Sermon, Christmas Eve

It’s good to be with you, this Christmas night – all of you: visitors and guests and familiar faces too, whether you’re here to recapture the feeling of childhood Christmases, or wondering if the Church has anything to say in these times, or you’re just here to make Grandma happy. Welcome, everyone.

It’s Christmas, finally, but I’m going to rewind a little to the season of Advent, in which the Church and her people prepare for Christmas, the season we’ve just completed, or fulfilled. Advent comes from Latin words – Ad plus Venire, meaning, To come towards. And that really is the keyword of Advent: Come, Lord Jesus. Our hymns and prayers and Scriptures say it again. O come, O come, Emmanuel. Come, thou long-expected Jesus. Stir up your power, O Lord, and come to help us. Be patient, beloved ones, until the coming of the Lord. Veni, veni, Emmanuel.

What are we invoking, inviting, calling for, in all those Scriptures and songs and prayers? What arrival or fulfillment are we anticipating, and yearning for, in the season of Advent? Well, first and most obviously: Christmas. Our yearly celebration of God coming to us, among us, as a human infant, humble and vulnerable. Jesus, born of Mary, God with us.

Second: we are praying for the Second Coming, for Christ’s promised return to earth in glory, at the end of history. I think we tend to forget or set aside this aspect of Advent because it’s a little uncomfortable for a churchful of modern enlightened people like ourselves to be actively praying for the end of the world. But what the Church invites us to pray towards, in Advent, isn’t some Left Behind nightmare or zombie apocalypse. Instead, our Scriptures teach us to anticipate a day when this world will pass away, and God’s new world will be born. An ending that’s also a new beginning, a time of transformation and renewal, when God will restore the world to the way it was meant to be, full of beauty and kindness and wholeness. A new world of peace and plenty. A new world in which no child goes hungry, no elder dies alone. A new world in which God wipes away all tears. I won’t claim it doesn’t scare me a little to pray for that world; there’s a lot that’s good for me in the world as it is. But in faith, and in hope for a better world for all God’s children, I pray the prayer of Advent. I pray for Christ to come again. For the dawning of God’s new world.

And I would say there’s a third thing, too: when we pray, Come, Lord Jesus, in Advent, we are asking for God to show up in our individual lives. We’re praying to see and feel God’s presence not in the past or the future but NOW. We give voice to our need and longing for reconciliation in situations of conflict and division; for hope in situations of despair; for peace and joy in situations of grief; for trust and clarity in situations of fear and uncertainty. We pray for light and grace and hope and peace to show up already! – or maybe for our eyes and hearts to open, to see the holy possibilities that are already there.

So the prayer of Advent – Come, Lord Jesus! – it can be weighted with real yearning. We long for the reassuring sweetness of the Nativity story. We long for God’s promised renewal of all that’s tarnished and broken in our world. And we long for God’s grace to show up in the sadnesses and struggles of our lives, right now.

And then it’s Christmas. December 24 rolls around, as it always does. And the Church says, The waiting is over! Jesus is here! God has arrived! Celebrate! But: there’s an incompleteness here. Let’s name that. Christmas offers us, again, the story of God’s arrival in the past. But we’re still waiting on the fulfillment of God’s future. And we are still waiting on God’s grace in so many shadowed places of our lives, and our present world.

Maybe, if you’re lucky, tonight, and tomorrow, will be a time of peace and warmth. With family and friends wrapped around you like a cozy blanket, sharing happy memories and making new ones. But that’s not what tomorrow holds for everyone here. Some of you will be alone. Some of you will be struggling with family dynamics that make you wish you were alone. For some of you, the happy memories cast the shadow of loved ones lost, and good times gone by.

And even for those who are going to have a lovely Christmas Day, the next day, or the day after that, you’ll wake up and read the news, or get phone call or email from somebody angry or in pain, or someone close to you will hit a rough patch in life, and all the brokenness will flood back in.

I was looking for Christmas cards, a few weeks ago. The kind where you upload your photo and they put a pretty frame around it, with some peppy seasonal message. I looked a couple of different sites, and scrolled through pages and pages of designs. And it was the same words over and over again: Merry. Peace. Joy. Jolly. Happy. Bright. Fun. Cheer. And it just started to seem …. so false. Cruelly false.

I am absolutely one of the lucky ones. I have a healthy loving family and good friends and a job I love. And even I didn’t want to order any of those cards. How can I declare happiness when so many are hurting? How can I proclaim peace when so many are afraid? How can I trumpet merriness and cheer when what I really want for my loved ones and congregation is just to take good enough care of ourselves and each other that we’re able to keep doing the work of grace in our shadowed and weary world?

Now, I’m picking unfairly on the Christmas card industry. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with sending out wishes for joy and peace to your friends and family. Just like there is absolutely nothing wrong with claiming the next couple of days for happiness and warmth and fun, if you are able to do so. Do it. Absolutely do it.

But when the brokenness floods back in – when a health problem or a loss or a jerk coworker or a news story pops that bright bubble – when that happens, and it will, I don’t want our faith in God who loves us enough to come down and live among us to end up like the pretty Christmas cards that say Merry and Joy and Bright and Cheer in the recycling bin on December 30th.

It’s easy to suspect Christians of being delusional, or in denial. What are Christians – especially preachers – talking about, when we claim the event we celebrate tonight changed anything? It happened 2000 years ago; there’s been plenty of evil and pain in those two millennia. Come, Lord Jesus! Well – he came. Here we are; it’s Christmas. We told the story, and put the wooden baby in the wooden manger, and sang the carols, and sent the cards. But then what? What do we carry away into the week, the year, that follows? How can we say that the baby in the manger fixed the world? How can we claim that this story matters?

But it does. It does matter. Christmas matters. The Church sometimes gives it another name – the Feast of the Incarnation. Incarnation means, becoming a body. Becoming flesh. This is the sacred story of the moment when God became a human being. God became a human being to walk among us, and teach us and show us that there’s a better way. That we don’t have to live by the selfish cruel zero-sum rules of the world; that we can afford to be people of grace and mercy and justice, because God has our backs, and that the better way is the way of life. And God became a human being to share our lives, our experiences. To be footsore and weary, hungry and afraid and in pain. To eat a good meal, embrace a friend, walk on a beach. And by sharing our experiences, to show us once and for all that God is with us in all that we experience.

Stanley Hauerwas, one of the great theologians of our time, writes that the Church “is a gathering of a people who are able to sustain one another through the inevitable tragedies of our lives. They are able to do so because they have been formed by a narrative, [a story], … that claims nothing less than that God has taken the tragic character of our existence into God’s very life.” We are a people formed by a holy story – this story, and all the stories that lead up to it and flow from it – that claims nothing less than that God has taken the pain and grief and struggle of human existence into God’s very life. (Stanley Hauerwas, “A Community of Character”) 

We are not the material creatures of a spiritual god, who looks down at us across some cosmic gulf, who feels disinterested in, or contemptuous of, our bodily needs and experiences, hurts and delights. God is right here in this world with us.

So what we can carry away from Christmas is the trust that we are not alone. When we look at the great sweep of the world’s needs, or the smaller span of our own difficulties and griefs, and cry out for help, for solace, for guidance: Someone hears. Someone is with us, even if we can’t always feel the presence. Someone responds, even if it’s not always in the way we hoped.

In Advent, we pray, Come, Lord Jesus! Come in the beloved holy story of the babe in Bethlehem. Come in your might to transform and renew the whole world. And come in the here and now, because we need you. I need you. We are able to pray those prayers of urgent hope and trust because God IS with us, in the thick of it all. The witness of millennia of people of faith, including me, is that God shows up. That there’s a that gentle shining, a relentless love behind and beneath and above everything; and that it breaks through our distraction and self-importance, sometimes the crack in everything lets the light shine in. And not just in warm fuzzy ways either – hope and love and mercy and all that – but in the fierceness of spurring us to seek justice, which is always right up there with mercy on God’s priority list; in pushing us towards the strange awkward vulnerable places where we tell each other our truths and find new paths towards recognition and reconciliation; in the moments when we think we have given all we have to give, and then something calls to us, a need or a possibility, so bright and urgent that we find we have the strength to stand, after all.

Christmas, the Feast of the Incarnation, means that God has arrived. The Church sets aside the prayer of Advent, Come, Lord Jesus!, for another year. But Feast of the Incarnation means, too, that we can carry that prayer with us. We can keep right on seeking and demanding and expecting that God will show up, as we go forth from this feast as a people formed by a story that matters.