December 24, 2018, Christmas Eve, Luke 2:1-20
Recently I was at a meeting of some Episcopal clergy and the topic of Christmas Eve sermons came up. One priest shared that someone once told him that the best Christmas Eve sermon she ever heard was one where the pastor stood in the pulpit, said to the congregation “We all know why we’re here”, and immediately sat back down.
Now while we too all know why we’re here, I will give a sermon that’s a bit more substantial than that. First, because I don’t want to plagiarize that pastor and second because I doubt that will fly in my first year here.
I’m betting that as we all know why we’re here, we all have probably also heard Luke’s version of the Christmas story hundreds of times before and think there is nothing new in there for us to hear or discover. I know I felt that way when I looked at the reading in preparing for tonight. What, if anything, could I discover or say about this story that hasn’t been discovered or said before? Nothing. I was certain there was no new profound insight I could offer that hasn’t already been said at one time or another by a preacher on this text on Christmas Eve.
However, then I read a commentary on the reading by Charles Campbell. And he pointed out two short phrases that made me hear the story differently this year. Campbell said the story begins in the old time or old age as we hear, “In those days . . .” Those three words he says paint a picture where our story begins in the world of that time. He writes, “Even the words sound tired and hopeless.” And I realized as I read them again that he isn’t wrong. When I reread the beginning of our story those words sound heavy. “In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered.” You can almost feel the heaviness , the weight of the Empire’s oppression on the people in the words, “in those days.”
But then something happens as we read on and read of the difficult circumstances of Jesus’ birth and the angel appears to the shepherds and makes an announcement that totally changes the tone of the reading from what has come before. The angel says to them, “Do not be afraid; for see – I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: ‘To you is born THIS DAY in the city of David a Savior who is the Messiah, the Lord.’” “This day!” A new day has dawned, a new age has begun, God is doing a new thing, nothing will ever be the same again! It’s like the air gets lighter and we can breathe again when we hear the good news of “this day.”
“Those days” feels weighed down with fear and oppression by the political powers. “This day” though seems set free for the possibility of life and new birth.
In today’s world we still know what “those days” feel like. The political powers still rule over us and fight for control. Just this past week we saw them do it again as they shut down our government, leaving many federal employees furloughed or working without pay over the holidays. We still live in a world where refugees, like Mary and Joseph, must leave their homelands because the powers of the empire dictate the necessity of it. We still live in a world weighed heavy with fear – fear of the “other”, fear of violence, fear of war, fear of death. The list of our fears goes on and on.
And then once again in the midst of “those days” we hear of the arrival of “this day.” “This day” when hope is born, when love risks everything to come down to earth and enter our world, and joy arrives with an angel’s message to “fear not!” The good news of Jesus’ birth on “this day” still comes and sets us free for the new age God is intent on bringing about for this world.
Being bombarded so much with the heavy news of “those days” in our world we can often get weighed down and lose sight of the promise and possibility of “this day.” And yet once in a while we hear a story that gives us a glimpse of what “this day” looks like when love takes a risk to appear among us.
This week I had one of those moments when I was online and saw the story of Dakota Nelton. Dakota is a high school sophomore from Gray, Louisiana who got up the courage to ask a friend to the homecoming dance. He made a poster and in a crowd of their classmates asked his friend to the dance. Unfortunately, the young lady said no and his classmates who were watching began mocking and laughing at him, even trampling his poster. Of course, in today’s world you know the whole thing was caught on a cell phone video and posted online getting thousands of views.
I’m sure we can all relate and feel the weight of “those days” along with Dakota. Yet, the weight of “those days” was soon lifted from him when a few days later thirteen young ladies from his school stopped him in the hallway and each asked him to homecoming as they carried their own posters made especially for him. They said they wanted him to know that he was loved and valued in spite of the rejection he had experienced. “Those days” became “this day” for Dakota through their actions offered in love.
We gather here just once a year to celebrate “this day” when love came down from heaven to earth as the infant Jesus was born and God became incarnate and lived with and among us. Yet, everyday, like those high school students, we carry that incarnate love with us to a world heavy with “those days” and offer the hope of the possibility for a new world that “this day” brings with it. As author Frederick Buechner once said, “What keeps the wild hope of Christmas alive year after year in a world notorious for dashing all hopes – is the haunting dream that the child who was born that day may be born again in all of us.” May Jesus, born to us “this day,” be born again in all of us everyday, so that all the world might know the power of the love of God come down to live with us. Amen.