Sermon preached by the Reverend Nicholas Lang
St. Paul’s on the Green, Norwalk, CT
The Eve of the Nativity of Our Lord – December 24, 2014
It is always such a gift to see so many of us gathered here in this sacred space on Christmas Eve making our celebration a festival of worship, reflection, carols, and the sharing of Holy Food and Drink. Indeed, it is for us a place of sanctuary from the harsh realities of life and of the world, much like the manger offered a safe haven for the Christ Child. Humorist storyteller Garrison Keillor says that “A lovely thing about Christmas is that it’s compulsory, like a thunderstorm, and we all go through it together.”
This Christmas seems a mixed bag for me. We have seen children slaughtered in Pakistan and the Dow passing 18,000 for the first time. People are engaged in Christmas parties, buying gifts, storming Stew Leonard’s and yet enraged in their aggressive, hazardous driving. There is evidence of great abundance evidenced in full shopping carts and still we have been asked by the local shelter to remember the names of the homeless who died this year in Norwalk.
We sing about “Peace on earth, good will to all” and live in one of the most precarious times of racial and ethnic tension since the 1960’s.
There is good news about economic growth and still people are out of work and the poor get poorer. And it is difficult to have a “Holly, Jolly Christmas” if one is living with loss, depression, in the wake of a broken relationship or shattered dreams.
Yet all of that is the very reason for Christmas.
You see there was a time when all the angels where gathered for an important conversation with God. Things were in a mess down on earth and God was terribly concerned about the state of affairs: wars, oppression, poverty, violence and the like.
“I’ve tried everything,” God said. “Though my prophets, I have sent them some of the most beautiful words they could ever hope to hear. Think of the glorious psalms, the hymns, the poetic passages of Isaiah. They love to read about peace and goodwill, but they don’t like to live it!
There was widespread discussion of the myriad of problems on earth. Many of the angels – Gabriel, Michael, and others had been down there on many an occasion. They had seen for themselves the sources of God’s lament and shared God’s concern.
“I think the only thing left is for one of you, a member of the heavenly court, to go down to earth. Live with them, not just for a moment, but every day. Get to know them, become one of them, let them get to know you. Only then will there be any hope of heaven being truly communicated to earth. Only then will they understand the great gap between how the world operates and my dream for the way they I created them to live.
The angels stood around in awkward silence. Seriously? They had been to earth before, to deliver messages from God or to effect some momentary intervention in human affairs. They weren’t about to volunteer for long-term duty there. Brief visits were enough, thank you very much.
The silence lasted for an eternity. Finally, God broke the silence. Quietly, determinedly, but without any sense of resignation and no bitterness, God said, “Then I will go.” “And Mary gave birth to her first born son and wrapped him in bands of cloth and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.”
If Christmas tells us anything, it reminds us that we find God in the most unexpected places. We tend to look for God in the comfortable, the clean and the warm. We expect we’ll find God in church and in our Bible. Meanwhile, God appears in a stable surrounded by animals and simple, dumbstruck shepherds. And God still appears in ways that we may find strange, even outrageous, and so often catches us—as once in Bethlehem—by complete surprise. God gives us Jesus as the ultimate unimaginable event where God became flesh and lives among us.
Artists throughout the centuries have painted this night with deep sentimentality and royal elegance. Yet the truth is that God came down to us in the form of a baby who hungered for his mother’s milk, soiled the swaddling clothes, and may even have had a case of colic. Jesus was born in a stable which was the prison of animals. It was four rough walls, a dirt floor, a roof of beams, mud, and straw. It was dark and cold and stank of manure. In a sense, Jesus was born homeless, a wandering traveler away from his true home.
And the paradox of Christmas is that, amidst all of the symbols and expressions of joyfulness and glee, there is probably a little piece of each of us that feels just that way—a wandering traveler way from our home, maybe not unlike the shepherds on that first Christmas.
The news of Jesus’ birth does not ring in the throne room of Caesar nor is it “breaking news” in prominent places. Ordinary, often denigrated people are the first to hear the good news. From his very birth, Jesus befriends those at the very margins of our world. The good news is first heard by powerless, anonymous individuals who yearned for true peace. The “important people” were not present when Jesus was born.
Many years ago, an elderly Irish woman greeted me after the Christmas Eve service and said, “It’s a night of miracles, Father!” I just love that wonderful, Celtic perspective on life. It is, indeed, a night of miracles and, in spite of all the troubles in the world, I have witnessed many of them right here in this community. I have seen the light shine on those who walked in deep darkness. The magic of this night is not lost in or confined to Bethlehem but is here with us.
The Christmas Gospel tells us that God is alive and at work in our world, that Christ is born again and again when our lives are transformed by his love, when people are reconciled with one another, where peace is given at least half a chance, where the poor are fed and clothed, the homeless are given shelter, outcasts are invited in, the despairing are offered hope.
Many years ago, author G. K. Chesterton wrote, “The place that the shepherds found was not an academy or an abstract republic; it was not a place of myths allegorized or dissected or explained away. It was a place of dreams come true.” May the God of all our dreams bless you with the peace that passes all understanding and rejoice your heart on this Christmas. For it is, indeed, a night of miracles.