Christmas Eve 2021

Luke 2: 1-20

In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. All went to their own towns to be registered. Joseph 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. He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. And 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.

In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.

This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and 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 heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!”

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.” So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger. When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child; and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them. But 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.

Sermon Text

The past four weeks we have been exploring, through our Sunday services, the various members of the Holy Family. The parents of John the Baptist, Zechariah and Elizabeth, and the Holy Couple themselves, Mary and Joseph. Today we gather on this cold winter evening to celebrate the final member of the Holy Family, the one that sanctifies all others mentioned and each of us gathered here today – our Lord, Jesus Christ, the Son of God. The great drama of human history has finally met its main protagonist. God, the creator of all things and the author of every story, now has come to dwell among us as a human being. Born in a stable, laid in a food trough, the eternal Word of God now knows what it is to be cold, to be hungry, to feel the prick of straw bedding.

Christmas is the day we all take a moment to remember that the story of our salvation began with mundane pieces. A government official wants to collect more taxes, and so he calls for a census to be taken in order to determine exactly what amount he might begin taking in. A couple, unmarried and yet expecting a child, make their way from the small village of Nazareth to the slightly more cosmopolitan Bethlehem, as near to a suburb of Jerusalem as the ancient world could muster. There a child is born; there a mother falls asleep with her husband and child nearby. There, somehow against all odds, the salvation of all humanity was set in stone.

As with everything surrounding Christmas, we don’t know much about the night Jesus was born. We celebrate it on December 25th, but there are many reasons behind that, few of which have to do with Jesus’s actual birthdate. Some people do the math to say he was born in March, some others insist December makes equal historical sense. Yet, the actual date doesn’t much matter. While this day is fixed in our calendars, plenty of other important ones are not. Easter is the first Sunday after the first full moon following the Vernal Equinox, and yet that day is still important to us as though it were the actual moment Jesus rose from the dead. In the same way, today is, to us, the day Jesus was born, because we celebrate it as such.

Today the walls between Heaven and Earth lose all meaning. God sits among us. The long separation between God and humanity is finally erased. God is a human being. The long wait for salvation is finally ended. God has come down to save us. Christmas is the celebration of love, manifested in the most fragile of forms. An infant, born into a world where not many children lived to even be named. A child named “Salvation,” a child named Jesus.

The story of those who brought Jesus into this world are simple stories. A couple who longed for a child finally having one. A couple due to be married when a surprise pregnancy threatens everything they thought they had known. A loving cousin who keeps the young girl safe, a gentle angel that assures that boy that he is doing the right thing in going on loving his fiancé and her unborn child. The set pieces, minus perhaps the angels involved, are not unlike something we might see right here in North View. God could have made a grand entry into the world, but God chose to make a much more gentle one.

A hundred million lessons are set out before us when we pick up this story. The importance of worship, the power of family, the significance of a mother’s love. Yet, if we have been paying attention to the past few weeks we have spent together, I hope we can see that the real lesson of Christmas is in the simplicity of it all. Normal people worked to bring salvation into the world, and that remains true for us today. It is not the work of politicians and kings and rich donors that brings about the Kingdom of God. It is the work of the everyday person, of the poor and the disgraced, the cast aside and the unhoused, the lowest of the low. God came down on Christmas and God, who was owed a chariot of gold, came down in rags.

Though in the distance, foreign magicians were making their way across Arabia to visit Jesus, the only witnesses that night were shepherds. Unwashed, uneducated, rough and tumble shepherds were the first to attest to the glory of God’s salvation. How strange it would have been to see them dancing in the streets singing the songs the angels had taught them. They pointed to a distant stable, perhaps attached to a house and perhaps set into a stone wall, and they insisted “God is in that manger, cradled next to his mother, and God is here to save us.” Lunatics, madmen, or perhaps the first people outside of Mary to bring the truth of Jesus into the world.

As brief as our time together tonight is, it is a reflection of that night long ago. Unassuming though that night was, unremarkable in any of its features except to those who knew what it brought. A light, furtive and small, bursting out in the darkness of a sin-sick world. A light, blazing truth through the lies that we had built up around ourselves. A light that flickered, and threatened to go out, but would not be snuffed out just yet. The light of Christ, the shining love of God on display for all to see.

The work begins, once we leave here, to make sure that that light is allowed to shine. It is a light spread not with cruel flames that cut through the world, but with the gentle smoldering of our hearts. Love is like a fire, that jumps between the embers within us, alighting and bringing yet more light into the world around us. The simple message of Advent is summarized in Christmas, that God is coming to be among us, and God is already here. So go out tonight, to be with family and friends, and go out tonight in the knowledge that salvation truly is here with us. Go forward and love the world, love each person like they are family and protect them, feed them, house them, however you can. Christ is born in Bethlehem; Christ lives among us. The glory of God now must cover the earth, and all the world proclaim the glory of our salvation. Today we celebrate a world that will never be the same. Today we say, Merry Christmas. – Amen.

We Wait no More – Christmas 2020

Luke 2:1-20

In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. All went to their own towns to be registered. Joseph 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. He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. And 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.

In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and 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 heaven,
    and on earth peace among those whom he favors!”

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.” So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger. When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child; and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them. But 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.

Sermon Text

            Christmas is finally just a few hours away from us. The light of our trees and decorations shine out into the night. Our Advent wreath is fully lit, and we wait for the few scant moments that separate us from fully celebrating our commemoration of Christ’s entry into our human history. No longer separate from Humanity, but completely invested in a physical body and married eternally to our lives. The Incarnation, the irreversible unity of Heaven and Earth, is just a few hours away.

            There are many things that make Jesus’s entry into creation miraculous. That God could take on Human Flesh and yet remain God. That this union could redeem our fallen state and set us right with God. That the Messiah of Judah would save not only his people but the entire world. All these are miraculous in themselves, but beyond these massive, cosmological aspects of incarnation comes some mundane miracles we cannot overlook. A baby is born, in a difficult time, to struggling parents, in a dying province of a decaying empire, and yet is still able to live and grow, to reach adulthood and follow the difficult road before them all the way to the end.

            While we do not know the exact date of Jesus’s birth or the exact year, we do know enough about it to understand what kind of world Jesus was born into. Jesus’s birth falls somewhere in a fourteen-year span, somewhere between 7 BC and 7 AD. During the reign of Herod the Great, but also close enough to the reign of Quirinius as governor of Syria to allow for a census to be held at the time of Jesus’s birth. While this gives us an indeterminate span of time to say when exactly Christ entered the world, it is more than enough to sketch out what sort of world Jesus was being born into.

            Jesus was born to poor parents in a poor province of the Roman Empire. While Judah had briefly known independence preceding Roman occupation, Rome was really just a continuation of the long line of Empires that had controlled the region. Assyria first held Judah as a vassal, then Babylon as a conquered territory, then Persia, then Media, then Greece. Judah had not known true independence since just after the time of King David. The food they grew sustained the local population somewhat, but much of it went to feed the Roman army. Herod and his children attempted to “civilize,” the region by building massive projects around the region. Herod the Great famously robbed David and Solomon’s royal tombs so that he could demolish and rebuild Nehemiah’s temple into a more stately building, while his sons would build fishing towns to feed the soldiers that occupied their land.

            The poverty of Jesus’s family would have been exacerbated by these conditions. While an artisan and his wife were not likely to have a great deal of money, unless he did extremely specialized work, the introduction of Roman taxes around the time of Jesus’s birth ensured they would not have much money for themselves. The census executed by Quirinius to establish these taxes were opposed so openly that it culminated in one of the first of many attempted revolutions against Rome in Judah, a rebellion that was quickly put down. From this and other conflicts the Zealots were born, a guerilla group of Jewish rebels who mainly targeted Rome and their collaborators.

            Jesus was born in a tumultuous time. Jesus was born to parents who could barely feed themselves, let alone a child. Jesus was born as a peasant in a no-name province in one of the largest and most powerful empires in the history of the region. “The wrong time to the wrong people in the wrong place.” That must be how the first people to hear what the gospels say about Jesus’s birth must have thought. As the titular song Jesus Christ Superstar, puts it, “Why did you [Jesus] pick such a backwards time and such a strange land?” It seems there would have been easier ways to enter the world than penniless and in danger at every turn.

            Yet, Christ was not content to enter the world through easy means. A life that was to go the way that Christ’s life did was not possible to live in comfort or luxury. Christ was born into the worst parts of a suffering world, to live out a life of suffering and sorrow, and then to die a terrible death at the hands of the empire that had already caused so much suffering. Christ was not born to royalty, though he was a king, nor was he born in a temple despite being God. Christ was born into poverty, born in danger, born on the edge of oblivion, because ultimately the incarnation was God entering into humanity, the fullest expression of humanity.

            Humanity, as defined by Job, are those people, “Few of days and full of troubles.” (Job 14:1) If nothing else can be learned from the year we have just seen rush by us at a slug’s pace, it is that Job was right. Life is a precious thing that we can easily see taken away. By disease, by time, by injustice and cruelty. Life is also a hard thing to stomach – because of pain, of fear, of a sense that the problems we face are simply too numerous to truly escape. Life is not easy, and anyone who tells us otherwise is selling something.

            So, into the fullness of humanity, into a life that was hard from the outset, Jesus arrives. Not in a palace as a king, not in a temple as a God, but in the feed trough of a stable – perhaps walled in, perhaps in a cave, but certainly not the place for a child. Christ enters into hardship so that at all times and in all places, whatever a person may face, they can be sure that Christ has faced it as well. The biting cold of the winter winds, the heat of the noonday sun, the stinging pain of hunger, the burning of a fever – all these are things Christ experienced to share empathy and love with us. True solidarity between God and humanity, achieved through the difficult work of a child being born, and a life lived with little relief from the many problems that life presents us with.

            In a difficult year, we celebrate Christmas far away from one another. Scattered once more during an important season of the Church, each of us in our own homes and all of us left wishing the world could be more like what we would want. Free of this pandemic, away from the constant precautions and worries that we face, back to a time when we can hug one another and shake hands and simply be present with one another without anything between us. We find Christmas coming to us, seemingly, in the wrong year – a year where we cannot greet it as we usually would, a year where sanctuaries sit darkened and we are all wrapped up warmly at home instead.

            Yet, in the same way that the incarnation came at a seemingly inopportune time, to people who seemed ill prepared to be parents to a deity, maybe Christmas comes at just the right time to a people who are dearly in need of it. The promise of Christ coming long ago is that Christ will come again. The diseases that threaten us will eventually be done away with, all pain erased, and only goodness and glory shall remain. Today, as we gather across the void of a cold night and the warm buzz of electronics, we still somehow stand together at the manger. Like the Shepherds we see something we cannot fully understand, but that still fills our hearts with hope.

            A child, shivering against a cold night, wrapped in a blanket by their teenage mother. A confused step-father, unsure how such a child could exist. A boy heralded by angels as a King and as God, but nothing more to the eyes than a child, just like any other. We are beside those inquisitive shepherds tonight, citizens of a broken and hurting world, but looking on a savior unlike any other. A savior willing to come down and get their hands dirty in human form, to live a life harder than most, simply to give us all a chance to know peace, and patience, and joy. We have waited a long time for Christmas, for Christ, for hope to spark within us once again. Wait no more, Christ is born in Bethlehem, and our salvation is made real. – Amen.

Christ is Born – Christmas Eve 2019

Isaiah 9:2-7

The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness— on them light has shined. You have multiplied the nation, you have increased its joy; they rejoice before you as with joy at the harvest, as people exult when dividing plunder.

For the yoke of their burden, and the bar across their shoulders, the rod of their oppressor, you have broken as on the day of Midian. For all the boots of the tramping warriors and all the garments rolled in blood shall be burned as fuel for the fire.

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.

Luke 2:1-20

In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. All went to their own towns to be registered. Joseph 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. He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. And 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.

In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and 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 heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!”

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.” So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger. When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child; and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them. But 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.

Sermon Text

The birth of a child is never a casual affair. Despite the fact that two hundred and fifty children are born every minute, their arrival always causes a shake-up. For the family who receives the child the joy of the new life in their midst is met with the anxiety and uncertainty about their future. The birth of the child means that their community is given hope, a reminder that the world is oriented toward life, it also means that the world goes on beyond us, a future is possible without us. The entry of a child into the world is never as simple as a birth.

In the ancient world the perils were multiplied. Giving birth to a child was a risk to the one being born and to the mother. Mortality rates were high – the luckiest family would see half their children grow up, but most would see only three or four for every ten they had. Mother’s died almost nearly as often. We sometimes forget how much modern medicine has done, we sometimes let the sterile image of Christmas that we have made for ourselves distract us from one simple fact – the incarnation was risky.

God could have entered the world fully grown, as a divine spirit or as a human being who never had to be born. God could have planned to be born among the wealthy and secure of society, allowing the best chance of survival and of a pain free life. God could have done many things, but God decided to live among the poor. A woman and her husband hardly capable of feeding themselves, a risky birth in a cramped room, life entering in and immediately facing the threat of death.

The beginning of a story sets the stage for its end. Christ’s birth was dangerous, and he lived a dangerous life. He was among the poor, and his ministry was with the poor. It was to a mother whose reputation had been ruined by this pregnancy, and he lived among those of bad reputation – those who people were able to write off as sinners, whores, deadbeats – all those who so-called “righteous” people rejected.

A life on the fringes, this was the life of Christ. The King of Kings, the Prince of Peace, our Wonderful Councilor was given no throne to sit on. Even as Jesus ministered to all people, he showed a particular appreciation for those who went without. He fed the hungry, healed the sick, he removed obstacles to people’s pursuit of livelihood, he opposed anyone who used their power to abuse others. His ministry was to those in need and when necessary against those who created the conditions that led to their need. When the Kingdom broke out, it was among the untouchables of society and religion, when God came near it was a journey from the furthest places of society inward.

The story of Christmas is not a clean story of a child being born without any trouble. Almost from the beginning there were problems. Traveling long miles while pregnant can’t be healthy for mother and child. Whether Jesus was born in a stable, a cave, or a side-room the conditions for his birth were cramped and not ideal. Roman soldiers patrolled constantly, and despite laws limiting their actions against citizens – the only people to police them were themselves – to travel on their routes was to risk meeting one willing to kill, steal, or worse.

Christmas was risky, Christmas was dangerous, Christmas was dark and cold. Jesus, this little child of Mary, came to be with us during a time of oppression and economic instability. Jesus was born into a world of war and of aggression. The advent of God was nearly covered up by the compounded troubles of the world. Shadow encroached on each side, darkness pouring down on the world and leaving all people lost. The world needed hope, it needed life, it needed a savior.

We are no different today. Despite our advancements in medicine, in culture, in society there are a great many evils that would be just as home in the first century as they are now. The poor freeze to death every winter on American streets, and they die of heat stroke in the Summer. Children are taken from families, left to wander in the foster care system, or go to bed hungry. Rulers across the world have taken the easy way of stoking fears in their people, in promoting aggression rather than peace. Herod rules our modern kingdoms, we have let our faith alienate rather than reconcile, we have forgotten service in exchange for the easier path of piety without community.

Jesus is born on the fringe so that we move our eyes away from ourselves. The message of Christmas is that a light breaks out in the darkness of winter, that death and evil have no place in the world to come. Jesus chose to be among us, to be a child and to live a full human life. Jesus did so as a poor person, as someone who would spend their youth fleeing those who would have him killed, a life spent with an empty stomach. Poor, born to a woman the world had decided was unclean, Jesus became fully human by taking on the life of someone who we would often overlook. When we see the poor, do we see Jesus? When we see the needy, do we love them as we would our savior? When we see children suffering, do we adore them as we do this child in this manger?

Christ is born today, the light of salvation shines. We have hope now, hope that endures. The promise that all oppression will cease and our deep darkness end. The light of Christ, the only light that endures from everlasting to everlasting is offered freely to us all. We prepare through Advent and now at Christmas, to receive this light. We must not let it go out, we must not keep it to ourselves, we must spread the light of our Savior. We must seek it on the fringe, shine a light on the troubles of the world, love the Christ child in the needy around us. – Amen