Merry Christmas! Feels good to say it, doesn’t it? It might feel even better though if – dare I say it? – I felt more prepared for it. Time is a strange thing. My memories of Christmas as a child is that “the holiday season” seemed to go on forever. There was time for the annual Christmas tree selection pilgrimage, and the visits to my grandparents’ and aunt’s houses. There were rehearsals for the Christmas pageant and shopping for a Christmas dress. There was decorating and wrapping and singing carols. It was a period of enchantment outside of time itself.
As an adult and a parent (and now a priest), however, the season I once thought of as Christmas and now know as Advent appears to be remarkably short. There is simply not enough time to do all of the baking, shopping, decorating and buying that once seemed like fun and now feels an awful lot like work. While the payoff is great, there is little fulfillment in the experience – and forget about the spiritual preparation that I have been talking about throughout Advent. If anything, I have had less time to pray, not more.
Which leads me back to the question I asked in my sermon a couple of weeks ago: are you ready? Are you ready to receive the priceless gift of the Savior of the world? I’m not sure that I am, but then again neither was Mary – or Joseph or the shepherds – because, as anyone who has had a major life transition knows – you’re never really ready for the big changes, often because they come in unexpected ways. Like the first Christmas.
The Christmas story we heard again tonight is so familiar to us now, that we forget how strange it is. It’s an interesting story – one about a poor woman, pregnant out of wedlock, engaged to a working man, both of whom are part of a subjugated race who has long been waiting for the arrival of a Messiah to rescue them from slavery and oppression. These folk have prophecies that assure them that they will see a great light, signaling the arrival of the savior who is promised. Except that maybe they haven’t read the fine print – because Isaiah’s prophecy about this great Messiah suggests that he may not arrive with “boots on the ground.” What Isaiah’s prophecy says is that the one who is coming, the wonderful Counselor, mighty God and everlasting father is going to be – a child.
Even in the time of Isaiah, this would have seemed strange. “The context of the Isaiah passage is one of fear. It is a dark and frightening time in the history of Judah and Israel. Assyria has become strong and is systematically taking over the whole region.” “In the face of two warring threats, the birth of babies and their growth seems like no sign at all. Great fear calls for a great and powerful sign. A sign of babies seems less than what one needs for reassurance in dark and fearful times.”
It is apparently equally unencouraging to modern seekers. This is evidenced by a recent Pew Research Center survey that indicates that while “ninety percent of Americans celebrate Christmas in some form,” only 57 percent believe in the primary aspects of the biblical Christmas story.” This is actually not very surprising if you think about it. It is a pretty unbelievable story. While I have heard many preachers attempt to retell the Christmas story in a modern context to make it more relatable to modern listeners, the idea of it is still mystifying. The truth is that, “finding the Messiah in such impoverished circumstances was as amazing then as it would be now. Would we believe it if we were led to a newborn Savior in a homeless shelter or a truck stop? But here it is, in Luke’s story: the Savior of the world, the Word incarnate, takes on human flesh in the most ordinary way.”
The question is, “Why”? Why would God send the savior of the world to earth in such a bizarre and humble way? Why not send him in the form of a great warrior or king with all of the power and the support of the world behind him? Perhaps it’s because God knew whom he was sending our savior to. Perhaps it’s because God knew that then – as now – the last thing human beings need is more ammunition for the idea that power and prosperity and piety are good things. The letter to Titus is very clear on this. Salvation comes from God – not from within us – and salvation is not and cannot be earned. Notice that the writer does not suggest that if we live lives that are self-controlled, upright, and godly we will be saved. He says that when we accept God’s grace, we can learn to be those things. “Christianity becomes distorted whenever it is seen as a code of conduct apart from grace. The focus then shifts from God’s gracious gift to human striving.” In other words, it’s not all about us. Whenever human beings decide that one group has a monopoly on God’s love and forgiveness, whenever we think that we can speak on God’s behalf, whenever we become so immersed in earthly power and authority, God reminds us we are not the center of the story. We are merely partners – partners with all creation -and all of creation is dependent not on our goodness and “rightness,” but on God’s.
This is what the psalmist means by a “new song.” God’s is an inclusive and universal vision, one where “everyone and everything is included…where all the earth is summoned to sing.” This is the core of evangelism. Episcopalians traditionally are somewhat allergic to the term “evangelist,” partly because it requires talking about your faith, something many of us have been trained not to do, but also because to many of us the word connotes the use of force – of bullying others into believing what we do. Our psalmist tells us this is not the case. Evangelism, he writes, is sharing. Evangelism is song. It is the way by which we communicate the awe we experience in feeling the presence of God, in living in Christian community, and knowing God’s grace. It is not coercing anyone into anything. It is about the joyful contagion of grace – and it is about gratitude. It is about living lives that are focused not on power and influence, or about making things happen the way we think is right. It is about living lives that are in every way thankful for the gift of the grace of God.
That gift is free. All we have to do – all anyone has to do- is to accept it. St. Augustine said, “I do not say to thee, seek the way. The way itself is come to thee; arise and walk.” God comes to us. All we have to do is look around – look and see God’s great and empowering light. The choice is ours; walk in darkness or reach for the light. But know this; God’s light is not contained in a great glass cathedral, or seated on the throne of power, or demonstrated by a fat bank account. The light of Christ shines from the darkness of a humble cave, where an innocent child stands ready to increase our joy, demonstrate true justice, and prepare the way for the Christmas that never ends. Amen.
Beth Laneel Tanner, (2010), in Feasting on the Word: Year B, Volume 1: Advent through Transfiguration), David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation], 99.
Liam Stack, (December 13, 2017), “Is Christmas a Religious Holiday? A Growing Number of Americans say no,” New York Times on line, https://nyti.ms/2ACcPm0
Kimberly Bracken Young, (2010), in Feasting on the Word: Year B, Volume 1: Advent through Transfiguration), David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation], 121.
Cathy F. Young, (2010), in Feasting on the Word: Year B, Volume 1: Advent through Transfiguration), David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation], 112.
Andrew Purves, (2010), in Feasting on the Word: Year B, Volume 1: Advent through Transfiguration), David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation], 106.
Donald W. Musser, (2010), in Feasting on the Word: Year B, Volume 1: Advent through Transfiguration), David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation], 112.