From the Rev. Joe Hensley, Rector, St. George’s Episcopal Church
Fredericksburg, VA | Christmas Eve Year C, Dec. 24, 2015.
Hear again these words of the angel of the Lord, spoken to the shepherds, watching their flocks by night: “Do not be afraid; for see, I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people.” On this Christmas Eve, as we celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ, as we gather again to remember that God entered the world as a human child, we are invited to set aside our anxiety and worry. The angels invite us now as they have in ages past to hear some good news of great joy that is for all people.
We can talk all we want about good news of great joy, but there’s no getting around the fact that Christmas is a crazy time. I know there are a few of us who manage to get the decorations hung, cards mailed, presents wrapped and delivered, food cooked, and prayers prayed (don’t forget those prayers)…all in good time. For many of us, though, whatever we are able to manage is a scramble, and often a last-minute scramble. I won’t ask how many of you barely made it here tonight. Many of us give ourselves a hard time, because we have not been able to do things the way we wanted to. Maybe, in addition to finding it hard to get our ducks in a row, we also found it hard to pray or be spiritual. The chaos is real and overwhelming. And yet look at the look at the story we just heard from Luke’s Gospel about the birth of Jesus. Imagine being nine months pregnant and then getting the news that you are going to have to travel away from home. You are going to have this baby on the road. Crazy! Then there is no suitable place to have the child, so you end up giving birth in the back of a guest house with the animals. The baby has to be put in a feeding trough. Fortunately, someone remembered to pack the receiving blankets! I like to think that maybe that was Joseph’s job. Then, in the middle of the night the angels of God appear in the middle of nowhere to some random shepherds who go door to door looking for a wrapped up baby lying in a manger. Can you imagine having just had a baby and then here come a bunch of rough shepherds? This story is out of control. Christmas has always been a crazy time.
My mother tells of how one year in the middle of the night the Christmas tree came crashing down. Just fell down. All the fancy glass ornaments she had just bought, because she finally had her own house and family and money, were now broken—except for the ugly duckling. Somehow the humble duck survived, and for years, until it too finally broke, the duck was our reminder of Christmas grace. We hung it with reverence and remembered that not all was lost, and blessed are the meek, ugly ducklings of the Christmas tree. Maybe you have a story about a Christmas when things were falling apart. The year the food burned or the presents did not arrive on time. The year everyone got pink eye or the time the car broke down on Christmas Eve. Or there may have been, there may still be, some Christmas experience that will never be funny, that will never be tied up neatly with a bow. It is a strange holiday, Christmas. With it comes the promise of good news but also a tension. There is a pulling between the joyful good news of this amazing gift from God and the reality that there is still chaos and messiness in our lives and in the world. And the world just seems crazier than ever these days!? I am going to give you a Christmas present and not go through the list of ways that the world seems crazy. We know without having to say. What I want us to see is that there is tension in Christmas. There is pressure to have this wonderful celebration, and there is the pressure of life itself which is beyond our control.
Do not be afraid, though, says the angel of God. Do not be afraid. I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people. Two thousand years ago, God entered a crazy and chaotic world. God became human, one of us. The Word of God took on our form and lived our life so that we would see and know God’s love and forgiveness in the midst of the tension and craziness.
The prophets of God imagined a messiah who would come to bring justice and peace on the earth, a king of kings whose power would purify and dignify the people of God. What they might not have imagined was that this messiah would not only be anointed by God but would actually BE God. God in human form. And that is not the way things are supposed to be. God is almighty. God is powerful. God is not vulnerable like a baby in a manger. We want God to come into the world and bring order out of chaos. But on this Christmas night, we witness God entering the world with the weakness of a newborn child. We witness God coming, not to be the savior of the world but simply to be with us. That little boy Jesus in the arms of his mother is God with us. God could have chosen a different way. God could have parted the heavens and come down to fix what was broken. Instead, God responds to the craziness of the world by going right into the middle of it and resting there.
When we feel how crazy life is, we want someone to fix it. When we feel the tension, we want someone to relieve it. Perhaps, though, the good news of great joy is not that God fixes the world but that God is with us in the brokenness. On the day of his birth Jesus was not fixing anything. He performed no deeds of power. He gave no lessons of wisdom. He simply was born and rested in the humble manger. He simply arrived. In fact, he needed people to take care of him. To hold him. To feed him. To give him a place to lay down his sweet head. For centuries, people of faith have been inspired by the image of a baby and his unprepared parents and random shepherds and sheep clustered in a barn doing nothing. They are just sitting there together. Yet that image is so powerful. Maybe its power is in its powerlessness. These people are inspiring, simply because they are resting in the middle of the chaos, resting in the power of God. The power of God is so complete, it can be still in middle of a storm. It can be manifested in the form of a helpless child and the makeshift community that surrounds him.
On this Christmas, the power of God is manifested yet again. Here we sit, doing nothing, gathered around the baby. The power of God is not that we leave this place ready to fix the world. The power of God is not that we leave this place totally relieved. The power of God is that we gather here together in our powerlessness with a vulnerable baby Jesus. The joy of God is that we gather together in the midst of anxiety and happiness with Mary and Joseph. The peace and wholeness of God is that we gather here in communion, in the middle of broken lives that can be healed, with rough and tumble shepherds who hear glorious angels sing. We gather here to celebrate that God took on human form so that we would know for certain that we are not alone. The power and glory of God is that we gather here to stop and take it all in: to ponder, as Mary did, these things in our hearts. It is glorious to be present together, fully present in the Christmas story that is unfolding before us. We do not know where this Christmas story will lead us. Do not be afraid. There is good news of great joy. God is with us in the chaos. God is right here in the middle of tension. Jesus is born and rests in the midst of it all. And that is the beginning of our salvation.
Christmas has always been a crazy time. And we are always welcome to be in communion with Christ and each other in the silent and holy night. There is good news of great joy for all the people. It is right here, right now. Christ is born. Christ is born in us, and that means Christ is sitting next to us and behind us and all around us. Glory to God in the highest heaven. Glory to God in the lowest places on earth. Glory to God. To us is born this day a savior. Joy to the world.