Christmas Eve sermon, Trinity United Church, Ingleside
Giving all glory and honour to God.
Tonight we have sung and read the Christmas story, the one we love from carols and Sunday school pageants and Christmas services and A Charlie Brown Christmas. We know all the parts of the story from hearing it and singing it, and we can put the story together from our carols: once in royal David’s city, Mary and Joseph arrive in O little town of Bethlehem, and Gentle Mary laid her child, away in a manger, no crib for his bed. While shepherds watched their flocks by night, angels from the realms of glory came upon the midnight clear, sweetly singing o’er the plains glory to the newborn king, and the shepherds come and adore him, Christ the Lord. Nowell, nowell, born is the king of Israel.
That is indeed the story. And there’s a lot here in this story, behind the words of the carols and the figures of our nativity sets. It’s like an onion, with lots of layers. Think of that tomorrow if you’re peeling an onion for Christmas dinner. Now I know you’re probably not going to be thinking of that, because on Christmas Day you’re more likely to be thinking of how you’re going to lose it if you hear Gramma Got Run Over by a Reindeer one more time, so we’ll explore this now. Not all the layers we could find, as we want to leave time for lots more singing, but maybe a couple.
Here’s one layer. Who gets told the news about the Christ being born? Not religious or political leaders or celebrities. Shepherds. We imagine shepherds to be the respectable folks in nice clean robes we see in pageants, but in the time of Jesus people looked down on shepherds as dirt poor, smelly outsiders who couldn’t keep up their religious obligations as they were away a lot, just not the right sort of people at all, at the bottom of the economic and social ladder, like homeless people today. Yet they are the first ones told of this good news for all people.
Here’s another layer. You know, a lot of us have heard the word bedlam, which means a place full of noise, frenzied activity, and confusion. But we don’t know where the word comes from. Well, 500 years ago in England there was a group of monks called the Order of the Star of Bethlehem, devoted to the care of those who were mentally ill. They established an institution called the Bethlehem Hospital, which eventually got shortened to Bedlam. So bedlam comes from Bethlehem. And we can imagine as the story takes place that there really was bedlam in Bethlehem at that first Christmas, the village packed with people for the census, no room in the crowded inns, tired, cranky travelers shouting, Mary and Joseph finding a place with the musty hay and noisy and smelly animals, nothing quite as tidy and antiseptic as our nativity scenes or the old paintings where no animals go to the bathroom and Mary is always shown as very calm, kneeling beside the manger. One female minister commented that this shows that men painted all these pictures, as there was no way she was kneeling after childbirth. And we may make the story very sentimental as we sing little Lord Jesus, no crying he makes, and sleep in heavenly peace, but the story must really be bedlam, the baby wailing as all babies do, animals crying out, mess and filth and darkness, a sore and tired mother, Joseph dealing with these shepherds who rush in, falling over each other, dirty and enthusiastic.
Bedlam in the Christmas story. And Bedlam in our Christmas, today and tomorrow, excitement and shouts of joy as relatives arrive and gifts are opened, music and TV blaring, exhaustion – does this bedlam sound like anyone’s house here? – and perhaps tears of disappointment as a brand new toy breaks, maybe anger as too many drinks cause family tensions to boil over, weeping as sorrow over the death of a loved one or a relationship comes to the surface. Bedlam in our Christmas, and bedlam in our lives, our busy, busy lives of crises and stress that leave us as sleepless and weary and grumpy as the travelers in the original Bethlehem bedlam, lives where we are overwhelmed by noise and cries for attention, lives of worry and anxiety and fear, fear about health and marriage and finances and jobs and crime, fear about an accident or diagnosis or a layoff changing everything in a moment, fear of being alone, fear for ourselves, fear for our loved ones, fear for our world. So many of us, I think all of us, are afraid, and often we don’t know what it is we’re afraid of.
The shepherds in the story were afraid, too. After all, they’re sitting in the dark, minding their own business, and suddenly an angel appears. Yet what is the first thing the angel says to them? Don’t be afraid. These words resound throughout the Christmas story. Just read Luke. The angel comes to Zechariah, the father of John the Baptist, and says, don’t be afraid. The angel comes to Mary to tell her that she will have a son named Jesus, and says, don’t be afraid. The angel comes to Joseph, who is engaged to Mary, and says, don’t be afraid. The angel comes to the shepherds on Christmas night, and says, don’t be afraid. All of these lives turned around unexpectedly, Zechariah, Mary, Joseph, the shepherds – and they are reassured, don’t be afraid. And so we are reassured when our lives change suddenly. Don’t be afraid.
The angel says, don’t be afraid, I bring you good news of great joy, for all people. And these words, don’t be afraid, are good news for us, people living in the darkness of bedlam and fear, for on us God’s light has shined. Good news for all – well, nearly all. For another layer in this story is that we think of it as the most unthreatening, status quo story imaginable. After all, it’s usually acted out by kids in bathrobes with tea towels on their heads. But it is really a subversive, radical story, so much so that in the 1980s in Guatemala the government banned public readings of part of the Christmas story because it was too dangerous, it could incite rebellion.
In the story the angel comes and says, Your Saviour is born today. He is Christ, the Lord. Well, 20 centuries ago only one person in Palestine, one person in the entire Roman empire, was called Saviour and Lord, even Prince of Peace – and it wasn’t a baby. It was the emperor, Augustus Caesar, considered to be divine, who had ordered the census in the story – the Bible doesn’t say if it was the short form or long form census, but the census is why Joseph and Mary were in Bethlehem, this one-horse town in a remote backwater of the empire. Born is the king of Israel are nice lyrics to The First Nowell for us, but when this story was written down these words were threatening to the power of the Emperor and the empire. These words frightened the powers that be – the Bible says about the Emperor’s puppet ruler in Palestine, King Herod was afraid, and all Jerusalem with him. These words threatened the authorities so much that as the story continued Joseph and Mary and Jesus had to flee for their lives and become refugees.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a Lutheran minister in Germany and one of the greatest theologians of the 20th century. He was executed by the Nazis for opposing the ideology of Hitler with the good news of Jesus Christ. And he wrote about this Christmas message, don’t be afraid, saying: “For the great and powerful of this world, there are only two places in which their courage fails them, of which they are afraid deep down in their souls, from which they shy away. These are the manger and the cross of Jesus Christ. No powerful person dares to approach the manger. For this is where thrones shake, the mighty fall, the prominent perish, because God is with the lowly.”
Sisters and brothers, Bethlehem was bedlam, and it seems that our Christmas is bedlam, our lives are bedlam, and our world is bedlam, just as the world into which Jesus was born was bedlam, a world dominated by empire and power then and now, a world of violence and hunger and poverty, a world with no solutions in sight, just in our world a bedlam of competing voices screaming out opinions on every issue from the census to whether you should say Merry Christmas or Happy Holidays.
And into bedlam comes God, in this mystery of God somehow born among humanity as a tiny, vulnerable baby. God is with us as God identifies completely with us, born as we were. And into our bedlam today God comes just as God came in the Christmas story of bedlam in Bethlehem, this revolutionary story of God coming in and with the lowly, the humble, the poor, the defenceless, the voiceless. That is the deep, eternal truth of this story of Christmas, that we are not alone, for Jesus is Emmanuel, God with us, God come to be with us in our vulnerability, our weakness, our helplessness, our fear. And that message of Christmas is not just for poor outsiders on a hillside 20 centuries ago; it’s for us: Don’t be afraid. God is with us. And that message of calm and comfort cuts through the bedlam of our Christmas, the bedlam of our lives, and brings peace, the real silent night, holy night.
Don’t be afraid. And so we are not to be afraid of what is happening to us and around us and in our world, and of what may happen in the future. We have hope, brothers and sisters, for Jesus came at Christmas and comes to us always and will come again - to save us, and to show us what our loving God is like, and to show us how to be fully human – unafraid, and loving, for the opposite of love isn’t hate, it’s fear. And when we are not afraid, we can act, act out this story that turns expectations upside down, we can work to make God’s vision of peace on earth and goodwill to all a reality in our world.
Don’t be afraid. That’s what God’s messengers say in the story. If we live our lives in hope and love, free of fear, we too will be God’s messengers, telling and showing the world that we are not afraid because we have been given the good news of Christmas, And so I say to you on this Christmas Eve, the old message, the true message, the amazing message, “Don’t be afraid. Look, I bring you good news to you, wonderful, joyous news for all people. Your Saviour is born today in David’s city. He is Christ, the Lord. This is a sign for you: You will find a newborn baby wrapped snugly and lying in a manger. Glory to God in heaven, and on earth, peace and goodwill to all.”
Thursday, December 23, 2010
Thoughtful piece by Patricia Paddey in today's National Post, The Nice Road to Santa and the Difficult Path to Christ. Here's an excerpt:
Think about it: today’s Santa is the perfect deity for our day; he’s a god-man who is eternal, omnipotent, omniscient and omnipresent, who judges and rewards good and bad behaviour. He is a vehicle of undeserved love, forgiveness and grace. Children are taught to adore him and to please him with sacrificial offerings of milk and cookies. He dwells far off in another realm but promises to return regularly to the benefit of those who believe in him. The fact that he’s also one of the great underpinnings of the world industrial economy doesn’t hurt his appeal.
But the story of Jesus? Well that’s a far different matter and one that could never be described in half-measures. The sweet infant sleeping on the hay in the Christmas crèche grows up to be the man who angers local religious authorities, is betrayed, abandoned and handed over for torture by disappointed friends, and dies a traitor’s cruel death. In the days and weeks after his death, hundreds of people are convinced of the reality of his resurrection – including his scared and scattered friends who ultimately hear him victoriously proclaim, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.”
Thursday, December 16, 2010
It's the 400th anniversary of the King James Bible in 2011. I used to hold out for calling it the Authorized Version, but have now given up. We'll have a special Bible Sunday sometime during the year to celebrate this translation and its immense impact on the English language and the Christian faith. After all, what would Christmas be without Linus reciting Luke's nativity story from the KJV in A Charlie Brown Christmas?
Monday, December 13, 2010
I've been using the Common English Bible for the New Testament readings on Sundays in Advent. It's a brand-new translation, and I like it - contemporary in feel but takes fewer liberties with the text than The Message (although I still like The Message too). Here's a lookup tool for any New Testament passage.