The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness—on them light has shined. …For a child has been born for us, a son given to us. —Isaiah 9:2-7
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. All went to their own towns to be registered. Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. He went to be registered with Mary, to whim he was engaged and who was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth and laid him in the manger because there was no room for them in the inn… —Luke 2:1-20
A blessed Christmas to you all. Thank you for making this Cathedral service part of your celebration. I wish that we could change places, so that you could see what I see. For while it may seem from where you sit as if the important action is taking place up front, I assure you that what matters most is that you are here. All that you bring—your lineage and memory; your joys and concerns; the people you love and miss; your work, done and left undone; your hopes for a better day and gratitude for the blessings you count as you say goodnight to the close and holy darkness—all is your gift, and the fact that you offer it here matters in ways that would astonish you if you could see yourself as God sees you. And it matters not only tonight, in this place, but every day and in every place where you choose to show up in the fullness of who you are and claim your life for the gift and responsibility that it is.
You know, I’ve been preaching Christmas sermons for 25 years. And as I think back on them all, I realize that they fall into two broad categories, which I will briefly describe before venturing into what is, for me, new Christmas territory.
The first set of Christmas themes that I have pondered most of my adult life has to do with mystery, and in particular, the mystery we honor tonight—this Christian notion of God coming to us in a human life. I’ve pondered what happens when we choose to embrace Christ’s coming, using Brene Brown’s evocative phrase, whole-heartedly.
The classic expression of this mysterious Christ power is found in the Gospel of John: “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.”
Shakespeare took a turn at describing it in the opening scene of Hamlet, from the mouth of Hamlet’s friend, Marcellus:
Some say that ever ’gainst that season comes
Wherein our Saviour’s birth is celebrated,
This bird of dawning singeth all night long;
And then, they say, no spirit dare stir abroad,
The nights are wholesome, then no planets strike,
No fairy takes, nor witch hath power to charm,
So hallow’d and so gracious is the time.
To which Hamlet’s other friend. Horatio replies:
So have I heard and do in part believe it.
Christmas in the Trenches is a twentieth-century expression of that mysterious power, telling the story of English and German soldiers during World War I who met in No-Man’s-Land at Christmas to sing carols, share chocolate and cigarettes, even play soccer before the Generals call them back to the gruesome task of war. (Song and lyrics by John McCutcheon)
So we have heard and do in part believe it.
Whenever we are in the presence of holiness, we feel it and do, in part, believe it. But because we experience such holiness as fleeting, it’s easy to dismiss as just a feeling, a dream, or wishful thinking. We believe in part, and then, gradually, not at all. One reason, then, to gather on Christmas Eve is to remember our holiest moments and in the presence of God and one another pledge to live our lives as if they were the most important truths to set our sights on. A child is born. Angels bring good news of great joy. The light shines in darkness. Tonight we believe. Tell me, are you a Christian, child? Ma’am, I am tonight. ( Marc Cohn, Walking in Memphis)
The second broad Christmas theme of my life starts with the acknowledgement that for all that we high achieving types might have done to make Christmas happen, or anything else for that matter, God prefers to show up where our lives are far messier than we would dare admit to anyone as well dressed as the people sitting next to us now. Despite all that we do to make Christmas grand and glorious, or, by extension, to control the outcome of any thing else, the first Christmas stories are about imperfection and the loss of control. So replace in your mind’s eye any pristine depictions of the manger with the biblical version’s more chaotic scene: A child born out of wedlock. A rough journey with no hospitality at the end. The pain of childbirth unalleviated. Strangers bursting in.
And in the words of Frederick Buechner, “Once we have seen God in a stable, we never know where we might see him again. If God is present in this least auspicious place, there is no place or time so lowly or earthbound but that holiness can be present, too. For just when God seems the most helpless, God is the most strong; and just were we least expect him that he comes most fully.”
Mystery and mess. Christmas has them both in full measure, and God is equally at home in both, as in the beauty and the emptiness, the joy and the grief that is our life.
And now, something I never thought I would say in a Christmas sermon: So what?
I begin again with a quote and then a story.
The quote is from Monday morning’s first hour of the Diane Rehm Show, which was devoted entirely to Time magazine’s Man of the Year for 2013, Pope Francis. As part of a panel discussion, E.J. Dionne of the Washington Post said something I cannot get out of my head: “It is astonishing when someone who says they are a Christian actually behaves like a Christian.”
Well, here’s a story of someone behaving as a Christian. Hizkias Assefa was born and raised in Ethiopia and now lives in Kenya, where he works as a mediator and facilitator of reconciliation processes in countries experiencing civil war. He is also a professor of conflict studies at both George Mason University in Virginia and Eastern Mennonite University in Harrisburg Pennsylvania, where a friend of mine studied with him.
Hiskias Assifa spent many months negotiating peace between the Hutu and Tutsi tribes of Rwanda. In late 1993, he and his team thought they had succeeded, after leaders agreed to a power sharing plam throughout the country. Assifa left Rwanda satisfied with his work and grateful for the progress made for peace. But in April of 1994, after the assassination of the president, the national government called on members of Hutu majority to kill as many of the Tutsi minority as possible. Over the next 3 months, an estimated 800,000 Tutsis were murdered. Every person that Assifa had worked with to broker peace was now dead.
The following year, he told the story of his presumed success and sober failure to the students of his peace-making class at EMU, among them my friend. He also told them of his plans to return to Rwanda. “How can you go back?” his students asked. “What can you possibly do for peace in the face of such violence?” He replied, “I am a Christian. For Christians, hopelessness is not an option.” (I heard the story of Hiskias Assifa from the Rev. Sarah Shofstal who studied with Assifa at Eastern Mennonite University.)
Biblical scholar Walter Bruegemann once wrote that the greatest heresy of our time is the notion that it is possible to live an uncalled life, a life that has no reference point beyond itself, a life in which God would not choose to dwell.
So let me say this as simply and forcefully as I can: Just as the entire human experiment would have collapsed long ago were it not for the astonishing human capacity for resilience in the midst of adversity, so, too, the entire Christian enterprise would have disappeared centuries back were it not for people in every generation who actually lived in such a way that others recognized as Christ-like. We would not be celebrating Christmas in this beautiful Cathedral were it not for people for whom hopelessness was not an option, but for whom hope was a way of life, for whom bitterness was not an option, but for whom forgiveness was a daily choice; for whom meant-spiritedness was not an option, but for whom compassion flowed from their commitment to love others as Christ loves.
I want to be that kind of Christian. Do you? If so, then the word to us both is this: As Christians, we are to do the astonishing and behave as Christians.
If you have known anything of the mysterious goodness and grace of God, decide tonight, once again, to live as if goodness and grace were the most powerful forces in the universe, despite all evidence to the contrary. Be the kind of person who refuses to take the easy road of negativity and choose instead the higher plane of hope.
Yet one more time or for the first time, welcome Jesus into all the grandeur and mess that is your life, and let him be your strength and joy. Say to yourself: I am a Christian; for Christians, hopelessness is not an option. If you need help, as we all do, don’t be afraid to ask.
You see, it matters that we are here. For when we show up, whole-heartedly, and open ourselves to God’s mysterious grace; when we resolve to accept the mess and still live by the goodness and love we have known; then the light that cannot be overcome by darkness shines that much brighter through us.
It’s not a given, you know, that our species is going to make it. But if we do, it will be because of people who choose to be brave and compassionate, generous and forgiving, humble and wise.
May you and I, through the light and love of Jesus, be among them.
In the words of John Wesley, may do all the good we can, by all the means we can, in all the places we can, at all the times we can, to all the people we can, as long as we can, starting on this hallowed and gracious night.