Saturday, December 24, 2016

Christmas Eve

Luke 2
In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world. 2 (This was the first census that took place while[a] Quirinius was governor of Syria.) 3 And everyone went to their own town to register.
4 So Joseph also went up from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to Bethlehem the town of David, because he belonged to the house and line of David. 5 He went there to register with Mary, who was pledged to be married to him and was expecting a child. 6 While they were there, the time came for the baby to be born, 7 and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son. She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no guest room available for them.
8 And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night. 9 An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. 10 But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. 11 Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord. 12 This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.”
13 Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying,
14 “Glory to God in the highest heaven,
and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.”

Gifts, wrapped in colourful paper, or perhaps a bag, for the last-minute crowd.
Cards, letters, calls, and a sudden desire to reach out.
A tree (in the house!), a tradition given to us by a German prince and consort.
A large, flightless bird stuffed with carbs and roasted, 20 minutes per pound, no more, no less.
An array of sides, in holiday colours, including sauerkraut at our house, allegedly a Dutch thing.
Chocolate, cookies, something called mincemeat and chocolate, chocolate, chocolate.
For the brave, a pudding that is doused in some kind of incendiary liquid and set alight. (You have to admire a recipe that calls for—among other things—suet, treacle and stout).
Eggnog, a family recipe, that contains six raw eggs and various spirits to ensure consuming six raw eggs is okay.
Movies, from It’s a Wonderful Life to White Christmas to Die Hard 1, 2, and 3. (Three is actually set in the summer, so not a Christmas movie)
And travel, by car, plane, or boat (if you are Sinterklaas). The annual migration of Christmas travelers that brings treasured guests here this evening and leads some of the faithful away to be with family and friends.

All of these traditions—and many more—provide the comfort and joy we associate with the season. There is something about the holiday that demands constancy and the familiar—touchstones that rarely vary from year to year.

If you have any doubt about the veracity of these traditions, just do a little thought experiment: imagine rolling out a rack of lamb or tofurky (yes, tofu turkey) and the kind of reaction you would get. And ironically, it will be the youngest in the crowd that make the most noise, not the seasoned Christmas veterans who have seen it all. Traditional is quickly fixed and adhered to—especially among the young.

And here at the church, we have the same affinity: Five candles: purple, purple, pink, purple and (finally) white. Hampers, dinners, and presents—with a mind to those who have less. White Gift, Cantata, and midnight mass, a tradition we maintain by ENDING around midnight—11 pm is a much more civilized hour.

And where does tradition find full flower more than the various nativity readings that bring us back to Luke 2? If it was good enough for a Charlie Brown Christmas, then it’s good enough for us. And it helps if you mention swaddling at least once, and someone should be sore afraid (right Carol?).

Augustus, census, city of David, first-born, manger, abiding, good tidings of great joy, glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, and good will. You can’t not read it, and it brings the self-same comfort and joy that resides in every tradition we treasure. Luke seems to signal that the simple act of reading these words will implant the spirit we need.

And all of it, all the readings and all the prayers and and all the carols and all the sermons (so many sermons!) return to the same message:

And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord.

Fear not. A saviour is born unto you. He is Christ the Lord. Simple, well-worn words that feel more necessary this year than other years. More relevant, considering all that 2016 has given us and will give us for some time to come.

Since the second week of November I have had more “this feels like a different time” conversations that I can remember in such a short span of weeks. Disappointment and fear are human constants, but some of the events of the past year have tested our sense of optimism and the general belief that history progresses toward the better.

From Brexit to Syria to angry voters in the post-industrial Midwest, we have witnessed profound and uncertain events that will cast a shadow over 2017 and beyond. Many are sore afraid, and would be well-advised to retreat to the comfort of scripture and the simple message “fear not.”

Why fear not? First, through the sweep of human history we have faced perilous times before and have come through, with God to guide us and fellow pilgrims by our side. A glance at many of the prophetic Christmas readings will remind us that much of our Christmas tradition begins in exile, a longing for God to return. We are never forsaken, never forgotten, never left alone.

Why fear not? Many of the later readings, New Testament prophets such as Elizabeth, Zechariah and John, give us a glimpse of the world-made-new that follows the birth of our Saviour. It is a revolution, both literal and spiritual, that arrives with visions and dreams and angel voices.

And the strongest voice is Mary, God’s servant, who first prayed “may your word be fulfilled.” Then she spoke these words:

God’s mercy extends to those who fear him,
from generation to generation.
God has performed mighty deeds with his arm;
scattered those who are proud in the imagination of their hearts.
God has brought down rulers from their thrones
but has lifted up the humble.
God has filled the hungry with good things
but has sent the rich away empty.
God has helped his servant Israel,
remembering to be merciful.

For the proud, for those who tolerate hunger, for those who rule without mercy, history will not be kind. God is busy plotting those great-reversals that demonstrate God’s faithfulness, God’s promise of a future.

Why fear not? Because God is doing a new thing once more. Odd words, a ‘new thing once more.’ But this is where the traditional and the new meet. God is entering our world once more, to experience the vicissitudes of human living, to see what we see and feel what we feel. God-with-us, now and ever.

Now, those who listen to me week-by-week, chirping away from my wooden perch, will know that I’m fond of ‘the most important verse’ and the ‘most memorable story’ and the idea that ‘defines us.‘ And, obviously, they change with each sermon and with each time with the children, which—I expect—either annoys or delights.

For tonight, my candidate is found far from the nativity, far from the angel chorus and those who abide in fields. The verse of the night comes from Matthew 9.36:

When he saw the crowds, he had compassion on them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.

Matthew gives us one of his summary updates, but I like to think this was a forever-feeling, and feeling that begins at the moment of creation and continues past the cross, down to today: For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given, and the government shall be upon his shoulders—and he will have compassion on them, because the are harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd—And he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. Amen.


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