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Given For You

Christmas Eve A-16

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

The prophet Mohamed, peace be upon him, describes the nativity scene at the birth of Jesus in the Quran (Surah 19) featuring a great tree. It’s the first Christmas tree if you will—centuries before the tradition developed among Christians. The tree is a date palm, rather than an evergreen. Mary and baby Jesus rest beneath the shade of its branches. Fresh dates from the tree restore Mary’s strength after delivery and a spring miraculously flowing from the base of the tree provides water for her to drink.

To me what’s striking about the Islamic nativity is first—that the story exists at all—and second how it reflects a very non-European cultural setting. I wonder, has Christmas as we know it in the West, become disconnected from its Middle Eastern roots? Jesus was born in the city of David called Bethlehem. Our gospel was likely written in the ancient city of Antioch of Syria (which today is part of Turkey). It is just sixty-five miles from Aleppo.

I wonder, might we have more natural empathy with the suffering of people throughout the Middle East if our Christmas celebrations had less to do with snow, holly, and conifer and instead helped us “turn back” toward the birthplace of the nativity? (See Mariam Sheikh Hakim, “The Little-Known Story Of The Islamic Christmas Tree” Huffington Post, 12/16/16)

Like the ones waiting for us under the tree, the gift of Christmas must be un-wrapped before we learn what it is. When we peel away two millennia of culture and tradition—we re-discover the surprising/challenging/wonderful message—Christ Jesus and the holy family are refugees (!) fleeing violence, desperately seeking safety, and welcome like so many others today.

To be sure, each of you will find a gift God has chosen specifically for you at Christmas. Each of us finds welcome, belonging, joy and love to warm our soul beneath the Big Tent of incarnation, but we can only remain there in God’s abiding presence while we keep the doors open for others –including our Muslim brothers and sisters.

That’s why the strength and beauty of this church is renewed each week in our mission to be a living sanctuary of hope and grace as we open our doors and draw close with the dying whose family lives far away; with families and playgroups hungry for community connection, with children eager to learn who find here a patient teacher as well as something under the tree; with neighbors through ONE Northside, who this week helped make sure the men’s shelter at People’s Church in Uptown did not close yesterday as planned, but will remain open at least until winter’s end.

Once again the savior goes knocking in search of shelter. Each Christmas we hear how the unfeeling innkeeper turned him away. But, of course, the gospel really is addressing us—will the Lord Jesus continue to find welcome in our hearts, our lives, our community, in this congregation? We find Christ as we open to one another and lay claim to our common humanity as beloved children of God. From the people of the world learn to hear again the true meaning of Christmas.

There’s a wonderful Latino Christmas tradition called Las Posadas. Las Posadas literally means “hotels”, or “inns” and traditionally involves a procession through the neighborhood, stopping at each house to plead for shelter. For nine evenings, from December 16th to the 24th, Christians in Mexico, Guatemala, and parts of the Southwestern United States go door-to-door asking for shelter reenacting Joseph and Mary’s journey to Bethlehem. It lasts nine days to represent the nine months of pregnancy in which Mary played host and shelter to the infant Christ. Mary was the first person to say yes to the incarnation.

The answer at every home, of course is, “No!” There is no room at the inn and the door is ceremonially slammed in the face of the faithful procession. Then residents at each stop come out from their homes to add to the parade. Finally, the night ends with singing, prayer and a party as Mary and Joseph do a find room.

The story ends happily for Mary and Joseph. But we know the search for sanctuary and welcome is on-going for many thousands of families tonight who are still without shelter. Our mission is timely and urgent. Where would Mary and Joseph find room today? Where will the Christ child find room among us this Christmas?

Christmas is never about the lights we light, the decorations we make, the gifts we give, or anything we do to attempt to make things perfect. It’s about the wonder and mystery of God’s light already within all people, all places, all things—no matter how lowly, desperate, or forlorn they seem. This is the true source of Christmas joy –the surprise at discovering the fullness of the presence of God that is always already pleased to dwell in fullness within each moment of our lives. As we unwrap the gift of Christ at Christmas we find instructions for how to love God and ourselves by better loving one another, across cultures, religions, and nations.

Earlier today, across Russia this Christmas Eve Orthodox Christians fasted until the first star appeared. As darkness fell believers contemplated the star that led the magi to Bethlehem, and Christ the Daystar who illumines our lives. The early church taught Christians to look for the Light coming into the world at the darkest time of the year – nine months after the spring equinox. This gentle, obscure light emerges from the darkness in the most fragile form of a newborn baby, born into poverty, a refugee seeking shelter in a foreign nation.

You and I, together with Joseph and Mary, are gifted and challenged this night to open our eyes, our ears, and our hearts to behold—a gift wrapped in swaddling clothes and nestled upon straw who fills our life to overflowing with the presence of God that is given today—for you.

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