John Giuliani, Guatemalan Nativity, 1990s.
The Bishop’s Christmas Eve sermon given at 10 PM in Christ Church Cathedral.
Don’t you love the Gospel for Christmas Eve? Written by Luke, it is an iconic story, a world-changing story, a story that touches the soul. I will happily preach about it in a moment but first, I want to look at a line from the Gospel we read tomorrow on Christmas Day from the Gospel of John. Since you decided to move the service up one hour – from 11 pm to 10 pm – that gives me plenty of time to preach on two gospels, right?
“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What came into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.”
The darkness did not overcome the light, but the light didn’t overcome the darkness either. Preacher Scott Johnston puts it this way:
“I struggle with this verse because I want them to declare that when the light comes into the world it obliterates the darkness. It takes the bleak mid-winter with every sadness, every despair, every raw deal, every horrendous travesty, every evil plan, every god-awful life sucking disease, and tosses the whole mess into the cosmic trash bin. I want the light to arrive and I want it to win, and win big.”
The light came into the world and 2000 years later there is a lot of darkness. We know that so powerfully in 2015. But we have been given a promise – by God no less – that the light is here and darkness will not overcome it. Maybe, that is enough. Later in this liturgy we will turn out all the lights and sing “Silent Night” while holding candles. It will be more dark than light. But as we hold those candles and sing that hymn, I pray we know – we really know – that God is with us no matter what here in the real world and not in an abstract world.
That truth is what brings us into tonight’s gospel. “In those days, a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. That was the first registration and was taken when Quirinius was governor of Syria.” It reminds us of a line that comes up a couple of chapters later in Luke’s Gospel when Jesus and his cousin John are adults. We are told who the emperor is, who the governor is, who the king is, who the high priests are “when the word of God came to a man named John in the wilderness.” These are crucial details. It is Luke’s way of telling us this is not a fairy tale. This is not “once upon a time.” In history, in the real world, God was present. The light was coming not in heaven but on earth. God was not present in a vague way but in a human being. That presence was not to be restricted to Jesus but was to be a presence, a light in the darkness, for all of us.
The Jesuit Gerard Manley Hopkins puts this world-rattling insight into three lines of poetry:
“In a flash, at a trumpet’s crash,
I am all at once what Christ is
Since he was what I am.”
Christ was what I am. If that is true, then we need to look to who Christ is to know who we are. And it just so happens that tonight’s gospel gives us lots of insights into that. This birth story sets the themes that play out through the life of Jesus and beyond into our lives. Let’s look at three of them.
The census required that everyone go back to the hometown of their father to be counted. For Joseph and the very pregnant Mary, that means going to Bethlehem – a seventy mile journey. When they get there, “there is no place for them in the inn.”
Now there are dozens of theories about what this means and to go into all of them would have required that this service start at 9 and not 10. But I am intrigued by one commentator who says that if all of Joseph’s family had to return to the ancestral home of Bethlehem, then his brothers and sisters, cousins, uncles and aunts were all in town. But no one came to their aid. No uncle, seeing the almost-ready to give birth Mary, said “hey, take my bed. You need it a lot more than I do. I’ll sleep outside by the manger where the animals eat tonight.” Again, we can speculate forever about why no one did this. Perhaps it was because Mary was pregnant and not married? Who knows? But what we do know is Jesus will later say in Matthew’s Gospel (I know I’m intermingling gospels here – don’t tell the bishop): “I was hungry and you gave me no food. I was a stranger and you did not welcome me.” Could it be he understood that from his birth story? Jesus tells us what we are to do to be truly human, to be a light in a dark world: “Come you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world: for I was hungry and you gave me food. I was a stranger and you welcomed me.”
The shepherds give us another hint as to Jesus’ mission – and what it means to be human. Shepherds were not highly regarded in the society of that time, but just the opposite. To use modern terminology – they were “lowlifes.” And yet the angels bypassed the Emperor and the Governor and give the scoop about salvation and a whole new way of being to them. Doing that, the “outsiders” have been brought within the people of God. The baby Jesus would grow into an adult Jesus who would do the very same thing – including tax collectors and sinners, women, the poor and the marginalized. That was unimaginable in those days. One of my favorite theologians, Walter Brueggemann, puts it this way:
“The newness that God did at Christmas was to send into the world this Jesus who is beyond our imagination, who brought healing and grace everywhere he went, who forgave and transformed and called people out beyond themselves to a newness they could not have imagined.”
In another soul-gripping story from the life of Jesus, his cousin John who is in prison sends friends to ask Jesus: are you the one, the Messiah? And Jesus says tell him what is happening here. “Blind people are dancing. Lame people are walking into freedom. Lepers are being invited back into the family. Dead people are being given new life. There are poor people having their debts cancelled. All around there are people starting over in freedom and courage because God is doing a new thing.” God is healing and restoring and liberating and reconciling because the light has entered the world and the darkness could not overcome it.
St. Augustine Church, Prophet Isaiah by Raphael
And one more of many connections between the birth story, the mission of the adult Jesus, and our lives now. The angels who appear to the shepherds sing a hymn that is an echo of a hymn in the book of the prophet Isaiah (Isaiah 6:3). The prophet Isaiah who lived 600 years before Jesus will be incredibly important in his life and message. You all know – too well – that in many of my sermons I use a quote from a Bruce Springsteen song or a baseball story. They are my “go to resources.” The “go-to” resource for Jesus is Isaiah. He quotes him more than anyone else from the Hebrew Scriptures. Isaiah. The one who tells us: “Look, you who serve your own interests…and oppress your workers…the fast I choose is to loose the bonds of injustice, to let the oppressed go free…to share your bread with the hungry and bring the homeless poor into your house.” That is one of dozens of passages about social justice and the rejection of violence. Isaiah is Jesus’ spiritual hero. Isaiah is on Jesus’ personal Mount Rushmore.
Isaiah also says “those who wait on the Lord shall renew their strength. They will soar on wings like eagles; they will run and not grow weary, they will walk and not faint.” I always thought Isaiah got the order of that movement wrong. He goes from flying to running to walking. Shouldn’t it be walking to running to flying? Isn’t that what we are called to in the spiritual life? Maybe. But perhaps the spiritual life and real life are the same thing. Sure, sometimes we soar. We have “Paul on the road to Damascus moments” of incredible insight and connection to the living God. And we know about running – it’s Christmas in America – anyone feel like they have been running the last few weeks? But walking, and not fainting – that’s huge for living in a world where the light has not obliterated the darkness. Walking and not fainting because we believe every day that the darkness will not overcome the light. Walking and not fainting because we follow Jesus “who was what I am” and leads us on a mission of mercy, compassion and hope.
Michael Curry, the Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church, invites us to be part of the Jesus Movement. And the Jesus Movement is determined to change this world from the nightmare it is for so many into the dream God has for it. 2000 years ago the Jesus Movement, building on the Isaiah Movement was born. We are part of that. The Light is in the world. When Barack was president, and Charlie was governor, and Michael was the Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church, the word of God came to you and me. The darkness will not overcome it. Amen.