12/24/17 – The Story That Changed the World

THE STORY THAT CHANGES THE WORLD

December 24, 2017
Christmas Eve Service
Isaiah 9:2-7; Titus 2:11-14; Luke 2:1-20
Rev. Denise Clark-Jones 

Being a grandparent, I have the joy of experiencing the joy and excitement of Christmas through the eyes of young children once again. And now, I don’t have to stay up late to put together any toys with pages of instructions or search the house for the right size batteries, I thought were included. I was thrilled to see the snow on the ground this morning and I didn’t have to take a 5-year old out to play in the snow at 6:30 this morning. My son-in-law had that honor. There are some advantages to getting old.

So far I have not heard any questions about how Santa fits in with the birth of Christ from my grandson. My granddaughter is under 2, so, for her, the whole holiday is a wonderful confusion of gifts, decorations and special treats to eat – awe, wonder and delights for the senses is a pretty good experience of Christmas joy.  I heard a story about one little boy’s theory of how the Santa – God combination works:

“The elves make the toys, Santa takes them to God to make sure they are okay, and then brings them to children.”

This is an example of “syncretism,” which the dictionary defines as “the amalgamation or attempted amalgamation of different religions, cultures, or schools of thought.” Sadly, I’ve heard many examples of attempted syncretism lately, with the impossible fusion of the Christian faith, the moral relativism of social values, and the economic Darwinism of political ideologies. These shameless syncretisms have hurt the Church. Christians are being looked at with renewed suspicion and even, contempt. It has also given Christians who have dropped out an excuse to immerse themselves fully in contemporary society and its worldly values; and, to be both self-righteous and self-serving about staying away from the church and choosing not to participate in its original and true mission.

Luke’s gospel, support by the Hebrew scriptures or what we call the Old Testament, gives us a story of Jesus’ birth that simply will not allow the fusion of God’s kingdom and the devices and desires of the world. I read this posted on the Internet this week – a quote from a book by Charles Sell:

“If our greatest need had been information, God would have sent us an educator.
If our greatest need had been technology, God would have sent us a scientist.
If our greatest need had been money, God would have sent us an economist.
If our greatest need had been pleasure, God would have sent us an entertainer.
But, our greatest need was forgiveness, so God sent us a Savior.”

(Unfinished Business, Charles Sell, Multnomah, 1989, pp. 121ff)

Our gospel reading for Christmas Eve is the Christmas story in its most succinct form. For anyone who gets bogged down with worry that there is no digitalized visual recording of the birth event, “Do not fear,” that is not the purpose of Luke’s account. Fundamentalists, Atheists, and Agnostics have one critical similarity – they all read the bible literally. So, let’s relax and focus on what Luke is telling us and why.

We have the cast of characters: Emperor Augustus, Joseph, Mary, the baby Jesus, and a band of shepherds. The Emperor represents the political power that reigns in the time and place in which Jesus was born. The setting is Bethlehem, a sleepy little town in the Jewish province of Judea. Think of Judea as the “Jewish ghetto” of the Roman Empire. Bethlehem was the birthplace of Jesus’ famous ancestor, King David. We are not surprised there are shepherds there because David began his career as a lowly shepherd, not a king.

The plot is initiated by the Emperor’s decree that all people should return to their birthplace for the purpose of being counted. A census was a political hot button issue because the reason for the census was for taxation and conscription into the Roman army – neither popular with the people occupied by a foreign government.

Joseph was a skilled laborer, but a long way from affluence. He feared his arranged marriage was a trick to pass off a pregnant daughter. He chose to accept God’s assurance that all would be well. Mary was a poor young woman, barely in her teens, in a patriarchal society. Today, she would be in the position of our teen moms at Westminster’s Infant Care Center, but only God was there for her.

Did the government care about Mary’s condition? How easy it is to make decrees, like forcing a woman in the late stages of pregnancy to travel over 100 miles, when the Emperor and his minions did not know or care about their suffering. It is easy to pass laws that will not affect you or anyone you care about. Both Joseph and Mary had been forcibly relocated, like the 65 million refugees in the world today. After the birth, they are again threatened by their own government and forced to become immigrants in another land. I wonder how they were treated in Egypt?

Being a shepherd was one of the most humble professions in the first century. Their work was lonely, dirty and poorly paid. They didn’t have a good reputation and were even stereotyped as being untrustworthy and violent. They were the people that you cause you to tense when you see them coming in your direction, who live in neighborhoods you wouldn’t drive in at night. Luke plays on both sides of the image of a shepherd –- Jesus as being in the ancestral line of David, the shepherd King, and Jesus as the friend of the lowly and despised. The shepherds in Luke serve as a rich metaphor with double meanings that the first-century audience would catch. They knew that Abraham, Moses and David were all shepherds who were major figures in the salvation history of Israel.

Then there is the Christ child, the Son of God, the main character in the story. That God would reveal God’s self in the most vulnerable form, a newborn baby, demonstrates the unimaginable love and sacrifice God has made for us. God demonstrates that in order to love and receive love we must allow ourselves to be vulnerable. We cannot try to build walls to protect ourselves without shutting love out. And, that is the whole point. We have been created to love God and love each other in response to God’s steadfast love for us.

Luke describes Jesus’ birth in only two sentences; yet, he waxes poetic in his description of the shepherd’s awe and great joy when they saw the Christ child lying in the manger.   For Luke, the fact that God breaks through our human boundaries of caste and class, of rich and poor, and of powerful and powerless is a powerful message of hope and mercy. It is also a challenge. God judges our hearts not our social status, our wealth, or our appearance; and, we are charged with treating our brothers and sisters likewise.

The words some of you heard this morning, when we read and sang Mary’s Magnificat from Luke’s gospel, echo the Old Testament. The Bible informs us that God has a clear preference for the poor and powerless. God judges our faithfulness and obedience by how we treat them, not the lofty positions we reach in our little world. God judges nations by this same measurement.

I read these words from a biblical commentator this week:

“God appeared to ordinary parents and to shepherds and wise men alike so that every one of us may know, all these years later, that at any moment God may break into our lives. To really hear and understand that the Christmas story happened long ago to ordinary people means to be awestruck by the reality of God’s presence with us here and now.” God may, at any time and in an average, ordinary place, come to be with us. Your work, your family life, your meetings on the street—all the things we do have the potential to be sacred encounters that birth new life.”

Reading the Christmas story for the ordinary story that it is, we have to ask, ‘Who is to say that there isn’t a holiness to our lives?’ Who is to say that there isn’t holiness within you that you have yet to discover, something that can demonstrate God’s presence to the world, something that reminds you that you are so much more than any label society places on you or you accept for yourself. God plants in each of us the potential for new birth, a new life that will lighten the darkness within us and in the world.

So, on Christmas Eve we don’t try to explain, we just turn the mystery of the incarnation over to the story. We read it in scripture. We experience it in songs and sacrament. We see its beauty represented in candlelight and beautiful paraments And, we share this awesome story with people who have witnessed our own stories – family and friends. If we look through the eyes of Christ we will see holiness tonight. If we keep this story in our hearts and minds when we leave this sanctuary we will continue to see holiness throughout the world, most especially in people and places in which we do not expect to find it.

With the assurance of God’s love that embraces us like a mother’s arms and feeds us with the bread of life, we are challenged to walk boldly into the darkness of our worldly woes and seek the light God has promised to guide us home. The candles are lit, the Lord’s Supper is ready, let us come and share the Christmas feast Our Lord has prepared for us.

In the words, Mary responded to God when she was informed Christ would be born in her: “let it be according to your Word.” Amen.

 

© Rev. Denise Clark-Jones, 2017, All Rights Reserved
Westminster Presbyterian Church – Peoria, Illinois