(This sermon was delivered to a group recovering from alcohol and drug addiction.)
Well on behalf of Fr. Mike and me and all of here,
let me wish you & yours a very blessed and Merry Christmas.
I hope we all find a little something under the tree this year
and we’re all grateful – even if we can’t stand it.
The calendar’s fast approaching December 25th,
and that means it’ll soon be Christmas Day:
the birth day of Jesus.
But, you know, the truth is
we really have no earthly idea when Jesus was actually born.
Jesus could have been born on some beautiful spring day –
Or maybe on a real scorcher smack in the middle of summer.
We simply haven’t a clue as to when it was.
But sometime in the 5th century,
when the Church decided to settle on a day to celebrate Christ’s
birth, it’s interesting to see the date they chose:
They chose the time of the year when the nights,
at least in the Northern hemisphere
are at their very longest & coldest.
When the world is dark,
and when everything in it is nearly frozen & dead.
Then in the words we heard tonight from Isaiah the prophet:
The people who walked in darkness will see a great light;
those who dwell in a land of deep darkness,
on them a light will shine.
Lights don’t often appear very bright
when we see them shining in broad daylight;
but at night, in the darkness,
especially when it’s our own darkness,
we can sometimes see them shining for miles.
Now in each one of the Christmas gospels,
we hear a story directed to a particular people
who were living in their own particular darkness.
For Matthew, it was the darkness of the Jewish people
who needed light to recognize Jesus as their long promised Messiah.
And so Matthew’s Christmas story tells of the birth of Jesus
where he shines like a new Moses coming out of Egypt.
And John’s Christmas story is directed to the Greeks, who
needed Christ’s light to outshine the wisdom
of their own great philosophers.
So his story tells of Jesus being God’s very own Wisdom & Light –
a Light that was shining long before the world ever began
– Shining before those philosophers ever picked up a pen.
But tonight, it’s Luke’s turn to tell the Christmas story.
And for him – he’s writing primarily to the people living in the darkness
that was the Roman Empire.
Now from what I read – living in the Roman Empire was pretty much like living in Texas –
It was a neat place to be if you were rich & powerful;
but it was the pits if you were poor and living on the bottom
like most of its people were.
The whole Roman world had just been though some very long
and some very bloody wars –
and one man had now emerged as Lord & Master of it all.
His name was Caesar Augustus
and he was the first Roman emperor to declare himself the son of god.
When people used the word Lord – they were referring to him and to him alone.
And so what Luke’s Christmas story is telling those people
borders on political treason, so he’s real cautious – but his
message is clear: Caesar Augustus isn’t the real Lord & Savior of the world –
but a humble man named Jesus of Nazareth is.
So very subtly Luke compares the Lord Caesar born in a palace
with the Lord Jesus born in a lowly manger.
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And the announcement of this Lord’s birth isn’t made with a royal proclamation read by some Roman soldier from the steps of the local town square;
But instead it comes from a whole army of angels high up in the sky, delivered to a group of poor shepherds working out in the fields.
Now to us, that little shepherd scene sounds all sweet & cuddly;
but that’s not the way Luke meant for it to appear.
He meant his words to come as a shock.
You see, back in Luke’s day,
shepherds weren’t thought of too highly.
As a matter of fact, shepherds were considered to be a real low-life little group –
maybe just a step or two above thieves & bandits.
But Luke wants his readers to knowthat the Good News of Jesus’ birth
didn’t first come trumpeted to the rich or to the powerful.
First, God announced it to the poor and to the powerless –
His word came first to the people living life on the bottom.
Today, it would be as if the announcement of Jesus’ birth
was made first to a bunch of hippies camped out in Bastrop State Park!
Or maybe to some of the homeless huddled under I-35 and trying to stay warm!
Luke says the angel announced it first to the ones who didn’t count
for very much in the eyes of the world –
To the little nobodies of the world – the ones
who’ve always held a special place in the heart of God.
And so, where I’m going with all of this is:
what’s most important about the Christmas stories is:
Who is it that’s hearing them?
Who are these stories intended for?
Each gospel writer is writing to a particular community –
a community that had its own darkness and its own set of doubts.
And each community is asking these gospel writers,
“What does this Jesus guy have to do with me?
What is it that makes him out to be my Savior?”
To the Jews, Matthew’s Christmas story says:
Jesus is the long-promised Messiah our people have been waiting for.
To the Greeks, John’s story says:
Jesus is the Alpha and the Omega – he’s the beginning and the end; he’s the Word & the Wisdom of God who always was and always will be.
And to the poor and to the downtrodden;
to the shepherds and the outcasts,
to all the ones living outdoors and living without hope:
He’s the Good Shepherd –
He’s come in search of the sheep who are lost –
and he won’t rest until he’s found them –
found each and every one of ‘em and brought ‘em
all back to his Father safe & sound.
Each one of us probably heard these Christmas stories read to us
when we were kids growing up.
We heard them with the uncritical ears & the simple minds of young children.
And back then, they spoke to us of mysterious happenings &
wondrous events –
Events that seemed to take place a long time ago,
(and if you were born after 1970) in a galaxy far, far away.
Maybe when we first heard ‘em, we took all these stories literally
because that’s the way they were taught to us
and we didn’t know there was another way to hear them.
But then, when our own adolescent darkness descended
we grew up – at least physically!
And pretty soon angels, and wise men and shepherds –
they all seemed pretty childish and not very relevant.
Maybe we never quite put them away
like we did our beliefs in the Easter Bunny or in Santa Claus;
but they lost their power to move us and shape us
and light-up our every-day lives.
So we went out in search of other lights – bright, city – lights!
And most of us found some stuff out there that lit us up pretty good!
And whether it was booze or drugs that did it best –
that stuff was good, and it worked to brighten our lives for a while:
Sex, drugs, rock & roll –
so we thought: maybe this shepherd life ain’t so bad after all!
But then, like our first reading says: there came another time –
a time for many of us when they too stopped working –
and so once again, the darkness descended.
But this time it got very dark inside –
maybe darker than we’d ever seen or had ever bargained for.
I know my own darkness descended right around Christmas back in 1972.
I was living in Cleveland, Ohio at the time.
Back in those days, if you really wanted to get yourself good & depressed,
Cleveland was definitely the place to be.
You’d wake up in the morning and with all the pollution there,
the whole river would be on fire.
I’d look out my window drunk or hung-over and figure,
I’d finally descended into hell!
I was 27, and I was in the Jesuit seminary.
I’m supposed to be helping the chaplain there at Case Western Reserve University –
but I’m drunk and I’m stealing gallons of wine
and dragging ‘em back to my room.
In just a few months I was supposed to take vows of poverty, chastity and obedience –
and the only one I’m doing any good with is poverty!
And I’d been in trouble before – and I’d been in AA before –
but this time, for some unknown reason, something was different.
This time – like that first reading tries to say –
this time the unmanageability of my life
wasn’t about how drunk or how much trouble I’d been in;
This time I thought I was going to die if I couldn’t drink –
and at the same time, I knew my drinking was killing me.
That’s when I started to understand unmanageability in a whole new light.
I couldn’t live comfortably inside my own skin – not without a drink –
and I couldn’t drink without winding up drunk and in trouble.
That’s when things got really dark –
dark enough for this alcoholic to go start looking for some kind of a Savior. …
The angel said to the shepherds, “Don’t be afraid”
Those were the very first words out of that angel’s mouth –
so maybe a few of those shepherds were also alcoholics or addicts
cause when most of us arrive here – fear is our middle name –
and it’s oozing out of our pours right along with the
The guy in the story says:
“How can I make it fifteen minutes without a drink – I think I’m going to die.”
Can’t we all relate to that one?
But then maybe he also shines some light into our darkness when he says:
That’s our alcoholism! – That’s our illness! –
That’s that special brand of insanity that we’ve all got –
Our unmanageability, if you will –
That’s what keeps us as the book says:
feeling restless, irritable and discontented and gets us ready to do it all again!
And so we go and we pour booze onto it – or we stick a needle in it –
But we’re only treating the symptom of what’s really wrong deep down inside.
What’s wrong inside is — we need a savior.
A savior who can do for us what we can’t do for ourselves.
Those shepherds did what the angel told them to do.
They got up and they went over the hill to the little town of Bethlehem
and there they found their savior.
He probably didn’t look like much of a Savior lying there in a feeding trough –
with straw hangin’ in his hair
and surrounded by asses & a pack of camels –
Come to think of it:
that sounds pretty much like what my first AA meeting looked like! –
and those guys didn’t look much like saviors either.
But, after almost 35 years in this sobriety thing,
I’ve learned that that’s exactly the way God always comes to us.
He doesn’t appear up in the sky fifty feet tall –
But instead, he comes to us unexpectedly:
He comes in the form of a small child,
or through some lines in a big book,
or in a hurt that won’t go away.
He comes to us in a hundred different ways –
usually unrecognized and often unwanted –
He comes when the darkness deepens
and when the false-saviors we clung to
have all walked out on us –
And just when it looks like it can’t get any darker –
Then, all of a sudden, a light shines in our lives.
God comes back into our world –
Maybe like we haven’t seen him since when we were kids.
It’s Christmas once again!
We’re older and wiser now –
Now we hear his story with new ears
and now see a lot of things with new eyes –
It’s all very differently now –
But then again – it’s strangely all the same.
Thirty-five years ago my world felt like it was coming to an end –
and, I guess, in truth – it was –
because a new one was just beginning.
That second birth hurts like hell – and it’s scary as can be –
and some of us have to make more than one trip
to the delivery room!
But that angel was right when he said:
“Don’t be afraid,
Keep coming back
Cause just over that hill, our savior waits.”
And if we look & if we listen real hard,
then maybe on some cold, winter night just like this
we might listen in with a new set of sober ears
and we might look up with our new set of sober eyes –
and then, once again,
maybe we’ll see & hear those angels sing:
“Glory to God in the highest,
and on earth,
peace to alcoholics and to addicts
and to all people of good will!”