Sermons That Work

He Emptied Himself, Christmas Eve – 2004

December 24, 2004


It is Christmas Eve once again. We welcome the sweetness of this night and all the memories that give meaning to it and make it unique among anniversaries. And, we dread it. For those among us whose youth is past, this evening is bittersweet—another year has gone by, another season of Advent has ended, and we are overwhelmed by the rapid passing of our days. We remember what it was to be young, to be filled with anticipation of this moment and of the day that follows and now, instead of anticipation, we feel nostalgia.

For the young among us, the wonder persists, especially when it is filled with creativity, with a waiting that is holy and breathless, and with the hope that this night will be blessed so that when it becomes a memory, it will be good. And for the children—ah, for them, there is nothing like Christmas Eve.

But tonight, let us forget all that we know for a few minutes. Let us clear our minds of all that has both blessed and harmed the meaning of this day. Let your mind become, as the Latin so beautifully puts it, a tabula rasa, a blank slate, a mind not yet affected by experiences and impressions. As children do, let us pretend.

We have never heard of Christmas. The holiday has not been established, and no one observes the birth of Jesus. But we are Christians, we form one of the early groups of believers, maybe somewhere in Palestine, in the Asia Minor of the first century, or perhaps in Greece, a group deeply affected and influenced by the presence or the letters of Paul the Apostle, or the remembered sermons of Peter and John and James, the beloved disciples.

We gather in the early dawn, for that is the most convenient and the safest time for the ekklesia, the church, to gather, and we have come to sing hymns and to worship the Lord we love, the one who has changed our lives so radically that we do not fear even the death that stalks us because we are his followers and not the admirers of the emperor.

We sing a hymn that all of us have memorized because this is what we believe, this is who has called us and changed us forever. It focuses our minds, it reminds us why we are followers of the Way, and it inspires us with hope and courage.

Though he was in the form of God, the hymn begins and we know we are speaking about the person of Jesus Christ. We are filled with awe, we remember that he is the firstborn of all creation, and we are overwhelmed with gratitude that, as the hymn reminds us, he emptied himself, taking the form of a slave.

Imagine, we say to one another, imagine such love. God, the Creator, sending the “Godself” to this humble place, emptied of glory, emptied of power, humble like a slave, looking like us! We turn and stare at each other: some of us are wearing brown tunics because we are slaves, others are dressed in work clothes because when we leave here we will go to work in the shops of the city, a few are dressed in finely spun linen because they too have become part of us, the rich Romans who have come to love him—and as we look at each other, we marvel. “He became like us,” we say and our eyes fill with tears, because we then remember that he became obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross, and we know the horror of that death; we have seen it, and some of us will be called to follow him into that kind of suffering.

But we are not paralyzed by fear. We sing his name that is above all names. We have seen his glory in our lives, in each other, in the joy that springs forth when we are together, in the peace that enfolds us in the midst of a suffering world, and we bow our knees before him.

When we leave here, we will carry all this with us—the marvel of his emptying himself to become like us, and the reality of his presence with us every moment. . .

For the early church, this was the Christmas meaning, and they repeated it whenever they gathered—the affirmation of the emptying of God, of kenosis, as St. Paul put it.

Let us focus together on this reality tonight. Forget the noise, forget even the repetition of wonderful hymns that seem to have lost their meaning because they have been co-opted by the world of materialism and greed and enter into the holy remembrance of this ancient hymn saved for us in the Letter to the Philippians. It inspired and sustained the early church for generations. May it become the real meaning of this holy night for us—the humbling of God who enters humanity in human form.

“Every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father,” the ancient Christians sang. Let us do the same. Amen.

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