Merry Christmas everyone! For your Christmas perusal, here is my Christmas eve sermon for 2011. Enjoy!
A Night to Forget
Luke 2: 1-20
In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. 2This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. 3All went to their own towns to be registered. 4Joseph 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. 5He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. 6While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. 7And 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. 9Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified.10But the angel said to them, ‘Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: 11to you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, who is the Messiah, the Lord. 12This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.’ 13And 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 favours!’
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.’ 16So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger. 17When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child; 18and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them. 19But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart. 20The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.
For the past six months, I’ve been standing in front of this congregation, this church family, and I’ve been participating in a very old tradition of telling stories. I started out my ministry here with a sermon about Pentecost, and a story about sharing stories around a campfire. I told these stories, and I continue to tell stories, because I love stories. I love the way stories grow, how they evolve, how they become a part of your life and a part of a group of people’s lives. I love telling stories, and for a good reason. Being a Christian means we get to participate in a grand narrative, a story that transcends time, transcends place, nationality, age, gender, ethnicity and language. Being a part of the story defines us; it identifies us as a certain kind of people, who believe certain things that are supposed to set us apart from the world, not against the world or wholly integrated into it, but simply… different.
This difference in our story, our collective story, is what we get to celebrate tonight. This story, the story of a peasant couple making a hard journey to a distant hometown while the woman is pregnant, the story of a child born in a feeding trough, this story with very little pomp and circumstance, is the one that sets us apart. We get to celebrate it, but that’s not all we get to do tonight.
Some of you have made long journeys yourselves, and you’ve wound up here tonight. Some of those journeys are physical, and some are purely out of experience. Time is a journey in and of itself, after all. But the sad thing about journeys is that they have a tendency to leave marks on us. Sometimes those marks…they turn into scars. And for some reason, around this holiday above all others, above Easter, above All Hallows Eve, and even Thanksgiving, those scars seem to hurt the most.
I’m not exactly sure why that is. Some people call it the Holiday Blues, but those are the kind of people who have to come up with a stupid name for everything anyways, so I won’t call it that. Nevertheless, the scars burn us. They ache. The remind us of what happened to us a long time ago.
Perhaps it was that Christmas that money was really tight, and we may not have gotten much of anything at all that year, if you did get something. Perhaps it was the year that business was too much, and you couldn’t make the flight home to see the folks, so you spent Christmas alone, maybe even with a bottle. Perhaps it was the Christmas that dad died. Perhaps it was that first Christmas after the divorce. Perhaps it was that first year that there was an empty chair at the kids table. Perhaps, perhaps, perhaps. It doesn’t matter what happened, though, because you know what it was, even if I didn’t say it. We all have scars that hurt around the holidays.
So the scars burn, and we rub them. We nurse them. We even cherish them a bit. They’re ours, and we raise a glass to them. No good time comes without a price, right? So we put on Elvis Presley and sing with him about his Blue Christmas. We watch Charlie Brown, and sing the songs, we eat the turkey, and we hope that the hurt goes away.
I can’t ignore my own pain. I can’t forget the ghosts of the past any better than you can. But then again, neither could Joseph and Mary. Mary couldn’t escape the shame and scorn surrounding her unexpected pregnancy. Joseph couldn’t ignore the imperial mandate that there needed to be a census, and that he had to take his very pregnant wife to his home town of Bethlehem. Mary couldn’t forget the heavy kicking child in her belly every step of the way. Joseph couldn’t just shrug off the cold desert wind as they walked the path to a distant and ultimately full inn. Neither of them could ignore the fact that their situation wasn’t exactly the dream, the perfect birth for their child. No, what they got was far from what they probably expected. Neither did we, neither did the whole world!
What we got in that singular, unexpected moment, that cold night long ago in a feeding trough, was a child who was to be called Immanuel, Son of God. What we got was the Son, one person with two natures, fully human and fully divine. Nobody knew that back then, not fully. That was not fully comprehended until later. Mary knew the child was a blessing, that the child was special, and would go on to be something great, but nobody could have truly predicted the kind of life that child would have. Nobody could have predicted the ministry of Jesus, a man raised in Nazareth, nor that he would go on to fight an empire. Perhaps it was not the empire that they wanted him to fight, but it was the empire that needed fighting; that of the empire of death, the dominion of sin, the tragic and broken nature of humanity. The Roman Empire was but a symptom of a larger problem.
Jesus could not ignore the disadvantages that were put before him. He could not ignore the overwhelming power of the empire. But neither could he ignore the needs of the poor, the sick, and the sinners. He couldn’t forget that he came to all of humanity, especially those counted as un-savable, unforgivable, and beyond all hope. He couldn’t ignore their cries, and he cannot ignore ours.
So this Christmas, I challenge you to remember these things. Remember the circumstances of the birth of a savior, that he did not come cozily placed among the many pillows of a royal palace, that he did not have a silver spoon nor an army of maidservants and wet nurses to care for him, but as a poor child lovingly placed in the straw of a feeding trough by a young mother with tired and sore feet, and looked after by very tired yet strangely happy and relieved father. That his visitors that night included not the courtly nobility of the palace, but poor shepherds who followed a strange star to find a child in a manger. The magi would not come for several weeks; tonight was a night for the least, the lowly, and the humble. Remember who he came for, and remember who we are because of it. Remember and be thankful. Remember the mystery of the blessed incarnation of the child who was God.
But Grant, you may ask, what do with all this leftover angst you brought up earlier? Ah yes, I was getting to that. Despite the awe inspiring beauty of the nativity, we can hardly seem to forget the scars that smolder beneath the surface during this time of year. The trouble with those, is that those scars have a bad habit of creating new scars. And that is why, as important as it is to remember our stories, it can be equally important to forget as well.
That’s the weird thing about the human mind; we always seem to remember the little bad things that make life miserable, and forget the little good things that add up to make life great. I want to challenge you to reverse that. My brothers and sisters, if there was ever a time of year for great and profound reversals, Christmas is that time.
I gave you a big long list of things to remember, and hopefully you wrote them down. Tonight, I want you to forget some things, specifically, the pettiness and triviality that has so beleaguered this holiday. Tonight, let’s forget to watch the clock. Let’s forget the schedule of things we need to do in order for Christmas to go absolutely perfect, and instead spend that precious time you use to worry to spend it loving the ones that are around you. Tonight, let’s forget the news networks that rev up the fear and hate engine every year in an effort to get us angry enough to go out and buy things that won’t make us happy. Let’s forget the jerk in the Wal-mart line that totally just cut in front of us. Let’s forget the fact that yeah, you probably won’t get everything you put on your Christmas this year, but instead remember the people in your life that make the day special.
Let’s forget our own selfishness, let’s forget our pride, let’s forget our greed and anger and hatred and sin and remember that unto us a Savior was born. That Savior told us to love our neighbors as ourselves. That Savior told us to love our enemies even, and to forgive those who’ve done us wrong not seven times, but seventy times seven times. So forget all the petty arguments, little grudges, and tiny demons that amount to so much nonsense, and remember to forgive others as you have been forgiven. Forget your image of the perfect Christmas, and remember those who have less than you. Let that memory of the poor and the sick, the lonely and the hurting, push you to do something compassionate. Maybe that thing is to give a little extra to the Salvation Army. Maybe it’s going down to the soup kitchen or the local homeless mission and give a day out of the month volunteering. Maybe it’s sending a care package to a relative who’s had a hard time of it lately, and could use a pick-me-up. Maybe it’s sacrificing a little time at work to spend time with the family.
Whatever it is, it’s a night to forget the little things that make us miserable, and remember the big thing that changed the world. God came into the world, and went through every stage of life that we could be saved from sin, saved from ourselves, our own brokenness. That’s a big deal. It’s high time we treated it like more than just another Christmas. It’s time to forget the notion that Christmas is some kind of an obligation, one more thing to check off of the list, and to remember that Christ is born, and we get to celebrate the lowly being lifted up, the princes cast down from they’re thrones, and the poor being fed.
As we do so, let us appreciate our own need to be fed. It may seem odd to celebrate the Last Supper at the celebration of Jesus’ birth, but honestly, I can’t think of anything else I would rather do. The Last Supper is when we are at our absolute closest to the divine reality, that we truly and fully acknowledge the real presence of Christ in the world, of Christ in our lives, in our bodies, and in our hearts. So as you take this body and drink this blood of a Savior born to save us, remember what Christ has done for the world and is doing for the world…and also, remember to forget, and be thankful. Amen.