On Christmas and chaos...
Since I don't have to preach tomorrow, or this Christmas, I'll throw this one up here too, which touches on the same general theme - how we face and handle tragedy, especially in this season; if any of my preacher friends wants to use, quote, edit. etc. feel free. If I were preaching tomorrow, I think this is the direction I would go - the Christmas story isn't supposed to be easy - the reality is rooted in a story of oppression, fear, and violence (think of Herod's slaughter of the children), but the Good News is that God is present in the midst of it all...
Byron First UMC
24 December 2010
Christmas Eve Service
Did you ever stop to think about what it would have been like to have been there? Imagine, if you had a time machine and could go back to Bethlehem at the time of Jesus’ birth, what would you expect to see?
I think in our minds, at least in my mind, we have this picture of a very peaceful, quiet, pleasant place. Sure, Jesus was placed in a manger, because there was no room in the inn, but in your mind isn’t it a very clean, warm, inviting manger – something like a nice little cottage with a straw floor, and a few animals calmly sitting outside? And what sounds to you hear? Is it a “Silent Night, Holy Night” free from even the sounds of a crying newborn?
Did Jesus really enter this world in this very ideal serene setting? Or was it possibly a little more complicated. See, when we sing those hymns about silent nights and babies who don’t cry, we are singing about something that is in the imagination of a particular hymn writer, and it may have happened that way, but what’s interesting to me is that there is nothing in Scripture to support that view.
Luke’s Gospel doesn’t say that the newborn Jesus didn’t cry or even that the night was particularly peaceful.
In fact if we really stop to consider what was going on – the small, somewhat rural town found itself suddenly overwhelmed with visitors on account of a census being ordered by the Roman government – it would suggest that Bethlehem may have been anything but peaceful. Imagine if everyone with family ties to Byron – going back 100 years or more, suddenly showed up here tonight – if our town was suddenly flooded with visitors from all over the country. Now I know some of you might actually be getting a taste of that tonight – but what if it wasn’t just the kids and grandkids back in town, but all your nieces and nephews, second and third cousins, people you didn’t even know you are related to, who show up at your door looking for a place to stay? I think that night in Bethlehem must have been this incredibly strange mix of a big party – a great family reunion where everyone is getting together and reconnecting, but also a time of political resentment, maybe even anger at the Roman government for mandating this census, plus just a whole bunch of chaos and confusion as everyone tries to figure out where they can sleep and what they need to have in order for the census. On the night Jesus was born, Bethlehem was in all likelihood a busy, bustling, noisy place.
And then add into the mix this young couple, in a place far from home, expecting their first child – conceived under very unusual circumstances. Even with that assurance that God was going to see them through, they must have been had that same nervousness and worry that all first-time parents get. Surely they felt that same excitement and fear when Mary’s water broke, “Ready or not, the baby’s on his way.” There is nothing to suggest that Mary didn’t feel that same labor pains every woman who gives birth experiences (and keep in mind this is well before the time of epidurals and medication to ease the mother’s discomfort). There is nothing to suggest that Jesus’ birth wasn’t accompanied by the very same blood, sweat, and tears that accompany every labor and delivery. Not to mention that important detail that the baby Jesus was placed in a manger – in the Greek the word is used to describe a feeding trough or animal stall – which certainly wouldn’t have been the most hygienic place to have a newborn, especially if there were animals around. But then, Messiah or not, even with all the confusion and unexpected moments that night brought, Mary and Joseph must have felt overwhelmed with love, and gratitude, and that happiness that goes beyond words, when they held that precious little baby.
See, what I think it important for us to acknowledge and remember this night is that Jesus was born into our world, into the real world – not one that is sanitized and perfect, but one that is chaotic and messy, where there are tears of joy and tears of sorrow, where people get emotional – some are angry at the government, while others are just grateful to hold a healthy and happy baby. There were certainly some unusual elements surrounding Jesus’ birth that night – the appearance of angels and shepherds sent to bare witness – but I think we have to be very careful about making this story too idyllic, too picture-perfect, too other-worldly, because it undermines the very nature, and purpose, and message of Jesus Christ – God’s Son sent into our imperfect world so that we might know God’s perfect love.
In the midst of the pain and the fear and the hope and the joy and the blood and the sweat, in a small, almost insignificant town called Bethlehem nearly 2000 years ago – God entered our world in whole new way, and because of it we are forever changed.
And what about our lives? Do you find yourself hoping this year will be a picture perfect Christmas, where the food is impeccable and everyone gets exactly what they dreamed of? Do you want that fairly-tale Christmas where no one gets sick, no one argues or gets upset, and there isn’t a worry in the world?
Maybe that will happen, but as much as I hate to break it to you, most of us aren’t going to see it – we’ll have a good Christmas, but it won’t be perfect.
It won’t be perfect, because we don’t live in a perfect world. We live in world where there is still a lot of darkness – too much fear, too much violence, too much pain, sickness, uncertainty and sorrow. But what we also know is that the light of Christ, when entered the world so long ago, still shines today.
Even in our brokenness, even in our doubts, our disappointments, our tears, even in our imperfect celebrations of Christmas, God still reigns – God continues to be present, and God continues to be at world in the world.
Sometimes we don’t see it – keep in mind there was a whole town completely unaware of Jesus’ birth, except for Mary and Joseph and a few simple shepherds, but that doesn’t mean that it isn’t happening. Sometimes God’s greatest works, God’s greatest wonders happen so subtlety, so quietly, that the majority of people miss out on the miracle even when it is in their midst.
Christmas isn’t God’s promise that everything is going to be perfect. Christmas isn’t God’s promise that our every wish will come true.
Christmas is the revelation and the declaration of the depth of God’s love for us. Christmas is the proclamation that “God so loves the world, that he sent his Son,” a son who entered the world with the absolute vulnerability of a newborn child – entered into a world that is messy and violent, painful and sad, to show us a new way of living, a new way of understanding God, a new way of relating to God.
A son foretold many years before by the prophet Isaiah, who told us he shall be called Emmanuel, which means, “God is with us.”
God is with us – that is the great Good News of this night – God is with us – in our joy and in our sorrow, in our hopes and in our disappointments. That is the message all the world needs to know, needs to hear.
To everyone who is struggling with the hardships of this Michigan economy – to everyone who has been laid off – God is with you.
To those who are filled with gratitude that God has helped you make it through another year – God is with you.
To men and women dealing with illness – to those waiting for a diagnosis, and those celebrating this day from a hospital bed – God is with you.
To parents and grandparents, aunts and uncles who understand that joy Mary and Joseph felt on a night like this – God is with you.
To parents who can’t understand some of the decisions their children have made – to those who want to step in and fix everything, but know they can’t – God is with you.
To children whose hearts are simply filled with the wonder and the magic of this season – God is with you.
To those who feel distant from God, or are angry with God – to those who feel like they are just going through the motions and to those who can’t even come inside the doors of a church even on a night like this – God is with you.
To those who are feeling alive and on fire for God, who feel overwhelmed at all God has done, and eagerly anticipate what God is going to do in 2011 (and who probably don’t need to hear me tell you this) – God is with you.
To everyone who is feeling the sting of loneliness and isolation – to those who yearn to be in relationship, but have yet to find that special someone, and to those who are missing loved ones tonight – God is with you.
God is with you – God is with us – no matter what we are thinking and feeling and dealing with this night. When God came into the world the heavenly angels sang, and the lowly shepherds came out to see – God’s claim is on all of us: rich and poor, foolish and wise, people who’ve got it all figured out and the ones that don’t have a clue. God is with us. God entered into this world so that we might know his love has no end.
God’s light still shines in the darkness and the darkness will never overcome it. Tonight isn’t a night to cover up the pain and the sorrow and the hurt we bring with us, we don’t need to pretend like it isn’t there. Tonight is a night to celebrate the fact that God is greater than all that stuff the world throws at us. Jesus was born into the messy, uncertain world so that we might know God’s unfathomable love, and he even endures the pain of the cross for us – the story that begins with blood, sweat and tears, ends there too… except that isn’t the end of the story. Death isn’t God’s final word. The story concludes with resurrection – of live beyond death that is only possible by God’s power and grace – a witness that
God’s will is always on the side of healing and wholeness, of forgiveness and new life.
And God wants us to be a part of that. “God is with us” – that part of the covenant, the promise, has already been established, the question for us is, are we with God? Are we ready to invite God into the messiness of our lives and let Christ be born in us? Are we ready to receive the King of Kings who was born this night and start living as citizens of his kingdom? Are we ready to follow his commands to “Love the Lord your God with all our heart, and mind, and soul and strength,” and love our neighbors every bit as much as we love ourselves? Are we ready to forgive – not just 7 times, but 70 times 7, are we ready to turn the other cheek, feed the hungry, care for the sick, and visit the imprisoned? Are we ready to not only receive the holy light of God’s joy, peace, hope and love, and not just keep it for ourselves – not just hide it under a bushel, but let it shine for all the world to see, and share it so that others might live in the light, too?
Sometimes around this time of year, you’ll hear that old John Lennon song on the radio – the one that begins, “So this is Christmas, and what have you done, another year older, and new one just begun.” In that lyric there is a cynical edge that begs the question for all who follow Jesus – how has Christmas changed you? Has the birth of the Christ child made any difference in your life? And have you done anything to help make the world more Christ-like through your love, action, prayer and service?
Maybe as you look back over the past year you can see those places where you have fallen short, where you haven’t lived the Christ-like life God has called you to live. If so, there are three things you need to know – 1. God is still with you, God hasn’t given up on you; 2. God forgives you; and 3.
Today is a new day, may it be a day and the start of a whole new year where we are ready to receive and celebrate the King.
No matter what you might find wrapped under the Christmas tree tomorrow morning, know this one thing – you have already been given the most precious gift ever – God’s Son, given for you so that you might know God’s love and live in God’s grace. And this isn’t just a present for you to keep for yourself – the light of Christ is now yours to chare with the entire world – not just once a year, but each and every day.
God is with us, God has done some amazing things for us, and God’s work isn’t finished. May we life as Christmas people this and every day, rejoicing in the God’s power and presence in all that life brings. Amen.