A long Christmas Eve sermon.
Text: Luke 2:1-20
We are just about ready to say: Jesus has “arrived;” Christmas has “arrived.” Sometimes that means little else than, now it’s time for Christmas. I’m amazed at how often secular Christmas songs, some of which I like a lot, have little else to say about Christmas except “Christmas comes this time each year” (that’s a quote from the Beach Boys “Little Saint Nick.”) Arrive comes from the Latin ad + ripa, literarlly “to the shore.” Arrive originally means to reach a shore after a voyage. It’s a dramatic image. Normally for us, time runs its course, and our mechanized ways of keeping time reduce time to numerically identical seconds, minutes, hours, days—all a mere quantum, an amount, which like money we never seem to have enough of. I heard an interesting theory recently about the origins of modern capitalism that goes like this: in the fourteenth century, church bells marking the hours of prayer influenced the townspeople and merchants outside the monastery walls, allowing the secular residents to begin measuring time abstractly, as a quantity. Soon town clocks appeared, and the punch clock was only a few more steps down the road. And now, as we all know, “time is money.” Be that as it may, time is also God’s. And in the fullness of time, …
When you reach the shore after a perilous journey by sea, that moment is not just a lump, an amount, a point marked by the watch. It is the most intense delineation between life and death. You see the land far off, in the coming of the ship toward port—the coming-to, the Advent. And then after reaching land, in the weeks following that disembarkation, you will live into your new found joy, treating your spouse and children as the wonders that they are, being more generous, perhaps even starting a social upheaval to change the way we all live. But when your feet touch ground, you drop to kiss the earth: that is a moment that will never leave you, never become just a date and time. You arrive, you reach the shore after a journey.
Christmas has all but arrived; we have sailed into the port. In the curious song that I am doing my darndest to make meaningful tonight—Merry Christmas, “Three Ships” fans—Mary and Jesus arrivein three ships—don’t know why three ships for a mother and child, perhaps to hold all those Magi gifts? They sail into the port of Bethlehem…ok. The nearest sea, 20 miles away, is the Dead Sea—not a popular sailing destination; but it could be metaphorically rich for the savior to arrive via the Dead Sea, life from death and all that. In the song we see them sailing in, arriving. And we realize that our long wait is over.
Let’s look back at where we have come this Advent. We’ve been honestly assessing how far our world is, how far we are, from knowing the fullness of God’s salvation. And it is vital to remember and hope for the fullness of salvation. There’s just no reason to come to church and seek out God unless you believe there is really something at stake in doing so. You are not going to seek for the extreme solution of God coming to take human form, the form of a servant, and even suffering on a cross, unless you think the world desperately needs to be saved. That the world, the whole world needs to be saved—not just our souls but our bodies, our streets, our culture, our globalized systems—and our church.
We’ve been fasting, because Advent has been a fast season for millennia. Our fast consists in opening ourselves to the painful honesty about captivity and bondage, and lack of salvation, in the world. But this fast is all under the sign of hope: hope that is kept alive, even 2000 years, because of the promise of the Christ child. It is the promise that has sustained us in our fast. In liturgical seasons, fast and feast go together; each needs the other. The feast gives the fast its direction; the fast whets the appetite for the feast. And now the feast has just about arrived.
So we began Advent thinking about our captivity to confusion and our lack direction for the future; with the Coming One being our hope for clarity and direction. Then we dwelled on the Love promised with the Christ child, and on the lack of love in our world, so divided by various kinds of us vs. them. Then we considered the Joy promised with God’s Coming One, seen in contrast with the lack of joy in our fearful, wary, and guarded lives. And finally we turned to our hope for Peace with the coming of God’s chosen, so needed amid the conflict, violence, and oppression in our world.
We should be very hungry by now. We’ve taken on a tremendous burden. It would be much easier to join the world as it attempts to drown out its sorrows with Pollyannaish optimism, or escapist entertainment, or to go along as the world tries to shut out all the problems and become self-absorbed, or when all that fails, to turn to drinking and drugs. But the world doesn’t only try to escape its sorrows. Instead, the world—we—become dangerously obsessed with them, cultivating fear and dread in spectacles of horror. We concoct fantasies of fear in horror movies, or replay images of the twin towers and other traumas over and over again. Obsessing about horror, the world becomes ripe for exploitation by those who play on fear to secure our surrender to them—whether fascistic leaders or manipulative, idolatrous terrorists. Into this world that is careening from evading to obsessing about sorrows, God’s promises and fulfillments do not even have to bring something supernatural to be saving: it is remarkable enough that God provides a way to embrace our sorrows and fears within a transcendent trajectory of redemption. One of my favorite carol lines is: “The hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight.” Not solved, not dispelled; hopes and fears are met.
And so we have been opening ourselves to the pain, the sorrow, and the shortcomings of the world, because this is what God has done first. God has become one of us, taking on the confusion, the division, the vulnerability, and the violence of the world so as to “meet” it; “meet” is a wonderfully ambiguous word that can mean simply become familiar with—seeing something for what it is, not for what we fear or hope it to be. But meet can also mean to fulfill or satisfy, as in “meet our needs,” or “he met his match.” God has met our vulnerable, bound and captivated flesh, and this flesh has met its match in God. And even further, God has taken up the cross, and has overcome death with new life. That’s what we’ve been doing this Advent, in a sense: taking up the cross, as Jesus urged us to. One way to take up the cross is to courageously bear the burden of seeing the world, and ourselves, in the way both honesty and God’s righteousness demand us to: wayward, sinful, godless. It’s not fun to fast; it’s not something we enjoy. It’s not something that anyone is selling this marketing season–it makes a lousy Christmas present. But it’s what God has commanded us to do, because we are called to give ourselves to God and God’s world, to bear its truth when it had turned away to illusion and darkness. And after all, who wants to live a deluded existence?
But now it is time to feast. Now we must listen to God’s new Word: “Behold, I am bringing you good news of great joy for all people; to you is born this day in the city of David a savior, who is Messiah, the Lord.” This is an amazing message. It is a very particular message, rooted in the hopes of this one obscure people of the world: the Israelites. They enjoyed a brief golden age commencing with King David’s rule. That was about 1000 years before Jesus’ birth. Imagine keeping hope alive that long: it would be like hoping for the Arthurian dynasty to suddenly jump back into the picture and take care of all our problems. A lot happens in 1000 years, even back then. In the book of Samuel, God promises to David that his dynasty would rule forever. But things mostly went down hill from there. Then they lost all the pillars of this golden age: the king, the temple, the land. There was a long fast. Later on they got the temple and land back, but King David was still the missing piece. And hopes ran wild that David’s descendent would return and become even greater than David. The Angels announce that this particular, deeply rooted, 1000 year old promise has been fulfilled in Jesus’ birth. And they announce it to a band of obscure, nameless shepherds, who are in no position to do anything about it but marvel. And yet the angels? assure us that this is good news of great joy for all people—not particularly for these shepherds, whose life continues apparently unchanged; nor for this marginal band of people called the Israelites, but all people.
Let’s step back a moment. Time for a little theory about how all this works. God’s truth far exceeds our capacity to capture and master it. We can’t proof text God’s truth, as many Christians would like to do. God’s truth is infinite and inexhaustible, but not therefore a source of bafflement. God’s truth fills our various moments, and then, like an inexhaustible fountain, exceeds and overflows them. If we ride along with God’s flowing truth, it will not only quench us and wash us in each moment, but carry us along to a life beyond our narrow confines. Advent is one such moment, a relatively dry moment: we fast by staking ourselves on God’s disorienting hope, beyond the hope we could bear by ourselves. But now it is time to flow on to the feast, the feast of the nativity. And our whole liturgical year attempts to channel that flow of divine revelation, and serve as a conduit for the many sides of God’s revelation to bear us up, and shape our lives into individual channels of God’s truth.
Christmas is one of the most precious confluences in the liturgical year. At Christmas, as at Holy Week, the streaming waters swirl together, condensing the whole meaning of our Christian faith into an intense eddy. Fundamental to Christmas, bubbling up from this whirlpool, is God’s yes to creation in the declaration of Emmanuel: God with us. We as yet need know nothing about this Messianic presence of God in our flesh. This baby born to Mary has not said or done anything yet. He is just sheer presence of divine light—the glory of God shining all around. Of course, we have placed all our 1000 and 2000 year old hopes on this child. In Advent we have collected and emboldened our hopes for the world, to the extent that only God could fulfill them. But we will have to walk with this still infant Messiah, listen to him, follow him as far as we are able, and wonder at the things he will do that we can never do. For now, though, we do not know how exactly how our hopes and fears will be met in this one, only that they are met. The object of our hope is finally here with us. The reshaping of the whole cosmos into its divine pattern is just beginning, but from another perspective it is already wholly complete in this one moment, this arrival.
How, you ask? I suppose the math here is fairly straightforward. Take a finite, particular being like the infant Jesus, and multiply it by God’s infinite being. What do you get when you multiply any amount times infinity? Infinity. That is, when God is present in any piece of creation, God is present in the whole of creation. In one sense, the union of God with Jesus in the incarnation is the union of God with the whole cosmos—the whole of reality has been united with God. That is why we will read the prologue to the Gospel of John—“In the beginning was the Word”—just after Christmas, at Epiphany: the incarnation is a profound affirmation of creation, that this world remains God’s good creation now, as it was “in the beginning,” and is even more united to God than before.
In another sense, of course, it is just this one particular individual, Jesus, who has alone been united to God. It wasn’t me, it wasn’t you, it was just this one. And the path for the redemption of the whole world leads through coming to conform ourselves and participate in Jesus’ humanity, in Word, in action, and in sacrament. We’ll pick that part of the story up when Jesus begins calling his disciples in a few weeks.
But within this wonderful whirlpool (or snowdrift?) of Christmas we rightly marvel at the continuing glory of created being. Of course we must confront the sinfulness of creation, the many disappointments and betrayals of God’s intentions that take the forms of confusion, division, fragility, and conflict, and many other forms besides. But in a way miraculously both singular but also all-encompassing and universal, God in Jesus has said Yes to wayward creation. “You are still mine. And now you are more mine than ever, and I am yours.” Just as God said of old: “I will be your God, and you will be my people:” this most basic 1400 year old promise to Israel is now fulfilled in this Messiah’s birth.
And so we now must see ourselves as God’s, whatever our self-doubts and self-loathing. And we must see all humanity as God’s, because God has embraced human nature itself in Jesus. Everyone—that includes the pew neighbor with whom you’ve had an awkward relationship; your family and friends, whatever tensions have been simmering; our cousins in the faith of various stripes and denominations, who we think really ought to see things the way we do; the cold, hungry, and the messed-up, whom we’d really rather ignore; the people near and far who are so different from us that we don’t even know where to begin to relate; and even, mustn’t it be, our worst enemies. God has embraced the common humanity that we all share. Yes. And the whole cosmos that yields us this planet, the seasons and the winds and the waters whose cycles give us life, the deep biological substratum of our being—our animality, our drives, our passions. Yes. And yes to our social structures, our power structures, everything that human beings have contrived in our mishap-strewn efforts to be fruitful and multiply. God has embraced all of this in the humanity of Jesus, and so we embrace it tonight. We say Yes to it all, and to ourselves.
God is going to rewrite all of this, rewrite everything about this world, as this Word incarnate begins to speak and the world begins to react to him, mostly badly. Jesus is the Word incarnate, and God’s Word is not exhausted in this “Yes.” But this Yes is not false or unreal or meaningless, because the world remains in need of re-creation. God’s yes only takes on more substance and satisfaction in the swirling wake of the world’s ill-fated journey, as a feast does when it follows a fast. Even with all that has been and all that is to come, the yes, the feast arrives tonight and rings out tonight, clear as a bell.