Sermon Preached on December 24, 2019 – Christmas Eve, 9PM
By The Rev. Dr. Nina R. Pooley
St. Bartholomew’s Episcopal Church, Yarmouth, ME
A Very Different Christmas Story
I admit it, this year I’m enjoying the fanfare of Christmas. The carols, the tree, the preparation… And I’m not alone – I’ve heard from many that you, too, are all-in this year when it comes to Christmas. I suspect that we’re trying to lighten the mood, to lift some of the heaviness of another difficult year: contentious and violent, full of the vitriol of campaigning, debates, and now impeachment, with all the polarizing, brutalizing speech that goes with it. It’s exhausting and demoralizing – and most of us represent the majority culture. The dehumanizing rhetoric and policies aren’t aimed at us personally (not yet anyway).
As much as anyone, I would love the chance to enjoy a respite from it all, to enjoy this night, musical and candlelit, a Christmas eve full of warm, wondrous enchantment. Except – except that this story of the incarnation, of God breaking into our world in the most miraculous way – isn’t a soft-focused, gentle scene, set to O Holy Night. It’s a political, gritty story, of a terrorizing totalitarian ruler whose arrogance presumes that “all the world” is his to command. The decree of Caesar Augustus requires a forced march for the registration of everyone including: the sick, the infirm, the very young, the very old, and women, like Mary who are on the verge of giving birth. The purpose is to provide more accurate information so the Romans can collect even more taxes, and it’s not optional – be counted and registered – or else feel the wrath of the Roman Empire.
This is the world into which God’s son will be born; Mary’s resounding, faithful YES to Gabriel’s announcement contrasting Caesar’s announcement of his intimidating attempt at universal control. God uses Caesar’s attempt to control the world as an instrument in God’s plan to save it. By forcing this mass migration, Caesar Augustus has created the very situation which allows God’s own son to be born off the radar. Having followed the decree and gone to Bethlehem, the holy family now has no address; they’ve left no discernable trail. Because there’s no room at the inn, our Savior arrives beyond the reach of the emperor’s grasp. God breaks into the world – embodied in a child off the grid, hidden with the animals, and as yet unnamed (they won’t name him Jesus until the 8th day).
From a 21st century perspective, we might say that God becomes human, and enters our world – homeless, anonymous, incognito, and unregistered or undocumented.¹ While the emperor attempts to control the world through registration – God’s own child, foretold by generations of prophets, makes an unregistered arrival. This contrast is underscored by our shepherds, who also have no addresses, (go unnamed in our story) and are living in the fields with the animals themselves. They haven’t returned to their hometowns as decreed – so they too are unregistered. Of all the people in all the world, these unrecorded, undocumented shepherds are the ones singled out to receive the world-changing news.² They are the ones to whom the angel pronounces God’s counter-decree: “Do not be afraid; for see— I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.”³
If this story were to happen today – Joseph and Mary might be part of the mass migration of people escaping totalitarian rulers, gang violence, drought and famine, or political unrest. Forced to leave their hometowns with only what they can carry, and flee to an unfamiliar place, where there’s no room for them, where they are unwanted and unwelcome, just bodies in a government count… of ‘those people’. If they were really lucky, they would survive the dangerous journey, and find their way across man-made borders, and not end up separated and in detention centers waiting to be sent back into violence and poverty. They might even end up with a throng of other asylum seekers, pressed onto a bus to be hauled hundreds of miles to be let out in Portland, Maine in the middle of winter. Likely wearing light clothing and flip-flops, they would make their way to the Chestnut Street shelter – maybe they’re some of the few for whom there is room, if not, they would go to an overflow shelter. Mary might deliver the baby on a mat on the floor of the Salvation Army’s overflow, or in the offices of General Assistance. They would wrap this baby boy in whatever they could find. And other refugees, asylum seekers, and homeless people would be those to whom the angels would appear, they would be the first to hear the good news: “Do not be afraid; for see— I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day a Savior, the Messiah, the Lord.”
It’s not politicizing the Gospel to imagine the arrival of Jesus in this way – the good news of the incarnation is that it’s real; God breaks into a political and violent world, the real world. And that’s to be expected, because that’s how God works – over and over God acts in the margins, through the most unlikely people, in shockingly humble settings – on purpose. Overturning the rules of the world, challenging expectations of power and authority, God empowers and validates the dignity of every human being. On this night, God’s own love is embodied in a vulnerable human baby. The incarnation is particular. God came to be particularly one of us, in the dust and dirt, and the reality of human life. Because this life is precious and holy and a gift, and we are all beloved of God.
Luke reminds us that the powers that be – dictators, bullies, narcissists, anyone so insecure that they desperately seek our attention and adoration, – ultimately, they are nothing but sound and fury, signifying nothing. God chose to come among us through ordinary people, through the marginalized, the least of us – who are chosen because of their faithfulness. Who say YES to being part of God’s salvation, the offer of love and life abundant for all people.
Believe the angel’s proclamation, “unto you is born this day a Savior.” Say YES to this offer – of love and life abundant in your own life. God gave God’s own son, to be one of us, particularly one of us, to share this life, and make it blessed and holy… to bring salvation to us all. And in response, we embrace that gift, that love, and share it with others, through our ordinary day-to-day actual lives. Through small acts of deep kindness and connection, one human being to another. Particularly in times like these – times that are difficult and contentious, when people are on edge, and so many are afraid.
Perhaps that’s why angels always start with, “Do not be afraid” – because people in every age are frightened – we feel helpless and vulnerable when much in our life is beyond our control. And those times when we are in control, we’re terrified of failure: that fear paralyzes some and brings out the bully in others. Because face it – sometimes we fail miserably.
We’re human like that. And so is everyone else. Imperfect, dependent and vulnerable – that’s us. In every walk of life, everyone. Rich and powerful, famous and beautiful, it makes absolutely no difference, imperfect, dependent and vulnerable – every single one of us. So, we can exhale now. Our secret’s out, we can stop posturing perfection and be our true selves.
This is good news for all of us. We can stop living life through our screens, on Instagram, YouTube, Snapchat, Tumbler, Twitter, even Facebook, living out loud for the fans or followers whom may (or may not) be watching. Anxiously comparing our lives to others. (No one’s really living the life they claim onsocial media – we know that, right?) Instead we can actually live our lives and be in community with others in person. Being people of integrity and authenticity, and modeling that for others.
My point – the good news of the incarnation calls us to LIVE this one God given and blessed, abundant life: a genuine life, knowing we are imperfect, dependent and vulnerable – and beloved of God just as we are. Infinitely more valuable than a life spent worried about carefully packaged perfection, is a life abundant, full of grace upon grace; a life full of love, messy, personal and real.
God’s love came to us this night in the form of a real living child, dependent and vulnerable like us – to be loved by human parents and live in an actual family, in the midst of the world’s messy reality. In order to make our real lives holy and of God; redeemed because of that love, not because of our pretense of perfection.
By paying attention to other people (and a lot less to ourselves), we might notice incredible grace-filled moments that happen between everyday imperfect people. We might meet an angel when we are walking the dog, or shopping in Hannaford. Or when we welcome our newest neighbors, through hosting with YCHI, or assisting with the ESL classes. Because God shows up in unexpected places, to people who are off the radar; to remind us that everyone matters.
Don’t be afraid to live your particular, abundant and beloved life; for on this night God gave God’s own son, to be one of us, particularly one of us, to share this life, and make it blessed and holy, to bring salvation to us all.
“Do not be afraid; for see— I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.”⁴
1 Rethinking Christmas Eve, SALT commentary, December 23, 2019, Saltproject.org
2 Rethinking Christmas Eve, SALT commentary, December 23, 2019, Saltproject.org
3 Luke 2:10-11 (NRSV)
4 Luke 2:10-11 (NRSV)