Christmas Eve/Day B: The Christmas Sermon I Need to Hear

Dear Partner in Preaching,

I am going to share brief reflections on both the Luke text we often hear on Christmas Eve and the John text that is usually appointed for Christmas Day. Actually, though, it’s not two reflections but rather one thing that struck me as present in both gospels. And, for what it’s worth, it’s the one thing I need to hear as we approach this Christmas, so I hope it is helpful to you as you lean toward preaching either the Christmas Eve or Day readings or, perchance, both.

I’ll start with a confession: for some reason, the world seems a little darker this year. It might be the pall that seems to have hung over the national mood since the events in Ferguson and Staten Island. Or maybe it’s the number of global “hotspots” there are in the Middle East, the Ukraine, and more. Or maybe is the number of deaths caused from Ebola and the fear that disease strikes into the hearts of folks so many thousands of miles away. Or maybe it’s the bullying threats of the North Korean government hackers. Or maybe….

Well, you probably get the picture. The world just now seems rather dark, even hostile. And so I wonder what this Christmas will feel like when so much of the world seems to be in turmoil and the angel’s cry of “peace on earth” seems like more of a wish than a blessing and we who gather to sing carols, light our candles, and hear the Christmas story seem so very small against the backdrop of this troubled world.

And that’s when a part of Luke’s nativity gospel stood out to me. Truth be told, I’ve heard it countless times, but this time is struck me differently: “In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria.”

What strikes me is that the events Luke describes also seem incredibly small. I mean, what does Emperor Augustus or Governor Quirinius care about a pregnant teenager or wandering shepherds? Mary, Joseph, and the rest – these folks are so incredibly small compared to these rulers. And yet Luke declares that whether these rich and powerful leaders care or not – heck, whether they even notice or not – yet the events Luke describes in detail are going to change the whole world.

It’s an audacious claim, when you think about it: that the birth of a baby to an unwed teen amid the squalor of a backwater town could possible matter. And yet there, in a nutshell, is the promise of the Gospel: that God regularly shows up where we least expect God to be and always for us.

So though this world be dark, it is not forsaken, and the headlines we read and worry about will have their day and then fade again against the backdrop of this story we’ve been telling now for nearly 2000 years. God loves this world! And God will not give up on it…or us. Moreover, God continues to come to love and bless this very world and invites us to do the same.

Well, if Luke reminds me that the Gospel has always been set amid world events as a promise that God works among the seemingly small and insignificant to change the world, John calls to mind a more realistic assessment of human life. Right near the end of his Prologue, John writes the following: “No one has ever seen God” To which I want to reply, “No kidding!”

So many of us struggle to see God amid the desolate headlines. So many more wonder where God is amid their own more private pain of ruptured relationships, lost loved ones, loneliness, illness, job loss, or depression. Or maybe it’s just that we get caught up in the day-to-day routine of making ends meet that we have a hard time imagining that God could possibly make a difference in our world. Sure, maybe we believe in God in general, but sensing God’s presence – let alone seeing God – in the nitty-gritty of our mundane lines seems a bit much.

But John doesn’t stop with his stark assessment. He goes on: “It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known.” Perhaps the problem isn’t that it is impossible to see God, but rather that we are prone to look in all the wrong places. Rather than speculate about God’s existence, John seems to say, we should instead look to Jesus. And when we do that, we encounter the God who became flesh, taking on our lot and our life that we might have hope.

Both of these passages seem to acknowledge that, when you get right down to it, the Gospel message of hope, grace, and peace seems rather improbable, even unlikely. I mean, that the Creator of the cosmos would even know we exist, let alone love and cherish us? It’s almost too good to be true. But for just that reason this is the story I keep coming back to, hoping against hope – and, on my good days, actually believing – that it is the one true story we will encounter this week, year, and lifetime. That God so loved the world….

Well, you know how it goes. We all do. But for that very reason perhaps the challenge this week is to preach this story once again not as a cherished favorite but rather so that it seeps into the dark crannies of our soul, the places we wonder if it can possibly be true, those spaces where the world’s darkness seems so much more prominent than the light. Because that’s what this story was made for – to shine light in dark places, to bring hope to the discouraged, insight to the lost, and the promise of peace to all who long for it.

Blessed Christmas, Dear Partner. Thanks for your bold proclamation of the Good News.

Yours in Christ,