On behalf of the Congregational United Church of Christ I once more want to welcome those of you who are our guests here this evening, whether you are visiting with family or friends or made your way here on your own. I hope that you are finding this a place of welcome and a place of joy. And I want to invite everyone to the reception downstairs after our worship—it is always a glorious occasion.
Each year on this night we hear again that God has come to us, crying as a newborn child. And this is such a wondrously good story that we fear it should begin: “Once upon a time”—an opening phrase that tells us not to take any of what follows too seriously.
Luke’s Gospel begins in a different way, however. This familiar story of the birth of Jesus tells us that it occurred in the days of Emperor Augustus. It occurred while Quirinius was the governor of Syria.
The Christmas story is grounded in a specific time and, because of this, it invites us to listen to it, not literally, and, really, not so much seriously, as carefully, and with curiosity. We are invited to receive it as, well, as a gift, even if we’re not quite sure what kind of gift this is or how it might be used.
It was a specific time, because birth is specific and each life is unique.
Artists tell us that what is most specific is also most universal. So we sense that this Jesus is somehow like us—whoever we might be. He was born as we are born, born into a world much like our own, no matter how the world has changed in 2000 years: it is still a world in which the presence of a child brings us hope and happiness; it is still a world in which all that we love can be threatened.
The novelist and poet, Madeleine L’Engle writes of the birth of Jesus:
It was a time like this,
war & tumult of war,
a horror in the air.
It was a time like this
of fear & lust for power,
license & greed and blight
The days of Emperor Augustus resemble our days in that war continues and leaders often cling to power, fearful of losing the tenuous control and status that they have achieved. Fear and license and greed and blight are all still obvious to anyone who looks.
And considering this situation further, L’Engle asks;
And in a time like this
how celebrate his birth
when all things fall apart?
Now, she asked that question over twenty years ago and yet it could have been asked this past week. Or you could have asked such a question tonight.
How do we celebrate this birth, when all things fall apart?
We can celebrate as we always have—with gifts and gatherings, with food and festivity, with family and friends, candles and music and evergreens. We can celebrate in ways that look beyond our immediate and intimate circles of relationships and give generously to the food bank and Shelter House, to the Christmas Fund and other causes.
Such traditions are good and valuable. They sustain us and remind us of where we came from and who we are.
But when all things fall apart, we sense that our usual celebrations get harder each year. How do we top what we did last year? Or how do we make up for what we did last year?
This story, this long-ago birth in a time like this invites us to consider not only who we are but who we are becoming.
We expect life to go on as usual—one day to the next, one year to another. But life doesn’t go on as usual.
A world of war and greed and thirst for power is disturbed by the cry of a child, poor and in a manger.
One minute you’re at work minding your own business. The next minute angels are there singing good news.
The glory of God breaks in. The glory of God comes to flesh and blood human beings as a flesh and blood human being.
And here’s the thing about God’s coming into this world, the Creator entering
creation: God does not wait until all is right.
So Madeleine L’Engle writes:
It was a time like this,
and yet there came the star
and the child most wonderfully there.
It was a time like this
and yet the Prince of bliss came into the darkest hour
in quiet & silent light.
I wish I understood this better. But tonight, along with all of you, I simply stand in wonder before a mystery: this birth is the birth of new possibility.
In unlikely places—in Bethlehem, in Iowa City—God creates possibility.
In unlikely people—in Mary, among shepherds, in you and me, among all of us, God creates new possibilities.
God does not come in power to establish a reign of peace. God comes to make peace a possibility through our actions.
God does not come with fierce judgment to bring justice to this world. God comes to make justice possible through our actions.
God comes among us in Jesus—I think you’re probably getting this now—to make us people of possibility.
This is what Christmas invites us to become: people of new possibility.
God does not wait for circumstances to be ideal or for our lives to be anywhere near perfect before coming among us so that we might be empowered to create something like the realm of God.
How will we celebrate in a time like this, when all things fall apart?
In the midst of our grief and our regrets about the past
In the midst of our worries about a loved one
In the midst of our frustration over work or anxieties over school
In the midst of the disturbing decline in human decency, in truth, in democracy around the world
In the midst of a changing climate
We will celebrate by continuing this story of the God who comes to us—creating new traditions that express who we are becoming; seeking creative, imaginative ways of showing the often small and silent ways that God’s love works in our lives.
We will celebrate by choosing new possibilities in our lives and in our world so that the light of Christ begins to shine along the city streets and down the roads in our neighborhoods.
How shall we celebrate? As those who have received a gift—carefully, curiously, seeking to know more of what it is, coming to understand how we might use this new possibility in our lives and in our world.