The Christmas story reminds us that God chooses to be found in simple, common human life – yours and mine. It also helps us know that church isn’t about a quaint little story and old traditions for the sake of tradition. It’s about God reaching out to ordinary people with extraordinary love. It’s about God giving simple people a vocation to change the world. Christ is born in us this holy night.
The Nativity of Our Lord, Christmas Eve – Wednesday, December 24, 2014 – Luke 2:1-20
St. Jacob’s-Spaders Lutheran Church, Harrisonburg, Virginia
“Born in Us Tonight” – Pastor Evan Davis
A whole lot of people out there think that church is pretty hilarious. That our gathering around this Christmas story tonight is bewildering, or just plain crazy. Don’t believe me? I love Saturday Night Live, and a couple weeks ago they did a sketch about what it’s like for a person about my age who’s not normally in church to come home for Christmas and go to church. It went like this:
It’s Christmas, and you know what that means…it’s time for your annual trip to church with your parents! And you’re in luck because this year St. Joseph’s Church is going full-throttle with our one-night-only Christmas Mass Spectacular! We’ve got appearances by all your church favorites! Like Pastor Pat…who sings everything in constantly changing speeds [All glory and honor is yours, Almighty Father, forever and eeeeevvveeeerrrr….] And Mr. Drubbler, who’s eager to say “peace be with you” while holding out the sweatiest hand you’ve ever seen. Still not sold? Hear all 44 verses of “O Come, All Ye Faithful!” We’ve got back-to-back liturgical readers, including 12 year old Ryan Welty who really doesn’t want to be doing this [mumbling] and 44-year-old Colleen Chapin who really, really does. [over-exaggerated reading] Looking for even more fun? Check out the sermon, where you’ll hear the softest pastor joke followed by the softest parishioner laugh [The wise men had to follow the North Star for 3 weeks, and back then, they didn’t have Mapquest…]1
My jokes aren’t that bad are they? There’s a lot about church that we can and should laugh about. But what this sketch shows me is how a whole lot of people out there think church is just an absurdity…just some incomprehensible, meaningless ceremony completely detached from the real world and things that actually matter in people’s lives. For many, at best, church can give us a warm and fuzzy nostalgic feeling at Christmas time, but the rest of the year it’s pointless.
We sing songs with words like “haste, haste to bring him laud.” I chant prayers that are 2,000 years old – sometimes at a constant speed and sometimes not, thank you very much! You listen to a pastor who really will never be mistaken for a comedian. We might think, being here tonight, gathered around this cute little story can’t solve our poisoned politics. Or stop the seemingly endless violence in Ukraine, Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, and the very Holy Land where the story takes place…not to mention on our own streets, as we now hold funerals for police officers as well as unarmed young black men. We might think, baby Jesus can’t get me a job if I need one. The shepherds can’t get me raise, can’t get me more hours. Church can’t cure my family member, or get rid of all the cancer, or bring back my beloved one whose chair is empty this Christmas. What does this cute little Christmas story matter in the face of all the really important and powerful people and forces in the world that shape our lives?
I think Mary and Joseph, the night their baby was born, might have been wondering, what does all this matter? Why did Gabriel insist this was so important? We’re just two normal people having a kid. We’re so poor the innkeeper wouldn’t give us a room! Because let’s be honest…there would have been a room for the right price! We’re out with the animals. We had to put our baby in a feeding trough. A feeding trough! Like, in a basket that goats and sheep eat out of! Not exactly Babies-R-Us. Of all the people to whom God sends angels to announce this birth and why it matters, God picks shepherds. Dirty, smelly shepherds that nobody wanted to be around – they’re the ones God calls first! This is not a high-class affair. Mary and Joseph are not Will and Kate, and baby Jesus is not getting attention like baby George! But isn’t it interesting how Luke sets this birth specifically against the backdrop of powerful men, empires and censuses and taxing the whole known world. Luke definitely wants us to feel the disconnect. That’s how he sets the scene – with Caesar’s tax and Quirinius’ census. We think they’re the ones who matter. They’re the ones by whom we mark time, who decided life and death. What could this humble birth matter compared to them and their empire? How could it really change anything, as the angels said it would?
We sang in the Cantata [here/at Trinity] Sunday night, “not with great fanfare will he come / unnoticed by most everyone / not in a great and royal place of renown / but in a sleepy little town.” It’s into this world that seems to be run by money, empires, powerful men, and war, in a sleepy, run-down, seemingly God-forsaken place, that God the Son is born. There – and here – we have truly good news of great joy for all people everywhere: to you, and for you, is born this day a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.
God does not forsake these simple, humble people, and neither does God forsake you. The Christmas story tells us that it’s not so much the emperors and governors who make God’s headlines, but the mothers and fathers in the forgotten places of the world. That’s where God showed up on Christmas. Those are the people God chose to use. I think of all the children around the world silently born into poverty each day, unnoticed by most everyone. Just nameless, faceless statistics to us. Jesus was born as one of them. In being born a human child, God embraces them and you – the children we never see, the mothers and fathers who are fighting to provide for a family every day. The story of Christmas is God embracing common, unnoticed human life. Human struggles and pain.
This story might seem quaint. Church might seem a little detached from the world, and a little too focused on itself. But all God has ever done is to call common people like Mary and Joseph and the shepherds, and you, in small places, in small communities of faith. The way God has always worked is to tell them, I am here with you. The hopes and fears of all the years are met in me tonight. Come and follow me.
Jesus lived each day of his life like it mattered. Jesus went from a Bethlehem barn to the cross because he proclaimed the love of God in everything he did and said. The whole church was built by God showing up in the lives of women and men, saying I am here with you, for you, come and follow me, and they transformed the world. They believed that listening to someone, or a random act of kindness could turn a life around. They believed that boldly speaking up for the hungry, the homeless, about the violence and mistrust on our streets, can force the emperors and governors to change. They believed that every prayer is answered – sometimes with a joyous, miraculous cure, and sometimes simply with the peace that a loved one has lived a beautiful and joyful life and now rests in the arms of God – the God who being born like us also committed himself to dying like us, teaching us to trust in the care and resurrection life of his Father.
In the end we see that these are the people who make the world, you and me. The emperors and governors are, at best, spectators. Tonight we see that this story defines our lives. The church isn’t a bunch of quaint traditions, it’s you and me, people of simple faith. And in being born in Bethlehem, God reminds us once again that Christ’s human feet, human hands, human voice are now our feet, our hands, our voices. Christ is born in us this holy night. Amen.
1I edited my rendition of the sketch a little bit. For the video, https://www.youtube.com/results?search_query=SNL+church (accessed December 23, 2014).