Sermon preached on Christmas Eve
Texts: Isaiah 9:2-7; Isaiah 63:7-9; Luke 2:1-20
Christmas music. I am going to begin this sermon and Sunday’s sermon with Christmas music stories.
At our house, Christmas music season begins November 1, and there is some history there. Julie really enjoys Christmas music, and that love has been shared with our children, especially with our daughter Beth. But the November 1 start date has a more recent origin. In 1998 we moved from Pengilly to Alexandria, and the move was not an easy one for Beth. At age 11, Beth broke her hip and some of her activities were restricted. She was not very happy with moving from a community that had surrounded her with care during a difficult time, and the first couple months of school in Alexandria proved trying. So Julie, with a certain genius, came up with the idea that come November 1, we would start playing Christmas music at our house. A tradition began.
I am not the family’s biggest fan when it comes to this tradition. I like Christmas music and have fond memories of the Goodyear Christmas albums that used to come out. My mom and dad had a few of those. But November 1 is just too early for me. Nevertheless, I admit that my appreciation for Christmas music has grown through the course of my married life. So I get to listen to some things I really like, I have burned a few Christmas CDs over the years – sort of my version of Goodyear’s great songs of Christmas. There are some surprisingly good songs by unexpected artists. Who could imagine Bing Crosby and David Bowie combining on a powerful version of The Little Drummer Boy/Peace on Earth? Bruce Springsteen does a great “Santa Claus is Coming To Town.” There are also some Christmas songs that just don’t resonate. I am a big Bob Dylan fan, but Bob Dylan “Christmas in the Heart” – thank goodness the money went to charity! I am also not a big fan of Elvis Presley’s “Blue Christmas.” It has just never done anything for me.
Yet when you looked through the bulletin tonight and saw a sermon entitled “Blue Christmas” I bet that’s where a number of you went.
But maybe some others of you went someplace else. “Blue Christmas” has more recently come to mean worship services that acknowledge how difficult a time of year this can be. If a family lives apart, Christmas can be a painful reminder of that distance. If family or friends are separated by hard feelings, Christmas can remind us of that, too. At Christmas we remember loved ones lost. Julie’s dad was born on Christmas and loved the holiday, and our celebrations are different without him. If economic hardship has struck, Christmas can be difficult. Life’s difficulties don’t take a holiday. Blue Christmas has those connotations, too, and it is important for us to remember and be sensitive to those who struggle with a blue Christmas. That may be some of us here tonight.
But I want to go someplace else with the idea of a blue Christmas. Avatar. How many of you have seen the 2009 blockbuster movie, Avatar? It is a story set in 2154 about human exploration of a place called Pandora, human exploration and exploitation. A corporation is mining for unobtanium on Pandora, and while they are doing this scientists have found a way for humans to interact with the local population – the Na’vi. The Na’vi are tall blue human-like creatures, and humans interact with them through Avatars – genetically-engineered Na’vi/human hybrid bodies. The scientists want to do research, other humans are interested only in exploiting whatever relationships might develop with the Na’vi through the use of the avatars. One kind of life taking on the form of another.
In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered…. Joseph went to be registered with Mary…. While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn. A birth, the birth of a boy amidst the hay and smell of animals, born to a family far from home. But there was something special about this child. He grew into a powerful teacher, a remarkable healer, a bit of a renegade. It cost him, cost him his life, but his followers claimed that his life came back, that he was present even after execution. Though we tell the story of the birth of Jesus, we need to keep in mind his whole life – including his death and resurrection. Bands of cloth which swaddle him at birth will later be grave clothes which will not hold him.
And those who experienced this Jesus alive and alive again, they dug into their religious texts to try and understand who he was. The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness – on them light has shined…. For a child has been born for us, a son given to us… and he is named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. [Isaiah 9] And they wrote new words about him. The true light which enlightens everyone was coming into the world…. And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth. [John 1]
Jesus was born, and like most babies he was probably a little blue at his birth. I bet you wondered how I was going to get back to the blue. Jesus was born, and in his life people knew God. God drew near in Jesus. A bit like the avatars, God comes close – to share our lives, to let us know that God understands, to share something of God’s life with us. Unlike the avatars, Jesus is not interested in exploiting us. God does not draw near to use us, rather God draws near so that we might have life. God draws near in order to foster peace and good will, joy and well-being. The red and green of Christmas, the blue of Christmas, the lights of Christmas, are meant to tell us that God is near. God is for us. God loves us. God desires peace and good will and well-being. God becomes like us so that we might become more like God.
And this is good news – good news of great joy for all. Do not be afraid. God draws near to us to give us life, hope, joy, love. A child has been born for us. To you is born this day a Savior. Good news.
This is good news for a thirteen year old, whose hip was broken, whose heart was broken. You are not alone. There can be music in your life to heal your heart.
This is good news for the young woman I spoke with on the phone the other day. She was a student in my on-line class “Religious Perspectives on Living, Dying and Grieving,” and when I phoned her for our final conversation and asked her what she learned, she told me that she felt better prepared to handle grief in her life, and it was especially helpful because her grandmother had died that morning. She is not alone, but there is one to comfort her.
This is good news for my friend Bill. Bill is a retired United Methodist pastor from New York state who I met while serving on a denominational commission. A few months ago, Bill informed us that he had been feeling poorly for quite some time and had now received a diagnosis – MDS, myelodysplastic syndrome, sometimes called preleukemia. He has just found out that out of 15 million in the transplant registry, he has no adequate stem cell donor match. Bill has heard the good news of Jesus and shared it in a recent e-mail. I offer you a “be joyful always… living life as prayer (not a separate activity – my life-long personal practice)… and giving thanks in all circumstances kind of Christmas. Makes celebrating the birth of the one many of us choose to follow in our lives, Jesus of Nazareth, real and always exciting. Always this season brings hope that more and more will finally come to know the Christian journey as about this life’s vocation on the love-compassion-kindness-forgiveness continuum and NOT about a life destination. Jesus’ message to us was clearly about behavior, not belief. Whoops, didn’t mean to almost preach but it sure felt good there for a minute. Let’s just leave it at this: our Christmas peace is great this year because of you. This is a man who knows Christmas as good news and I may just have to write him to let him know he got to preach a little on Christmas Eve here tonight.
This is good news for Frederick Buechner. Buechner is a Presbyterian minister and prolific author. He has known difficulty and tragedy. One of his daughters was anorexic. My anorectic daughter was in danger of starving to death, and without knowing it, so was I. I wasn’t living my own life any more because I was so caught up in hers. If in refusing to eat she was mad as a hatter, I was if anything madder still because whereas in some sense she knew what she was doing to herself, I knew nothing at all about what I was doing to myself. She had given up food. I had virtually given up doing anything in the way of feeding myself humanly. To be at peace is to have peace inside yourself more or less in spite of what is going on outside yourself. In that sense I had no peace at all…. The love I had for my daughter was lost in the anxiety I had for my daughter. Buechner needed to give her some room, offer her some space, and it finally happened when his daughter was hospitalized three thousand miles away. A judge hospitalized her and it taught him something about God’s love. The power that created the universe and spun the dragonfly’s wing and is beyond all other powers holds back, in love, from overpowering us. I have never felt God’s presence more strongly than when my wife and I visited that distant hospital where our daughter was. Walking down the corridor to the room that had her name taped to the door, I felt that presence surrounding me like air – God in his very stillness, holding his breath, loving her, loving us all, the only way he can without destroying us. (Listening to God, I: 49-50, 51-52) God is with us, gently, quietly, like a baby born on a long ago night in Bethlehem.
This is good news for us, for all. It is good news that comes with no strings attached. Yet it is good news that changes everything. Good news received is good news meant to be lived. If God comes to us in this way – for peace, good will, well-being, shouldn’t we be in the world for one another in that same way? Theologian Walter Wink states it succinctly. Jesus incarnated God in his own person in order to show all of us how to incarnate God. And to incarnate God is what it means to be fully human. (The Human Being, 30) Hear the good news. Be the good news.
Columnist Jean Brody tells this story. I once knew a woman who had very little in the way of material possessions. Her clothes were clean but faded. She ironed other people’s clothes to make money for her children. There was no car so she walked to work everywhere, and thus her shoes were worn and cracked. She and her two children lived in a tiny corner house that had once been white and they all slept in one bedroom. I met her through her little boy who used to come into my pet store after school. He love animals and I would pay him to “help me” by sweeping the floor. He brought mom around to see me one wintry day and I liked her and, since I was nice to her child, she liked me. Mothers are like that. When Christmas came, she appeared in my store, smiling and red-cheeked, with a gift for me. Wrapped in a newspaper were three things – a red candle never lit, four dimes wrapped in tissue and a magazine. She asked if I could open it so she could explain it to me. Blinking back tears, I listened as she said that the red candle would bring light in my life. The four dimes were to be distributed to my four children, and, in the magazine was an article she’d found about the true meaning of giving and loving one another. Jean hugged her new friend and accepted her heart-felt gifts graciously, and every year she puts that red candle, four dimes and magazine under the tree to keep the meaning of Christmas in sight. Good news lived and shared.
The good news is that Christmas is avatar blue – God comes near to bring us near to God. This is good news – God is with us working for peace, healing, well-being, good will, love. Tonight and all nights, hear this good news. Tonight and all nights, live this good news, be this good news for others. Amen.