December 24th, 2015
The best thing to do is to put all your cares aside and simply enjoy this night and tomorrow. But even then, there may still be a lingering whiff of disappointment to the night. Maybe the liturgy isn’t right. Maybe you don’t see your favorite hymn. Maybe you’re secretly mad because your parents are in town and they decided that everyone is going to church, and church just isn’t your thing. Maybe the weather is just a huge mood-killer, and the thought of a warm Christmas curdles your heart the way the thought of cold mashed potatoes curdles your tongue. I have wondered if the Shepherds felt a similar discontent when they got to peak Christmas—when they heard the news: this will be a sign for you; you will find a baby wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger, and the angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of God’s angel armies shone around them. I wonder what they must have felt when they left that hill, and all the glory they saw, and searched the mangers of Bethlehem until they found Mary and Joseph and Jesus. Yep, there he is, curious place for a Messiah, so out of the way, so hard to find. I wonder if they also were coming down from the glory of Christmas, the songs and the sudden lights, the angels' trumpets and the thronging voices of angel armies. Luke tells us the villagers were amazed at what the shepherds told them, but maybe they also thought, "See, this is what happens when you're with the sheep too long." None of the people who heard the news went to worship the Christ child. They went about their business. They didn't have Christmas at all, much less the peak Christmas with God's angel armies.
Perhaps the least believable part of this story is the child in the manger. Listen to what he is supposed to do, according traditional Christian interpretation of the Old Testament: he is supposed have continually growing authority, a realm of endless peace, and establish justice and righteousness. He is to establish a holy realm of peace and love that will never pass away. These are remarkable expectations for a little baby, not even circumcised. That God would choose to act in this kind of tenderhearted weakness, after the promises of burning the boots of tramping warriors and the bloody garments, the breaking of the yokes and bars--well, you'd forgive the shepherds if they yearned for angels. In this world of fear, it's understandable if we wish God would be revealed like that, in the sky, with a brilliant and unbeatable army of singing angels. Burn the boots of the warriors, O God, and break the yoke of the oppressor. Throw down the tyrants of the nations, and mold us into your people.
This we've learned that terrorism has not gone away, that climate change is happening faster than we thought, that it's still too hard to get a job and the rent is still...well, you know. What can a child do about that? If Jesus were born today, it's possible that he'd be on welfare. And if you keep coming to church, you'll learn that for a while he was a refugee--from a country known for its violent rebellions against Rome. And still the refugees stream to Europe and to the United States, fleeing the violence of South America and Syria and Burundi, and all the places of this world that live in darkness and the shadow of fear. How does a child help this?
All these heavenly hosts, all this power, but God gives us, a child. It's all the angel armies want to sing about--a child. And many people think, Well, that's not so hard. Even I could do that, if I had a partner. But yet God still says to us, every Christmas, forget the angel armies. Forget the surge of power and the glory shining. Forget the warriors and your fears. Instead, come and worship this little baby, wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a dark manger. If you want to see my power, to really see the way I have chosen to redeem the world, come to this weakest of all creatures, this human baby.
All our striving, and our yearning, all our fears and our failures, all of this imperfect life we have cobbled together from the parts we haven't wasted or missed, we offer to the one who is fully perfect and gives life. The perfect God has exchanged his perfection so to give it to us, and to fill our imperfection with the perfection of his grace. Our world cannot be mended by using the methods that break it: sin requires forgiveness and grace, and those two things will always come to us as a surprise, and in weak and lowly form. And we will find that when we give up our addiction to power and our faith in violence, that God works through the weak and powerless to bring peace and healing to the world.
God works to establish his reign through truth and love, not through fear and war. Instead of impressing us from on high, he comes to us as one of us, so that we can love him more and thereby love one another more. He comes to pull us into a greater humanity, and to draw us to our neighbor, not to leave them behind as we continue stargazing. This is the eternal Son became a human being, and by his incarnation, our flesh and our lives have been redeemed. This is the gift, this little baby, that changes the whole world, that changes your life. O come, let us adore him.
Reverend John Flack