Posted by: skokiecentralchurch | December 24, 2007

2007.12.24 Christmas Eve, 2007


Christmas Eve, 2007

Luke 2: 1 – 20

Pastor David L. Haley


A few days ago, my daughter Anna asked me:  “Dad, what do you like about Christmas?”  After a long pause . . . after a long pause, I said, “The food . . . the music . . . the lights.”  Not satisfied, she pressed further: “And the birth of Jesus?”  “Yes,” I said, “I like the birth of Jesus.”  As an afterthought she added, as every child would:  “And I like the gifts.”

That may sum up the way many of us feel about Christmas: There are things we don’t like; and things we do like.

“Shopping,” for example, “who likes that?  I’ve always liked the story about the two men who decided to go sailing, while their wives went Christmas shopping. While they were out in their boat, a storm arose. As the lake raged, the men struggled to keep the boat under control. As they maneuvered toward land, they hit a sandbar and the boat grounded. Both men jumped overboard and began to push with all their strength, trying to get the boat into deeper water. One of the guys, with his feet knee-deep in mud, the waves bouncing him against the boat, his hair blowing wildly in the wind, said with a grin, “It sure beats Christmas shopping, doesn’t it?”

But even the most hard-bitten scrooges among us would admit there are things about Christmas that we like:  the food (that we eat too much of), the lights (which in the midst of winter darkness, are cheerful) and the music, some of our best and best-loved music. And, of course, this story, and this service. As Garrison Keillor once said, “The beauty of Christmas is that it is not about us, our creativity, our fabulous décor, the glittering gifts we can afford, but about a story and ritual that lift us all.” (“All I need for Christmas”, by Garrison Keillor, Dec. 19, 2007)

This can make it difficult for preachers, when it’s a story as familiar as this one. John Buchanan, pastor of Fourth Presbyterian Church in Chicago, says his closest advisor — his wife — tells him every year when he starts to fret about what to say: “Stop worrying. They’re not coming to hear you. They want to hear the story, light a candle, sing Silent Night and go home.” In my heart, I know it’s true.

I’ve now preached this story to Christmas Eve congregations 33 times: the same story, though never in the same way.  Each year I look for new insight.  This year, we have it in the form of a new book, The First Christmas: What the Gospels Really Teach Us About Jesus’ Birth, by Marcus Borg & John Dominic Crossan.  It’s the best that can be known about the Christmas story, in its historical and theological context.

What they tell us is that there are, of course, not one but two Christmas stories, one according to Matthew and one according to Luke, each written in a different style to a different audience. Each writer presents Jesus’ birth story not as factual history, but as an overture to the rest of their Gospel. When we combine it into a single Christmas story, it’s the Gospel in miniature: Get it, and you get everything; miss it, and you miss it all.  As someone once summarized it:

Mary held in her arms

The God of love

That we might hold in our hearts

The love of God.

Of course this story is personal to us, because there is deep emotional power in it. It touches upon some of our deepest human yearnings: for light in our darkness, for the fulfillment of our hopes and dreams, for joy in our life and in our world.

“I am pretty much hardened to Christmas music,” says Garrison Keillor, “except at the end of the Christmas Eve service when the lights dim and the glories stream from heaven afar and the heavenly hosts sing Alleluia and then, from long habit, tears well up in my eyes and I weep for the dead who enjoyed Christmas so much and for humanity in general, and then we go sashaying out into the cold starry night and walk home.” (“All I need for Christmas”, by Garrison Keillor, Dec. 19, 2007)

        But the story is more than personal, it is also political — about more than just us — and if we miss this we miss much of its power.

        As Borg and Crossan point out, when the angelic messengers announced to shepherds the birth of one born as “Savior” and “Lord”, they were using titles associated with Caesar Augustus, Emperor of Rome. So, when early Christians confessed Jesus as Son of God they meant the emperor is not, Jesus is the savior of the world meant the emperor is not, that Jesus is Lord meant the emperor is not, that Jesus is the way to peace on earth meant the emperor is not. Later in the first century, it cost many Christians their lives.

Because, if Jesus’ purpose was to bring peace on earth, that also, was the intent of Rome. But whereas Jesus would spend his life endeavoring to bring “peace with justice”, Rome brought the “pax Romana” by “peace through victory.”

The Roman historian Tacitus, in a speech placed on the lips of the doomed Scottish general Calgacus, described what the “peace of Rome” was like to those who experienced it: “They make a desert and they call it peace.”

The truth is that rarely — if ever — is lasting peace established through victory and domination. Victory establishes not peace, but lull. Thereafter, violence returns again, and worse than before. In the nuclear age, these escalating cycles of violence threaten life on earth. As John Kennedy said, “Mankind must put an end to war, or war will put an end to mankind.”

So what appeared in the sky above Bethlehem that first Christmas 2,000 years ago was an early warning that you don’t achieve peace on Earth through victory — only through “peace with justice,” the peace that Jesus preached and practiced.

        So for us to confess with the Christmas story that Jesus is the Messiah, is to affirm that in him we see the decisive disclosure of God, of what can be seen of God in a human life, the one who fulfills both our deepest dreams, and also God’s dream for the world, as promised by the prophets, a world with peace and justice.

I know there are those who point out the obvious, that it has now been 2000 years and our dreams of a better, safer world for our children has not been fulfilled.

I also know that there are also those who believe that such a world will only come through divine intervention, which they await, and others who argue that faith in Jesus is not about transformation of this world, but personal salvation, life in heaven.

But it is possible to hear the song the angels sang, not as announcement, but as invitation. Put simply, each and every one of us is invited to participate with God in bringing about the world of peace and justice promised by Christmas. As St. Augustine put it, “God without us will not; we without God cannot.”

Occasionally, it happens, you know, as if to convince us that it can; in the midst of war, peace breaks out.  It happened 93 years ago tonight, on Christmas Eve, December 24, 1914, during WWI. (It has been portrayed in the prize-winning 2005 French film, Joyeux Noel (Merry Christmas). Two great armies — hundreds of thousands of British, French, and German soldiers — faced each other along a front that extended along the border between France and Belgium.

      Troops were dug into trenches cut into muddy soil, lighted by candles and flashlights.  Fifty to one hundred yards away was the enemy, so close they could hear each other’s taunts and curses.  Each side was protected by rolls of barbed wire, with the area in between “no-man’s-land,” where snipers shot at anything that moved. Occasionally, grenades were thrown, artillery shells were lobbed, and charges were launched out of the trenches, always with terrible results.

      But as the sun moved across the sky on Christmas Eve, 1914, something amazing happened: the shooting slowed down and stopped. No one issued an order; soldiers on both sides simply stopped shooting.

      As the afternoon dusk turned to darkness, British troops, peering through the gloom, saw the most amazing thing. Christmas trees with lighted candles appeared on the parapets of the German trenches.  All up and down the line it happened.  German troops displayed — so that their British enemies could see them — Christmas trees their government had sent them.

      A German voice called out into the silent dark, “A gift is coming now!” The British dove for cover, expecting a grenade.  What came across was a boot filled with sausages and chocolate. The British scurried to find their own gifts to send in reply.

      Then the singing started: patriotic songs, military songs, drinking songs:  one side, followed by applause from the opposite trench, then the other. And then it was eerily quiet — the lighted Christmas trees, the darkness. “Stille Nacht, Heilege Nacht,” the Germans sang. “Silent Night, Holy Night.”  All up and down the front it spread, for miles and miles: “Stille Nacht, Heilege Nacht.”  All is calm — and all is bright.

      As the sun rose on Christmas Day, soldiers emerged from both sides — unarmed — and walked slowly, cautiously, up out of the trenches into no-man’s-land and met in the middle, shook hands awkwardly, and exchanged Christmas greetings, and gifts.  Up and down the line, north and south, a spontaneous Christmas truce broke out. At several places along the front, soccer games were played, even a Christmas Mass was held, shared by both sides.

      A shudder ran through the high command on either side. Here was disaster in the making: soldiers declaring their brotherhood with each other and refusing to fight. Generals on both sides declared this spontaneous peacemaking to be treasonous and subject to court martial.

      The truce continued Christmas night and into the second day, but after a week or so, it deteriorated, and the shooting resumed; six thousand deaths per day for the next forty-six months. By the time of the armistice in 1918, fifteen million would be slaughtered.

      The story of the Christmas Truce — like the Christmas Story and the teaching of Jesus — goes against most of what we have been taught to believe. It reawakens in us hopes and dreams, that in our cynicism, we keep hidden away — like our Christmas ornaments — most of the year: that the world could be different than it is.

      As it was different in this story. Against the rumblings of empire, a poor man and woman give birth to a child who turns out to be God’s greatest gift, love incarnate. For one blessed moment, the world is revealed as a place where the outcast are welcome and the unlovable loved, where the poor have good news preached to them, and the whole world resounds with the promise of peace.

      On this Christmas Eve, let it happen again.  As we raise the light of our combined candles and pray for peace, as we join together in “Silent Night”, may our cynicism cease, may our dreams be fulfilled, and the dream of God and of Jesus born in Bethlehem, be reborn in us.  


“For a child has been born for us, a son given to us;

authority rests upon his shoulders; and he is named

Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,

Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.

His authority shall grow continually,

and there shall be endless peace

for the throne of David and his kingdom.

He will establish and uphold it with justice and with righteousness

from this time onward and forevermore.

The zeal of the Lord of hosts will do this.” (Isaiah 9: 6 – 7)



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