Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Christmas Eve

Luke 2:1-14 (15-20)

1  In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered.  2  This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria.  3  All went to their own towns to be registered.  4  Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David.  5  He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child.  6  While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child.  7  And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.  8  In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night.  9  Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified.  10  But the angel said to them, "Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people:  11  to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah,  the Lord.  12  This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger."  13  And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host,  praising God and saying,  14  "Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!"

15  When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, "Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us."  16  So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger.  17  When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child;  18  and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them.  19  But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart.  20  The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.

Beloved, grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Christ child. 

Well, here we are.  Indeed, in this most well-honored and cherished of traditions, the Christmas Eve service.  The sanctuary is soft with candle light, the air a hum with Christmas carols that seem so familiar it is as though they were written in our DNA.  Even as we revel in the welcoming kindness of the evening, yes as we prepare to undertake all those delightful rituals that make up this time together, let us call to mind once again the utterly bizarre event that stands at the very center of this celebration: the coming of God in the flesh.   Yes, for one brief moment, we ought to enter into this story, if for no other reason than to gaze upon its utter strangeness.  Take, if you will, the way that God enter the stubborn and prideful story of humanity.   Yes, you would think the creator of the universe, the one whose strong word called all things material and immaterial into being, well, you would think that that sort of God would perhaps enter the story of creation in a more splendid manner.  This is, after all, the same God whom Moses was unable to meet face to face, lest he not come away alive from the encounter.  Ah, indeed, the God who called to Job out of the whirlwind, and in so doing, marked with perfect certainty the essential distance, that is difference, between God and a wayward, finite humanity. Yes, this the God whose holiness made the prophet Elijah tremble with the knowledge of his own frailty, his own sin upon glimpsing God in God’s heavenly dwelling.   
It is this same God who enters space and time not as a force of blind will and determination, but as an helpless infant, and this is not a place for which we would seek out God on our own.  No one gets to the manger without the epiphany of angelic voices that make the Christ child known, and so we can understand a bit of the shepherds’ collective terror.  Not just because, for a few transcendent moments, the joyous echoes of heaven filled the earth, and their vision was full of the beatific scene that we will all one day call home, but also because to find God’s son in a Bethlehem barn might just mean that we are in need of a God that is helplessly out of sync with what we deem valuable.  It is a terrible ordeal to realize just how wrong we can get it.   For this is not God as we would create him.  How little resemblance does this child have to our idols, our idols of wealth and status, and our perception of ourselves as a powerful and important people?  Powerful enough to judge all of those whose lives do not reflect what we consider to be the good? What common ground is there to be found between the way we devour one another with stinging gossip and petty grudges and this God who in Christ, has accepted the risk of being human, and in so doing, has accepted humanity the way that it actually exists?  No, this God is not to come among us as a Caesar, as one who will mete out judgment amongst the poor, huddled masses begging to step briefly into the intoxicating orb of his power and prestige.  For it is the Caesars of the world who have enough power and ego to force the citizens of their empires to undergo long and strenuous journeys, simply so that they can raise funds to lengthen their resumes as gods among mortals.  The type of rulers who can arrogantly toss millions of lives into disarray as an exercise of naked power.  For that sort of power is its own justification.
This, though, is not the God we meet in Jesus Christ.  The Son’s whose birth in human form we here celebrate, this is an utterly different sort of God.  Yes, this is a God who is born amongst the lowest and the least, who actually is one of the lowest and the least.  The type of God who comes into the world a blue-collar kid from a backwater town; it indeed sounds like the beginnings of a Bruce Springsteen song.  The type of God who will not use his power to destroy others so that he may be exalted, but the type of God whose exaltation is precisely found in rescuing us from the destruction we bring on ourselves and on others.  There is no Caesar to be found here, and when the forces of Caesar and this God meet, well, let us for the moment just say that Christ and Caesar have very different ways of exercising power. Yes, it is a strange and wonderful story, and much longer then the space here allows.  For the moment, let us simply join Mary and Joseph, the shepherds and the whole host of heaven, in marveling at the God made flesh.  In Jesus’ name, amen. 


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