by Pastor Doug Kings
As many of you will not have heard it, I thought I would share the text of my sermon from our “Christmas Eve” outdoor service on December 23.
What are we doing out here tonight? On a beautiful evening like this, I could see this becoming a tradition. But we would much rather be in there, in the church—and we will be soon.
It is a common life experience: finding ourselves not where we want to be. A job we don’t really like, a community we don’t want to live in, a relationship we’d like to be out of. And this is the experience at the center of tonight’s story.
We often ask ourselves, “What am I doing here?” We can easily imagine Mary asking herself the same thing, about to deliver her first baby—in a stable! A plush maternity suite wasn’t an option then, but it could have been much better. Certainly, she would much rather be at home, in familiar surroundings, with family and friends.
No, this wasn’t her first choice because, as Giovanni Papini writes,
Jesus was born in a stable, a real stable, not the bright, airy portico which Christian painters have created for the Son of David, as if ashamed that their God should have lain down in poverty and dirt…. It is dark, reeking. The only clean thing in it is the manger where the owner piles the hay and fodder…. Upon this earthly pigsty, where no decorations or perfumes can hide the odor of filth, Jesus appeared one night.
For Mary, since the angel Gabriel’s visit, nothing anymore would be according to plan, nothing would be “normal” again. But the location of her child’s birth was not most important. Her life was no longer about where she was at any moment, but who she is and who is with her. Gabriel’s Annunciation message gives the most important fact for Mary: “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.”
The pandemic has been painful, even deadly for so many. But if that hasn’t been our experience, it has nonetheless meant the loss of much that is familiar these past nine months. We’ve lost contact with family and friends, some have lost jobs, many have lost their normal routines, including our life in the church.
It’s understandable that we miss attending worship, receiving communion, and joining in fellowship with one another. It came home to me at our first outdoor worship service last month how much I missed our liturgical life. Zoom, Facebook, YouTube, and outdoor worship are certainly valuable, but they are no substitute for the church life we had before.
But while I understand and share that sense of loss, I have also been saddened by a desperation I’ve sensed in some in the need to “get back to church.” It seems to be about more than missing something familiar and cherished. It seems that in some cases it’s meant losing a connection with God.
I’m saddened because I feel that it is largely our fault, the church’s fault. The church has spent centuries trying to make people dependent on it—and it’s worked! For many God is about buildings and liturgy, sacraments and clergy. But what happens when these things are taken away? Where is God then, when we’re gathered in a parking lot or in front of a TV or computer screen? Where is God when we are home alone, as we have been so often lately? Or for people locked down in a care facility, or waiting endlessly in the ER or in the unemployment line?
The angel’s announcement to the shepherds tell us what this night about, and where God is to be found.
But the angel said to them, “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.
It’s a point emphasized by Luther in a sermon he preached on Christmas Day.
The angel does not simply say, Christ is born, but to you he is born, neither does he say, I bring glad tidings, but to you I bring glad tidings of great joy. Furthermore, this joy was not to remain in Christ, but it shall be to all the people. For this purpose Christ willed to be born, that through him we might be born anew….
Christmas, Luther says, is not about a one-time event in the distant past. Rather, it awakens us to the ongoing rmystery of incarnation: God in the world and in us.
Christoph Friedrich Blumhardt was a 19th c. German Lutheran pastor who tried to shake up the church of his day and whose writings later inspired Dietrich Bonhoeffer and other German church resistance leaders. Blumhardt says:
We are called to prove in our own lives that Christ is born, that God is with us. But we are constantly in danger of going about our business without Christ. We keep to our old ways of life and do not allow God to enter our daily affairs.…We will always have to struggle to make sure that Jesus enters our lives, and that he lives on earth, not only in heaven. This is the fight of the church in the world. We are placed in the restlessness and the anxiety of a world fraught with evil, but we have a battle cry and the joyful news: “To us a child is born!”
Where is God? There is no place that God is not. How do we experience God? In God’s incarnation in Christ. So we need to go to church? No, we discover Christ within us by reaching out in love to our neighbor. In the same Christmas sermon, Luther saw the church as sometimes a diversion from our true Christian calling.
Of what benefit is it to your neighbor if you build a church entirely out of gold? Of what benefit to him is the frequent ringing of great church bells? Of what benefit to him is the glitter and the ceremonies in the churches, the priests’ gowns, the sanctuary, the silver pictures and vessels? Of what benefit to him are the many candles and much incense? Of what benefit to him is the much chanting and mumbling, the singing of vigils and masses? Do you think that God wants to be served with the sound of bells, the smoke of candles, the glitter of gold and such fancies? He has commanded none of these, but if you see your neighbor going astray, sinning, or suffering in body or soul, you are to leave everything else and at once help him in every way in your power….
Christ is present everywhere and always, now, in this world and in our lives. This is the meaning of the Christmas story and the meaning of the incarnation. It isn’t about oohing and ahhing at baby Jesus but, like Paul, being blinded by the light of God’s appearing. As Richard Rohr writes, Christmas is not about warm feelings but a call to action.
We must move beyond a merely sentimental understanding of Christmas as “waiting for the baby Jesus” to an adult and communal appreciation of the message of the incarnation of God in Christ…. The celebration of Christmas is not merely a sentimental waiting for a baby to be born. It is much more an asking for history to be born! Creation groans in its birth pains, as Paul writes, waiting for our participation with God in its renewal. We do the Gospel no favor when we make Jesus, the Eternal Christ, into a perpetual baby, who asks little or no adult response from us.
We know that the pandemic has not always brought out the best in people. Yet there have also been remarkable examples of compassion, dedication, and courage. These arey people who know that life is not found in holding on to what we imagine is ours, but in letting go to be open to true meaning and to love.
Luther closes his sermon with biting humor which hits the mark for us and within us.
Let everyone examine themselves in the light of the Gospel and see how far they are from Christ…. There are many who are enkindled with dreamy devotion, and when they hear of the poverty of Christ’s birth, they are almost angry with the citizens of Bethlehem. They denounce their blindness and ingratitude, and think that if they had been there, they would have shown the Lord and his mother a more kindly service, and would not have permitted them to be treated so miserably. But they do not look by their side to see how many of their fellow humans need their help, and which they ignore in their misery. Who is there upon earth that has no poor, miserable, sick, erring ones around him? Why does he not exercise his love to those? Why does he not do to them as Christ has done to him?
Christmas is a story of plans changed, of the normal lost, of life turned upside down. But Mary accepts all this, as Jesus will. They demonstrate how we must loosen our grip on what we imagine gives us security and value. Only then can we find that true meaning and joy are in lives of love and compassion.
It is when we reach out to those around us that we discover the incarnate God who is always hiding in plain sight: in a newborn baby, at the bedside of the dying, and in every person and life situation in between. Christ is born again and again, within us and in the world. Amen