Come into our lives, gentle Jesus, surprise us with your kindness, remind us of our shared vulnerability with you and the promise that lies in this night of all nights. Amen.
A long time ago in a Galilee far, far away a birth occurred that would change the course of history, after which the world would never again be the same, yes an event even greater than the premiere of Star Wars: The Force Awakens’! It is a great joy to welcome you tonight to this glorious celebration of Christmas, this sacred night when we remember the birth of God in the flesh in the person of Jesus.
In Norman Rockwell’s classic painting, “Freedom from Want,” an extended family is gathered around the table to celebrate being home for the holidays. Fast-forward to 2015 and, while lack of food is still a problem for too many in this land of good and plenty, today we are likely to find need of a different kind—more and more people are starving for real belonging, for significant relationships, for community.
Research shows that 40 percent of Americans are chronically lonely. That’s why we are here as a church that radically welcomes all—no matter who you are, whom you choose to love, how you self-identify or where you land on the faith spectrum. If you are looking for community, you may find it here in spades.
Strange, isn’t it? We tend to look for God in the nicest of places, the clean, the warm and the comfortable. Meanwhile, God appears in a stable surrounded by animals and simple, dumbstruck shepherds. It was dark and cold and stank of manure. This baby was born into a shockingly bad world where narcissistic kings raged, wickedness flourished, babies were murdered, and women and children were regarded as third-class citizens.
God came down to us in the form of a baby who hungered for his mother’s milk, soiled his clothes, and may even have had a case of colic. This little bundle was about as heavy as a sack of flour. That is how God decided to come to us and what God decided to look like.
In her book, In Search of Belief, Sister Joan Chittister describes her visit to the crypt in the small church in Bethlehem which marks the spot where it is believed Jesus was born. It is a place of conflict and agitation. There is debate over a massive security wall that now separates Bethlehem from Jerusalem. There is debate over whether the Old City of Jerusalem should be placed in the hands of a special international group.
The Arab tour guide drove the bus through shattered towns, the streets empty, shops closed, roadblocks set up, soldiers in jeeps mounted with machine guns. They were foreigners in their own land, both the Arabs and the Jews. There was passion on both sides. Things could erupt at any moment. Every muscle in her body was tight.
She looked across the hillsides that surrounded the village and tried to imagine Mary and Joseph arriving for the required census, shepherds in the fields, the band of angels. Somewhere, she thought, Jesus had been born here, in the same environment that existed there that day—born into a culture where people were strangers in their own lands and soldiers walked the streets to control them. They lived in fear of a terrorist regime and poverty abounded. “If Jesus was born into that, and brought God’s presence into that volatile political disturbance and changed attitudes in the hearts of those whose lives he touched, then so could we,” she thought. “So must we.”
As they knelt down on the marble floor of the crypt and looked at the spot marked as the place where Jesus was purportedly born, the tourist group sang, slowly and softly, “O Little Town of Bethlehem” with new conviction and new understanding for those familiar words, “the hopes and fear of all the years are met in thee tonight.”
“And the angel said to the shepherds, ‘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.” That was God’s word to the world two thousand years ago and it is still is God’s word to us this night, in this place, in this time.
Tonight is a night when we leave our skepticism aside and muster up as much belief as we can that God is truly born among us and that even in our nation where 78% of Americans say an imminent terrorist attack is their main concern, even in the darkness of a war-torn, poverty-laden, embittered world, the impossible is still made possible and miracles can and do happen. We have only to look at that first Christmas to see that it was not a very different world into which Christ was born.
Tonight a star leads us to a real child, a belching and crying infant, the God who in choosing to enter our world in such an ordinary way, has hallowed flesh and blood, dirt and sky, and every aspect of life. And this baby grew in wisdom and grace and taught a radical ethic of unconditional love and overturned cultural and religious norms by welcoming the poor, the marginalized and the outcast.
This baby we regard tonight became a man who was killed for preaching things like we should love our enemies 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.
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.
As she looked at impoverished, embattled Bethlehem, Sister Joan Chittister pondered in her heart how Jesus had been born there, in the same environment that existed there that day—into a culture where people were strangers in their own lands and soldiers walked the streets to control them. “If Jesus was born into that, and brought God’s presence into that volatile political disturbance and changed attitudes in the hearts of those whose lives he touched, then so could we,” she thought. “So must we.”
Yes, indeed, so must we.