Posted by: skokiecentralchurch | December 24, 2009

2009.12.24 “Who Said It Wouldn’t Be Difficult?”

Central United Methodist Church

Pastor David L. Haley

“Who Said It Wouldn’t Be Difficult?”

Christmas Eve December 24th, 2009

Welcome to you who have come to this Christmas Eve service. Thank you for braving this Chicago weather to come out tonight. As you sit here, breathe a sigh of relief, that – ready or not – you’ve made it to Christmas. Christmas and the holidays have become such a stressful season, and seem to become more so, every year. You know they say that our discretionary time – the time left over from such essentials as family, job, and job-related tasks like commuting – is less than it’s ever been. So when you consider that that was the time we used to do all the things we do for Christmas, it’s no wonder that we get so stressed out, and find ourselves doing less of them every year. The holidays definitely make family life more difficult. In our house the other night, we heard a loud crash, only to find our Christmas tree, ornaments and all, passed out on the floor, which – turns out – is what happens when you buy a cheap, plastic, Christmas tree stand at Wal-Mart. We cleaned up the mess, got it upright again and tightened the screws, only to hear another muffled crash a couple hours later. “What was that?” I said. Anna – without ever taking her eyes off the TV – said, “The Christmas tree.” Michele and I both ran upstairs, yep, to find the Christmas tree horizontal again. We propped it in a corner until I could go out the next day to get a steel, industrial strength, Christmas stand that would likely support the Eiffel Tower. The holidays make ordinary tasks more difficult, like shopping, for example. I stopped at Costco about 10 days ago to get some laundry detergent. As I jockeyed down the aisle with my cart, I felt like I was in the Alaskan Iditarod (minus the dogs). As I stood in line to check out, I did a slow burn as I watched the woman in front of me, cart overflowing, take her time while she unloaded it with one hand, while talking on her cell phone with the other. Fighting the urge to say something rude, I gave her the icy stare, until she finally said, to whomever she was talking to, “I gotta go,” and returned to checking out with both hands. Having finally made it here tonight, can you believe that, with this Christmas, we come to the end of a decade, ten years in our lives? In many ways, it has been a dreadful decade. While we may assume 9/11 was the decade’s defining event, there are some who say, that, in retrospect it may not have been. Frank Rich, for example, in his op-ed article in last Sunday’s New York Times, suggested if there was a consistent narrative to the last ten years, it’s that we’ve been so easily bamboozled by leaders in all sectors of American life, over and over, who played us for suckers. It began with the creative accounting of Enron Corporation, continued through “Weapons of Mass Destruction,” had a long cast of characters of people such as Ted Haggard and John Edwards and Bernie Madoff, and continued right on up through the over-paid geniuses of Wall Street, who almost took our “fundamentally sound” economy down with them. No wonder Rich suggests that Tiger Woods – whose sham beatific image no one questioned until it collapsed – ought to be named the person of the year, as symbolic of the decades flimflams. (“Tiger Woods, Person of the Year,” by Frank Rich, The New York Times, December 20, 2009) And yet, if we think we’ve had it difficult, we cannot forget our troops sitting out there “on the wall” tonight. [picture] I’m sensitive to this, this year, since my son, Chris – who ordinarily would be here – is one of them, a Marine stationed at Al Asad air base in Anbar Province, Iraq. Although he’s in a safe place, especially compared to our troops in Afghanistan, he summed up in an email last week how they all feel tonight: “My friend said it best before I came over, from when he was in Al Asad: “You have everything you could ever want there. Except your friends and family. Which is everything you could ever want.” Given all the above, one of the things I therefore love about the Christmas story is that while it too is a story with undertones of anxiety, hardship, and difficulty, it is at the same time a story of great joy and hope. A young woman named Mary, engaged to a man named Joseph, becomes mysteriously pregnant, to everyone’s shame and embarrassment. Just about the time she’s due, to make things worse, a government census necessitates a long journey to Joseph’s hometown of Bethlehem. Although Luke’s story is more suggestive than descriptive, we can only imagine how hard that was. There’s a Christmas card that depicts two people, one riding a donkey and the other leading the donkey. They look utterly dejected. There are four lines on the card, which read: It’s Christmas. I’m pregnant, and I don’t know how this happened. He just told me we don’t have a reservation. That’s kind of how it is, isn’t it? This Christmas. Every Christmas. In fact, a room – any kind of room to have a baby in was not to be; no birthing room for them, even if they could have afforded it. In a time and place when maternal and infant mortality were a serious threat to every mother and every child, how frightening this must have been. After the birth, the only people to welcome the child – other than Mary and Joseph – were lowly shepherds, the lowest rung on the social ladder. As the 16th century Reformer John Calvin put it: “Christ is revealed only to a few witnesses, and that at dead of night. Further, while God had at hand many of rank and high ability as witnesses, He put them aside and simply chooses shepherds, of little account with men, of no reckoning . . . If we desire to come to Christ, we must not be ashamed to follow those whom God chose, from the sheep dung, to bring down the pride of the world.” (John Calvin, Commentary on Luke 2:8 in A Harmony of the Gospels: Matthew, Mark, Luke, Vol. 1.) It was to such people, as Calvin says, – people smelling of sheep dung – to whom the Good News was first announced. It was only in retrospect, after Jesus life and death, that the implications became clearer. If Jesus was the “Word become flesh,” as the Gospel of John put it, then especially in the humble circumstances of his birth, did he revealed God’s love for us and God’s presence with us. Outside the Gospels, the best Christmas book I own is a little book called Christmas with Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Bonhoeffer was the German Lutheran theologian executed by the Nazis in 1945 at the age of 39 for taking part in a plot to assassinate Hitler. Maybe of all modern theologians, Bonhoeffer articulated the implications of Jesus’ birth best. But then, being imprisoned for two years before being hung wonderfully concentrates the mind. Just a few: (What would Christmas be without a little theology?) “No priest, no theologian, stood at the cradle of Bethlehem.” “And yet all Christian theology finds its beginning in the miracle of miracles, that God became human.” “God travels wonderful paths with human beings; God does not arrange matters to suit our opinions and views, does not follow the path that humans would like to prescribe for God. God’s path is free and original beyond all our ability to understand or to prove.” “Our living as real human beings, and loving the real people next to us is again, grounded only in God’s becoming human, in the unfathomable love of God for us human beings.” “The joy of God has gone through the poverty of the manger and the agony of the cross; that is why it is invincible, irrefutable.” “All who at the manger finally lay down all power and honor, all prestige, all vanity, all arrogance and self-will; all who take their place among the lowly and let God alone be high; all who see the glory of God in the lowliness of the child in the manger: these are the ones who will truly celebrate Christmas.” (Christmas with Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Edited by Manfred Weber, Augsburg Fortress, 2005) Finally, that is what we do. The stresses of the holidays are difficult, but as we behold the glory of God in the lowliness of the Child in the manger, the time has come to turn our hearts to family and friends, wherever they may be. Life is difficult, nevertheless, there comes a time to forget ourselves and our difficulties and the dreadful events of our history and thank God for this wonderful life we have been given, and most of all, that – in the midst of it, even at it worst – God is with us. Another momentous decade of history – and of our lives – has come and gone, and – thanks be to God – we are still here, even though others – whom we love and miss dearly – have gone on before, and as we light a candle tonight, we remember them. “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) For the good of all humankind Jesus Christ became human in a Bethlehem stable. Rejoice, all Christians! Rejoice, all people! Amen.

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