Merry Christmas Eve!
We’ve been waiting for this day. It’s been a long time coming. Wherever you are at in your preparation, whatever has been done or not done, the moment has arrived. Well I guess some of you could still go home and wrap presents into the wee hours of the morning, and I will neither confirm nor deny whether or not I’ve ever done that on Christmas Eve. But here we are. The tree which has stood bare for all of Advent is now decorated. The greening of the nave has occurred and it is beautiful. Thank you for all who were here doing that yesterday. The crèche is now full of all its characters, including the baby for whom we have waited for so long. But, and I may be fired for saying this, but who cares? Really? Why are we here? Some of you are here because you can’t imagine being anywhere but here, at St. John’s or at church, on Christmas Eve, just like you are the majority of Sundays, because you have had a profound experience of God in Christ, and this is home. Some of you are here because even though most Sundays your morning coffee and the paper appeal more than church, today is a day it’s worth coming, for some reason you might not even be able to define for yourselves. Some of you are here because your mother or your grandfather forced you to come and you’re hoping to surf Instagram quietly to get through it. And I’m guessing some of you really don’t know why you are here. So what about Christmas still has anything to say to us, after all these centuries?
I spoke with someone recently who has been going through a spiritual struggle. Without going into the details of her personal history, which were really difficult, I can share with you that she believes in God because she sees evidence of God in the world around her—especially in the happiness and beauty of other human beings. But she
does not see or experience God in her own life, and so she is understandably angry, because she needed God and still does. For lots of good reasons she is not connected with family, nor does she have many friends, so her loneliness is profound. Where is God for her? Where is God for us? And what does Christmas have to do with anything real in her life or ours?
The meaning of Christmas is that God can be found precisely where we are the most vulnerable, and more than that—God can be hard to recognize because God is vulnerable too. God comes to us in physical reality, not with the power of a warrior king or a grandfather judge, but with the innocent vulnerability of a peasant baby born in a barn that only the overnight shepherds knew anything about. However pretty our culture has made the story of Jesus’ birth, in fact it was difficult. Joseph and Mary had to travel to Bethlehem in order to be taxed by Rome – to finance their own oppression, in other words. They had to give birth without the benefit of family or midwives or even a decent roof over their heads, but had to find shelter with the animals. They were not the perfect family with 2.2 children behind a white picket fence. They weren’t even married. Jesus was an illegitimate child. This is God. This is how God comes to us.
What I love most about the Christmas story is that this baby is called a savior. The word for saving in Greek is the same word for healing. So before Jesus does anything at all in this world, before he grows up and gives the blind their sight and cleanses the lepers and embraces outcasts and sinners and prostitutes, he is a healer by definition. Why? Because it is healing to experience that God is not out there allowing things to happen in this world, but God is in here, within us and among us, in solidarity with our vulnerability and pain and innocence. It is healing to know that wherever you have been, whatever you have experienced, God has gone to extravagant lengths to join you in it, if only you have eyes to see this. Some of us were raised to believe that only Jesus’ death on the cross was saving because it atoned for our sins. Some of us have profoundly struggled with that idea of a God who needed blood sacrifice in order to forgive us, because that can sound more violent than loving. But Jesus was called a savior from the moment he was born. God in Christ can heal us because God is with us. We are not alone.
And because of this, the angel is right when he talks about a great joy for all the people. That God is with us in the messy vulnerable reality of everyday physical life is reason for great celebration. It means that God isn’t an idea, but as present as the smell and softness of a newborn baby. It means that when your kid opens her gift and discovers the toy that can keep her mesmerized for hours, God is present. It means that when you go eat your ham or prime rib or vegetarian feast or Chinese takeout, God is with you. It means when you wake up in the morning and discover the gift of being alive all over again, God is in your body and heart and in the gravity that holds you and the air you breathe. Before there was any theology or conflict or miracles, there was just a precious baby, the divine and the human fused in tiny form, which is enough to make any of us smile.
I don’t know what each of you is going to do when you leave today. I imagine some of you have family you will go to see. This will be an occasion of joy for some of you, and for others going to see family isn’t exactly the most fun thing in the world. Some of you don’t have family but will join friends. Others of you don’t have anywhere to go after this, and so this gathering is your celebration, it is your feast and your connection. Regardless, I wish all of you a blessed beautiful time, no matter what you are going to do when you leave here. The good news we are here to remember and experience is that Christmas is not only about gifts, and family, and feasting, or even this beautiful church service, though these things are wonderful. The good news is that you can have the Christmas of your life with or without these things. The Meaning of Christmas is that whoever you are, God in Christ is in this with you, closer than your own breath, closer than your own name. Whether you belong or have nowhere that feels like home, whether you feel strong or utterly vulnerable, whether you have a clear conscience or are burdened with regret, whoever you are and wherever you go from here–God in Christ is there ahead of you, waiting for you with open arms. Amen.