Posted by: skokiecentralchurch | December 24, 2014

2014.12.24 “Holy, Although We Knew It Not” – Luke 2: 1-10

Central United Methodist Church
Holy, Although We Knew It Not
Pastor David L. Haley
December 24th, 2014
Christmas Eve
Luke 2: 1 – 20

 christmaseve

And so, here we are, finally arrived at Christmas Eve. Welcome and thank you for coming out to help us celebrate Jesus’ birthday, on a night when it wasn’t clear whether we would be having a white Christmas or just a wet one.

Christmas has seemed to me slow in coming this year, although I know it was probably instant compared to how it felt to our children, especially the younger ones. How many of you were children once? (It’s those of you who didn’t raise your hands that worry me).

Also, is it just me, or has it been harder to get into a Christmas spirit this year? What with the national mood since the events in Ferguson, MO, and Staten Island, NY, now intensified by the senseless murder of two police officers in New York City, many of us have had our minds on things other than visions of sugarplums dancing through our heads. Or is it the increased number of worrisome hotspots throughout the world, such as the Ukraine, Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria and Israel? Or has it been the constant toll of death from Ebola in West Africa, especially Sierra Leone, which has made our own flights of hysteria here in the U.S. pale in comparison.

All these events, I might add, have impacted our congregation. For we at Central are people of color, every color, black, brown, and white. We have people who have come from those global hotspots, who once calling them home. We have people who – due to Ebola – mourn in lonely exile here, who number among the long list of those who have died, friends and respected colleagues. So these are not problems far away, they are real and affect people we know.

So this Christmas, across the nation, here at Central, and in our lives, for many of us the world has seemed a darker place, less full of the light we hope for.

What does it mean then, for us to celebrate the birth of Christ tonight when the angel’s announcement of “peace on earth” seems more like a suggestion than a blessing; when the Light of the World seems to have gotten lost in the shadows? What does it mean to hear this story, to sing carols, to light candles, and pray for peace, when it feels so small, so insignificant, and maybe even futile against the backdrop of our troubled world?

John Buchanan, former Pastor of Fourth Presbyterian Church in Chicago (whom I’m still mad at for retiring two years ago), put it this way. Almost every Christmas Eve Buchanan told the story of a cardboard “do-it-yourself” nativity scene his family purchased one Christmas, thinking it would be a nice educational activity for the family, which at the time included young children. So he said they sat down at the kitchen table, opened the package, and read the instructions. Unfortunately, says Buchanan, the project did not go well. The figures were difficult to assemble and kept falling over; the stable leaned to one side; the manger kept toppling over, and cardboard Jesus kept falling out. Finally, Buchanan’s four-year-old son, who had learned in Sunday School this had something to do with God, surveyed the disaster in front of them and asked, “Where is God in this mess?” Buchanan said that over the years of remembering that moment, he concluded his son’s question is the theological, philosophical question of Christmas: “Where is God in this mess?” (John Buchanan, Christmas Eve Sermon, Fourth Presbyterian Church of Chicago, December 24, 2011)

The answer to this question is that if God was present in the mess that was Jesus’ birth so long ago, as we Christians believe, then surely God is still present in the world with us, despite the troubles of any given time. It is the same world, made forever holy by the incarnation of God in the birth, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus the Christ.

I know some say, surely, at this troubled time in history you are not going to attribute any enduring meaning to what is no more than a pious legend. To which we might respond, we believe this story has endured so well, because in the face of constant trouble and turmoil it evokes something deep and powerful within us: a longing for a peace, not only in our hearts but in the world; a longing for justice, not just for some but for all; a longing for love, not just love which comforts but transforms, and for a light that shines in the darkness, a light which is finally inextinguishable. According to this ancient story, all of these – peace, justice, love, and light – were birthed into the world in an unlikely and unobtrusive way.

Everyone here tonight, even those who hear the story for the first time (if that is even possible), knows the birth of Jesus was a mess, from beginning to end. Nothing went the way it was planned, if it was planned at all. It began with Joseph and Mary getting engaged, only for Joseph to find out Mary was pregnant, God knows how, which is what Mary said.

Then there was that census by the occupying Empire, Rome, necessitating a 100-mile trip from Nazareth to Bethlehem in late pregnancy, as if things weren’t difficult enough already. Thomas Long says that Mary and Joseph are like the poor and defenseless everywhere in every time, at the whim of whatever Caesar or mindless bureaucracy or uncaring machinery of state happens to lash out in their direction. Caesar issues a decree, drinks another glass of wine, eats a cluster of grapes, and Joseph and Mary pack up and head out on the road to Judea.

If we had been there, would we even have been able to spot them, or would Joseph and Mary have disappeared into the anonymity of the powerless? For the irony is, that while Joseph, Mary, and their unborn child go to Bethlehem to be counted, they really don’t count, at least not to Rome, maybe not even to Jerusalem. They are insignificant faceless nobodies under the boot of an uncaring empire.  Their only hope – if they have any at all – is not in Caesar Augustus, but the God of Israel, who accompanies them even when they walk through the valley of the shadow of death. Which childbirth was, in that time and place, even as it still is in many places in the world today. (Thomas Long, Living by the Word, Christian Century magazine, December 10, 2014, p. 21.)

And then, just when we think it can’t get worse, it does. The water breaks, the baby is coming. But where? Joseph and Mary were likely staying with relatives, but the baby could not be born in a common room, full of relatives and guests; by Jewish law, everyone would be made ritually unclean. Therefore, Jesus was probably born in the only private place in the house, in the stable, either a cave out back or underneath the house.

According to Luke, the only ones to know and to attend were shepherds: people on the lowest rung of the social ladder, people like Joseph and Mary, who for all practical purposes, didn’t count. Like we sometimes feel that who we are and what we do doesn’t count, against the backdrop of our own troubled times.

And yet according to this story, it was to such people, in such humble circumstances, in such a world as they lived, that God became flesh and made all life and all time and all the world holy, infused with the presence of God, even when we do not perceive it. That is the meaning of the incarnation.

Can we recognize ourselves in this story? Can we see this story still happening in the world? If our eyes are open, occasionally we see it.

One night years ago, I was on duty, on the ambulance as a paramedic. I don’t remember if it was winter or summer, I remember it was in the middle of the night. The bells went off for an ambulance call for something like abdominal pain; my partner – who that night happened to be female – and I left the engine company sleeping, with “we’ll call you if we need you.” We arrived on the scene of an apartment complex, to see a young woman, maybe 18 or 20 years old, come walking out to the ambulance. To our surprise, we discovered not only that was she pregnant, but that she was having close contractions. An examination revealed she was crowning (the baby’s head was showing), and about to deliver. We were about 5 minutes up the road from Central DuPage Hospital; so the question was, do we run for it, or deliver the baby there, in the back of the ambulance? In the best interest of Mother and Baby, we went for the hospital. We didn’t even stop in the ER, but took her right up to delivery. My partner and I stayed and watched, where in just a few minutes, in the middle of the night, with nobody but doctors and nurses and paramedics for the reception committee, the baby was born. We finally made it back to bed, but it was hard to get the smile off our face. Sound familiar? “Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart. The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.”

As troubled as the world can be, as dark as it sometimes is, at Christmas I am cheered to remember that we live not in a different life and different world, but in the same life and the same world into which Jesus was born, the same life and the same world he came to redeem, made forever holy by God’s presence and God’s love, which Jesus revealed. Despite how bad things seem, at Christmas we celebrate with joy “the Light that still shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not extinguished it.”  Can you see it?

Wendell Berry is a fellow Kentuckian, a novelist, poet, environmental activist, cultural critic, and farmer. In one of his Sabbath poems, published in 1987, he put into poetry what it means to live this way, to see our lives in this story, and to see this story in our lives, especially at Christmas.

Remembering that it happened once,
We cannot turn away the thought,
As we go out, cold, to our barns
Toward the long night’s end, that we
Ourselves are living in the world
It happened in when it first happened,
That we ourselves, opening a stall
(A latch thrown open countless times
Before), might find them breathing there,
Foreknown: the Child bedded in straw,
The mother kneeling over Him,
The husband standing in belief
He scarcely can believe, in light
That lights them from no source we see,
An April morning’s light, the air
Around them joyful as a choir.
We stand with one hand on the door,
Looking into another world
That is this world, the pale daylight
Coming just as before, our chores
To do, the cattle all awake,
Our own frozen breath hanging
In front of us; and we are here
As we have never been before,
Sighted as not before, our place
Holy, although we knew it not.
 – Wendell Berry, 1987, Sabbath Poems

This Christmas, by the birth of the Christ within us,
may we be here, as we have never been before;
may we be sighted, as we have not before;
may we see our life and our world as holy,
although we knew it not. Amen

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