a sermon for the Nativity of Our Lord, Christmas Eve

Luke 2:1-20

I don’t suppose any of us were hoping we’d be celebrating our Lord’s birth this way this year. I remember that during the first few weeks of the pandemic I was sure everything would be back up and running by the fall, if not earlier. Like in that final scene in “White Christmas,” I at least held out hope that the curtain would miraculously go up on Christmas Eve and reveal a world uninhibited by a coronavirus.

Oh, how naïve I was! Maybe some of you were, too. Christmas, in large part, seems to be all about closeness, sharing food, and singing together. And now here we are with very little of that. Perhaps we should have prepared better, been more sober-minded, but Christmas is about hoping and believing, right?

not 2020

It has been nine months of a strange, fearful, and tumultuous lifestyle because of the coronavirus. And I don’t know about you, but for me all the conflicting sources of information have made it worse. Finding which media voices to trust is as difficult as staying on top of the ever-changing flow of data. Throw in a Presidential election and rocky administration change, threats of foreign influence and pretty much everyone is wondering: Who should I listen to? What’s reality? Voices of the left? The right? Somewhere in the middle? What is the middle? Is there a middle?

Tonight there are no sides, no spin. The news comes straight down from above, delivered by God’s messengers. And the message is a wonderful, glorious truth: God declares humankind essential. God has always felt that way about us, of course, from the beginning at creation when God declared us very good, and even through the struggles and wanderings of his people Israel.

But tonight it becomes clear to the world in a new way. Looking past all our failings, our contagious fallibility, God shares our space and says, “This isolation is over.  This sin that separates us, keeps you quarantined from my peace and goodwill? It is gone,” God says in the birth in Bethlehem. “You and I are going to be together.”

Perhaps never before—in the last century, at least—has the message of this night met a world so fearful and angry and broken. It’s like the hopes and fears of all the years are met in us tonight as we listen from our cars, masked in the church, or on a screen at home. Madeleine L’Engle, the writer of the beloved children’s novel A Wrinkle in Time, was a person of faith, and over her life wrote several poems about Christmas. She composed one of them, called “Into the Darkest Hour,” in the 1990s, but upon reading it we might think it is about 2020. The first stanza goes:

It was a time like this,
War & tumult of war,
a horror in the air.
Hungry yawned the abyss-
and yet there came the star
and the child most wonderfully there.

We are living with a “horror in the air”—we’re afraid we’ll breathe it, share it. Don’t sing a Christmas carol with people…there’s a horror in the air! And there are echoes of war—trade wars, civil wars, not to mention about wars within our own hearts about how we go forward. And yet as Mary and Joseph go down to Bethlehem, driven there by a ruler who wants to count, count, count the people, it should occur to us: how we’re living now is exactly how God expects to find us. How we’re living now—more aware than ever in our lifetimes of our mortality, more aware than in a long time of our disunity, more aware of the challenges of trusting one another—is precisely the humanity God love and has in mind to save. And so into this darkest hour we know God comes. We may not be able to sing or celebrate it like usual, but Jesus is nevertheless born.

He is most wonderfully here.

Yes, it’s a stripped-down, more-anxious-than-usual Christmas, but something truly sublime happened here last week as we pulled together a Live Nativity outdoors. It happened on the night we should have had a children’s Christmas musical. We had never tried to put something like this together before, much less while maintaining social distance for people seated in their cars and broadcast over the radio:“Breaker-breaker-one-nine, we got a pregnant lady coasting into Bethlehem.”

In all honesty, we weren’t that clever. We didn’t need to be. We simply had families from the congregation sign up on-line for the different roles and we read the Christmas stories straight from the Bible. We had a Holy Family, including a real baby Jesus, some shepherds, four angels, plus an archangel who stood on the roof, and we added in the magi from Matthew’s gospel just to make it more interesting. We even had an extra set of shepherds show up if we needed them.

To my knowledge very few of these families really knew each other or had met before that night. Our preparations were minimal. All we really did was tell each group where they were supposed to start and where they were supposed to end up. We did a very quick run-through and then they went and put on costumes. Twenty minutes later they did it for real in front of more than 100 people.

And in spite of all my anxiety, nothing went wrong. It would have been OK if something had, but nothing went wrong. Nobody’s timing was off, no one had to be coaxed into their role, and my favorite part was the fact that the very moment that the narrator was speaking the words, “Mary wrapped her first born son in bands of cloth and laid him in a manger,” our Mary actually bent overand put her son right into our manger. Like we had practiced for days.The whole thing went off without a hitch.I am positive something similar to this happened at churches throughout the world.

It occurred to me, as the cars were filing out of the parking lot, as the characters were hanging their costumes back up, and Saturn and Jupiter, mysteriously drawn together, were appearing in the sky over the columbarium like a Bethlehem star, with what other story on earth could people do this? What other story can take total strangers, hand them basic props like bathrobes, tinsel halos, and plastic crowns, and essentially say, “Do your thing”? Almost everyone knows the shepherds are terrified. Almost everyone knows the angels show up, flap their wings, and calm them down. People know the magi kind of wander around and then at some point kneel down with gifts. Mary and Joseph don’t need to speak. They just need to act tenderly with one another and smile at their baby.

The story, you see, just carries us. This good news pulls everyone in. It doesn’t need embellishment, it doesn’t really need rehearsal. It definitely doesn’t need complexity. It uses common people, and most everyone fits that bill. There are people, of course, who don’t know this story. For whatever reasons they aren’t aware yet how silently the gift is given, but they also don’t know how easy God has made it for them to play a part too. At a Christmas when all we really have is the story, we see it’s enough for God to carry us through.

When mothers in the middle east give birth, they wrap the child in nothing more than bands of cloth, or swaddling clothes. Whatever they have on hand. Mary does this. It is a sign of maternal care. Swaddling keeps babies warm and makes them feel safe. It also makes them easy to carry. Who is swaddled this year? I think God has swaddled us. I believe we find ourselves wrapped up in little more God’s story of love and relying on God’s hands to carry us through. And it’s enough.

For it is a story, you may recall, that takes us from the swaddling clothes of the manger to the clothes that are divided by casting lots as this Jesus hangs on the cross. It is a story that does not turn back from any darkest hour, not even death. In Jesus, God takes our various terrified and wandering lives, pulls us in, and tells us where we end up and where we end up is at the heart of his love. We are essential, remember?  Even as he dies, he dies for us. Because of Jesus, the best gift of all, we will be carried through to life forever with God.

And so on this unusual night of peace and glory, when all we have is this wonderful story, here are the things marvelous things we ponder:

As the holy pair wait for room to deliver their child, we know God is with every patient waiting on a hospital room or ICU spot.  

As the shepherds are startled from their fields we realize God values every health care worker and law enforcement officer who has had to work through the night this year.

As the angel insists on making known tidings of great joy to a fearful audience, we know God is with every public health official and vaccine developer who has struggled to get across messages of health and safety this year. God sees every teacher who has struggled to share tidings of math and reading through a computer screen.

As Joseph and Mary travel far from their home in Nazareth, separated from family in such a tender and vulnerable moment, we trust God recognizes every grandparent and loved one and nursing home resident who celebrates this day alone.

As Jesus finds himself born in Bethlehem simply because the governor issued a census, we see that God knows what it’s like to counted by the powers that be, as another data point for some chart somewhere. And so God comes alongside everyone who’s received a positive COVID test, mindful of the stigma they are now just a number on a graph.

As the whole scene likely takes place in the open air, and on a road trip, and definitely not in heated sanctuary, we know God sees everyone who’s been kept away from gathering in their churches this year.

We’re all in the story, somehow, you see.  Swaddled, wrapped up, kept safe in this dark night…and ready for God to pick us up and take us ahead, and Jesus is most wonderfully here.

Merry Christmas!!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

Rejoice + Pray + Give Thanks

a sermon for the Third Sunday of Advent [Year B]

1 Thessalonians 5:16-24 and Psalm 126

One night this week my family was seated at our kitchen table for our Advent devotions, which we typically do right as everyone finishes eating. We prefer to have the table cleared before we do them, but on this particular night we were in a rush so we just shoved the dishes to the middle of the table and made-do. There are different duties all associated with our devotions routine. In our kitchen window we have our Advent log, which contains one candle for every day of Advent. We also have an Advent calendar and some devotional readings I’ve worked up over the years. Everyone has multiple roles to play, and no matter how well-organized we are, there is always some fuss and debate about who gets to do what.

what a completed Advent log looks like

On this particular evening, as he watched the rest of us try to figure out what was going to happen in what order, the 4-year-old announced, all on his own, that he wanted to lead us in a prayer. It kind of caught us off guard, and even though our routine was already a little too elaborate, perhaps, we couldn’t turn down his request. And so we bowed our heads and let him offer a prayer. There was no hesitation on his part. “Dear God,” he said, and then clearly waited for us to repeat: “Dear God.”

“Thank you for loving me.”
“Thank you for loving me.” And then a pause.

“Thank you for loving Bigger Bear” (which is his number one stuffed animal)
“Thank you for loving Bigger Bear.”

“Thank you for loving our food.”
“Thank you for loving our food.”

“Thank you for loving our vegetables.”
“Thank you for loving our vegetables.”

“Thank you for loving an apple.”
“Thank you for loving an apple.”

And at this point I couldn’t resist opening my eyes just a bit and I saw him scanning the room looking for the next thing to plug into his prayer formula. The girls were starting to get the giggles, and I wasn’t sure how long this was going to go on considering we have a very cluttered kitchen right now. He had plenty of things to choose from. But right at that moment he said, “Amen.”

In his final words to his congregation in Thessalonika, Paul says to rejoice always, pray without ceasing, and give thanks in all circumstances. There we were in our kitchen, doing all three, and our 4-year-old was leading the way. In the Thessalonians’ case, Paul is not discussing family devotions or rituals, but the situation they are dealing with is not all that different from ours on this third Sunday of Advent. They are eagerly awaiting the arrival of Jesus. They are taking serious Jesus’ own promise that he would return at any moment and usher in a reign of peace and justice. We get the sense from reading the letter that they are starting to get a little impatient and that impatience is leading to some anxiety and even some fear.  I thinktThe Thessalonian congregation sounds a little bit like a popular Christmas song by the Chipmunks, rephrased:

Our Lord Jesus’ time is near.
Time of peace, time of cheer.
We’ve got faith but we can’t last.
Hurry, Jesus. Hurry fast.

Oh, how hard it is to wait!

Then in his characteristic pastoral tone, Paul assures them that anxiety and fear are not in order. Even in this time of waiting they can rejoice. Always. They can pray. Constantly. And they can look around the room wherever they are and start plugging things they see and notice into a prayer of thanksgiving.

There are several times where prepositions become very important in our faith, and I find that this is one of them. Paul doesn’t say to give thanks FOR all circumstances, but to give thanks in all circumstances. And so even as they pray for Jesus to hurry, even as they confess some frustration with how long the waiting is turning out to be, they can still be thankful. That is, they don’t need to feel thankful for Jesus’ delay, but it’s absolutely appropriate to be thankful while Jesus is delayed.

We find that this expands to all kinds of situations of faith and life. I’ve had a conversation this week with a woman in our congregation whose father just died. She told me how she has feelings of sadness, because, after all, he was her dad, and she loved him, but at the same time expressed to me how thankful she feels nonetheless—thankful his death was peaceful, thankful all siblings had time to gather and spend time with him, thankful the nursing facility relaxed COVID restrictions just so they could say goodbye. She’s not thankful for his death, but she’s thankful in the circumstances.

I spoke recently with someone whose child had received a cancer diagnosis. Those are never words you want to hear. You rarely, if ever, give thanks for cancer, but at the same time there was clear thankfulness, in this case, that it had been caught far earlier than it should have. There is thankfulness for support from so many friends and caregivers.

I don’t think I need to belabor the point, and Paul doesn’t either. These three little commands at the end of his letter are brief and to the point. Through joyfulness, fervent prayer, and a spirit of thankfulness they will have all they need to be blameless and sound at the coming of Jesus. To be blameless and sound is to be ready, to be whole. And all three of these things—thanksgiving, prayer, and joy—have a way of doing that to our soul. God, the one who calls us, is faithful, Paul reminds us, and will provide us the ability to sit around the table, virtually if we have to and share these things together.

Of those, the one we might need to hear most in these days is the command to rejoice always. For obvious reasons, joy goes a long way during stressful times. Traditionally, the third Sunday of Advent is called Gaudete Sunday, taken from the Latin word for joy. The Scripture readings appointed for this Sunday typically focus on joy if they don’t mention joy directly, and we certainly hear them today. In some traditions the Advent candle is pink today, a color that symbolizes joyfulness and gladness, which reminds us that ultimately we are anticipating joy in Jesus.

That Latin word, Gaudete, is also where we get the word “gaudy,” which is a word that comes to mind with pink. Gaudy also makes me think of what has become many people’s favorite ways to mark this time of year—the gaudy Christmas sweater. Things that are gaudy often bring joy. They are flashy and fun. They don’t hold back and aren’t subdued by social convention or feelings of embarrassment. They’re kind of bold in the midst of the whites and golds of Christmastime. The third Sunday of Advent tells us our faith can wear a gaudy Christmas sweater, especially in the midst of a world that is dark and hurting. It’s a garland instead of ashes, a mantle of praise rather than a faint spirit, as the prophet Isaiah says.

But we know the joy that Christ brings us is not a shallow or surface happiness. It is a joy that knows God plays the long game, as theologian Walter Brueggeman says. It is a “deep, glad confidence,” he says, “that God’s good will for the world will outrun all of our troubles and tribulations.” This, you see, is a joy rooted in the cross and shining with the light of Easter morning. It has already looked death head on and let it do its worse and still not been conquered. Nothing can now take that away.

The truly amazing thing about this joy that Christ brings is that it isn’t just intended for us and for our salvation. It is a joy that is reflected in the transformation of the world around us. The brokenhearted find themselves bound up in hope. The captives are set free. Prisoners to sin and grief are set free. The ruins of human communities are rebuilt and restored. Goodness and mercy flow through God’s people again, like the watercourses of the Negeb, which is a desert wilderness in southern Israel, after a storm. They blossom and grow in a riot of color even though the surrounding hills and rocks, in their desolation, suggest they are out of place. A gaudy sweater stands out, looks “out of place.” The deep joy from knowing Christ sets God’s people apart, even as the world seems fearful.

Jesus, in all his goodness, comes to us. In fact, John says he is standing among us now. May we be sound and blameless. Ready and whole. It’s a joyful thing. Next thing you know—this joy spills over from our personal gaudiness, and the whole world wants to wear a sweater like ours. It spills over in your generosity through the Giving Tree and Thanksgiving baskets. If flows over in your commitments to carry this congregation into another year, even as a pandemic is ongoing.

The writer of the psalm would call this shouldering the sheaves. That is, carrying so much more harvest than you expected that you bear them on shoulders, ready for a party.

John the Baptist would call this testifying to the light, the light that ends the darkness.

Paul would call it rejoicing always, giving thanks in all circumstances.

Jasper, my son, would say, “Thank you, God, for loving me. And that over there. And that over there. And that and that and that.”

Take your pick, it’s all the same.

The Lord is near. The one who calls you is faithful and he will do this.