or a music night, where everyone gets to bring their favorite new music to share. “What did you bring?” would be a great question in those contexts, too.
Of course, there are awkward times, socially inappropriate times, to ask “What did you bring?” When you were a child, and you had a birthday party, didn’t you want to ask that of your guests when they arrived? I remember as a boy wondering how it was people knew about bringing gifts to parties. It is amazing how much we are just supposed to learn by social convention. Have you ever been at one of those holiday gatherings where people were supposed to bring a white elephant gift, and most also including something kind of nice, and you didn’t? Awkward!
So what did you bring? I am not asking about your offering. That would be tacky. What did you bring in your heart tonight? What did you bring in your soul tonight?
Since last we gathered on Christmas Eve it has been quite a year. Our daughter Beth graduated from medical school and worked today in the hospital in Rochester, NY where she is a resident. This past summer I got to drive a U-Haul from St. Paul to Rochester. Our daughter Sarah is beginning her doctoral studies in physical therapy. Our son, David is exploring some new avenues in his life. While traveling this summer Julie, Sarah and I visited the Lucille Ball museum and the Henry Ford museum. It is probably obvious by now that I am sort of just dumping our family Christmas letter into this sermon. I’m calling it “efficiency in production.”
But there has been more. Just after Christmas last year, Julie’s mom, Lois, after struggling with her health all fall, had some kind of significant health episode which led to her being moved into the Solvay Hospice House, where she died on January 5 of this year. This is our first family Christmas without her. The world has lost Nelson Mandela, and the Noble-prize winning poet Seamus Heaney. On an early April morning, our dog Grace died in my arms, and the pain we felt was a reminder of how deeply it is we give our pets a place in our hearts. Grief has marked our year.
This past year I have had the joy of baptizing a number of babies and children, and for those of you who have been here for some of these, you know what a delight this is for me. When I was asked to bring to a retreat this fall an object that said something about my joy in ministry one of the things I brought was a picture taken during a baptism, where the child was resting her head on my shoulder.
While baptizing children, I have little else on my mind and heart but the gift of that moment, but sometime during the day, I am also reminded of a child that I will probably never get to hold again. I have a granddaughter that will turn two next week, Isabelle. Without getting into a lot of the messy detail, Isabelle’s mom has chosen to raise her without involving us. We know Isabelle has serious medical issues, but know little else. After I’ve had the joy and privilege of holding a child being baptized, I often think about the granddaughter I cannot hold.
What did you bring? I bring all that tonight. I bring my whole life to this moment, because that’s what Christmas is all about. Christmas is about bringing everything to the God whose story is all tied up in this birth story. At the heart of this birth story is this message, stated so eloquently by Frederick Buechner: through the birth of Jesus a life-giving power was released into the world…. The birth of Jesus made possible not just a new way of understanding life but a new way of living it. (The Faces of Jesus, 17).
Something happened at this birth, something special that brings God closer. Old words are made new. Words spoken centuries before by the prophet Isaiah came alive. For a child has been born for us, a son given to us…. He is named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. There shall be endless peace…. The wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them…. They will not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain.
Something happened at this birth, something special that brings God closer. Shepherds came from out of the fields where their work is hard and cold, sometimes dangerous, sometimes dirty and smelly. Their lives were touched with good news. Joseph is there, kind of a quiet presence in Luke’s story. His life will change, as does any father’s life when a child is born, but there will be something more.
Mary is there, weighted with a child, nurturing life. The story glosses over the messiness of giving birth, the pain, the blood, the fluids, but Mary is there giving birth like countless others before and after. Yet there are things here which cause her to ponder in her heart.
There is a beautiful brief poem about Mary that I have come to love:
Nazareth Rosario Castellanos
Descending to the cave where the Archangel
made his announcement, I think
of Mary, chose vase.
Like any cup, easily broken;
like all vessels, too small
for the destiny she must contain.
All these are met by God in a special way through the child Jesus. The shepherds return to work, but they are changed. The work remains the same, but they are different. Joseph’s life is changed, as any father’s life is, but this child’s birth has already haunted his dreams and I think that will continue. God will speak through those dreams. Mary, giving birth, Mary, pondering so many things in her heart – Mary will be both fragile and strong. The God who is present at this birth will give her the strength and capacity to see this child through, even to his death. Shepherds, Joseph, Mary – each brought themselves. Each was met by God in Jesus. Each experienced something of God’s life-giving power. Their world was now different. The entire world was now different. God is present in the world in a new way.
Through the birth of Jesus a life-giving power was released into the world. If you are willing to risk bringing the whole of yourself to this story, and to the God whose story is all tied-up in this story, there remains life-giving power here. There is beauty in this story which can change the way we see the world. Bringing our whole selves, we may never see the world just the same again. There is wonder in this story to set our minds aflame. In a world darkened by cynicism and despair, when we bring our whole selves to this story, we can nourish a hope as deep as the shepherds, trusting that God still works to bring good news of great joy. There is mystery in this story. Birth is a pretty common thing. There are over seven billion of us on the planet now. Why does this birth continue to capture our imaginations, continue to inspire our pondering? I can’t say, exactly, but when we allow ourselves the opportunity to ponder deeply, as Mary pondered, when we bring our whole selves to this story, we may also find the capacity to bring something of God to birth in the world. There is joy in this story. When we bring our whole selves to this story, we can find a joy that is a deep strength for our lives, even when life disappoints and hurts. There is new life in this story, and bringing our whole selves to it, we too can find new beginnings, new beginnings sown in love.
Through the birth of Jesus a life-giving power was released into the world. If you are willing to risk bringing the whole of yourself to this story, and to the God whose story is all tied-up in this story, there remains life-giving power here. There is healing here for our broken lives through beauty, wonder, mystery, joy, love. There is hope here for our broken world. In the winter of 1993 in Serbia, during a bleak time in its history, the poet Jane Kenyon wrote a poem entitled “Mosaic of the Nativity.” It ends with these lines. and inside her the mind/of Christ, cloaked in blood,/lodges and begins to grow. History remains soaked in blood, but the mind of Christ is not absent. It can grow in you and in me and in the world.
What did you bring? What has your life been like this past year, these past few months? I know there has been joy and beauty and wonder and mystery, and heartache and pain and disappointment and struggle. Are you willing to bring your whole self tonight? Are you willing to risk bringing your whole life to the God who continues to find ways into our world, to love us, to heal us, to change us?
The writer Annie Dillard reflects on visiting the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, the place where tradition has it that Jesus was born – “one of the queerest spots on earth” she writes. Any patch of ground anywhere smacks more of God’s presence on earth, to me, than did this marble grotto. The ugliness of the blunt and bumpy silver star impressed me. The bathetic pomp of the heavy, tasseled brocades, the marble, the censers hanging from chains… the ornate lamps – some human’s idea of elegance –bespoke grand comedy, too, that God put up with. And why should he not? Things here on earth get a whole lot worse than bad taste. Yet Dillard is not finished with her reflection. “Every day,” said Rabbi Nachman… “the glory is ready to emerge from its debasement.”
What did you bring? Did you think you could only bring your cheeriest self, your most polished self, your best-dressed self today, tonight? Did you think this story is only sweetness and light so that all you could bring was sweetness and light? The world is a difficult place – wonderful, beautiful, painful, destructive, and God did not leave us alone, but joined us in Jesus. Our lives are messy, complicated, filled with delight and beauty and more than pain enough, and God does not leave us alone.
But to know this life-giving power, we have to bring something, the whole of who we are. What did you bring today, tonight? Amen.