Lessons for Christmas Eve, Year A: Isaiah 9 2-1; Psalm 98; Titus 2:11-14; and, Luke 2:1-20
The prophets of old had spoken of it:
For unto us a child is born, a son given to us; authority rests upon his shoulders; and he is named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
So the people of Israel, who sat in the darkness of captivity, waited and hoped. They prayed and longed for Light to dawn. Yet even as Isaiah made his proclamation to Israel, it seemed that nothing changed.
Mary was a new mother. Some say that she was meek and mild and scared. Maybe, but I say she was also proud – meek and humble yes but also proud in a way only a young woman of her day could be proud to be so addressed: “Blessed are you…full of grace.” Mild, maybe, but Mary was also fierce as only the mother of the lion of Judah could be. Scared, perhaps like any new mother, but what courage and daring and mettle Mary showed when she said “Yes, be it done to me!”
But now, in the stable in Bethlehem, it seems so long ago. Did she know the full responsibility of what was to come, that her voice would echo through eternity:
My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord, my spirit rejoices in God my Savior; for he has looked with favor on his lowly servant.
In a world dominated by privilege, power, and persuasion, Mary longed with the rest of Israel for deliverance. In a backwater town with a famed history but now in the middle of nowhere an unwed refugee teenager brought our salvation. Amid the birth pangs, the breath of the animals, and the bewildered carpenter, Jesus was born into the numb and noisy world. Into humanity’s quarreling and warring God’s shimmering light shined forth. Unto a fragile world, a Word was uttered: “Hope.” And yet, as Mary looked around, the animals were still there, her baby was hungry, the stench of Bethlehem’s sheep hung in the air. It seemed that nothing changed.
Angels came with their fierce gentleness. They were winged messengers clothed in light and overflowing with song. They heralded the birth of the Word into the world – the very same word that was spoken at the creation. The beauty of their song, the intensity of their countenance, the light of eternity was lost on certain poor shepherds keeping their flocks by night.
Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!
Their message was sent and their song ended. Then the angels turned back to their heavenly duties as though nothing changed.
The shepherds tended the sheep. They were hired hands who lived on the borders and the margins of society, outcasts who counted as two steps above nothing. But to these the angels came, imparting their celestial message:
To you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, who is the Messiah, the Lord.
The shepherds filled with fear and awe at the message of the angels, came and saw and stood for a time gazing at the world’s redemption. All of God’s self, wrapped in the beauty of a baby. But no matter how bright the angels, no matter how beautiful the song, life does not stop for a screaming, squirming baby, even one named Jesus. After all, the sheep needed tending because nothing changed.
Even the Romans, the purveyors of power paid scant attention. It was a night like any other, unremarkable in its blatant ordinariness. The holy night was filled with a scent of ordinary because it seemed that nothing changed.
Nothing changed…except everything changed.
God, the Great I AM, the placer of stars and the sculptor of the mountains entered our world. God, the Great I AM, the voice of creation, the very crafter of the universe entered into our world and changed everything!
The great American poet, Maya Angelou, said it beautifully,
We, unaccustomed to courage,
exiles from delight,
live coiled in shells of loneliness,
until love leaves its high holy temple
and comes into our sight,
to liberate us into life.
On that Christmas morning so long ago it appeared as though nothing changed. On this Christmas, it seems that nothing changes. Our world continues along its path, sometimes in joyousness and wonder and sometimes in darkness and danger. Yet, as we go along on the way, God breaks into our humanity, leaving divine traces along the way. But we are often oblivious travelers who seek the lingering presence of God, missing the signs of God being born again and again and again into our world.
We are oblivious because we want a God who crashes into the world with power and authority and great might. But it isn’t like that. Instead, we who are the followers of this helpless child – this Jesus, we are the ones called and challenged to break into the world on God’s behalf, to change everything and to do the daily work of Christmas.
Nothing changes because we are the ones called to be the change. God came into our world! But that has little or no meaning unless we give it meaning by continuing the work of Christmas.
- God came into our world in the quiet of a stable not in the lordly palace.
- God came into our world through a displaced refugee mother not through class and privilege.
- God came into our world with the whimpering of a new born child not with a warrior’s cry.
- God came into our world in the helpfulness of a baby not wielding his cosmic authority.
- God comes into the world through our hands and our feet and our voices. The work of Christmas is our work.
- God enters and changes everything.
The work of changing and transforming our world is ours to fulfill. The world of welcoming the shepherds, the outcast living on the edges and margins is ours. The work of bringing good news of great joy to all the world, proclaiming the transformative power of love in action is now our angelic message.
We are the ones who must love our enemies, turn the other cheek, bless those who curse us, and love without boundaries. We are the ones who must feed the hungry, visit the imprisoned, and clothe the naked. Nothing changes, except everything changes with us. God’s work of redemption is done through the work of our hands. We are the ones who must seek the traces of hope, joy, and peace in a weary world.
Our world needs Christmas. It doesn’t need the pristine angels or the idyllic shepherds of movies and Christmas cards. It doesn’t need certitude or sanitized perfection. The world needs the message of Christmas. Now more than ever the world needs the followers of Jesus to step out of our comfort and our places of refuge to proclaim God’s peace and favor, God’s hope and love. Our world needs Christmas not just today but every day.
God has work to do in this world and God has called us to do it. God needs us: we who are worried and wearied – broken messengers with a living message. We must go like the shepherds to tell of the Good News in the messy, dirty, and uninviting places of this world. We must go out to serve the ones forgotten and counted as nothing, because in them we serve Christ.
As Howard Thurman – theologian, founder of the theology of radical non-violence, mentor to Martin Luther King, Jr. – wrote in the poem “When the song of the angels is stilled.”
When the song of the angels is stilled,
When the star in the sky is gone,
When the kings and princes are home,
When the shepherds are back with their flock,
The work of Christmas begins:
To find the lost,
To heal the broken,
To feed the hungry,
To release the prisoner,
To rebuild the nations,
To bring peace among people,
To make music in the heart.
At Christmas nothing changes except everything, in and through us.