Christmas Eve, Sermon preached December 24, 2015
Texts: Isaiah 9:2-7; Isaiah 11:1-9; Luke 2:1-20
Christmas is messy. Now, to be sure, we work hard to make it neat. Company comes, guests arrive, and we work to make our homes look their best. We don’t want our families to think we don’t keep house adequately. Even so, there is a lot of messiness with Christmas.
Tuesday I went home for lunch, and Julie and Sarah were baking. I had a bit of a time trying to find some space to eat. The results of the baking were wonderful, so no complaints here. The end result was delicious, but the process was messy.
Think of what your house may look like tomorrow morning, or tonight, or earlier tonight – depending on when you open gifts. That’s sort of one of those things couples have to negotiate, like whether the toilet paper roll goes over or under or whether you squeeze the tooth paste from the end or the middle. My family was a strictly Christmas morning opening gifts family. Julie’s was much more a Christmas Eve family. We had to work that out in our relationship. Anyway, whenever you open, it is a mess – paper and bows and ribbons all over the place. Think of the messiness of the shopping, especially this year when slush and ice were everywhere.
Then there is the messiness of Christmas in the Bible. There is the messiness of birth, and the added messiness of a birth in a stable. Then there is the messiness of the stories in the gospels. Mark has no birth story at all. Jesus just appears – “In those days, Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee” (1:9). Matthew and Luke each tell stories about Jesus’ birth, but the stories are different. Both agree that Jesus was born in Bethlehem. Luke is the only one to mention a journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem, the only one to include a manger, the only one to mention shepherds to whom angels speak. Matthew has none of these. Instead, Matthew has three wise men come from the East. He has a worried King Herod. He has Joseph, Mary and Jesus flee to Egypt before settling in Nazareth.
Of course we often conflate the stories in our Christmas decorations and pageants. We try to make it nice and neat. Nativity sets don’t choose between Matthew and Luke. We always see wise men or kings along with shepherds. I mean what would a Christmas pageant be without young children in bath robes, either with crown on their heads – three kings, or towels on their heads – which is how we know they are the shepherds responsible for the sheep adorned with cotton balls? We like to bring these stories together, to make it a little neater, though when it comes to pageants, they are rarely neat. In one pageant, the inn keeper, when Joseph and Mary arrive looking for a room says, “You’re in luck, we’ve just had a cancellation.” I’m not sure where the pageant went from there.
John doesn’t tell a birth story at all but instead offers theologically imaginative images of what Jesus’ birth means. The Gospel writer reflects on what it means that someone so filled with the light and love of God was born into this world, someone whose very being shone with God. In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God…. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it…. And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory… full of grace and truth. I love the way The Message renders part of this passage: The Word became flesh and blood and moved into the neighborhood…. Generous inside and out, true from start to finish.
In Jesus, God moved into the neighborhood. In the Matthew and Luke stories, “neighbors” come and visit – wise men, shepherds, animals. Yet, at the heart of their stories is this idea that in Jesus, God has moved into the neighborhood. God has arrived into our world. God has come close.
When we think about the neighborhood God has moved into, there is messiness there, too. This neighborhood, this world of ours, is not exactly Sesame Street or Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood. The neighborhood into which God has moved is pretty messy, pretty messed up in many ways. This Christmas season I watched the video of John Lennon’s song, “Merry Xmas (War is Over).” It is filled with scenes of children hungry, children suffering from the ravages of war. It shows tanks and machine guns. There are pictures of children soldiers. This is our neighborhood.
Simon and Garfunkel, in the late 1960s released a version of Silent Night in which they sang over the words from an evening news broadcast, August 3, 1966. The news that night included a compromise on a civil rights bill, the original bill would have included a complete ban on housing discrimination of any kind, but that had no chance of passing. Comedian Lenny Bruce died of a drug overdose. Martin Luther King, Jr. reaffirmed plans for a march for open housing in the Chicago suburb of Cicero despite local opposition. A person was indicted for a mass killing spree. A House Committee on “Un-American Activities” was holding hearings on opposition to the Vietnam War. What might such a song sound like in 2015? We could have stories about the threat of ISIS, about domestic terrorism, about the tensions between police and racial-ethnic communities, about on-going hatred and intolerance, about the rising income of St. Louis County while poverty also rises, about a heroin addict falling asleep in his vehicle and striking and killing a man on a sidewalk. This is the neighborhood into which God has moved.
To be sure, this is not all there is to the human neighborhood. There is also beauty and wonder and mystery and kindness and love and compassion. Yet we sometimes wonder where the balance lies. This messy world is the world into which God shows up, and keeps showing up, a place that leaves us sometimes scratching our heads wondering if we will ever overcome our difficulties, if we will ever make significant progress as a human community. God shows up. God comes into the neighborhood. God is in the house. And it matters. It makes all the difference.
In his wonderful book Who Needs God? Rabbi Harold Kushner ponders the difference God makes by asking what the world would be like without God. Without God it would be a world where no one was outraged by crime or cruelty, and no one was inspired to put an end to them…. In a world without God, there would be no more inspiring goal for our lives than self-interest, amassing as many of the good things of life as we could grab. There would be neither room nor reason for tenderness, generosity, helpfulness…. A world without God would be a world in which gravity pulled us down and there was no counterforce to lift us up, to cleanse us if we had sullied ourselves when we stumbled and fell, and assure us we were worthy of a second chance…. In a world without God, we would be all alone – no one to help us when we had to do something hard, no one to forgive us when we had disappointed ourselves, no one to replenish us when we had come to the point of using ourselves up, and no one to promise us that, even when it was over, it will not be over. (205-206)
I would argue that Kushner’s words ring even truer in light of the story of Christmas. It is a story not only about a God who exists, but of a God who moves into the neighborhood again and again and again, about a God who is always in the house.
Because God shows up, we can show up.
Because God is about peace and goodwill, endless peace, we can be about peace and goodwill.
Because God loves, we can keep loving.
God is in the house. God moves into the neighborhood, even when the neighborhood seems at is messiest, its shabbiest, its most run down, its most broken.
When I think about my favorite Christmas stories, they are really all stories about the difference it makes that God is in the house, that God moves into the neighborhood.
I love the story “The Gift of the Magi” by O. Henry, the story where Jim and Della, a young married couple just making it day by day, and each decides to sell their most valuable possession – Jim his watch and Della her hair, to buy a Christmas gift for the other. The author tells us that these are the wise ones, the magi. The story of God in the neighborhood makes a difference.
I love the Michael Lindvall story, “Christmas Baptism,” about a young eighteen year old, Tina, a single mom, who brings her baby to the church for baptism the Sunday before Christmas. In that church family of the child would stand during the baptism, and Tina has only her mother Mildred to stand with her, until one of the elders of the church decides to stand for that baby too, then another member, then another and another until the whole congregation, weeping in compassion and joy, stands with that little child. God is in the neighborhood with those people and it makes all the difference.
I love “It’s a Wonderful Life,” where an angel intervenes to remind Jimmy Stewart/George Bailey that his life has really touched so many others. Dreams have died along the way. Life is difficult, but it is also wonderful because God is in the house.
I love “The Charlie Brown Christmas Special” - now marking its 50th anniversary, and when those 50th anniversaries roll around I can say I was there at the beginning - where a reading of the Christmas story from Luke helps Charlie Brown find something of the meaning of Christmas, particularly as his friends see the beauty in the scraggly tree Charlie picked out from the lot. God moves into the neighborhood and it matters.
Deeper than the sentimentality in these stories is the message that God shows up, that God moves into the neighborhood, that God is in the house and it matters. It makes all the difference. Rabbi Kushner puts it well. God is found in the incredible resiliency of the human soul, in our willingness to love though we understand how vulnerable love makes us, in our determination to go on affirming the value of life even when events in the world teach us that life is cheap. (178) The evening news reminds us how shabby the neighborhood can be, how broken, but Christmas reminds us that Silent Night still gets sung, and the music never stops. Benedictine Sister Joan Chittister reminds us: Christmas, the celebration of the birth of a child, is about the fact that God’s presence is everywhere. In the smallest things. In the weakest things. In the beginning of things. And we are responsible for nurturing it. (Living Well) Gee, a nun and a rabbi show up at a Methodist Christmas service!
Where do you need God to show up in your life tonight? Where is the neighborhood of your life most run down? Where is your heart broken? Trust that God is in the house, that God will come into the neighborhood again, and it will make a difference in your life.
I know our world needs God to keep coming into the neighborhood. Let God love you tonight and let God love the world through you. Be the singing of Silent Night in the midst of the evening news.
Tonight know that God is in the house. Tonight know that God has again moved into the neighborhood – the neighborhood of your life, the neighborhood of this world. This is the good news, good news for all people, good news of great joy. Glory to God. Alleluia. Amen.