Over the past four weeks of the Advent season, we have talked about a lot of things.
The first week, we talked about the fragility of life and the need to not only examine our lives and the choices we are making, but also to live in continual gratitude for all that we have been given by the grace of God.
The second week, we talked about John the Baptist, the one who was sent by God to prepare the way of the Lord. I suggested that, like John, during the weeks before Christmas, we, who call ourselves disciples of Jesus Christ, must work diligently to prepare ourselves to receive him by engaging in intentional acts of repentance and turning ourselves and reorienting our lives back toward God.
On the third Sunday, we found our hero from the previous week, John the Baptist, locked up in jail and experiencing a few doubts about the role of Jesus. We talked about the precarious nature of the world and how, during times of fear and uncertainty, we need to give testimony: to look around the world to see and name the clear signs of confirmation that Jesus is, indeed, the Messiah, Emmanuel, the promised one sent by God to save the world.
And finally, last week, we talked about how Joseph’s dream wasn’t a birth narrative about Jesus. It was a narrative about Joseph’s awakening to the reality of God in the world. I suggested we all need to live not as if the statement that “God is with us” is merely a dream, but a reality that calls us to respond in word and action as disciples of Jesus Christ.
How do we respond in word and action? That question deserves a much longer answer than time allows this week. That is a sermon series in and of itself! So you’ll want to take a moment to invite people on Christmas Eve to be sure to come back for the next Sermon Series, “Come and See!” beginning January 8, 2017. In this series, we will explore the call to follow him, and the response of many different people, during the season after Epiphany.
So now we come to the evening that we have been preparing for all of these weeks. Are we ready? Are we prepared? Have we prepared the way of the Lord? Have we made his paths straight?
The familiar story of the birth of Jesus told in Luke’s Gospel seems particularly helpful for our predicament this year. As we were looking at the story as a team, we noticed that Luke’s description of the birth of Jesus brings together people from many different places and walks of life: shepherds in the field, a couple from out of town, an innkeeper, an angel of the Lord, and a terrifying heavenly host. These characters have no inherent connection to one another. But their lives intersect in a powerful encounter as together they bear witness to the birth of this extraordinary child. Their common experience and witness allows them to find unity, even in the midst of their very different circumstances of life. It allows them to feel a momentary peace. It helps them see past the past and the present to catch a glimpse of a future that could be different from what they have known. They can see in this child’s face, if only for a second, the promise of God’s kingdom.
We live in a turbulent time. As we have noted over the past four weeks, the world right now is in a precarious and even frightening period for people in the United States and its neighbors around the globe. No matter what political “side” people have been on over the past few months, the presidential election has now ended. The United States has a president-elect who will be inaugurated in just a few weeks. There are satisfied winners and disappointed losers. There are global neighbors who are excited about the outcome, and global neighbors who are concerned.
No matter who we are or how we feel, we have been united by this common experience.
Likewise, the state of the United Methodist Church as a denomination is also in a precarious and fragile state as we struggle to find a way to maintain unity while recognizing our ever-increasing diversity as we live into the reality of being a global church. It is a wonderful time, and yet it is made all the more difficult by our desire to honor the differences and wide-ranging opinions that exist within our worldwide denominational family.
So the reality is, this Christmas, families in your community may be gathering for the holidays with unresolved feelings and very different opinions about these outcomes and what they may mean for the future. There could be tension around the table in many households, tension in the wider community, and tension as we gather as congregations to celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ in our sanctuaries on Christmas Eve.
In your local church on Christmas Eve, the gathering of people in the sanctuary is likely going to include not just Democrats and Republicans, and not just progressive, moderate, and conservative United Methodists, but members and non-members, regular attendees and non-regulars, local visitors and folks who are in town for the holidays. There will be people who have not been in church since last Christmas Eve. There will be many who have not heard your series up to this point. And there will be some who really don’t believe that Jesus is the Son of God, and who came to church on Christmas Eve not to celebrate the birth of their Lord and Savior, but to please their family or loved ones.
And so — smack dab into the middle of this difficult situation of unresolved feelings, diverse opinions, religious and political differences, holiday tension, and friends sitting alongside foes — a sign of peace is born into the world.
The scene in Luke’s Gospel of the birth of Jesus is a hectic situation. It’s not just hectic because of the multitude characters involved. It is also hectic because it involves the collision of multiple and diverse scenes into this singular moment in time: the census that caused a young couple to travel a great distance across deserts and mountains on the week of their child’s birth; the “no vacancy” sign at the only inn in town; the shepherds terrified by the angel of the Lord appearing and speaking out of the night sky; the heavenly host praising God; and the child being born in a stable and laid to recover from the birth experience on a bed of hay in a manger, surrounded by his parents, animals, and curious and overwhelmed shepherds.
It is hectic.
But, then, childbirth is always hectic.
I vividly remember giving birth to my two sons. The details of those two scenes were very different, but they were equally hectic. Giving birth is not a peaceful or pleasurable event, after all. It is violent and messy and painful and frightening. And yet, in the aftermath, there is a newborn baby, swaddled in soft blankets and gently laid in your waiting arms. When you gaze upon the face of your newborn baby, you forget about the many painful months, weeks, days, and hours that preceded the moment. You forget about the sacrifices you made. You put it all behind you and simply concentrate on the incredible peace that you feel. After the violence of a birth, there is a quiet and peace that happens. There is joy, contentment, relief.
Out of the frenzy and craziness of the world situation, the political process, and the holiday season, comes a sign of peace. The birth of Jesus, his existence, his life and teachings, his death and resurrection, his promise to come again: It is a sign from God. It is a divine communication from God to all people. It is a promise that there is hope for the world.
The good news I want you to proclaim from the pulpit, wherever you serve in this great, wide world, is that on this day, in the city of David, a Savior was born. He is the Messiah, the Lord, the Prince of Peace.
This good news is not just for a certain group of people or a certain scene. This good news is for whoever has ears to hear it. It is not a general message. It is specific and personal for each member of the human family.
For those who are struggling with some sort of personal problem, it is a promise of healing.
For those who don’t believe Jesus Christ is the son of God, it is a glimpse of God’s love for all God’s children.
For those who feel like the whole world is in the violent throes of chaos and confusion, it is a moment of respite and reflection.
For those who live in darkness and fear, it casts great light: the pledge that a new day, a new week, a new year, a new life, is coming for each and every one of us.
For those who imagine that this world isn’t worth saving, it speaks a word of hope.
And for those who on this night find themselves at odds with someone or something, it offers a promise of peace that passes all understanding, now and forevermore.