Sermon preached by the Rev’d Adam Yates
St. Paul’s on the Green, Norwalk, CT
The Nativity of Our Lord – December 25, 2011
Christmas is a cozy holiday. The coziness starts sometime around Thanksgiving when the first Christmas songs sound out on the radio. It continues as we decorate our homes and start to receive cards in the mail. It builds as we undertake our own holiday rituals: visiting the Macy’s window displays, attending the Nutcracker, watching, “It’s a Wonderful Life” on television, baking cookies, or singing Christmas carols. It reaches its climax as many people gather together with family and friends, go to church, exchange gifts, and spend time together. It is a holiday filled with traditions, and for many people, it is a holiday that brings with it memories of happy times in years past—a cozy holiday indeed.
While coming together with family and friends is important and there is nothing wrong with having holiday traditions and taking part in our collective remembering of happy times past—at the risk of sounding trite—this is an incomplete understanding of Christmas. At the same time, I would argue that Christmas is also incomplete if we think of it only as the happy and much heralded birth story of Jesus, a time of nativity scenes and pageants, itself a very cozy understanding of this holy day. While we often enjoy a cozy story, sometimes what we need is a dangerous story to help us to see what is happening around us. Luckily the Christmas story, at its core, is not cozy, but is a very dangerous story.
To understand why Christmas is a dangerous story, we must look beneath the story of angels heard on high, beneath the scenes of lowly cattle lovingly gazing at the infant child, beneath the manger itself. Christmas is dangerous because it is the story of two realities colliding. One was the reality of Emperor Augustus and of peasants and shepherds who hung on to life at the edge of society, a reality of great power and wealth that fed off of the oppression and suffering of many. The other is the reality of a God who would walk among us as one of us, of a God who would heal the sick, feed the hungry, and bring redress to the afflicted, a God who would welcome all people into the fold, a God who cares passionately for humanity and creation.
Christmas is dangerous because it is the story of two narratives competing for how we understand the world. The narrative of human righteousness and sufficiency against the narrative of grace and our dependence on God, the narrative of humans who hunger for power against the narrative of a God who thirsts for justice, the narrative of humans who would make themselves into God against the narrative of a God who would make God’s self into a human.
To understand Christmas is to understand that it is about how the story changed, how the world and reality shifted. It is about how everything we thought we knew went out the window. It is the story of a restless God who longs deeply for justice and holds a vision of what creation can be. It is the story of a God who broke into history in order to become human and live, love, and die as one of us, and in so doing, shares with us that vision for creation, a vision of salvation.
Christmas is the story of a body politic, a society, broken and no longer working and in the midst of it, God entering and showing us a new way of relating to God and each other in the world. Christmas challenges us to consider how it is that we care for each other, how we take care of the sick and the hungry, how we practice justice and righteousness as a whole society. Christmas forces us to question how it is that we allow children to live homeless on our streets, whether we provide healthcare for those who can’t afford it, whether we value profit over the quality of human life, whether we treat all people as having value and dignity, regardless of race, gender, religion, immigration status, or sexual orientation. The Christmas story is, at its core, a political story. It is a story so political and dangerous that it could end in only one way. But that is a story for another time.
What we need now, in this time, is the Christmas Story! We live in a world in the midst of an upheaval. The old ways are broken, they don’t fit anymore and have lead us to absurdities: we live in a world where we have banks that are too big to fail and children who are not valuable enough to educate; where politicians feel comfortable using homophobia in their campaigns even as LGBT youth are committing suicide at a frightening rate; where we have audiences at political debates who would rather let someone die than pay for their healthcare out of our collective wealth. Something is fundamentally wrong, and I think we can all feel it. It is why we’ve had protests across our own country and across the countries of the world. It is why our politics seem to get increasingly polarized every year—the world is changing and it scares us, so we all are digging in our heels and burying our heads in the sands of rhetoric.
Yes, what we need most right now is the Christmas Story, because it is a dangerous story and because it is also a story of hope. It is a story of hope because at a time when the Emperor and the Empire seemed to fill the entire world, in a time when there seemed to be nothing but despair and hopelessness for the poor and the suffering, God entered. It is the story of a God restless for justice and mercy. It is the story that reminds us that we do not worship a God who simply sits quietly in the corner, waiting to hear our prayers when we are feeling bad—we worship an active God who is at work in the world around us. It is a story that reveals to us that even when things seem to be at their worst, when hope feels all but dead, God is at work bringing us closer to God’s vision for creation by creating new hope and new life, that God is born to us a child.
When we hear the Christmas Story in this time and place, the question we must ask ourselves is where do we see God at work in the world? Where is the new hope, the new life that God is creating? Where is the Christ child being born in our midst? The Christmas Story tells us that the new life will likely be where we least expect it; will we recognize it? How might God be preparing to break our expectations?
Equally important, how will we, both individually and as the church, react to God’s new life when we do find it? Will we be like the Emperor, and be scared of what God is doing, fighting against it tooth and nail? After all, the status quo is comfortable and the church benefits from its position of power and authority within society. Will we be like the shepherds, expectantly waiting for the Good News of new life? This seems to be a common course for church communities, we quietly tend after our own flock, eagerly awaiting the good news, but being utterly passive in our waiting. Perhaps we will be like the angels, actively and loudly proclaiming for all to hear the new life, the new hope, born into the world. Or maybe, just maybe, the church will be like Mary, and give birth to God’s new life.
So have hope, my sisters and brothers, and keep watch for God’s work in the world, for God’s new life, for look, your God is coming even now. May the Christmas Story burn brightly in your hearts this season. Amen.