Posted by: skokiecentralchurch | December 24, 2016

2016.12.24 “The Message We Need This Christmas” – Luke 2: 1 – 20

Central United Methodist Church
The Message We Need This Christmas
Pastor David L. Haley
Luke 2: 1 – 20
Christmas Eve
December 24th, 2016

christmaseve

Now there were in the same country shepherds living out in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. And behold, an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were greatly afraid. Then the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid, for behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy which will be to all people. For there is born to you this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. And this will be the sign to you: You will find a Babe wrapped in swaddling cloths, lying in a manger.”

And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying: “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, goodwill toward men!”
(Luke 2: 8 – 14, the New King James Version)

Welcome to all of you who have come to this special service tonight. As Adam first said to Eve on the day before Christmas, “It’s Christmas, Eve!”

Ever since I was a child I have been both fascinated by Christmas. One of the things I remember most is how I could never sleep on Christmas Eve. I tried going on long hikes in the snow, to tire myself out. But it never worked; the anticipation of what would be under that tree in the morning was so great. Do you have memories like that?

Little did I know the day would come when Christmas would continue to bring sleepless nights, but this time for a different reason: what to say on nights such as this? I realize, no one has come to hear a sermon. In illustration of this, one pastor said that once just as he began his Christmas Eve service, the electricity in the church went out. The ushers found some candles and placed them around the sanctuary. He re-entered the pulpit, shuffled his notes, and asked, “Now where was I?” A tired voice in the back called out, “Near the end!”

In reality, those of us who come to services such as this come for a variety of reasons. Some of us are genuinely thankful for a good year, for good health, for the love of family and friends. Others have not had as good a year, and put on a happy face to hide the pain or uncertainty or fear we feel. And, of course, there are many of us – perhaps most of us – who come holding both joy and sorrow, both hope and fear, in our hearts.

After all, 2016 has been a year unlike any other, which makes this Christmas unlike no other. As pastor and author Brian McLaren put it, “It’s not so easy to settle into that joyful holiday spirit when the political world mocks so many values I hold dear, from protecting our planet to caring for refugees to respecting the equal rights of minorities to upholding the value of truth.”

It’s safe to say that many of us are still trying to come to terms with the “This Thing That Happened,” (and I’m not talking about the birth of a baby) without succeeding. We read the news, we search op-eds; in the emails we share with each other, the Subject Line could be “Fear.” Even as families gather for Christmas, there will be tension around tables, due to the unresolved feelings and different opinions about what has happened, and what it means for the future, and for our children and grandchildren sitting there with us.

Even as we gather to worship on Christmas Eve, we are diverse: Democrats and Republicans; progressives, moderates, and conservatives; black and white, gay and straight, locals and strangers, people here every Sunday and people not here since last Christmas. I’m certain there are some here who don’t believe any of this stuff, who come to church on Christmas Eve to please family and loved ones. And that’s OK.

So it is in such a gathering that I get the greatest honor of all –  the job of the angels – to proclaim the good news: “Do not be afraid; for see — I am bringing YOU good news of great joy for ALL the people: for TO YOU is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Christ the Lord.” Whoever you are, whatever you believe – even if you don’t believe – this message is for you: in the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem, the love of God has been revealed to us: God knows our struggles, stands with us and for us, and will not let us go.

This year in particular – when we look more closely at this story we celebrate every year – we discover it is not a sentimental story about Santa and snow and mistletoe, but a story about love and peace and hope in the face of ugly and dangerous realities. Into the middle of a bad situation, the sign of God’s peace breaks into the world.

Remember the context under which the birth of Christ occurred. In the background looms an ugly political reality; an occupation by the greatest empire of the time, Rome. Their soldiers were everywhere, and everyone – including the poor – were taxed to pay for them. It was said of Rome and the Roman Army that “They make a desert and they call it peace.” And by the time this story was written – in AD 70 – they had done just that to Jerusalem: they had destroyed the city along with the Temple, the sign of God’s presence.

But don’t be distracted by that; look away from that, away from Caesar Augustus and the Roman legions way under the radar where a poor couple heads back to the man’s hometown, under edict of a Roman census. Lest we think the actions of empires do not impact the lives of ordinary people, even this story we love says otherwise. The story of Joseph and Mary’s journey reminds us how vulnerable they were, how helplessly subject they were to the whims of powerful people who neither knew nor cared about them, just as we often feel ourselves to be.

If that was the context, remember also the circumstances. Mary is expecting, and the birth is imminent. Given the promise of the child she carries, you would think they would have regal accommodations, but that is not to be. Instead – as common to the lives of immigrants and refugees – there is no place for them, not even a place to have the baby other than a barn in the back of the house.

Anyone who’s been through childbirth knows what it is like; kind of a controlled earthquake. When my Mom began contractions to deliver me, my Dad was out working in the garden, shirtless. He went to my Uncle Charles and said, “Charles, I need to borrow a shirt.” “Charles said, “Sure, which one do you want?” My Dad said, “The one you got on will be fine.” The two of them got in the car in the front seat of our car, and put my mother in the back seat, as if she might explode. When they walked into the hospital, my Uncle Charles was carrying his socks in his hand. That’s the kind of people I come from; Joseph and Mary didn’t fare much better.

AT first, no one notices, not should they, considering the circumstances. But it’s as if SOMEBODY needs to know, such that an angelic choir announces the news to startled shepherds. In modern terms, this would be like a baby born to an unwed African-American couple on the south side of Chicago; with the news announced to beat cops sitting in their squad down the street, and not over the radio.

If that was the context and the circumstances, remember the characters. Although we like to think Joseph and Mary looked like us – white people, for the most part; on closer examination, the story brings surprisingly different people together: a homeless couple from out of town and shepherds, people on the lowest rung of the social ladder. Later in the story – according to Matthew – mysterious Magi from the East arrive, neither Jews or Christians, possibly Zoroastrians, definitely not Methodists or Presbyterians. Given the presence of cows and animals, you might say all creation is represented.

All these characters intersect in the birth of this Wonderful Child, and all of them are welcome. Even if it is only a glimpse, it is a glimpse of the Kingdom this Child has come to proclaim and bring, the Kingdom of God, in which everyone is welcomed, accepted, and honored, including all of us here tonight. The message of Jesus’ birth story is a message that we need to hear, particularly this year: God knows our struggles, stands with us and for us, and will not let us go, no matter who we are, no matter the context or circumstances of our lives.

Despite the desperate contexts and circumstances in which the birth has been celebrated through the centuries, time and again it has birthed compassion and generosity and kindness and peace and justice and hope. This is what the Baby was a sign of; this is what he charged us to do with our lives.

henry-wadsworth-longfellowDo you know the song, “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day?” It was written by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow in 1863, though not published until 1865, during the terrible years of the American Civil War. Two years before writing it, Longfellow’s second wife of 18 years, to whom he was devoted, was tragically burned in a fire. While still mourning that, his oldest son, Charles Appleton Longfellow, joined the Union Army as a soldier, without his father’s blessing. Not long afterwards, Charles was severely wounded in the Battle of New Hope Church in Virginia. Longfellow once wrote, “Every man has his secret sorrows which the world knows not; and often times we call a man cold when he is only sad.” Which may illuminate why Longfellow said what he says in the poem:

I heard the bells on Christmas Day
Their old, familiar carols play,
and wild and sweet
The words repeat
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!
And thought how, as the day had come,
The belfries of all Christendom
Had rolled along
The unbroken song
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!
Till ringing, singing on its way,
The world revolved from night to day,
A voice, a chime,
A chant sublime
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!
And in despair I bowed my head;
“There is no peace on earth,” I said;
“For hate is strong,
And mocks the song
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!”
Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:
“God is not dead, nor doth He sleep;
The Wrong shall fail,
The Right prevail,
With peace on earth, good-will to men.”

The birth of Jesus reminds us, no matter who we are, no matter the context or circumstances of our lives, “God is not dead, nor does God sleep. The Wrong shall fail, the Right prevail, with peace on earth, good will to men.”

Amen.

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