Sermons That Work

Incarnation and Transformation, Christmas Eve – 2003

December 24, 2003

This sermon, appropriate for Christmas Eve or Christmas Day, focuses on Luke 2:1-20 from either of the first two lections appropriate for Christmas.

“But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart.” Luke 2:19, NRSV

The beauty of Luke’s narrative seems so appropriate for this time of year, when many of us are experiencing the warmth of the season – recalling the time-hallowed images of the Christ child laid down in a manger; the pastoral images of shepherds coming to see him; gentle animals gazing at this New Thing that God had done. And, of course, the images we see all around this time of year are of Mary and Joseph looking beatifically down at their firstborn.

Yet, as with all the gospel narratives, Luke’s story of the birth of Christ is not just that which first meets our eyes and ears. There is no mention, for instance, of the pain of the child birth, the life-changing event that has just occurred for Mary: the exhaustion, anxiety, and cries of labor. Or of Joseph’s worry over a myriad of issues as he registers his family, his concerns about what other people will say about this child born out of wedlock, what that might mean for the honor of his family; and, of course, the pressing questions of providing a safe place away from home for the birth to occur – their ending up in a stable amongst the dirt and smells of animals.

And then there are the shepherds. We tend to love to romanticize about them now; perhaps the author of Luke does a little bit, too. But shepherds were most certainly not at the pinnacle of greater society in the day of Jesus’ birth. They were marginal folk, eking out a living off the land. When they came to see the Christ child, moved by no less than the appearance of angels, Mary might have been a little concerned with their unkempt appearance, their earthy lives, and their relatively nomadic subsistence. They must have smelled of sheep and the toil of many days and nights.

But the angels chose them to be the first witnesses of God being born into the world. Things are not as they ought to be, when some of the least in society proclaim a mystery that is about to transform the lives of millions. . . when the lowliest among us declare a name upon which empires will rise and fall and the labors of a hundred generations will honor.

What incredible things Mary must have pondered in her heart as she rested from delivering Jesus and struggled to care for him, as new mothers do.

As she watched the world, one that had already been so radically changed for her, become even stranger and more filled with mystery. There seemed no ending to the ways that God was turning her and Joseph’s lives upside down.

And this story, one that we hear again year after year, brings good news into our midst. The peace of Christmas may seem to many of us like a respite, a brief sojourn in the midst of stressful and storm-filled lives. For others of us, Christmas is a time we reflect and remember the joys of our youth. Yet for others of us, we get together with family and friends, sometimes in joy, sometimes with a little bit of trepidation, and often with both. And we wonder anew at this strange thing planted in our midst – the birth of Jesus, at once an event buried deep in history and tradition; at once a new thing born into our hearts and relationships year after year.

This is the mystery of what we Christians have called for centuries, “incarnation.” God being born into humanity. And we are reminded by Luke’s Gospel that this birth does not happen when the house is in order, everyone has cleaned up, and the world is a tidy place. No, Jesus is born into a world every bit as complicated and difficult as ours. He is born into a community and a family that suffers from many fears and anxieties, torn by its own conflicts and confusion. He is born into a place where the first witnesses to who he is and who he is to become are not the experts or the high and mighty. They are but lowly folk residing – and barely so – at the edges of society.

The story itself opens up so many more questions than answers for us as Christians on a long pilgrimage. It shines light, as does the coming of Christ, into all the dark and strange places of our lives and communities. Christ’s coming breaks the world open in a new way, shatters all the things we once thought to be true, and ushers in new and deeper truths. Just as a newborn child changes the lives of any family and community. Just as a stranger coming into our midst causes us to stop and consider ourselves and everything else anew.

And the peace of Christmas comes, too, along with the angels. It comes into the center of our busy and messy lives. And, as the gospel reminds us, it comes not only to bring respite, but transformation. We are called to behold the mystery of a God born into our humanity in the most unexpected ways. And like Mary, we are called to be transformed, as we treasure all these words and ponder them in our hearts.

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Christopher Sikkema


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