In the name of the God who became human to be the Savior of humankind, Amen.
I read a story by an Episcopal priest from New York City, recently. He talked about walking from his apartment in Greenwich Village to his church, near Midtown Manhattan. It was Christmas morning and he had a service at 11:00 am. At about 9:30, as he neared the church, he walked past an apartment building and noticed that someone had thrown a Christmas tree away. 9:30 on Christmas morning and someone had already removed all the lights, taken down the ornaments, removed the stand and had taken the tree outside to be disposed of. Now how sad is that? 9:30 on Christmas morning and the celebration is over. I guess the thought was, “Whew, I’m glad that’s over. New Year’s Eve is only a week away and I’ve got a party to plan.”
In modern America it’s really a wonder we don’t see this sort of thing more often. After all, the “Christmas Season,” starts as soon as the stores begin taking down their Halloween displays. No later than October, we begin hearing the familiar carols over store PA systems and seeing commercials on television with references to Santa, reindeer and, of course, gift giving. By the time Thanksgiving arrives, there is a full-scale shopping frenzy in American malls. And if you don’t have your Christmas party on the calendar by December 10th, forget about it. No one will have a hole in their calendar that late. By mid-December, this country has been so completely inundated by the “details,” of Christmas for such a long time, and has had to deal with so much pressure from commercial America, with its demand for bigger and better present buying, that the whole country is burned out on Christmas long before today. Now is the time that the counter-cultural message of the Church MUST be the strongest.
The message from the Church is this: Christmas is NOT a day – most assuredly not a day that ends as soon as the wrapping paper is gathered from under the tree and bagged. No, Christmas is NOT a day, it is a SEASON. And it does NOT begin in October, it BEGINS after sundown on Christmas Eve. The Season of Advent has been in full swing for the last four Sundays and has brought with it the repeated calls to be ready and to wait for the coming of the Messiah, the Savior of the world. We’ve been preparing, we’ve been watchful … and now He’s here! And we CANNOT just toss out the season after this service and begin getting ready for the new year. Instead, we need to CELEBRATE the arrival and consider what this season means to us as Christians. And we cannot do that in the next few minutes. We have twelve days – from now until the Epiphany – during which we are called upon to contemplate what the birth of Jesus – the Christ – means to us. We’re called to contemplate this meaning all the time, but in this season in particular it is vitally important to our faith.
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Luke’s telling of the Nativity Story is aimed at bringing us two very different but important messages. First, what happened that Christmas night, a little over two millennia ago was quite ordinary. A young man – Joseph by name – took his even younger wife, Mary, and they travelled from their home in Nazareth to Bethlehem, the City of David, because their government told them to do so. If there was a nationwide census in this country that – for some reason – required all people to go back to their ancestral home in order to be counted, I dare say that there would be a lot of travelling in and out of this country (as well as a lot of family argument about where to go). But travel we would, just as Joseph and Mary did. After they arrived in Bethlehem, the most ordinary and yet extraordinary thing happened. Their child was born. Any of you who are parents know just how extraordinary the birth of YOUR child was, even when you looked at the very ordinary occurrence of childbirth in general. The birth of a child – especially a first child, because it is such a new experience – is an amazing thing to the parents, but to the rest of the world, not such a big deal. In this country, there is a baby born every 7.8 seconds. It literally happens all the time.
But this baby WAS different. Joseph and Mary knew that this would be no ordinary birth – even to people other than themselves. They knew that this birth would fulfill Biblical prophesy, particularly that of Isaiah, who said,
“For to us a child is born. To us a son is given; and the government will be on his shoulders. His name will be called Wonderful, Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace” (Isaiah 9:6 WEB).
Joseph and Mary knew that this little baby, lying so helpless on a pile of straw; this little baby, born to working poor parents in a town that was unknown to most of the world; this little baby was not only their son, He was also the Son of God. This most unassuming little baby boy, wrapped not in royal robes but in bands of unbleached linen; lying not in a royal bed chamber in a fine palace, but in a stable, surrounded by common farm animals; this little boy was the King of all creation.
We all know this story. No matter how I may pitch it, no matter how eloquently I may think my words might describe it, we KNOW this story. What makes us come back here to hear this story every year, and hopefully to consider its consequences to the world, is the second amazing point, that this story CONTINUES to be relevant. Jamie Lynn Spears will give birth in a few months. She’s about the same age as Mary was when she gave birth. There will be a huge media surge when little Bubba or Bubbette Spears comes into the world. And then the media frenzy will die down. But here we are two thousand plus years later, and we’re still talking about this unassuming birth in Bethlehem. Why? That’s the more important aspect of the story.
On that night, surrounded not by adoring fans or the paparazzi but by farm animals, God became a human being. In Bethlehem of Judea, on that long ago night, God began to experience what we experience – just AS WE EXPERIENCE it. In the Episcopal Eucharistic Prayer D, we say that God became human and “lived as one of us, ….” Think about that for a minute. The same God who created the entire world, took upon God’s self our human nature and lived and died as one of us. God became human and laughed and cried, and loved and lost, was hungry and full, happy and sad, cared for and lonely. God experienced what WE experience. Never before, and I dare say never again, will a group of people be able to make such a claim. Moslems have no such claim. Mohammed was a Prophet, NOT God incarnate. Jews have no such claim. Abraham was our father, just he was theirs, and Abraham was a man, not God. In all the world, only Christians lay claim to the fact that God became human and lived among us. That is EXTRAORDINARY.
After that long ago night, never again should we view God as some distant Deity, removed from our problems and concerns, untouched by the reality of how we live. Our God is a living God. As God’s favorite creation, we have been given amazing blessings by our Creator. We have this world in which we live, in all its grandeur and beauty. We have people in our lives who delight us and sometimes make us laugh until we cry. We have comforts that people of past generations could not have dreamed of. All are gifts from the God of all. And everything in our lives should cause us to give thanks to the God who cares about us so deeply.
But what about those who have a horrible debilitating illness? And what about those who got laid off from their jobs a week before Christmas? And how about global warming and war and all the other messes in this world? That’s the other amazing thing about this story. God never promised to fix all of the things in the world that are broken – at least not within our lifetime. But God KNOWS how we feel and what we are going through. God has EXPERIENCED what we experience. And God has promised NEVER to leave us alone in our despair.
“God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son to the end that all who believe in Him should not perish, but have everlasting life.” That’s the promise of the Incarnate God. This extraordinary little baby grew up, lived a life of doing good and bringing a message of peace and justice to the people, and then willingly laid down His life so that we might have life everlasting.
Don’t be in a great hurry today – or through the next couple of weeks. If you get in too much of a hurry when you’re cleaning up on Christmas morning, you can throw away something important with the wrapping paper. Don’t get in such a hurry that you throw out the greatest gift in history – God becoming human and living as one of us. An extraordinary gift that we should celebrate and cherish.
Scripture quotations from the World English Bible.
Copyright 2009, John Bedingfield. Used by permission.