Christmas is finally here! The trees are decorated, the candles are lighted, the carols are being sung. Many people find Christmas a wonderful, nostalgic season of wrapping gifts and exchanging cards, singing songs you know by heart, and eating your holiday favorites. And now here you are at worship, as you probably expected to be—possibly even in the exact pew where you expected to sit.
But I’m guessing that some of you are not enjoying Christmas. Some of you are anxious about work or the lack of it, are waiting for that plane to land or the phone to ring, are fretful about the state of a relationship or your health or the world. And probably some of you are just here simply because going to church on Christmas Eve is a tradition, and/or it will please grandma.
Wherever you are on that spectrum, I bring you good news of great joy! Whether you are enthusiastically celebrating with the angels, resisting the shiny cheer of the world’s festivities, or are simply going through the motions: to you is born this day a Savior, who is Christ the Lord! It is the same message the angels delivered to the shepherds on that first Christmas Eve.
But I want to be clear about this: this is not a superficial promise that from now on all your days will be merry and bright. It’s not a sentimental reminder about what happened once long ago, or even the story we tell of it. This is a message about God being with us in the muck and manure of our daily lives. There is not one shred of judgment, anger, shame, or punishment—for us or for anyone else—in tonight’s incomprehensibly good news.
It’s preposterous, of course. What possible good can a baby do for people who are grieving the loss of loved ones in a mass shooting or from a debilitating disease? What difference does Christmas make for people sitting in darkness in Puerto Rico, where the power is still not restored after Hurricane Maria? Or those who have suffered from floods, wars, income inequality or terrorism. How is remembering the birth of a Palestinian peasant over two thousand years ago relevant? What does Christmas do except make us feel good for a day or two and then embarrassed by how much we ate/drank/spent?
Don’t be afraid. If it helps, you should know that the first audience who heard tonight’s OT reading from Isaiah may have felt the same way when the prophet encouraged them to rejoice. Isaiah’s little community in Judah had been threatened by a coalition army from Syria and the northern kingdom of Israel when—although Isaiah warned him not to—Judah’s king Ahaz called on Assyria, that huge military machine from Mesopotamia, for help. Assyria responded by conquering Judah (and everyone else in their way), exploiting Mediterranean trade and eventually subduing Egypt. That’s the dark historic political context in which Isaiah delivers his message about light shining in the darkness.
He encourages his hearers to remember how faithful God has been in the past, even if the present seems bleak. He assures them that the future will be one of healing and peace. Isaiah reminds them of how, long ago, God brought their ancestors out of slavery in Egypt, and assures them that the yoke of their burden and the rod of their oppressor will once again be broken. He references “the day of Midian” on which Gideon and his tiny group of soldiers tricked a giant army into thinking they were surrounded and surrendering. That victory of the tiny over the mighty is conjured up in Isaiah’s glorious image of “the trampling boots of warriors” and “the garments rolled in blood” being burned–instruments of war and all their bloody effects, decimated. We, too, long for a day when all instruments of war, pain, and destruction are obliterated.
Although Isaiah was anticipating a political king who would rule with justice and righteousness instead of an iron fist, the language of salvation he uses also fits with the person we know Baby Jesus grows up to be: one who is interested not only in our spiritual well-being, but in our whole selves. That God comes among us in the form of a helpless, mewling infant foreshadows Jesus’ entire life. Grown up Jesus doesn’t wield a weapon or hold an office nor does he acquire wealth or status; he makes his home on the margins. He upends the cultural norms of our world, favoring the nobodies, feeding the hungry, healing the sick, befriending the disenfranchised. He sums up his solidarity with the humble and the humiliated by announcing that whatever we do to the most fragile members of society we’ve done to him. Jesus aligns himself forever with those who cry #me too.
The mystic Thomas Merton described it this way:
“Into this world, this demented inn, in which there is absolutely no room for him at all, Christ has come uninvited. But because Christ cannot be at home in it–because Christ is out of place in it, and yet must be in it–Christ’s place is with those others who do not belong, who are rejected because they are regarded as weak; with those are discredited, who are denied the status of persons. . .With those for whom there is no room, Christ is present in the world: mysteriously present in those for whom there seems to be nothing but the world at its worst. . . It is in these that Christ hides himself, for whom there is no room.”
This is why the angels’ message to make tyrants tremble and creation rejoice is first revealed to shepherds on Christmas Eve, rather than to Governor Quirinius or Emperor Caesar Augustus. This is why an unwed teenage mother is the one who delivers our redeemer, not the high priest or a princess or anyone in authority. The gift of Jesus is this: it doesn’t matter if you’ve been naughty or nice. The Light of Love comes to the darkest, most fearful places we can imagine to be with us, right where we are, just as we are.
Now we, who have heard the message of the angels, we who are recipients and witnesses of God’s expansive and inclusive grace, are called to testify to God’s steadfastness in the past. We are called to trust that Christ’s life, death, and resurrection is transforming us, revealing the character of our loving and merciful God in whose image we are made. Therefore, we don’t need to fear the future. This is the Good News of Great Joy we are called to tell on the mountains, over the hills, and everywhere! Unto us—yes, even us!–a Savior is born, whose name is Christ the Lord! Thanks be to God!
~Pastor Susan Schneider