A sermon preached by the Rev. Jeffrey Gill on December 24, 2011
Sermon for Christmas Eve
December 24, 2011
Christ Church Andover
Isaiah 9:2-7; Psalm 96; Titus 2:11-14; Luke 2:1-14
Blessed be God, who has come among us to dwell.
Blessed be God, Immanuel. Amen.
Merry Christmas, and welcome to everyone who has joined us here tonight for this celebration of Christmas!
We’ve come together once again to tell the story of the ages. We come here tonight from our many and different walks of life, some who are right at home here at Christ Church, others perhaps who are here for the very first time or who come only on occasion. We’re here tonight, some as believers and some as skeptics; some as spiritual seekers and perhaps others who are the spiritually injured or jaded; some as Christmas enthusiasts and then the occasional Scrooge; perhaps others who are uncommitted casual observers – neither believing nor disbelieving – along for the ride with the rest of the family. We’ve come from our various stations in life, as children, students away at school, parents, grandparents, singles, all sorts of family configurations. We might have slipped in quietly by ourselves, or just come from a big Christmas Eve party – or perhaps even a good ole Christmas Eve family feud! But we’ve come here tonight with a sense of expectation, to step into another place, to bask in the glow of this moment, to open the eyes of faith, to suspend the cynical and disbelieving parts of ourselves – and for a few minutes to hear the angels sing. We’ve come to hear the story of hope and love come down to earth, in a baby born in Bethlehem.
A student emcee at a Christmas dinner just a few days ago at Edwardes College had these words to say: “Christmas is not a time or season but a state of mind… Christmas calls for love in action… Every time we give for the sake of others we are celebrating Christmas. He who does not have Christmas in his heart will not find Christmas in a tree.”
Edwardes College is in northwestern Pakistan in the city of Peshawar, not far from the Afghan border. It is a Christian college, but about 90% of its students, including the emcee just quoted, are Muslims. A longtime friend of mine became the Principal of the college earlier this year.
”Christmas is a state of mind.” “Christmas calls for love in action.” Indeed it does. I think this student has gotten it right.
Love in action. We Christians make a bold claim on this night. In fact, it is a scandalous claim – that God risks everything, puts it all on the line, assumes mortal flesh and becomes one of us, in the form of a baby born to a young mother, who is engaged to a carpenter. This humble little family becomes the vessel of a precious gift – an unparalleled gift – the gift of God’s love in action, taking on human flesh to be with us, to experience our lives, and to reveal among us the mysteries of God’s redeeming love.
Christmas calls for love in action, because that’s what Christmas is – God’s love in action. And just as God has given for us, so we are called to give for the sake of others. God’s love in action transcended a great perceptual divide between what is human and what is divine. In the same way, it calls us to transcend our own divisions that keep us from living into God’s dream for us.
It might be strange for us to imagine a young Muslim in northwestern Pakistan saying such beautiful words about Christmas. I remember being surprised recently also to be eating with my family in a North African restaurant in Cambridge, and engaging the owner, who was seated next to us, in a conversation. Our conversation went from the politics of Tunisia and Libya eventually to religion. She was dressed in traditional Islamic dress, and her husband, she told us, proudly, is an imam. She started to talk about Jesus, and she began to weep as she told us how much she loves Jesus, or Isa in Arabic. She quoted verses from the Hadith that talk about his physical appearance and about his love. It dawned on me, not only that I had not expected such devotion and obvious emotion from a Muslim, but also just how long it had been since I had seen a Christian weep when talking about how much they loved Jesus.
Yes, there are differences in how we understand who Jesus is. But this was no time for a debate or disagreement. I felt myself compelled to listen – and to allow my heart to be open to someone who had such obvious love in her heart. I marveled at her tears. And I wondered then and now what would happen if we allowed ourselves to listen deeply across all the divisions in our human family, what we might actually hear, and what we might actually learn from and about one another. What if we could enter one another’s reality, as God has entered ours, and experience the world as others do. And what if they could enter our reality and experience it as we do.
In the first generation after Jesus’ life and death, an amazing thing happened. Those who had been touched by him and become his followers realized that the lines of division in the human family had become meaningless. Even the most devout of law-abiding Jews who followed him, came to realize that it really didn’t matter if you were a Jew or Gentile. God cares equally for all – and has broken down the wall that divides us. God’s love in action – in Jesus – had shown this to be the case. There could be no more insiders and outsiders, no more strangers and aliens based on who you were born to be. Writing to Gentile believers in Ephesus, Paul says,
…remember that you were at that time… aliens… and strangers…, having no hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near... For he is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us. (Ephesians 2:12-14)
God’s incarnate love in action revealed the folly and futility of human divisions. In another place, Paul said, “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” (Galatians 3:28)
Christians have seldom lived up to this ideal. We seem instead to keep erecting more and more lines of division. And that’s why it is so important that we relive and retell this story of the incarnation year after year – because it reminds us of just how far God would go to show us what it means to truly put love into action.
This is the challenge of incarnation; and it is the promise of incarnation. God’s incarnate love in Jesus revealed to the world what it means to give for the sake of others, and how in doing so we break through the seemingly intractable divisions that keep us from living into the promise of life.
What we’ve come to hear, then, is not just the story of a baby born in Bethlehem, but of hope and love come down to earth, to find its place in us.
That “state of mind” our young Pakistani friend refers to is something we strive for not only tonight and tomorrow, but each and every day of our lives. God’s self-giving love, made manifest in our world – it’s the story that draws us here, because it speaks so deeply to our own need to live more fully in that love, for the sake of our own lives, and for the sake of the world.