The Hope of Christmas, Christmas Eve – 2002
December 24, 2002
That story, the Christmas story, and all that goes with it, continues to draw us; it continues to have a strange, haunting power over us. And that power is not just nostalgic; it is not even mostly nostalgic. As important as Christmases past have been — both that first Christmas in Bethlehem and our own personal histories around this hour — that is not what draws us most compellingly. What draws us most compellingly is hope: hope for this present Christmas, and hope for the future.
There is something in all of this that we want. Here in the story of shepherds, angels, and that quiet birth; here in the triumph of the power of love over the love of power; here where peace, compassion, and gentleness are part of God’s good news for all people; here, even in the commercialized, over-blown sentimentality of the television specials and the tear-jerker advertisements — in all of this there is something we want. We want God to come to God’s people, and to God’s world, in gentleness, in love, and with the hope of peace-peace for our world, peace for our own lives. We want things to get better; we want this birth to happen again, to keep happening — in our lives, and in our world. We want that.
And the good news of Christmas is that it can keep happening, and it does keep happening. God has not deserted us; God has not left us alone. God still comes to us, pretty much as God did that first Christmas; and God is still trying to reach us, and our world, pretty much as God tried that first Christmas. Things haven’t really changed all that much. The hopes and fears of all the years are about the same now as they have always been. Life is more comfortable for some, less so for others, maybe more complicated for most. And still, God reaches out to us. Pretty much as God reached out on that first Christmas.
But there are some differences. One thing that has changed since that first Christmas is that we are here, the church is here. That makes a difference. As God reaches out to the world in love, it matters that we are here. Because we are here, the story of God’s reaching out to God’s people has changed just a little, from the story of that first Christmas. Because we are here, the manger is closed, and the angels have been transferred.
First, the manger — the manger was there because there had to be a place for the birth, for the coming of the Lord, to happen. It had to be somewhere, and the world would not offer a place. “There was no place for them in the inn,” the story says. That is not precisely true, of course. There was plenty of room for them in the inn — if the people who were already there had been willing to share; to move some of their stuff, and some of their worries, and some of their fear, over to one side and so make room for that place for them. But nobody did.
After all, Mary didn’t look like she was going to be famous. She looked like any other tired, scared, pregnant young woman who had just traveled 90 dangerous and dirty miles, left her family behind, and was about to have her first baby all by herself. In a sense, young women like Mary were a dime, or even a denarius, a dozen in those days. The world took one look at her and, next thing you know, the inn is full and no one is willing to lose enough space to create a place.
So, that first Christmas, the manger was open. The manger was the place that God provided for the birth to occur, since no one else who was there was willing to do that. But the church is here now, and the manger is closed. You see, it is our calling, our task, our glory, to create that manger, to be that place where there is room for the Lord to be born. We are to make that space, as we are able, both within ourselves, and within our world.
To us is given the happy chore of being sure that we are neither so cluttered by stuff, nor so consumed by anxiety, nor so over-booked by our own busyness, that there is no room for a quiet birth, a gentle, unexpected, but strangely ordinary arrival. And, by the grace of God, we are also to build mangers, to create places with room for God, wherever we are; be it within our families, within our communities, and within this building. That is part of what we are about. The manger is closed this year, but we are here — and still God comes into the world.
The other difference is that the angels, the ones who told the good news to the shepherds, have been transferred. They have other responsibilities now, elsewhere. The angels were the ones God sent to tell the good news to the shepherds. They were sent because nobody else would do it. Even if others had known, nobody else would get close enough to the shepherds to tell them anything. In those days, shepherds were not considered quaint, bucolic, or refreshingly simple. They were considered unclean, dishonest, poor, and religiously degenerate. (It was not possible to keep the Law of Moses on a hillside the way proper folks thought the Law should be kept.) In fact, the shepherds were almost certainly the most despised, the least appreciated, the most thoroughly at the-bottom-of-the-hit-parade people within walking distance of Bethlehem. So, of course, they had to be told first. Of course they had to be especially invited. God is just like that. God always goes into the fields and highways to insure that “the least of these” are given a special hint of God’s great plans and mighty acts.
God’s special care for those whom the world loves the least meant that somebody had to go out there and tell the shepherds. But nobody in the world would do that. Nobody in the world would stoop that low. They were good, decent folks who wouldn’t be caught dead hanging around that sort. So, that first Christmas, the angels were sent to sing the good news to the outcasts, the unpopular, the unlikely recipients of God’s special attention and concern. No one else would go.
But the church is here now, we are here now, and the angels have been transferred. Now the wonderful business of proclaiming God’s saving mercy to those the world loves the least is ours-and God still insists that these be told. We all know that there are plenty of shepherds out there, plenty of folks who don’t look like much except in God’s eyes-and to those who look through the eyes of God. To these, especially, the word of peace, the song first sung by angels, is to be carried. That word is now ours to speak; that song is now ours to sing.
This role of ours, the business of being the manger and of being the angels, this is one of the ways God loves us. It is one of the ways God calls us and makes us part of God’s great gift to the world. We can only be whole, our best hopes can only be fulfilled, as we reach out with God’s hands, and with God’s voice.
What we want most from Christmas is hope; and that hope is real. At the same time, now that we are here, now that the church is here, we are a part of the hope of Christmas. Some of the wonderful parts of this great story are ours to live, ours to give, ours to have. We are a part of the hope of Christmas.
The Christmas story goes on. The great miracle continues as God reaches out to the world in love. For, as in Bethlehem of Judea, so today; God is with us, God is for us, God comes to us. The light that Isaiah foretold, the light first seen fully in Bethlehem, that light is still coming into the world.
But remember, these days the manger is closed and the angels have been transferred. We are not just spectators, we are not just consumers — we are also players. The hope of Christmas is real; and we are part of that hope.
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