Christmas Eve, December 24, 2019, the Rev. Louise Kalemkerian
Sermon preached by the Reverend Louise Kalemkerian
St. Paul’s on the Green, Norwalk, CT
O holy child of Bethlehem, descend to us we pray. In the name of God who love us unconditionally, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. AMEN
It is roughly 100 miles from Nazareth to Bethlehem. According to Google Maps, it would take 34 hours to travel it on foot, not counting stops for rest. And of course, Google does not factor in contingencies such as marauding bandits, deep rain-washed wadis cutting through the path, inns with no room, or full-term pregnancies. Nor does Google note that Bethlehem now is surrounded by a huge wall separating it from Nazareth. But this long, wearying, unpredictable journey is, according to Luke, is precisely what Joseph and Mary undertake.
Last summer I went to both Bethlehem and Nazareth. On our way to Bethlehem, we stopped outside the town at Shepherds’ Field. A large open field, from which one could see Jerusalem in the distance. One could imagine the shepherds were in it that night or one similar to it, trying to keep warm, awake and mind their animals.
Not far from that open field were caves. We climbed down into one, which was one large space, hardly a room, just a space, where according to the guide, 1st century families lived. And in the back of the cave, there was a smaller space where families kept their animals, animals whose body heat would keep the family warm. Mary may have gone into such a small space to have the privacy to deliver her baby.
This is the story we tell on this night, a paradoxical story. We repeat the story of the miraculous birth that was foretold by the Hebrew Scriptures. The Messiah was foreseen to be the king of kings. The prince of peace. The promised healer who would raise up the broken and restore them to wholeness.
That this young peasant couple delivered a child in a cave in Bethlehem. A child, tiny and weak, vulnerable and dependent, who reveals the deepest truths about God. For with the birth of Jesus, God chose to enter the most fragile part of human life, in order to transform it to glory. And God chose to reveal this first to the shepherds in Bethlehem. Not to the rich or the powerful or the influential, but to the ordinary people who worked in the fields with sheep.
The world is not much different now than it was 2000 years ago. Poverty, illness, income inequality, government corruption was as rampant then as now. It was into this world that Jesus came, for which he lived, and died. Then as now, a world where our lives are marred by struggle and pain. Our huddling here on Christmas Eve, at the time of the winter solstice when the days are at their darkest, is our acknowledgement of our need for hope and joy in lives that often are not easy.
Christmas is God’s answer to the darkness we face. And the heavenly message is always the same: “Fear not.” Those are the angel Gabriel’s first words to Mary. They are the angels’ words to shepherds in the fields. Jesus is the light shining in the darkness. The Herods of the world do their best to extinguish that light. And yet Jesus still shines in the darkness.
Our message is the same this year as it is every year—that darkness does not win, not ultimately, not in our hearts and not in the world. And that goodness wins over evil, not in every instance but ultimately, for God is God and God is good, bringing again and again inextinguishable light in a world that often opts for darkness.
And that as a community of believers we, you and me, attempt to be a part of that light, claiming our hope and our conviction that the light will continue to shine and that we will love one another, living as much like Jesus as we can—the adult Jesus, the Prince of Peace, the one who brings good will to all. This is the essence of Christmas, the kernel of eternal truth that manages to survive forever, that God desires to be in relationship with each of us.
In fact, Christmas didn’t really begin with shepherds, and angels. It began with a life of immense freedom and love. It began with a young man walking through the hills and valleys of Palestine, teaching about a kingdom of peace and joy right here at hand, and calling people to live in it. It began with people being given back their sight, their dignity, and hope, by Jesus’ healing words and touch. And it began with his gathering around him the losers and outcasts of his society and treating them as royalty.
Strangely enough, an instrument of torture, a cross, was part of the beginning of Christmas, because that perfect love was willing to be mocked and put to death. And ultimately Christmas began with an empty tomb, and the conviction that he was alive, and that death and darkness had been conquered for good.
Through all that, people began to believe that the Messiah had come. That the mind at the core of space and time loved them and had come to live with them to draw them into lives of hope and peace.
Luke’s story is saying that the secret of the universe won’t be found in Rome, or in the White House for that matter, or along the canyons of Wall Street, or among the scholars at great universities. No, the mystery of the Incarnation is revealed in the most unexpected of places—in a squalling child born to a young mother and her faithful but troubled husband as they are bandied about by the forces of empire.
And who are the first to receive the news of the Messiah? Not the cultured and educated, so distracted with their important agendas, but the poorest of the poor, the ignorant and troublesome shepherds. It comes to those who are willing to listen to unexpected voices that seem like angelic messengers, and to follow their unexpected lead.
It is a strange, even stunning thing, isn’t it — for God to take the risk of coming to us in this tiny child in a lost corner of the Roman Empire? Could it be the Master of the Universe rules this Universe only with the power of love — a love that refuses to coerce or control, but gives the universe and us freedom to grow and to become? Could it be that to serve this Master is to give ourselves to lives of compassion and generosity, and that the deepest call we have is to find our way to care for the hungry, the broken, and the lost?
That is what the birth of that child is about. It is about a God who has only love to give. It is a love so deep that God chose to become vulnerable as a newborn child, to lie in a manger, entirely dependent on two fragile human beings to love him in return.
This baby we regard tonight became a man who was killed for preaching we should love all persons as we love ourselves, and for proclaiming the Good News of God’s Kingdom where barriers and restrictions are removed and all are welcome at God’s banquet table.
The mystery of Bethlehem disarms us, for it reverses our expectations and our experience. It shows us that God does not reject human weakness, frustration or dependence. It shows us that if we are to look where God is coming to us in our lives and in the world we should look where it is dark and cold and where we feel most alone.
The mystery of Bethlehem is that it doesn’t matter how dark or cold things are, Jesus is born and God’s light breaks through the darkness. The mystery of Bethlehem is that wherever you are, Jesus is waiting to be born in the stable of your heart and the glory of God’s light is waiting to dawn in your life. The mystery of Bethlehem is that even in the darkest days of December, Jesus is born and God’s light breaks forth.
Christmas brings us back to a crib in a manger where a baby cries with the delight of new life and implores us to start over, aware of the year that has gone before, full of hope that the life of this Holy Child of Bethlehem will once again teach us what it takes to live well and make the world even just a little safer, healthier, more compassionate planet than it was in the year we are leaving behind us. May God make it so.
 Thomas Long, The Christian Century, December 10, 2014.