Christmas Eve/Day A – Christmas Beginnings
Dear Partner in Preaching,
Beginnings are so very important. And while there are many, many ways to preach the wonderful and well known passages for Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, this year I was struck by how the first verses of the narratives of both Luke and John set a helpful context in which we may hear the Christmas story and promise anew.
Christmas Eve: Luke 2:1-20
Over the years you’ve probably had one or two parishioners who believed – and told you! – that the King James’ Version is the only “real” translation – “if it was good enough for the Apostles, it’s good enough for me!” While I don’t normally share that piety, on this night I can almost agree, as there is an intentional grandeur to Luke’s opening verses that falls somewhere between on Old Testament proclamation – “Thus saith the Lord!” – and a royal, Roman decree – “Hear ye, Hear ye!”
This is not by accident, and indeed may be intentionally ironic. Luke shoots the opening pictures of Christ’s nativity with a wide-angle lens, backing far enough out to set the historical context by naming the Emperor and Governor, only to zoom in on something that no Emperor or Governor would ever have noticed: an unwed, teenage mother, homeless for the evening, getting by in the make-shift shelter of a barn, giving birth to her first child, attended only by her husband-to-be and local shepherds.
It’s absurd when you think about it. How can Luke imagine that this birth matters, let alone warrants being placed on the world stage along with an imperial census and other matters of state? In this juxtaposition of the grand and the meager, however, Luke witnesses to the irony, even the absurdity of the event we celebrate this night: that God, creator, ruler, and sustainer of the cosmos would not only notice us – our ups and downs, dreams and disappointments, triumphs and tragedies – but would also care about us enough take them on, becoming one of us and one with us.
And so Luke’s grand opening and quick turn to a simple, even homely story presents the Gospel in a nutshell. That the immortal and all-powerful God does not shy away from ordinary, finite, and even mundane creatures like us but rather draws near, eager to embrace us like a lover too long separated from his beloved.
The implications of this “incarnational narrative” are astounding. Through God’s embrace of our lot and our lives, we not only learn about God – that God is love, that God will not give up on us, that there is no length or depth to which God will not go to reach us – we also learn something about ourselves and, indeed, the whole creation. That we have worth. That we have dignity. That we and the whole creation is of inestimable value to God. That all those around us are treasured children of God. God came dwell in ordinary human flesh and in this way hallowed it and all creation and so set the pattern for us to similarly honor each other and the whole created order.
There will be many who gather this evening, Dear Partner, who feel particularly blessed and are grateful for a good year, for good health, for the love of family and friends. And on this night they may hear that God not only notices but also is glad for their blessings and promises to use them to share blessing with those around them. And there will be many who gather this evening who have put on a joyous face to hide the pain or uncertainty or fear they are feeling. And on this night they may hear that God knows of their struggles, stands with them and for them, and will not let them go. And, of course, there are many – perhaps most – who come holding both joy and sorrow, hope and fear, in their hearts. We are all, on this night, like the shepherds to whom this good news was first given: met right smack in the middle of our lives, honored by God’s attention, greeted with good news, and sent to bear witness to others.
Christmas Day: John 1:1-14 (though I would read to 18)
Unlike Luke, John shares no traditional narrative but instead offers something both more theological and poetic. Theological in the sense that John begins his whole Gospel with a meditation on the Word of God made flesh, poetic in that it is more song than reflection, John’s “hymn to the Word.”
Again, beginnings are important. Beginning this work by quoting the first line of the author of Genesis is an audacious move, akin to my starting a novel by writing, “It was best of times. It was the worst of times.” With this bold move, John declares that he is writing a new Genesis, a new story of God’s interaction with humanity that is every bit as important, and perhaps more, than the original. For according to John, that’s what Jesus is – God’s reinvention and rebirth and renewal of the whole creation and, indeed, of God’s own self, as God comes to make manifest God’s enduring commitment to and love for the world in and through ordinary and finite human flesh.
While John is sometimes accused of having “too high” of a Christology, his functional purpose is clear: what we see in Jesus is what we can expect from God. Jesus is no messenger, but rather is God, creating and redeeming as only God can. Two pivotal lines make manifest John’s aim. This eternal and creative and divine word took on human flesh in Jesus (v. 14), introducing a new chapter in the story of God and God’s people by creating a new possibility for experiencing God’s grace. For while God “as God” is beyond our comprehension or knowledge, yet Jesus reveals God’s loving and parental heart, making known to us the character and commitment of the One who created and can redeem us (v. 18).
It’s not just grace that Jesus offers, John testifies, but grace upon grace, more grace than we can imagine, grace so abundant it’s like the best wine ever offered, rivers of living water gushing up from our hearts, unending growth of the vine and tree of life. All of the images John will play with throughout the rest of his gospel, in fact, are prefaced in this theological introduction and song.
But perhaps my favorite part of John’s hymn is his promise that, while we gather on Christmas Eve and Day to celebrate Christ’s birth, it is really our own new birth and beginning for which we should give thanks and even sing and dance. For God coming in the flesh gives humanity hope that we are more than the sum of our parts, that there is more to this world and life than we may at first see, and that God in Christ simultaneously hallows our created lives while also freeing us from the constraints of our frail and fragile condition. For those who believe, as John’s rights, Jesus “gave power to become children of God, who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God” (v. 12-13) The Word becomes flesh that all who are flesh may realize and live into our identity as God’s beloved children. Now that is something to sing about.
There are, of course, so many ways to preach these classic and familiar passages, Dear Preacher. Enough so, in fact, that sometimes the task can seem daunting, particularly given how familiar the passages are and how high expectations can seem on this occasion. So let me close with a word of confidence in you. Having heard the good news, you will share it exceedingly well. For you on this occasion are kin not only to those preachers who have come before, but also and even to the angelic host greeting the shepherds so long ago. Like them, you will share the good tidings of great love and your words will give courage and hope to those who hear them. So enjoy the sermon(s) you will preach, Dear Partner, as you get to play the role of Gabriel to our Mary, angel of the Lord to our shepherds, angelic host to a world starved for a word of grace and hope. Blessed Christmas, and thank you for your faithful Christmas proclamation. Even more, thank God for you this day and always.
Yours in Christ,