Is there anything quite so wonderful as a Christmas Eve service? The church is decorated beautifully with poinsettas and wreaths and greenery. Our beloved and beautiful crèche stands where it does each year at the foot of the altar, with its wonderful hand-carved figures. We have heard our choir and organ perform music familiar and new. Some of us have already begun to celebrate Christmas, having come here from parties or gatherings. Others are looking forward to late night festivities, or to lavish dinners tomorrow with friends and family.. Continue reading
“In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus.”
They would claim that he was divine, a son of God, Savior. His reign ushered in a new age, a new beginning, world peace. Heralds of his rule would travel throughout the known world, proclaiming the good news of the peace and justice that he would bring about.
Caesar Augustus, Emperor.
There is another side to the story. Thirst for power, brutal repression; execution and assassination of his competitors and opponents. Underneath the glittering facades of temples, fora, and other public buildings that he constructed throughout his empire, was brutal tyranny.
It was now, during the reign of this emperor, that the events recorded in Luke’s gospel occurred. It was during the reign of Caesar Augustus, who symbolizes both the glory and the evil of Rome, another story, a different reign, begins to unfold.
It’s as if Luke wants to present us with the two options as clearly and distinctly as possible—on the one hand, all of the Glory that was Rome, Caesar Augustus in all his splendor and power; on the other hand, Bethlehem, the manger, Jesus Christ, in all his poverty and weakness.
It should be easy for us. Rome is reduced to rubble and ruins while Christianity lives on. But let’s be honest. In fact, it’s not that simple. For fifteen hundred years, Christianity has been intertwined with empire and power. For over 200 years, Christianity has been enmeshed with the American Empire. And maybe, that’s the way we want it.
We want the show, the power. We want the bread and circus, the Hollywood entertainment. We want something, anything to numb us from the brutal reality in which we live.
We see a bit of that brutal reality in this story. A ruler’s whim, to count all of those he ruled, so that he could tax them more efficiently, control them easier, meant that in distant lands, people were forced to move from place to place in obedience to his power and might.
We are all too familiar with such movements by people, forced by events outside of their control. The sheer immensity of the refugee crisis throughout the world as people flee their homes because of bloodshed, and terror, and climate change. Human catastrophe on a scale not seen in generations. Just this week ending a 4-year horrific spectacle as the world looked on, forces backing President Assad of Syria seem to have reconquered Aleppo. The rubble, carnage, and human suffering went unabated while we watched, the international community’s efforts to end it ineffective, half-hearted.
Syria. The word evokes for us the immensity and intractability of the problems we face as a world. Suffering humanity, horrifically efficient technologies of war, unspeakable human evil, helplessness, futile diplomacy. Syria—a word, a region that links current events with the events of 2000 years ago.
The suffering has continued for so long. The endless war that began in 2001 shows no sign of coming to an end; the divisions, hatred, and distrust in the region show know sign of ending. We have grown so accustomed to it that we hardly notice, or care anymore. And we can’t imagine a world at peace.
With such enormous, intractable problems, we grasp for solutions and saviors: More and better weapons, more resolute use of power, political strong men, easy answers. If only someone with the political genius and ruthlessness of Caesar Augustus could save us.
Such desires, such hopes are not only on a geopolitical scale. They are also on a personal, intimate scale. Our private concerns and worries, our fears about our own lives, our families, our futures—we pin our hopes on miraculous, magical deliverance; a superhero who will make all things right, fix our problems.
We even treat religion like that. We believe in a God who will intervene and make things right, delivering a miracle when we need it most, or perhaps coming soon, at the end of time, to rescue us and make everything right.
We want easy answers, miracles, fireworks, and spectacles.
Instead of that, we hear this simple, familiar story from Luke, the birth of Jesus Christ in a manger, in a tiny town, on the edges of empire.
Christmas tells a very different story. God came to us, not as a superhero, not as easy answers. God came to us as one of us, in all of our frailness and messiness. God came to us, God came to the world, in the embarrassment of a stable, in the weakness of a newborn baby.
But you know, I don’t think we get that. I don’t think we understand or take to heart what it all really means. Oh, sure, we say the words, we sing the carols, we come to Christmas Eve services, light our candles, say Merry Christmas, but I’m not sure we grasp what it’s all about. Quite frankly, I’m not sure we’re able to grasp what it’s all about.
God came to us became one of us, as a tiny, weak, powerless baby, utterly dependent on others for survival. It was a life that began in poverty, humility, and obscurity. It was a life that ended with an ignominious an excruciatingly painful execution. To all appearances, it was a life lived in futility, without meaning.
Think about lives like that in our day—refugees fleeing the violence of Syria; mothers here in Madison worried whether there will be food to put on the table tomorrow, let alone whether there will be gifts to share with their children; the men sleeping in the homeless shelter across our courtyard this evening. Lives today lived in pain and suffering, loneliness and despair.
This is our world; the world we have made and inhabit, a world in which the glory of God is overshadowed by the lights of commercialism, and the beauty of God’s creation is destroyed by our hubris and greed. This is our world, in which we belittle, despise, destroy other human beings, created like us in the image of God, bearing like us the image of God.
This is our world. The amazing thing is that God loves it still. This is what we have made of our humanity, what we have done with the image of God in us. The amazing thing is that nonetheless, God became one of us.
In this story from Luke, we are presented with alternatives. Here, at Christmas, we see the power and hope of God’s love expressed in a baby, showing in weakness, vulnerability …
When the angels came to the shepherds, they were not coming to the powerful, the connected, the wealthy. When the angels came to the shepherds, they were coming to the marginalized, outsiders.
Jesus was born, God became flesh and dwelt among us, not among the powerful, the wealthy, the connected, but to poor, oppressed peasants in a backwater of empire.
If we only allow ourselves, we can see in this story, in the babe in a manger, the wondrous love of God. What wondrous love it is, that God took our human form, that God emptied Godself, as Paul writes in Philippians, to show us what humanity could be, what we might be.
What wondrous love it is, that angels appeared to shepherds, the Jesus Christ was born among the poor and oppressed.
What wondrous love it is that the Word became flesh and lived among us, to show us the power and possibility of love.
The manger, birth of Christ is a challenge to us. It is a challenge to us to hope and to love in spite of everything. It is a challenge to us to love our neighbor and our enemy. It is a challenge to us to love outsiders and outcasts, the homeless and the hungry, refugees, the marginalized.
The manger, the birth of Christ, is a challenge to us to see the world through new eyes, to see the world with hearts filled with hope and love bursting to share with others.
The manger, the birth of Christ is a challenge to us. It is a challenge to us to receive the love of God in Christ, to be remade fully in God’s image. It is a challenge to us to love like Christ loved, to go to the poor, the homeless, the hungry, the outcast ,to offer them food and shelter, to share with them the love of Christ.
What wondrous love—seen in the birth of Christ, seen in his giving himself on the cross. What wondrous love we’ve received. What wondrous love is ours to share. w
As I was driving home from the church yesterday, a thousand things related to Christmas running through my head, including this sermon, it struck me that I have been at Grace for more Christmases than at any church (or in any city) since I left home for college thirty-nine years ago. In case you wondering, it’s my seventh Christmas here. To some of you who have worshiped here for thirty, or fifty, or more years, and have seen priests come and go, I’m still a newcomer, a transient. To others of us, seven years seems a remarkably long time. Continue reading
What does it feel like to say that familiar greeting this year? Are you filled with Christmas spirit? Are you ready to enjoy the annual celebration with joy overflowing, get-togethers with friends and families? Are you full of Christmas cheer? Or does it all, in spite of every effort, seem like Christmas this year is a little darker, our hope and joy dimmed by a nation and a world that seems to be spiraling out of control in violence, environmental degradation, and fear. Continue reading
In this way, God chose to come
I had great joy in a three-week period this past summer to offer blessings soon after the births of three babies. It’s one of the highlights of my priestly ministry, to be invited to come into a hospital room and be with a new family, new parents, as they rejoice over the gift of a baby they’ve received, to pray with them, to share their joy, their hopes, their exhaustion, and yes, some of their apprehension. For all three families, it was their first child. I could see in the parents’ eyes their wonder, amazement, and love. Although extended families gathered around and they were all in the care of excellent hospitals and medical professionals, I could also sense the awesome responsibility that the parents felt.
As I’ve been talking, many of you will recall your own experience in hospital rooms like that, a few years ago, or perhaps decades ago. Some of you will be hoping for similar experiences in the near or not-so-distant future; and some of you may feel sadness that this is something you will never know personally. Whatever our individual experience may be, we know about the happiness and responsibilities, the joy and the heartaches, that come with newborn babies.
I encountered other babies over the last few months; babies that whatever the circumstances of their birth, were now living with their mothers on the street, or nearly so. Three or four months old; their mothers had come to me for help, for housing, or gas, or food. I could see in the faces of those mothers the same love I saw in the faces of the parents in those hospital rooms; the same hopes for the future. But what I saw most was worry and fear. Like most of you, when I encounter mothers and babies in these circumstances, I feel great compassion and sorrow, but that’s also often tinged with a little judgment, as I wonder what brought them to this place in life. I give them what financial help I can thanks to the generosity of members and friends of Grace, and I also try to point them in the direction of agencies that might help them with some more permanent solutions.
Tonight, at Christmas, we encounter another mother and baby, one whose situation is much more similar to those babies in need that I just described than the newborns I met in the hospital last summer. Mary and her husband may not have been homeless in our contemporary sense, but that night they had to find shelter in a stable, or more likely, a cave.
Mary was pregnant under suspicious circumstances—although she and Joseph were legally married according to Jewish law, the contract or marriage license had been signed, their relationship had not been consummated. According to that same Jewish law, Mary’s pregnancy meant she had committed adultery, and Joseph was legally obligated to divorce her. Mary’s pregnancy brought public shame on her and on her husband.
These are things we tend not to think about when we hear the familiar story of Jesus’ birth. Most of us know it so well, and if we haven’t heard it many times before, we probably still know its basic outline—a manger, a stable, no room in the inn; Mary, Joseph, the baby, shepherds, angels, all of that. We know it but we tend to overlook its messiness, the embarrassment of it all. It is a messy and embarrassing story in spite of everything we do to sanitize it and sentimentalize it.
Our images of Christmas are dominated by paintings like the reproduction on tonight’s service bulletin, crèches like the one that stands before our altar. Mary is young, beautiful, well-dressed; Joseph looks distinguished, mature, an upstanding member of the community. Except for the crude surroundings, things are serene, respectable, beautiful.
The reality was rather different. Mary was young, uncomfortably young by twenty-first century standards, her reputation in danger because of her pregnancy. Joseph too was disreputable, if not already, then he would be by deciding to stay with her. They were not from Bethlehem. They had come here because of imperial fiat, a distant and ruthless ruler imposing its whim on subject peoples. The shepherds who came to worship were even less respected than Mary and Joseph may have been; virtual outcasts living on the edge of society obeying none of society’s norms.
Here, to this place, God chose to come. To a tiny village, a manger, a feed trough in a troublesome backwater province of the greatest empire the world had ever seen.
Here, to this couple, God chose to come. To a young girl and her husband. We wonder about them. Christians have pondered the mystery of God becoming flesh through Mary. We have argued and debated; we have painted, and played music, and sung and prayed to her. We have imagined all manner of things about her. But what we can know is that when word came to her that she would have a son; when God chose her, she said yes. We don’t know much about Joseph other than his name and occupation. We don’t know how old he was; we know he was righteous—the Gospel of Matthew tells us that—and we know that when word came to him that Mary would give birth to God, Joseph said yes. To this couple, God chose to come.
Here, to this newborn infant, God chose to become flesh. If you’ve ever seen a newborn, if you’ve ever seen your own newborn child, you know about the beauty, love, excitement of a new baby. You also know about their weakness, vulnerability, their complete and absolute dependence on others for everything. Without the help of other humans, a baby will die in a few minutes or hours. They are utterly helpless. They are weak and needy and messy. In such a form, in such a body, God chose to become flesh.
The miracle of Christmas is not just the lovely story. In fact, the miracle of Christmas has nothing to do with virgin birth, or shepherds or wise men or angels. The miracle of Christmas is that in that newborn baby, we see God become human, God become one of us. In the vulnerability, weakness, utter dependence of that infant, we see the face of God. The miracle of Christmas is also that in two quite ordinary people, in Mary and Joseph, in two ordinary people who chose to say yes to God, we learn something important about the nature of faith.
That’s the miracle of Christmas, the miracle of Christianity. The God we worship is not a god of thunder resident on a high mountain. Nor is the God we worship a god who demands we bow to him because of his vast superiority. Our God is a God who created us, knows us, became one of us. The God who created us, knows us, became one of us, that very God chooses us.
We may encounter God or the presence of the divine in all manner of things—the beauty of nature, or of music or art, in a place that is sacred to us or sacred to a memory. None of that is beyond the possible. But our faith proclaims that we encounter God most certainly, most completely in the one who was born in Bethlehem, walked the dusty roads of Palestine, was crucified by Romans and was raised from the dead.
Our faith proclaims that we encounter God most certainly and most completely in a human who was born like us, lived like us, suffered like us and died like us. That’s the mystery of Christmas, the mystery of our faith.
We see the burden and the joy of that faith, the mystery of our faith in that couple as they wrap the newborn in swaddling clothes and lay him in a manger. We sense the burden and joy of our faith, the mystery of our faith as the gospel tells us, “and Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart.”
We cannot hope to comprehend or make sense of God becoming flesh in a newborn babe. We cannot hope to understand why or how or to what end. What we can do is treasure and ponder. We can respond to the needs of those in whose faces we see the face of Jesus Christ; we can wrap them in swaddling clothes and embrace them with the love of Christ. And above all, we can open our hearts and say yes when God asks us to bid God welcome.
May your hearts be filled with the joy and love of Christ, and may you share that joy and love with all those you encounter today and in the days to come.
Where is God? It’s a question we often hear in the aftermath of a natural disaster but especially after a tragedy like the massacre at Newtown. When we ask the question where is God, we are asking not only about God’s presence in a particular instance. We are also questioning God’s presence in the world, in our lives. We are questioning God’s providence—the idea that God is in charge of things. Sometimes behind our question is another question, Is there a God? Continue reading