Christmas Eve, December 24, 2018
Year C, Christmas Eve: Isaiah 9:2-7; Psalm 96; Titus 2:11-14; Luke 2:1-14, [15-20]
There was no recording of this sermon.
“They were terrified. But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for see – I am bringing you good news of great joy for all people.
Tonight’s Gospel story places us in a world where many were right to be terrified. The Emperor Augustus was the first Roman emperor. The Romans had been conquering other territories. Augustus, however, was the one who brought one-man rule and consolidated the world empire. He was the first who could decree that the world, his world, the Roman world, should be enrolled and taxed. Augustus had a lot of power; for one thing, he had at his disposal the Roman army, which also served as the police force; that army was never known for restraint and gentleness in enforcing Augustus’ decrees.
It was indeed a fearful time for most people. Everyone was being herded back to their place of origin. I don’t know about you, but if I were a young man and young woman being forced to travel almost a hundred miles without benefit of a bus, a train, or an automobile, it sounds pretty frightening and exhausting, especially if I were ready to give birth. I’ve always said that when someone tells me to not be afraid, I’m pretty darn sure there’s a good reason to be afraid.
Jesus was born into this real world a world with its stresses, and dangers and joys. I recall once as a Sunday School teacher, I had a ‘tween boy, who was very smart and also very self-assured in his knowledge of the world. He argued that Jesus never existed. Mind you, his mother became an Episcopal priest – he was definitely more his father’s son, I assure you. I told him that ancient texts document the life of Jesus. This young man wanted concrete proof. I asked him how he knew that George Washington existed. He told me history. I told him that’s the same way we know Jesus existed.
We cannot prove Jesus’ existence scientifically. We can’t use what is the gift of this year, a DNA testing kit, to prove Jesus’ existence. We can be sure, however, that Jesus was not an abstract child living in an idealized world where everything was comfortable and idyllic. We know that the rituals of Christmas were first recorded as happening in Rome in about 336.
The birth, the coming of Jesus into the world as a human, as a baby, is not myth – it’s reality. Seventeen hundred years of tradition provides a lot of context and documentation for the birth, life, and death of Christ. 200 years of tradition of Silent Night, which was first sung on Christmas Eve, 1818. 150 years of “O Little Town of Bethlehem, Christmas Eve, 1868 and 100 years of “Christmas Lessons and Carols” from Kings College in Cambridge. My own sense of history and tradition, and my faith tells me that Christ was born in a real time and place, to parents facing a world as complex as our own.
In the complexity of this world, Christ is real and God’s action takes place through other people, even just for a moment.
I want to share a story that was published in 1996 in the Philadelphia Daily News. It speaks to the real meaning of Christmas and how Jesus comes among us through people and events in their lives.
“This holiday season, I paused to evaluate my values, beliefs and supposed good deeds.
I have always considered myself a good person, evidenced by my commitment to social justice, donations to charity, history of volunteer service and perpetual prayer for those less fortunate.
Why, just the previous week, I had written a check to a favorite charity in memory of my parents. Let no one tell me I don’t know the true meaning of Christmas!
It was now acceptable to turn my focus on this December morning. My car had been delivered to the detailing center to ensure its shiny look for the holiday. Walking briskly towards my office, I mentally ticked off the last-minute details.
What last gifts would make my holiday giving complete? Should I buy my grandmother the telephone I had seen the day before? Did I have enough wrapping paper? Would I get out of work early on Christmas Eve so I could start the pork roast, serve dinner and be in church by 9:30 p.m.? How long would it take to stop at Weight Watchers and still be on time to celebrate a pre-Christmas birthday with my friends’ 93-year-old aunt?
As I worried about these matters, I sidestepped a woman who was struggling with a girl about 8 years old and three large trash bags. Rather than offer my assistance, I walked to the side.
Jolting me back to reality was the sound of another human being. A man stopped and asked, ‘Where d’ya have to go with that, sweetheart?’ She thanked him and told him she needed to get to the city’s Office of Emergency Services, to seek, I presume, shelter for herself and her daughter. The gentleman then kindly picked up a bag from the mother and the bag from the girl and proceeded to walk up the street, carrying what were probably all their worldly goods.
At that moment, Christmas became real once again. No more trees to trim, no more gifts to buy, only an act of kindness by a stranger toward another who had no shelter, no place to sleep during this most holy season. I saw the baby Jesus incarnate within that little girl, and Joseph and Mary walking toward the manger.
I had forgotten the true meaning of Christmas that morning. How often we become wrapped up in ourselves and forget the true meaning of the season. For the New Year, I seek the courage and strength to offer my gifts to that stranger and to practice random acts of kindness. How can I expect others to offer what I have myself not offered?”
Your rector is not terribly proud to admit that she is the author of that letter, but in a moment of grace, I was reminded that Christmas is about the offering of God’s love to us, and our offering of God’s love to the world around us. Tonight, we are minded again of the wonderful news that God came into our world through Christ two thousand years ago and continues to bring that light into our world.
Even in the midst of the tragedies of our lives – the times when things seem to be the lowest they can be – times when we are fearful – time of economic instability and political upheaval – even in all these times and despite all these things – God has come – Christ has been born. And God comes again, and came in Philadelphia that cold winter day in the voice of a man saying “where d’ya have to go with that, sweetheart.”
As we come around the table this evening to celebrate the Christmas feast, we celebrate the fact that God comes to make a difference in this world. And we can find Jesus in the most unexpected of places – in the face of an unknown homeless person or in the face of those dearest to us.
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