Christmas Eve 2016
This is the night Love was born. This is the night we sing some of the most familiar melodies of all time and hear a story that many of us could give a pretty accurate re-telling of, even if you haven’t picked up a Bible in years. This is the night that God Almighty, all-powerful and all-knowing chose to be confined to a human state. This is the night God revealed that Divine nature would be humble and fragile, and that Divine entrance would be announced by shepherds and angels.
God on high living among the lowly, eternal presence becoming mortal, maker of all things being carried in the womb of a teenager — all these confounding characteristics are what we call the incarnation.
Incarnation is indeed a pivotal cornerstone of the Christian faith, the understanding of God’s place in our lives and world is born out of the incarnational promise that God is not watching us from a distance as crooner Bette Midler would have us believe, but our Lord and Maker is instead intimately working and redeeming us as we struggle with our own lowly, mortal lives. Martin Luther said it this way,
“This is the kingdom of faith in which the cross of Christ rules, throwing down the divinity we desired and recovering our humanity and despised weakness of the flesh we abandoned.”
The incarnation of God in the form of the Christ child was God being God and though we are rebellious and proud, in this birthing moment we are freed and made into the people of God.
This loving act of incarnation is the foundation of the Christian faith, yet we don’t hear so much about this at Christmas time. Incarnation doesn’t exactly fit into the catchy Christmas tunes or read so well on a necklace. During the Christmas season which begins sometime in mid-October we hear of “cheer” and “wonder” which look so great on Christmas cards and “hope” and “joy” fit onto the ornaments. Now, cheer and hope are beautiful things to be lifting up and sending out into our communities, but I dare say that they do not even begin to capture the fullness of the incarnational gift of the Christ child. But who can fit “incarnational gift of the Christ child” on the Christmas card?
Is it possible, that over the years, have we become desensitized to the miracle of Emmanuel?
Are we too familiar with the story to gasp at the promise born as a baby?
Does the incarnational gift of the Christ child have a place in our lives?
Or, to put it more succinctly — Jesus is born…so, what?
Let’s tell the truth for a moment, many of us are more than ready to turn the calendar to a new year. The year of 2016 has been full of trials and tribulations — national, community, person trials. I stumbled upon an article that was laying out the most significant events of 2016 and as I read my way through the list there was a clear theme of division and hatred, prejudice and the pervasive sin of indifference.
Our national election, international hacking, the Syrian humanitarian crisis and continued civil war, increases of shootings on people of color and hate crimes. Water crises in Michigan and North Dakota and the unknowing the fate of so many refugees, families, and children.
Does that incarnational gift of the Christ child really have anything to do with our bound, violent, reality?
Tonight we confess our faith and by the power of the holy spirit we say “Yes”. Yes, our Savior’s birth must speak to our lives and to the lives of the lowly in our world. People of God, we are the people of God because of this Christ child. We are washed in waters of forgiveness, we are told to go to the manager and see the Messiah, the promised One fulfilling the promises of God and liberating all those who are in captive to sin and self. We are invited to work in God’s kingdom which, as Luther said, is ruled over with the cross of mercy and favors the lowly, the hurting, the marginalized, the sinner. We are promised that God Almighty has made us into a new creation, a creature of redemption and hope and life eternal. People of God, that is how the incarnation touches us, transforms us.
And if that all sounds like churchy-high-holy speak, and sometimes, it does to me too…then we need to pause even longer at the manger until we can see the miracle of Emmanuel, until the familiar story of Christmas becomes the story we live, until we can see the incarnational gift of the Christ child pushing us to serve our neighbors because they are hurting and holy too.
A few nights ago I was having dinner with some college friends and ended up sitting across from my dear friend who is also a pastor. She began telling us a story about a woman from another culture and country who is now working in the US as a surgeon. This woman was thriving professionally but suffering emotionally and spiritually.
During her wandering in a foreign land this woman somehow wandered into my friend’s church just a few weeks ago as the Advent season was beginning. She was greeting with a smile, she was offered a seat in the sanctuary, she was welcomed to share her beautiful singing voice with the choir. And after two weekends of this kind treatment she told my friend, the pastor, that she had never experienced this God before. Being welcomed and accepted by church ushers and choir directors this woman felt as though she did not dare leave the parking lot for fear that she might fall from grace and this love she had experienced would go away. You see, the narrative for her whole life was comprised of messages of not-belonging, not being worthy enough or clean enough or loved enough to enter into a holy space like a church. With reverence and awe my friend told this woman about Jesus, born in the most unworthy, unclean way who came with love for every single person on this earth. My friend told me this story with tears in her eyes, she felt the miracle of the Christmas birth she had heard so many times before because she was seeing it come to life for the first time in the heart of a stranger. The power of grace covered both the wandering woman and the pastor as they encountered each other.
Tonight we worship God because Jesus has been born and hearing of redemption in another’s story gives us the the response to that “So, what?” question. The implications of this “incarnational gift of the Christ child” are astounding! Through God’s embrace of our lot and our lives, we not only learn about God – that God is love, that God will not give up on us — we also learn something about ourselves and, indeed, the whole creation. That we have worth. That we and the whole creation is of precious value to God. God came to dwell in ordinary human flesh and in this way hallowed it and all creation and so set the pattern for us to similarly honor each other and the whole created order.
God does see the suffering of our world and out of love brings the incarnational gift of the Christ child to all those who live in fear…so when you light your candle tonight, I encourage you to sing and pray not just for yourself, but also for the homeless, the refugee, the young parents, the wars in our world, the injustice we live in. Because this story about a homeless refugee born to an unwed teenage mom in an occupied land has something to say to us. And may that grace be born in us, brilliantly and fervently lighting this world.
Yet in thy dark streets shineth
The everlasting Light
The hopes and fears of all the years
Are met in thee tonight
Come, Lord Jesus. Amen.