Christmas Eve 2015
Isaiah 9:2-7, Psalm 96, Titus 2:11-14, Luke 2:1-14(15-20)
The deep sentiment of this night never fails to get to me. The veil between the present and past seems especially thin tonight. I can clearly see my mother and father, brothers, and sister on Christmas morning gathered in our small living room in Atlanta, opening presents and enjoying each other immensely. The tree has colored lights the size of large eggs and fake tinsel inelegantly thrown on it. It is a grand scene frozen in time…before a sudden death and a drawn-out death, then a premature death, comes to pass. When we look through the veil into Christmas past our emotions are deep and complex.
Sometimes the feeling are overwhelming, so we may be tempted to come to church to escape from sentiment and run into sentimentality, where we can live on the surface of things, turning this night into a Hallmark Card where “all is calm, all is bright.”
Sentimentality, as Fleming Rutledge puts it, is “the lazy person’s way of receiving data about life, without struggle… [where we believe] in innocence as a stratagem for keeping unpleasant truth at bay; it is a form of denial.” The Crucifixion: Understanding the Death of Jesus Christ, Page 196
So we hear Isaiah’s and Luke’s proclamation, but only remember the comforting words about “a child born for us,
a son given to us”, “born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.”
But if that’s all we hear we miss the truth for Isaiah also describes “the boots of the tramping warriors and all the garments rolled in blood”. These are the boots of the enemy army that has ravaged Israel, shedding Jewish blood.
There has been a lot of talk lately about whether in our fight to destroy the death cult known as ISIS we will need to put “boots on the ground” in Iraq and Syria. Of course “boots on the ground” is a euphemism, isn’t it, for young men and women who will kill and be killed on our behalf.
Our sentimentality doesn’t grasp that unwed Mary and Joseph are on the move because Rome needs a better census in order to better tax its captured people. The irony is that the Jewish taxes fund the Roman legions who are occupying their country. They are paying for their own enslavement. This insight from Workingpreacher.org
And Mary is not in The Birthplace at Lowell General, but in a stall with animals. The desperate couple would fit right in with the million Syrian refugees who are totally dependent on the kindness of strangers.
Into this real world a proclamation comes from God that announces that God has come….But the God that comes is not the God we want.
+We want a powerful king on a throne in Rome or Jerusalem. But we get an unarmed peasant who begins in a feeding trough and ends on a cross with all its blood, guts, and shame.
+We want a Messiah who, like Santa Claus, rewards the good people like us and punishes the bad people who are different from us.
But we get a man who spends time with the wrong sort–the least, the last, and the lost. The announcement is first made to the shepherds in the fields and not to the genteel in their own beds.
+We want a leader who recruits well-educated churchgoers, clergy, and seminary professors, but we get a man who chooses ignorant fishermen, tax-collectors, and a bunch of single women.
+We want a kindly grandfather whose only goal is to please us, but we get an on-fire 30-something single guy who calls us to take up our cross and get with the program of working with God’s Kingdom of grace and mercy, justice and peace.
+At the very least we want a spiritual role model who gives us clear directions on how to climb up the ladder of success to God, but we get a man who embodies God climbing down to us—all the way down into our brokenness and shame.
Gregory Boyle is a Jesuit priest who worked for decades with the gangs in Los Angeles—even started a non-profit called Homeboy Industries so his homies could leave behind addiction and violence and find community and work. Boyle says he learned that “The strategy of Jesus is not centered in taking the right stand on issues, but rather in standing in the right place—with the outcast and those relegated to the margins.”
Of course he got push back from some of his regular parishioners when they allowed homeless men to sleep in the church, because there was always a faint smell left behind.
So during one Sunday sermon he addresses the growing concern. He asks the congregation what does the church smell like. Someone answers, “It smells like feet. “
“Why does it smell like feet?” he asks.
Cuz, many homeless men slept here las night, says a woman.
Well, why do we let that happen here?
It’s what we’ve committed to do, says another.
Well, why would anyone commit to do that?
It’s what Jesus would do.
Well, then, what’s the church smell like now?
“A man stands and bellows, “It smells like commitment.”
I would say it smells like a place in which Jesus is proud to be. Boyle says, “Jesus was not a man for others, He was [a man] with others.” Tattoos on the Heart, Page 72 emphasis original
As one priest puts it: “In Jesus, people get to be in the presence of God and not be ashamed or afraid.” Ted Blakely quoted in Clergy Leadership Institute newsletter by Rob Voyle
Reminds me of Peter Winterble, rector of my seminary field work parish, Saint John’s, Georgetown, who for many years celebrated Holy Communion at Clyde’s, an upscale restaurant on M Street, at 2 o’clock Christmas morning, with all those who couldn’t get home or had no home to get to for the holidays.
In my Christmas Letter I tried to say that the way Christian theology works is that whatever is true of Jesus is also true of God. We keep trying to do it the other way round: we say, whatever is true of God is true of Jesus. So if we imagine God is all-powerful, all-knowing, all-good, on and on, therefore Jesus must be all these things which turns Jesus into Superman, with skin stronger than Kevlar, and with the ability to leap tall buildings in a single bound.
No, we look at Jesus to know who God is. For example, Jesus thinks it’s a great idea to leave the 99 good sheep on the hillside and go off to find the 1 bad sheep that has gotten lost. So Jesus stands with a woman caught in adultery against the violence of the self-righteous, just as he hangs with the tax-collectors and street people.
This is what Jesus does so this must be who God is.
Tonight this God announces the good news to illiterate nobodies herding sheep. Thirty-three years later this Crucified God announces salvation to a thief on a cross. Three days after that the Risen Christ first announces resurrection to a woman who once had 7 demons–Mary Magdalene.
When caught in sentimentality we believe the story that we are innocent, especially compared to those who can’t keep their lives together. In this made up story we don’t need a savior because we can save ourselves.
Tonight we hear the true story about who we are, about our membership in the human race that is enslaved to Sin and Death and we realize this battered and beaten Jew is here for us, to welcome us into our truest family, the family of God.