This sermon was delivered at All Saints Episcopal Church, Rehoboth, Delaware
on Christmas morning 2007
Something happens today that most people in this United States of America would, I think, be very surprised to hear about, something that they would find very hard to believe. It is the simple fact that Christmas began about ten hours ago. What has been going on for weeks with a relentlessness that probably only a cash till can demand has not been Christmas.
Much of what we have heard in the weeks since Thanksgiving has not been Christmas. It was a time, when we within the community of faith have been meditating deeply on what it means to say that "the Word became flesh and dwelt among us"; we have been listening to the stern words of Jesus about judgment. In the world around us, though, this has hardly been the case; rather, we have had to listen to the tinkling of electronic parodies of deeply mystical and spiritual poetry full of deep theological import. And an objective view of the last few weeks must suggest that in a society in which it is said a vast majority believe in God, there is a complete failure to understand the nature of that God, and the significance of the divine presence that was unveiled to world on the first Christmas.
Had the world been in an Advent mood instead of an artificially engendered festive mood, it might have listened to the staggering theological statements of the carols, (all sung four weeks too soon). "God and sinners reconciled"; "Late in time (notice that, the end of the ages is upon us) behold him come, off-spring of the Virgin's womb. Veiled in flesh the Godhead see;” "Yet with the woes of sin and strife, the world has suffered long". The carols of Christmas move naturally out of the themes of Advent with its twin emphasis on God's judgment on all human sin, coupled, nevertheless, with a vibrant hope that we shall not be left in the throes of the mess we have made of God's creation, because the Messiah, God's servant will come to us. They move from Advent to focus on the wonder of God’s saving work, but the best of the carols of Christmas, do not forget the realities of human sin and suffering, and they do not melt down into sentimental mush. They sing of the offering of real hope to a human race that is really lost.
Some words of (then) Bishop Rowan Williams as he preached a Christmas sermon some years ago, suggest the superficiality of the pseudo Festival that has been imposed on us. He writes, "The tightly swaddled baby is a gift-wrapped object; passive and docile for use in our business, our transactions; a lucky mascot; the sleeping partner in the firm (the little Lord Jesus asleep on the hay)." (A Ray of Darkness, p. 27).
Something happens today that most people in this United States of America would, I think, be very surprised to hear about, something that they would find very hard to believe. Something is recalled and celebrated today that does not fit with the common assumptions of our culture and our national religion. It is not only that Christmas is only just beginning: it is that God has come into the human situation. “Veiled in flesh, the Godhead see” we sing as though this were a routine affair; as though the coming into the very fabric of human life and, therefore into human pain and sin as well as into human greatness and joy were something we could glance at and then return to the time-consuming business of getting the last parcel wrapped; get back to all the hassle of the cultural Christmas that has dominated us for weeks.
Christmas, the Christian celebration, begins here today. Certainly it is about a baby, one born in less than a salubrious situation; but it is also, and primarily about the God who created each one of us and gave us life. And it is about the mysterious way that God chose to put right the mess that the human race finds itself in. How we understand this saving work of God in Christ is fundamental to the way in which we shall live our lives, fundamental to our understanding of what we mean by living a life committed to God and to one another.
I think that it is because we often do not take seriously all the implications of just what it is we are celebrating in this Christmas Liturgy, that we all too often have unsatisfactory notions about God and the way God works to save us. Too easily we slip into the notion that God is the ultimate, celestial Mr. Fixit. Intellectually we would probably deny this, but if we examine the way we pray when faced with pain and loss, we may discover that we are addressing God as the celestial doctor who will always cure; or the celestial conflict resolver who will settle our family, church, national and international power conflicts which quickly escalate to disastrous proportions.
Christmas tells us of the reality of God incarnate, tells us that God’s power works in the weak things of this world. It tells us that God comes to us in the helplessness of a baby. Rowan Williams whom I quoted earlier points out that if God is with us in a real child, he is not so neatly gift wrapped for us to use for our own ends. A real baby is a mystery, needing care and compassion, but, nevertheless, with a will and a voice of its own; and what a voice. Which parent among us does not recall that insistent and continuous crying that disturbs a night or interrupts a meal? Rowan reminds us that here we have “the inarticulate crying of God in the stable”, which looks forward to the cry from the Cross. This is not a fanciful idea; it is firmly there in the text of the gospel narratives. St. Luke who tells us the story of the stable birth, very soon records the words of Simeon to Mary, “This child is destined for the rising and falling of many, and a sign that will be opposed ..... and a sword will pierce your own soul too.” (2.33).
So what all this tells us is that God’s saving work among us is not to be understood as some great success story; on the contrary, it overturns the glorification of power, which is the norm of the world. Jesus is not the one who comes to exercise that kind of power; does not come with advanced organizational skills, or with fiats that undo the stupidity and sinfulness of generations upon generation of self-willed humans. Jesus, who is the very presence of God, comes to be born with us, to be fretful and colicky with us; to grow up through the embarrassments and frustrations of adolescence with us; to experience misunderstandings and rejections with us, and in the end to die with us. This is something deeply mysterious and wonderful; something that electronic carols can never capture, but it is what the Christmas Liturgy proclaims.
And it is wonderful news; it is indeed, the Good News, the Evangel, the Gospel. It tells us we are not alone, shut up in the hatreds and divisions of humanity. It tells us that whatever we go through, God, in Christ will go through with us, for God, in Jesus has gone through the process of birth, and growth and death. And that is why today we sing Gloria in excelsis Deo, Glory to God in the highest. Amen.