Praise and Thanksgiving
Christmas Eve – 2017
Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago
“Ah, dearest Jesus, holy child, prepare a bed, soft, undefiled, a quiet chamber in my heart, that you and I may never part” (From Heaven Above, ELW #268 ). A newborn’s precocious four-year-old sibling tells her parents, “I want to talk to my new little brother alone.” The parents put their ears to the door and hear the little girl saying to her baby brother, “Quick, tell me who made you. Tell me where you came from. I’m beginning to forget!”
A child’s strange intuition finds affirmation in Christian tradition and scripture. People of every time and place share the same address and zip code. Christ is the Alpha and Omega, the home we came from and the final resting place toward which we inevitably must travel. If all this were not mysterious enough, scripture casts the circle of oneness even wider. Our bible conceives humankind shares cosmic union with all life, including rocks and trees, earth and sky, meadows and mountains.
Words of the psalmist we sang a few moments ago proclaim:
“O sing to the Lord a new song;
sing to the lord, all the earth.
Sing to the Lord, bless his name;
tell of his salvation from day to day.
Declare his glory among the nations,
his marvelous works among all the peoples.” (96:1-3)
The prophet Isaiah declares:
12 For you shall go out in joy,
and be led back in peace;
the mountains and the hills before you
shall burst into song,
and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands. (Isaiah 55:12)
The story of Jesus’ birth is about union with God, one another, and all creation. With the incarnation, God was not content to dwell merely in you, or only in us, but the Spirit of God is poured out and fills all things with beauty and grace. The angel declared good news of great joy to poor shepherds for all people, “To you is born this day in the city of David a Savior.”
In response “All the earth” joins in a song of praise and declares God’s glory among all the peoples. Have we forgotten? How have we missed this? Scripture teaches us to listen for the roar of the sea, and all that fills it; watch for the field to exult, and everything in it, and “then all the trees of the forest sing for joy” at the Lord’s coming (Psalm 96:11-12). The whole earth resonates with magnificent music at the Lord’s coming to restore the good order of creation and to teach the peoples how to live in harmony with that order and indeed, to teach them “the truth.”
Somehow, we have lost the sense of enchantment that came naturally to ancient peoples and persists to this day in cultures of the East and also among native Americans among others. The message of Christmas offers the perfect antidote. Incarnation means everything sparkles with the fullness and presence of God. Matter is not empty, but everything speaks of the one life we share.
Re-enchantment born of incarnation is urgently needed among us to restore us to health and balance. When we become so disconnected from the enchanted world we inhabit that forests, meadows, mountains, oceans, sky—indeed entire species—are regarded as meaningless, immaterial, and irrelevant to our welfare is it any wonder that people too can be treated as mere refuse to be held out of sight, isolated, and discarded?
This Christmas story is powerful gospel medicine. To follow where it leads means listening to mere shepherds and to those on the margins of society today. It means learning to listen again to what makes both heaven and earth sing –Gloria! Gloria! Gloria!
Journalist Stephanie Saldaña, writing for the New York Times yesterday (12/22/17), has told us where to look if we want to find Jesus this Christmas.
“In the city of Mytilene on the Greek island of Lesbos, Christmas is approaching. A tree on the main square is alight in blue; a Nativity scene has Mary and Joseph standing vigil beside the baby Jesus. Locals are busily shopping for gifts and sipping coffee at cafes.
Just 15 minutes up the road, at the refugee and migrant camp called Moria, it is not Christmas but winter that is approaching. More than 6,000 souls fleeing the world’s most violent conflicts — in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Yemen and the Democratic Republic of Congo — are crowded in a space meant for 2,330. The scene is grim: piles of trash, barbed wire, children wailing, rows of cheap summer tents with entire families crammed inside and fights regularly breaking out on the camp’s periphery. The stench is overwhelming.
I have visited many refugee camps in the Middle East, but never have I seen anything like Moria, a place Pope Francis has likened to a concentration camp. I have also never understood the true meaning of Christmas — a story in which Jesus was born into a family that became refugees — until I visited the people who are now forced to call it home.” Today Moria is Bethlehem. Those stranded inside are not humans to be disposed of, but Emmanuel, God with us. (By STEPHANIE SALDAÑA, NYT, 12/22/17)
The gifts of God are an inescapable part of life. But our response to them is not. According to Luke’s Nativity, we have three choices in response to grace. First, we can be like the Romans and the religious leaders who do not play a role in the story of Jesus’ birth except by their absence. Implicitly, their response to grace it to reject and condemn it. Or, second, we can be like the shepherds who rushed to Bethlehem to find their angelic sign verified in the manger. They glorified and praised God. They were amazed by the events that took place before them. They told others what had happened and all were astonished. But then they left the scene. They had a good story to tell but did not have faith. Raymond Brown points out that they were like those in the parable of the seed who “hear the word, receive it with joy, but have no root” (Matt. 13:20-21).
But lastly, we can be like Mary, who Luke tells us “treasured and pondered all that was said about Jesus in her heart” (Luke 2:19). Among those in the manger, only Mary followed Jesus to the cross. In the parable of the seed, she is like those who upon hearing the word, hold it fast in an honest and good heart (Matt. 13:23).
The birth of Jesus, invites us, again and again, to give ourselves to the in-breaking of God’s rule in our midst. It comes in unexpected ways. The gift of God’s Immanuel invites us to become a new creation (Willi Marxsen p.73).
The Christmas story invites you to step into the manger and give yourself over to joy. See, there is a place for you right next to baby Jesus. Risk yourself along with him to loving. You and I, together with 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 on the straw which is the fullness and presence of the living God! –given for you. Let the whole creation cry. Amen!