Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Christmas Eve, Dec 24, 2011

Luke 2:1-14 [15-20]
1 In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world. 2 (This was the first census that took place while Quirinius was governor of Syria.) 3 And everyone went to his own town to register. 4 So Joseph also went up from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to Bethlehem the town of David, because he belonged to the house and line of David. 5 He went there to register with Mary, who was pledged to be married to him and was expecting a child. 6 While they were there, the time came for the baby to be born, 7 and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son. She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn.

8 And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night. 9 An angel of the Lord appeared to 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. I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. 11 Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord. 12 This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger." 13 Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying, 14 "Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to men on whom his favor rests."

15 When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, "Let's go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has told us about." 16 So they hurried off and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby, who was lying in the manger. 17 When they had seen him, they spread the word concerning what had been told them about this child, 18 and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds said to them. 19 But Mary treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart. 20 The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things they had heard and seen, which were just as they had been told.

If you will allow it, and let’s be honest, you don’t really have the choice, I would like to do a little exercise with you.  While I, as much as anyone here, love this evening, love its warm sentiment, love its hopeful expectation and the warm candle light, the familiarity of the hymns that embrace us like a childhood friend, yes, though I love this all as much as anyone, I would like to take us away from this moment, if only for a few a minutes.  Yes, I would like you to take some time and picture with me not this evening, but say a week or two from now.  I want you to picture yourself in that time when you are still eating turkey or ham and getting a bit sick of it.  I want you to picture your trash can full of garbage and the new shine of whatever gadget you bought already beginning to wear off, and your patience beginning to run thin with those relatives who might be staying just a bit past their welcome.  In short, I want you to picture your life as it actually is, perhaps even now just beneath all of this.   Now, the reason for this is not because I am some unrelenting jerk or wish to play the Scrooge to your collective Tiny Tim.  Like I said, I love tonight and this season as much as anyone.   No, the reason is this: if we keep today’s text, the birth of Jesus the Christ, isolated from daily life, from our realities as they actually exist, we do ourselves a great disservice.  So great, in fact, that we miss entirely the point of the story.  For Christ was born into a world not just of cookies and warm wine, but a world teeming with trouble, a world in which things were far from certain, in short into the world that we know and inhabit on a daily basis. 
            Yes, take if you will, how Joseph and Mary end up in Bethlehem in the first place. This is not some trip to a first century spa so that Mary can get a bit of pre-birth pampering.  Instead, a Roman governor decides on a whim that he needs to raise a bit of capital and so the non-ruling class, the vast majority of the people, have to drop what they are doing and go back to their hometowns.  These censuses, one could more accurately name them a cash grab, a government-sponsored fleecing, were so deeply unpopular that they often resulted in riots.  Hardly, then, a pre-birth trip befitting the Son of God.  And as if this weren’t bad enough, take a look at those present at Jesus’ birth.  Yes, we have Mary and Joseph, the proud parents, but we also have that band of miscreants called shepherds.  Generally speaking, there was not a class of people with a poorer reputation than the shepherds.  They were known to be thieves and liars, and in any case not to be trusted, not exactly the pious types nor those whose presence signaled that something holy was about to occur.   So, we should in no way be surprised that they respond to the presence of a band of angels with incredible fear.  Yes, our English translation tells us that they were terrified, but the Greek renders it more pointedly, something like they “feared a great fear.” And though encountering an angel would certainly be terrifying in its own right, imagine doing so with a little stolen bread in your pocket.  It is my guess that this heavenly manifestation, in the minds of the shepherds, meant that they were finally going to face the divine justice that their actions had long-since warranted.   But that is not what happens to these men, not at all in fact.  Instead, they, for whatever inscrutable reason, they are given knowledge of the birth of the Messiah.  Their great fear matched by an even greater joy.   Where the shepherds, a band of thieves, if you will, are expecting to finally be brought to justice, they are instead told of sweet mercy, told of a peace that God will render to all people, and they are given instructions on where to find all of this.    It is by divine word, by the preaching of angels, that they are brought to the manger, brought to the birth of God’s son, indeed brought to heaven’s very edge.   Not an event they were anticipating or even preparing themselves for, but no less significant for that being the case.
            “Come, let us see this thing which the Lord has made known to us” say the shepherds, and that, I think is the most significant part of the story.  To get the shepherds to the manger, to reveal that this child is indeed God in the flesh, to see that the divine has been irrevocably intertwined with the most ordinary of circumstances, this is not something the shepherds would have been able to do on their own.  Left to their own devices and understanding, their lives would have continued in that ragged fashion, and Jesus simply would have been another boy born into this old world, so excruciatingly mundane were the circumstances of his birth.  And so Christmas, the birth of God’s son comes not amidst hopeful sentiment and warm expectation, but amidst the chaos of a hard journey and a poorly-timed birth.  Christmas comes not first to the good and pious, but to hard men living hard lives who are blessed indeed by the beatific vision of angels praising God through all eternity.  And Christmas comes not in the warmth of a moment that we intentionally set apart as extraordinary, but right in the mundane, in the middle of the week when life has started to creep back in.
            So please, by all means, enjoy this evening.  Enjoy all those rituals that make this a special evening for you and yours. Enjoy the Christmas lights and children whose systems are on overload with toys and sugar. You can better believe that, in due time, I will be doing the exact same.  But know this as surely as you know anything, when the warm glow begins to fade,  when real life encroaches, when the credit card bill comes and when the turkey gets dry, you have not lost the real value, the enduring meaning of Christmas.  For it is precisely these sorts of moments, these painfully mundane moments, when the alarm clock goes off too early and the children just will not behave, these are the moments that Christ blesses with his presence.  The real, the everyday, this now teems with the divine.   Indeed, the meaning of Christmas, its enduring truth is found not in sentiment that will cruelly and quickly fade away, but in the unwavering commitment of God to bring peace and good will to humanity, to restore that which has been lost.  And this commitment, this is what occurs in the birth of God’s son.  For now, there is no place, no place too ordinary, too normal, too unspectacular or too routine for God, and what is more, God will pull and tug us to these places, so that we too may proclaim what God has done. Would we be able to get here on our own, find this Christ unaided by angels?  No, no we would not.  But that fact alone will not keep God from calling to us, from whispering from the painful and the ordinary, that this too is now holy ground.  Yes, in the birth of God’s son, God has gone all-in, and even the peace that Christ will render will bear the wounds of this world, for this is not the only time this Christ will be wrapped in cloth and laid down by those who love him, but there is time yet to tell that story.   For today, for today, hear again the angelic song: “to you is born this day a savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.”  Which, incidentally, a truth for this and every day.  In Jesus’ name, amen. 

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