The Promise of Christmas

Lessons for the Feast of the Nativity (Christmas I): Isaiah 9:2-7; Psalm 96; Titus 2:11-14; Luke 2:1-14(15-20)

Once upon a time as Joseph and Mary made their way to Bethlehem an angel called a meeting with all the animals of the earth to choose which of them would attend the birth and be allowed in the cave with the newborn child. The animals were all excited and wanted to be there, of course. First, the lion roared and said, “I am the king of all the animals. It is only right that I am allowed to be there. I will defend the child and tear to pieces anyone who tries to harm him.”

The angel cringed and said, “Too violent.”

Then the fox came forward. “I will stand guard over the child, and I’ll make sure the baby has good food every day. In fact, I will steal a chicken every day for the family.”

The angel looked hard at the fox and said, “No, not a thief.”

The peacock strutted forward and said, “Let me. I’ll spread my feathers, and I’ll decorate the cave in a style fit truly for a king. I t will rival Solomon’s own temple.”

The angel sighed and said, “Too proud.”

One by one the animals came forward with their reasons why they should be the ones allowed inside. Birds swooped down, darting in and out, making a loud noise. “Too loud,” the angel said. Insects buzzed about and chirped away. “Too annoying!” Squirrels chattered about, dropping nuts at the angel’s feet. “Nice effort but too much talking from you.”

The poor angel was getting frustrated and thought, “Why are these animals so much like humans?” The angel looked to see if anyone had been missed and noticed some animals in the fields. They were rather dour, old and slow moving. They had nothing and were not even in a group. The ox and the donkey were thus summoned to the meeting, and the angel asked what they would do for the child and his mother on that night. 

They looked at each other and neither said anything. They both looked down at the ground and at last the ox said, “We learned a long time ago not to do anything out of line; to be humble and patient and long suffering. Anything else we ever did got us less food and into more trouble.” They hung their heads and swished their tails. Then the donkey said quietly, “Well, we could keep the flies away by swinging our tails and we’ll keep the air moving in that cave.” 

The angel smiled in delight. “Perfect. Exactly! You will both do just fine. Come, we must move quickly Tonight is the night.”

This is the night – the night that Christ was born: poor, humble, and lowly, to a world weary and battle worn. The Christmas carol sings quietly of what is really happening this night: 

“O little town of Bethlehem, how still we see thee lie,
above your deep and dreamless sleep the silent stars go by.
But in you dark streets shineth the everlasting light,
The hopes and fears of all the years are born in thee tonight.

I must admit that I come to this Christmas Eve with mixed feelings. This has been one of those years when it seemed as if Christmas just couldn’t get here soon enough. I’ve felt an urgency and necessity about Christmas that I haven’t felt in recent years. And yet, I also find Christmas this year to be quite challenging and difficult. Here’s why I say that.

On the one hand, Isaiah speaks to us of this child named: Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace, the one who brings endless peace and whose authority continually grows. On the other hand, I still hear the boots of the trampling warriors and see the blood stained garments Isaiah speaks of. 

On the one hand, the angel proclaims “good news of great joy for all the people.” On the other, it’s hard to hear the angel’s voice over the cacophony of oppression: where one can be held out of the fulness of common, public, and religious life determined solely by color of one’s skin or one’s sexuality. Indeed, despite the prophet’s words, not every rod of oppression has been broken. (see Isaiah 9:2-7). And for many people and parts of our world joy is in short supply.

On the one hand, I want to “go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place.” I want to find the child lying in the manger and be reminded once again that it is all true. On the other hand, it seems as if all roads lead to Aleppo or the Rio Grande or the shores of Italy. I’m not talking only about the ongoing human rights tragedies that those places represent, I’m also talking about them in a larger, metaphorical sense that describes the tragic in each of our lives and throughout our world.

On the one hand, I love hearing the story of how God intervened “in those days” and “in that region.” On the other hand, that’s not enough. I want more. I need to hear how God is intervening in these days and in this region, in my time and in my life.

I readily admit all those things probably say a whole lot more about me than they do about Christmas or this past year, but that’s what I bring to the manger tonight. I bring my sadness, concern, and fear for the world. I bring my shortsightedness and my inability to see the prophetic vision of Isaiah. I bring my dissatisfaction with simply hearing the story one more time. I bring a deep longing and desire to become and live the story. I bring all this and more. I don’t think I’m alone in this. I think you also bring all sorts of stuff tonight.

I think we bring our stuff, whatever it might be, not because we don’t believe the Christmas story but because we take it so seriously. And we’re not the only ones bringing our stuff. Look of all the things that were evoked by or offered at the birth of Jesus “in those days” and “in that region.”

  • The angels offered their songs of praise and a message of good news of great joy.
  • The shepherds, the first to go to Bethlehem, offered their wonder and curiosity and their status as homeless, probably foreign farmworkers. 
  • The heavens offered a star, a waypoint, a guiding light.
  • The inn offered a closed door: no openness, no receptivity, no welcome, no vacancy BUT the earth offered a cave with a manger to hold the Body of Christ, the Bread of Life.
  • Mary offered her “yes,” her “Let it be with me according to your word.” She offered her pondering and treasuring. She offered her trust in a mystery that is too beautiful to be explained.
  • Joseph, one who is too easily forgotten or ignored, offered his presence, and his guardianship and protection of God’s son and his mother, Mary. He offered them a home and security. He offered his silence, listening, and trust that God was speaking in his nighttime dreams.
  • King Herod offered his fear, anger, and violence and the parents of the holy innocents slaughtered by King Herod offered their grief and their brokenness and unfulfilled futures.
  • BUT, as we shall see the wise men brought gifts. But more than gifts, they also offered their searching, longing, and their desire.

The whole world has been moved and affected by Jesus’s birth. All of creation has offered something. It can do nothing less and neither must we. These aren’t just characters, props, or scenes in the story. They are aspects of our own lives. They are parts of ourselves and our world.

It’s not difficult to make the connections. We’ve had visions of peace and we’ve also acted with fear and anger. We’ve sung praises and followed the star searching for something new, something beyond ourselves, and we’ve also closed the doors of our life and hung a no vacancy sign. We’ve offered shelter to and been guardians of the holy and we’ve known times when we were homeless and stinky. We’ve been welcomed as the bringers of good news and we’ve also felt like an outcast. We’ve planned our future and we’ve grieved its loss. Christmas is our story.

We shouldn’t come to the manger empty handed. To come to the manger with nothing is to come as spectators of history. To bring our own stuff to the manger is to come as participants in Christ’s birth. Spectators might see God’s son born in Bethlehem but participants will experience God’s son born in themselves. That’s what I want for you, for me, and for the world.

After all, what does it matter if Jesus was born “in those days” and “in that region” if he is not also being born in these days and in this region? To paraphrase words attributed to Meister Eckhart, a 14th century monk, “What good is it that Christ was born in a stable in Bethlehem over 2,000 years ago if he is not also born in us?”

Whatever it is we bring to the manger tonight is our means of participating in the divine birth. So tell me, what are you bringing tonight?

Name the hopes and fears you want met in him tonight. Name your thanksgivings and your disappointments. Recall the joys and the sorrows of this past year. What desires and longings have bought you here tonight? And what secrets make you want to turn and run? What did you celebrate this past year and what broke your heart? Whatever you offer tonight at the manger let it speak the truth of and about your life.

I don’t know what you bring tonight but I know that Christ’s manger is generous enough and big enough to receive whatever you might bring. And I know that the child is strong enough and powerful enough to change our lives and our world, even when we can’t see it or don’t believe it. That’s why I continue to show up here on Christmas Eve, especially on those Christmases that are difficult and challenging.

The promise of Christmas is that we will not leave here unchanged. It might take a while to recognize and live into this change but the promise is trustworthy and true. To us “is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.” And that is “good news of great joy for all the people” in every time, in every place, and in every life.

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