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Sermon for Christmas Day 2018: The Work of Christmas (The Rev. Dr. Deborah White)

Updated: Aug 13, 2021

Our scriptures tell us that approximately 2000 years ago in a small town in an obscure part of the Roman Empire, a baby was born to an adolescent mother in a small hillside cave where an innkeeper kept his animals. That child was the Son of God. In 1899 in Florida, in a wealthy country thousands of miles from that stable in the Middle East, an African-American boy was born to a poor and uneducated couple. That man was a servant of that child.

Howard Thurman, whose father died when he was seven, was primarily raised by his grandmother, a former slave. Nurtured in the Baptist Church, Thurman spent almost all of his life thinking about the birth of that baby, and what the life and death of Jesus Christ meant for human beings. Like Jesus, Thurman was part of a marginalized, minority tribe. Like Jesus, he saw cruelty and injustice in the world around him and spoke out against it. Like Jesus, Howard Thurman saw God not just as a father, but as a beloved “daddy,” who intimately knows and deeply cares for all of his children.

This view of God was, in some ways, unusual at the time – and is still uncommon among many followers of Jesus. According to Thomas Reese, “For too many Christians, God is simply a lawgiver and judge: ‘Follow my rules or you will be punished.’ The church, for them, is not ‘ a field hospital for the wounded’ [as Pope Francis has said]; it is a country club for the perfect…Jesus, on the other hand, taught us that God is a parent…[and a certain kind of parent]. Some parents raise their children using rewards and punishment [and]… a certain amount of reward and punishment is necessary in raising children, but not the extreme where the parents really don’t care about the child but only care that the house is quiet. God is not that kind of parent.” Unfortunately, many people think of God that way, focusing on laws rather than love and the words of men instead of the spirit of God. The actions of these misguided people reflect poorly on a God who has never asked us to kill or exclude in his name, and on a savior who always advocated for kindness and compassion.

Jeffrey Salkin suggests that, “when people say that they don’t believe in God, we would do well to unpack exactly what they mean by ‘God’…Quite often, when people say they don’t believe in God, I respond with: ‘Maybe you haven’t met the right God yet.’” The God I know does not punish us for our unbelief. The God I know does not put conditions on his love. And “when bad things happen, [the God I know] wants to wrap us in her arms and comfort us.” The God I know is a good parent, who, over and over again, tries to teach us the right thing to do, who picks us up when we fall, and who sent Jesus into the world to experience what we do, so that he can be present in all our times of need. God loves us.

We, on the other hand, don’t always love God. Like rebellious teenagers and narcissistic toddlers, we reject God – and God allows us to do it, because our God does not force himself on us. Our God patiently waits for us to accept his love, to want to be part of her saving grace. “We can choose to embrace God or flee him. To flee God is to flee love…It is our choice…God comes to us with open arms.” All that God asks in return is that we try to demonstrate to other people our understanding that they are also children of God – loved unconditionally just as we are.

Thurman struggled with this his whole life, questioning how we can speak out about the injustices that we see around us – the kind of circumstances that punish some people simply for being who they are – “and not be defeated by our own rage and hatred.” One way, he believed, was remembering that Jesus’s birth was not the end of something, but the beginning.

For many people, Christmas is the conclusion of something. In the secular world, it is the end of the holiday season, the culmination of all of the cooking, cleaning, and buying we have been doing for the last several months. Sadly, they believe that Christmas Day is the last day of Christmas. Even Christians may see Christmas as the finish line of a season of spiritual preparation rather than the start of spiritual fulfillment. For his disciples, Jesus was the fulfillment of the prophecy of the Messiah, who would lead his people out of bondage. But Jesus’s birth is called “the nativity” for a reason; it is called “the nativity” because it is the beginning of our Savior’s life; the beginning of his work; the beginning of his teaching, preaching, and leading us into the way of Christ. It is the foundation of our path to a better and eternal life.

Howard Thurman also believed that Christmas should be a beginning – not a singular celebration, but a springboard for doing what he called, “The Work of Christmas.” He wrote:

“When the song of the angels is stilled, when the star in the sky is gone, when the kings and princes are home, when the shepherds are back with their flocks, the work of Christmas begins: to find the lost, to heal the broken, to feed the hungry, to release the prisoner, to rebuild the nations, to bring peace among the people, to make music in the heart.”

May we go and do likewise. AMEN.

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