The Essentials of Christmas

Sermon for Christmas Eve, 2020

+In the Name of God: who was, and is, and is to come.  Amen.

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.  Luke 2:10b-11

E.B. White, the author of the classic children’s story, Charlotte’s Web, once wrote about how hard it is to focus on what’s really important about Christmas. He put it this way: “To perceive Christmas through its wrappings becomes more difficult with every year.”

If this were any other year, it would easy to agree with him. Most years Christmas comes packaged in all kinds of distracting “tinsel” and “bows.” If this were any other year, there would have been the obligatory office Christmas party, a holiday open house or two, and three or four cookie exchanges. We would have put in appearances at the holiday gatherings of our book clubs, card clubs, and investment clubs. We would have started our shopping on Black Friday, if not before, and the procrastinators among us would have finished an hour ago.

There’d be children and grandchildren’s school concerts to attend, Messiah sing-a-longs, Beer and Carols at O’Shaughnessy’s – because there can never be enough beer or carols at this time of year. There’d be ugly sweater contests, cards to address, traditions to uphold, and parcels to post, unless we delegated that last task to Amazon Prime.

But this hasn’t been just any other year, has it? Most of the things that usually distract us are simply not possible this year or, if they are possible, they aren’t worth the risk. It would be lovely to share some Yuletide cheer, travel home to visit family, enjoy egg-nog with our neighbors, and immerse ourselves in the revelries and merriments that provide us with respite from the tedium of everyday life. But those things will have to wait until next December.

For most of us, Christmas this year is the stripped-down version. And, in one of the few benefits of celebrating Christmas during COVID, there are fewer “wrappings” through which we have to perceive it. What Christmas is really all about may be clearer than at any other time in our lives – the glad tidings of great joy that “a Savior is born this day in the city of David, who is the Messiah, the Lord.”

We celebrate the birth of a child tonight in Bethlehem.  Luke tells us that the child was born there because the political leadership had decided it was time for a census. Everyone had to be registered. In order to be registered, every individual and family had to return to their ancestral home towns. Whether this would be a matter of convenience for those who had to comply with the decree was not taken into account. 

If empires spent their time worrying about what’s convenient or inconvenient for the average person, they’d never get anything done. The attitude of empires is that if having the trains run on time means that some people will occasionally miss their trains, so be it.  If a pregnant woman has to endure a 70-mile trip from Nazareth in Galilee to Bethlehem in Judea so she can be registered with her husband, those are the breaks. If the crush of people coming to the City of David so overwhelms the hotels that people end up sleeping in stables: stuff happens.  And if a child is born during the week it takes to travel to Bethlehem, stand in line for the hours it takes to be counted, and then travel back home again, it can’t be helped.

So, Luke tells us, because of the decree of an empire, “the time came for [Mary] to deliver her child.  And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn” in a little town called Bethlehem – the same little town where the great King David had once come from.   

Empires are no great respecters of human beings – certainly not of the Josephs or the Marys of the world – certainly not of little children and infants – not even the infant Son of God who was born on this night when the Emperor Augustus ruled in Rome, when Quirinius was governor of Syria, and when angels filled the sky to bring glad tidings to the shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flocks.

But it wasn’t just because of the Roman Empire’s plan to register everyone that Jesus was born in Bethlehem.  It was also God’s plan. 

Many years ago, the church I served at the time was deeply involved in feeding hungry people – just as All Saints’ has been deeply involved in feeding hungry people for the last quarter of a century.  The Sunday before Christmas on one particular year, I joined members of the church’s Youth Group and their adult leaders to serve dinner at Faith Mission in Columbus. We fed 345 people on a bitterly cold December night.  Parishioners had made dozens of casseroles and baked hundreds of Christmas cookies. 

Part of our agreement with Faith Mission was that we conduct a worship service whenever it was our turn to serve the meal. On this particular night, I led the service for about 100 men who were waiting for dinner. The lesson was Matthew’s story of the birth of Jesus – a version that tells the Christmas story from a different point of view than the one we heard tonight. 

I was telling the men how things hadn’t gone as the couple had planned, how – much to the couple’s surprise – Mary was going to have a baby, and how they almost broke off their engagement because of this unexpected development. “It wasn’t what Mary and Joseph had planned,” I said.  Immediately one of the men called out from the back of the room: “but God had it planned.  God had it all planned out.”

It was one of those moments when someone speaks the truth with unmistakable clarity.  God had it planned. God had it all planned out.

What God had all planned out was that the fullest and most complete revelation of God’s self would come to us in a person – not in a story, or a theory, or a set of teachings – in a person.

John, in his Gospel, says it this way – “the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us.”  What Christmas is all about is God being born in human form.  Jesus is what can be seen of God embodied in a human life.  He is, as the late Marcus Borg, wrote, “the revelation, the incarnation, of God’s character and passion – of what God is like and of what God is most passionate about.  Jesus,” Borg said, “shows us the heart of God.” 

This has been a difficult year for us all. For the more fortunate and privileged among us, the difficulties have mostly been inconveniences: changed routines, postponed vacations, pandemic-induced fatigue, and boredom with the “same old/same old.”

For others, the impact has been much different, far more severe: jobs lost, kids struggling to adapt – especially those children for whom life is challenging to begin with – the illnesses and even deaths of those we deeply love.

Because Jesus shows us the heart of God, we believe that God has been with us throughout every moment of it – in every situation and circumstance: consoling us, encouraging us, giving rest for our weary souls, and – as God has always done – finding new ways to be born into this broken world.  Jesus continues to be born – where people need him most – where hearts long for his coming – where the angels’ message of Peace on Earth is the gift people pray for.  We can see this clearly this year. There are fewer wrappings. It’s easier to see what’s really important.

Let me end with these words of the late Ann Weems from her poem, “It is not over”:

It is not over,

   this birthing.
There are always newer skies
   into which

       God can throw stars.
When we begin to think
   that we can predict the Advent of God
   that we can box the Christ

        in a stable in Bethlehem
that’s just the time

that God will be born
in a place we can’t imagine and won’t believe.
Those who wait for God
    watch with their hearts and not their eyes,
       listening,

         always listening
              for angel words.

Anne Weems, Kneeling in Bethlehem

Merry Christmas to every one of you!  Jesus – the one who shows us the heart of God – is born again tonight!

Amen.