Christmas Eve, 2016, Year A
For Christians, Jesus is the lens through which we understand the nature of God and the shape of reality. I think the Christmas story gives us a beautiful picture of God’s desire for creation.
In the familiar image of the manger scene we can see what God is up to. God empties the divine self into a human life, a baby, vulnerable and helpless. Born not to a royal family, but to peasants, in a familial setting of nurturing, human affection. He arrives in a humble place among the animals, whom God loves. Heavenly angels first announce the birth to shepherds, hard people living hard lives, mistrusted like criminals for their trespassing and hard ways. The shepherds’ arrival at the manger would have been scandalous, like a troupe of Hell’s Angels motoring into a neo-natal unit. But the shepherds and their animals are welcomed.
The next visitors are exotic scientists, magi who studied the stars; probably priests of Zoroastrianism, the ancient religion of Iran. They too are welcome at the manger.
The scene at Christ’s birth anticipates the work that the child will undertake later to initiate the Reign of God. The scene dramatizes a reconciliation of all divisions into a union that also preserves distinctions.
So, this is what God’s reality looks like: The divine enters humbly into creation. Stars and animals rejoice in their own manner. God is reconciled with humanity. Humanity is reconciled within itself, as the scandalous and the wise all find their way and their welcome, and everything happens below the radar of rulers and authorities. This manger scene is an image of a community of love and compassion. Love and compassion is God’s way. Love and compassion became the work of Jesus.
Jesus was renowned for three things – healing, feeding and teaching. He healed the sick and broken; he brought coherence to the emotionally incoherent, casting out demons was the ancient language for that. He fed multitudes, taking small resources and creating enough; they all were satisfied. And he taught, summarizing the entire ancient teaching of the law and the prophets with the simple call to love: love God, love your neighbor, love yourself.
Jesus crossed every human boundary of nation and belief to give the same three gifts of healing and feeding and teaching to foreigners and to people of other religions. He even befriended an officer of the occupying Roman army. Jesus especially extended his love and compassion toward those who were believed to be unclean, outside the circle of acceptability: tax collectors and sinners, lepers and heretic Samaritans, hemorrhaging women and prostitutes. In Jesus’ presence, they were all clean. All were valued, loved, made worthy of friendship and respect.
Though his followers called him “Master” and “Lord,” he acted like a servant and even like a slave washing their feet. He showed them that true leadership is exercised in humble service.
But Jesus did get testy at times. There were three things that seemed to raise the hair on the back of his neck: greed, pride, and threatening by violence.
First, greed. Jesus warned the rich, people like me, that our fate is linked with the poverty of poor Lazarus who lives suffering outside our gates. Jesus overturned the exploitative tables of the businessmen in the Temple. He invited a very moral rich man to sell everything and follow him, and it was too much for that man. Jesus also had dear friendships with Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus, both rich and powerful, who gave Jesus a dignified burial after his execution. Jesus had a lot to say about our relationship with our money and our responsibility to use our wealth and power to create justice on behalf of the poor and marginalized.
The second thing that drew Jesus’ ire was pride. Jesus saved his strongest words for the ones he called hypocrites. We would probably call them the really good people. They were the religious ones. Good, moral folks who were so certain of their own rightness that they judged others. They regarded with condescension those who didn’t live up to their moral and religious standards. “Judge not!” he told us, and he halted the moral stone-throwers. Finally, from the cross, surrounded by as much evil and self-righteousness as humanity can muster, Jesus prayed, “Father, forgive them, they do not know what they are doing.” I believe God answered that prayer. God forgave us all. God continues to forgive us all, and invites us to love our neighbor as ourselves by extending that forgiveness completely to ourselves and to others.
The three things that most irritated Jesus: greed, pride, and third, threatening by the use of violence. Once when Jesus and his disciples were treated with hostility as they traveled through Samaritan territory, James and John reacted: “Lord, do you want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them?” How often we humans have reacted that way. Jesus rebuked them. No! he said. Sometime later, when soldiers came to arrest him in the garden of Gethsemane, all four gospels say that one of his disciples took a sword to defend Jesus and attacked one of the arresting party. John’s gospel said it was Peter who drew the sword. “No more of this,” Jesus cried, and healed the injured man. That’s in Luke. Matthew says that Jesus told them that he rejected the option of violence: “Do you think that I cannot appeal to my Father, and he will at once send me twelve legions of angels?” Jesus chose the path of non-violence. He confronted evil and threat armed only with love and compassion. And we see in his death and resurrection God’s greatest triumph. God brings life out of death. It is what God does best.
This is the way we Christians see God; it is the way we interpret Reality – through the lens of Jesus. Christians claim that Christ was the unique, but not exclusive revelation of God (H. Richard Niebuhr). We happily recognize that the truth of sages and scientists from any realm or discipline will ultimately guide any truth-seeker toward Truth Itself, Ultimate Reality, whom we call God.
This gentle scene at the manger symbolizes the peace and respect that can exist across cultures and classes and races. The humble image of the manger shows us the reconciliation of division. All is united in a union that also preserves distinctions. God is reconciled with humanity; the divine enters humbly into all creation; stars and animals rejoice in their own manner; the scandalous and the wise find their way; and it all happens below the public radar.
I trust that God is still working below the tumult and conflict that fills our world. God is working in humble ways, bringing peace and good will to all.
I hope that the yearly celebration of this season will remind a divided and suspicious world of the possibilities of reconciling love transcending the false boundaries of nation, religion, race, wealth and power.
The Christmas scene shows us. Every child is God’s child. Every poor family is God’s family. Every refugee and crook and magi, from every race and religion and land belongs to God. Earth and stars, animals and angels. We all belong together in a fellowship of humble hospitality. That is the picture we sing about in our carols at Christmas. May that be the reality we live in and strive for, today, tomorrow and forever.Download the Sermon PDF