A sermon preached by the Rev. Douglas M. Donley
December 24, 2016
University Baptist Church
This is it. The night of nights. We recite the ancient narrative. We sing the beloved carols. We surround ourselves with family and friends. And together amidst all of the hustle and bustle that typifies this season, we take a collective breath, awed by this simple story. It lacks the triumphalism of Easter, in favor of the tenderness of a child and the expectation of what will become of this life.
On Christmas Eve, we can’t help but think of this timeless story and think also of the people who have shared a service like this with us. We think of those who have gone before, sitting next to us, with hot candle wax on their fingers as we sing Silent Night. And we feel their presence with me, in our mind’s eye. We can hear their voices. And we sing as if we are singing with them—and we are, on some level.
Many of you know that I lost my nephew to suicide a week ago. Now we look at the world differently. I imagine we will always look at the world differently. Those of you who have lost a loved one around the holiday time know that the holidays hold a different meaning. Tomorrow, we’ll set an empty place at the table as family gather. We want to remember him.
One thing is clear through all of our wandering and wondering. We are not alone. God is with us, and so are you. The promise of Christmas is that Immanuel, God-with-us will always be here. We made that plain as we tearfully sang Christmas carols in my brother’s living room on Thursday night, before the gathered family dispersed again. We were together and we lifted in family harmony, so that silence would not have be our only reaction to a loss beyond words.
Throughout the Advent Season, we have looked at the coming of Christmas as the end of a trial. We hope that all the trials are over, thank you very much as we finally put an end to 2016.
The Prophet Isaiah has laid out the evidence, called the witnesses, sent the case to the jury and on Christmas Eve, God renders the verdict. We will not be alone. That’s the decision of God.
It was long overdue, or right on time for the generation there. The verdict 2000 years ago was that God was not going to exist only in heaven, or in a galaxy far far away. God was going to inhabit the earth. And God came with no royal announcements, no proclamations, no election or even appointment. God came instead as a refugee, a child of an unwed couple, rejected by their own families, from a hated backwater town of no significance. The announcement of God’s presence came not in the popular media, no executive orders or royal pronouncements. Instead word leaked out, first to an old priest and his wife, then to unwed teenage Mary, then to shepherds of all people—those most used to being ignored. God came with darker skin than most of us in this room, and immediately had to flee to another country as the ruler enacted a pogrom of ethnic cleansing. This is how God comes into the world. The Gospel writers told the story this way to make very sure that we not confuse God with the government or corporate power. There is a new power in town. And it will cause us to look at everything differently.
The people longed for a reordering of their lives. They longed for a just verdict from God. God could have given them just another leader without changing the structure. But the people had been doing that for generations and the rich were getting richer and the poor poorer. The oligarchs were centralizing power. If the evidence points to the fact that the people who have put their trust in kings and princes who continue to lie to them, then God has no choice but to render a verdict in favor of the wronged party.
The judge’s statement from the bench is really spelled out in Mary’s words: “My soul magnifies God whose mercy is for us, God has scattered the proud in the imaginations of their hearts, has brought down rulers from their thrones and lifted up those who were ignored, filled the hungry with good things and sent the rich away empty. God has done all of these things in remembrance of divine mercy.”(Luke 1:45-56) That’s the verdict we celebrate on Christmas Eve.
But what does this mean for us? It means that we might need to really radically rethink the way we do things. Christmas is not about getting gifts from each other, or even giving gifts. It’s about God’s verdict. The gift we get from God is that everything will change. Those in power, think they are in power, but there is a peaceful army out there who sing carols and embrace the radical welcome of God. These people welcome refugees, advocate for fair wages, abhor corporate welfare that keeps people poor, protects the environment, eschews racism and sexism and heterosexism, provides sanctuary for the excluded, and loves the brokenhearted. I know, because our family has felt that love this past week.
Most importantly, it says that we are not lone wolves, looking out for number one. We are together, united, and undeterred. God is with us. That’s what Immanuel means, God-with-us. We are heirs of this story of hope and tenderness and blessing.
This week, our family has experienced the tangible touch of the people of God as we have been mourning the death of our nephew. The people have come forward once again to help us make sense of the world which does not make sense. The only thing that makes sense is that we are not alone and in you, we feel Immanuel. God with us. And we plow forward as best we can.
How will we move ahead? The jury is still out. We wish that we had a clear answer or a clear path forward. We wish we could tie it up in a bow and place it under a tree. We don’t know how we are going to make sense of it all. But this I know, we will do it together. That’s the verdict given to us by God. The best Christmas gift is presence.
And so we gather once again, singing the old carols, awash in the wonder of this night, and even feeling some special solidarity with Mary and Joseph, the unwanted couple, thinking they were alone, but finding God’s presence in the faces of strangers. They met scholars and shepherds and animals who recognized something of God in their plight. And they gave them gifts of what they had. They opened their hearts. They were God’s decision.
How silently how silently the wondrous gift is given.
So God imparts to human hearts the blessings of this heaven.
No ear may hear thy coming, but in this world of sin.
Where meek souls will receive him, still the dear Christ enters in.