As I was driving home from the church yesterday, a thousand things related to Christmas running through my head, including this sermon, it struck me that I have been at Grace for more Christmases than at any church (or in any city) since I left home for college thirty-nine years ago. In case you wondering, it’s my seventh Christmas here. To some of you who have worshiped here for thirty, or fifty, or more years, and have seen priests come and go, I’m still a newcomer, a transient. To others of us, seven years seems a remarkably long time.
However long we have been in this place, worshiped here, whether it’s our first time or it’s our fiftieth year at Grace, we share one common expectation, that while some elements in our worship may be different than in other years, most of it will be old and familiar—the carols we’ve sung every year, and have heard countless times already this year, the familiar story, the lovely decorations.
There is something profoundly nostalgic about religion. We want to be given the prompts to remember all those other times when we’ve celebrated Christmas; we want to participate in the same rituals, sing the same music, hear the same words. All of that is so wonderfully comforting in an age where swirling around us are change, violence, fear, and global catastrophe. More than anything, perhaps, we want those wonderful memories and feelings to overwhelm and silence our fears and worries, if only for a moment or an hour. We want to feel, we don’t want to think.
But for some of us, we want the warm feelings of love and joy to overwhelm other feelings and emotions we might be experiencing today—grief, pain, anger, fear, doubt. We hope, we pray, that the familiar carols, the beauty and joy that surround us will, if only for a few minutes, help us forget our own pain, the pain of our loved ones, all the pain in the world.
Now, don’t get me wrong. There’s nothing wrong with nostalgia or with the desire to reconnect with old memories from the past. They can be a source of great strength and inspire us to deeper love and faith. But too often, nostalgia and a fondness for the way things used to be can desensitize us from the realities of the here and now. Further, to rely too heavily on such feelings and emotions can close us off to the world around us. They can also block us from the encounter that awaits us in Bethlehem, at the manger, an encounter with God made flesh in Jesus Christ, an encounter with love enfleshed in a newborn baby.
Close attention to scripture, what Martin Luther called the swaddling clothes and manger in which Christ lies, opens us up to new possibilities of encounter with Christ. As a preacher, it is my duty and joy to sit with these texts each year, to read, study, and meditate with them. The familiarity of Luke’s story of Jesus’ birth can be an immense burden as I return to it year after year, but the wonderful thing is that each year something new draws my attention. This year, I’m seeing the familiar verses we just heard with a mind focused by another text from the very next chapter of Luke’s gospel. I’ll read those verses to you, verses that were appointed as the gospel for Sunday December 13. Luke is telling the story of John the Baptist’s public ministry but he starts not with John but with Rome:
In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was ruler of Galilee, and his brother Philip ruler of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias ruler of Abilene, during the high-priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John
It’s kind of like in the movies, when a scene begins with a vast panorama and slowly the camera zooms in to focus on two or three characters. In this case, the scene is the world, the Roman Empire, the most powerful political entity ever seen on earth to that time. But Luke moves from Rome, and the emperor at the head of that vast power, and slowly narrows focus, mentioning the rulers of all the territories in and around Palestine, and even the religious leadership of the Jerusalem temple. From one perspective, Luke is moving down from the most important and most powerful to the least, but in another way, the most powerful thing in that long introduction is this phrase: “The word of God came to John.”
So, too, in the story of Jesus’ birth. Luke situates these events precisely in world-historical categories. And we can see the power of Rome in action. Bethlehem may be a tiny, unimportant village on the edge of empire, but even there, Rome has its way, issuing decrees and forcing the population to move in response. On one level, Rome cares not a bit for Mary and Joseph, they are meaningless, insignificant subjects. On another level of course, Rome cares all about them, it wants to know who they are, where they came from, and most likely, how they might be exploited by the Empire.
Luke is telling us to pay attention, to notice what matters to Rome, what matters to empire, and to empire’s agents. But he’s also helping us notice something else, to see God acting in history, in ways empire can’t fathom or control.
And so we see God breaking into Rome’s story to write another story, the story of God made flesh. While he begins by mentioning Caesar Augustus and the local representative of Augustus, Quirinius, the governor of Syria, Luke isn’t interested in them. Luke sees God acting in the lives of poor, powerless, and disreputable people, an unwed teenaged mother and a group of shepherds. Luke directs our attention away from the powerful, the wealthy, the noise and spectacle of empire, and toward the scandal and darkness of Bethlehem. We ought to get the scandal of Mary; after all in our society, few groups of people are more reviled than homeless teenaged mothers? But the shepherds we might not get. I’ll just say this, they were pretty sketchy guys in first-century Palestine, living as if they were homeless, out in the rough, in the wilderness.
It was shepherds who received a visit from angels and Mary who was chosen to give birth to Christ. God in Christ came to the weakest, the most vulnerable, the most despised. Just as God came to them, to people of no account in a distant corner of the world, God can come to anyone. No one is outside of or beyond God’s love. God who comes to us in the form of an infant, can come to us across all the barriers of sin, brokenness, or stigma. God comes to us; God comes to you. The love of Christ beckons to us from the stable. The love of Christ reaches across, breaks through everything that we might think separates us from that love.
But we need to be open to that love, open to the possibility of love, open to encounter with God. Luke tells us that Mary responded to the news that she would give birth to a Savior with disbelief and wonder. But in the course of her encounter with the angel, she came to believe and to embrace the mystery and the miracle. In the end, she replied, “Let it be with me according to your Word.”
What prevents you from saying those words with Mary? What is holding you back from saying with the shepherds, “Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place?” What fears, what distractions, what walls have you built, what blinders block your vision, that keep you from a new, deep, powerful encounter with the love of God in Christ?
There he is, in a manger, in a stable, love incarnate, love so vulnerable, love that will be broken, but nevertheless, love that triumphs. Love beckoning; love embracing. May our hearts receive him. May our lives and lips proclaim him.