What to say on Christmas Eve–with a crowd potentially loaded with people who rarely step inside a church? A preacher doesn’t want to guilt trip them or be a spoilsport; I’ve heard loathsome Christmas Eve sermons dwelling on how this little baby will have to die a horrible death on the cross. Pooh. But neither is it satisfying to simply give in completely to the secular function of the church at Christmas–to be just another lovely accoutrement to a holiday whose real heart is kids opening presents. Besides that dilemma, I’m under strict orders to keep our 4:30 service to no more than an hour so as not to interfere with Christmas Eve dinner plans. (No argument from me–we had a lovely meal to put together involving squash tart and latkes.)
So I came up with this. It touches on the sense of universal affirmation that is part of the genuine substance of Christmas. But I included a rather firm invitation to our visitors, making it plain what they might be missing on the other 51 Sundays of the year.
Isaiah 9:2-7 and Titus 2:11-14
What happened on the night of Christmas some 2000 years ago is a great mystery. To say God was born in the world may sound very obscure. It may sound like an absurd miracle that just makes no sense. I personally love trying to plumb this mystery; and we shall explore it over the course of an upcoming adult class on the topic, “Who is Jesus Christ for us?” (You can sign up with me if you are interested.)
But what all this mystery is basically about is very simple. What appeared in the world the night of Jesus’ birth was the start of a new way of being a community. That is what our reading from The Letter to Titus tells us. “The Grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation to all.” This grace trains us to renounce the ways of the world and to live godly lives “in the present age,” it says—this is about here and now. The letter tells us that Jesus Christ “gave himself for us that he might redeem us from all iniquity and purify for himself a people of his own who are zealous for good deeds.”
Don’t we need a new way to be a people, to be a community? Is our current way of being a people making us zealous for good deeds? Are we in any real way even a people at all? Aren’t we more like a loose affiliation of families and individuals, at best—and at worst, we are more and more set against one another—urban sophisticate against rural good old boy, red against blue, young and trendy against old and stuck-in-my-ways, secular against religious reactionary? When our public life is so divided, it’s no wonder we’d rather find our tribe online, or that we get so easily sucked into addiction, for the people right around us, body and soul, have become as strangers to us; maybe they are even dangerous or deluded.
In Jesus, God introduced a new, badly needed way to be a community. This new way is what Israel was searching for all along, and we heard Isaiah’s great excitement as he imagined the one who would “establish and uphold” this new way “with justice and with righteousness from this time onward and forevermore.”
This is a community deeply rooted in an ancient past and its hopes; a community brought together first by Jesus and the women and men who followed him and who led it after he was raised into its everlasting eternal life. It is a community that over many centuries has made plenty of mistakes to atone for and learn from, to be sure. But it is a community well-grounded in the rich, beautiful symbols that you see around you tonight, while also open to new truths that we will discover together. It is a community that spans every border and all times as only God can. This is what we are about here, being a people that Jesus purified for himself.
And that is why we share communion at the culmination of our Christmas celebration this evening. At the heart of the Christmas miracle is a new way of being a people—gathered around a table, sharing the most basic food and drink; and in this sharing, participating in the life of God on earth that Jesus Christ personified and inaugurated. Jesus brought this salvation to all, as the Letter to Titus told us. So we are all this community tonight, and we join in it with the angels, the animals, the stars, and every human being on earth. Join in this feast, for God embraced us all.