These are very difficult times. There are so many losses, and the months ahead may test our collective mettle even more. In past holidays, we found Christmas cheer in travel, gathering, singing, and season’s greetings. We trust that will return. Right now we sacrifice together. We offer to ourselves and our neighbors the emotionally expensive gifts of physical separation, staying in smaller bubbles, and wearing masks. We feel an almost Advent-like longing waiting for something better to appear. As when Moses once lifted up the bronze serpent in the wilderness, we look for a vaccine and long for a more just and civil common life.
In the midst of this hard year, hear the Good News that our stripped down and stressful 2020 Christmas is very similar to the first Christmas. Christmas begins with God so loving our world, that God comes right into the center of the human struggle. God became flesh to dwell with us and save us. The Incarnation is not dependent on large gatherings, singing together, or packed lines outside Walmart. The first Christmas unfolds inside a small social bubble with more angels than human beings singing “Glory to God, and peace on earth.”
Luke’s Christmas story opens “during the rule of King Herod”. We easily forget that King Herod beheaded John the Baptist. And although Herod believed Jesus “did nothing deserving death”, Herod did nothing to stop that injustice. No, Herod played to his base of religious leaders and the crowd’s bloodlust. Herod mocked Jesus, dressing Christ in royal robes and allowing the palace police to beat Jesus. Governor Pilate’s forces add a crown of thorns to Jesus’ sacred head. If we knew who Herod was, we might all shout, “No, Lord!” when we hear Luke begin the Good News, “During the rule of King Herod”
Luke tells of Zechariah and Elizabeth who lived “blameless and righteous” lives and how a lonely longing accompanies their deep goodness. Blessed are the righteous, who keep serving God and neighbor when their prayers go unanswered. Zechariah is alone in the temple standing before the altar of incense when God’s messenger appears; he is overcome with fear. The angel says, “Don’t be afraid, Zechariah. Your prayers have been heard.” The angelic encounter leaves Zechariah unable to speak for nine months. This is not unheard of in our psychological literature. It is only after John is born that Zechariah’s strange, silent season ends. Holding the child, Zechariah’s first words speak mission and justice into John.
“Bless the Lord God of Israel
because God has come to help and has delivered us.
God has raised up a mighty Savior for us
just as God said through the mouths of the holy prophets long ago.
God has brought salvation from our enemies
and from the power of all those who hate us…
The Lord has shown the mercy promised to our ancestors…
and You, child, will be called a prophet of the Most High,
for you will go before the Lord to prepare God’s way.
You will tell God’s people how to be saved
through the forgiveness of their sins.
Because of our God’s deep compassion,
the dawn from heaven will break upon us,
to give light to those who are sitting in darkness
and in the shadow of death,
to guide us on the path of peace.”
Do we speak mission, justice, and truth into our children or only repeat the world’s words of comfort, consumption, fear and privilege? Is the church nurturing leaders who will challenge the Herods of this world? Perhaps, John’s fearlessness grew from the prayers and prophecy that Elizabeth and Zechariah planted in John as a child?
In addition to unjust individual rulers, evil haunts the holy family in the form of an ancient law. Deuteronomy 22:21 prescribes “the city’s elders will (drag) the young woman to the door of her father’s house and the citizens must stone her to death because she acted so sinfully by having extramarital sex while still in her father’s house… remove such evil.” It is tempting to gloss over systemic evil, oppression, and injustice within our Scriptures. We must not. There is no context where Deuteronomy 22:21 is acceptable. It was, is, and always will be evil and unjust. Women’s bodies are not public property. Gender inspired violence or objectification reveals a sinful sickness. We praise God that few Christians or Jews accept these particular verses today. But that is not enough. We work for the day when all Christians catch up with the Holy Spirit, consistent interpretation, and with science and set aside other passages that harm God’s beloved LGBTQI children. Although very few of these “honor” killings occurred, the threat of systemic violence against women haunts the Christmas story. And yet, God shows up in dreams, telling the righteous Joseph to set aside an unjust law!
There is a subtle loneliness in the Christmas story. You feel it in the systemic bias against women. There is no room in the inn. Mary hears from an angel and makes haste to leave home. It speaks of a loneliness deeper than being alone. How terrible to believe that if you freely share who you love, what you long for, or who God calls you to be, that your family, church or neighbors may judge, seek to convert you, or shun you. How sad when we know that if we mention who we voted for dinner is over, even on Zoom. Beloved, our LGTBQI siblings have often kept who they love safely closeted away to protect themselves. The fragile bonds of conditional love cut deeper than any physical separation. Christ comes to a world riddled with such wounds. God does not come in spite of our brokenness, but because of it. Christ comes to us as one of us to heal us in part simply by being with us. Oh, may our churches become places where Love opens our hearts wide enough that everyone feels safe enough to be who God created them to be.
In addition to cruel rulers, the threat of mob violence, and broken family systems, Christ is born into poverty. Perhaps, Christ might be born today with ‘no crib for a bed’, placed in a clean cardboard box in an unattended shed behind an abandoned Walmart. The grit of that first Christmas tells us of God’s love breaking into the world. God comes to us not in spite of the world’s wounds, but because of them. Love longs to come and dwell with all who suffer. Christ brings healing by being Immanuel “with us”. God is present with us. Incarnational Love is enough to save and heal us.
Luke and Matthew tell us of God’s deep incarnation love with Christmas stories. 1 John employs theology, “This is how we know love: Christ laid down heaven’s comfort and even life itself for us. We ought to lay down our lives for others. We know that we have found life when we love each other. The person who does not love remains in death. Love is from God. Everyone who loves is born from God and knows God. This is how the love of God is revealed to us: God sent Jesus as a baby into the world so that we might live through Christ. This is love: that God loved us and sent the Christ Child to us. Dear friends, if God loves us, we ought to love each other. God is love. Those who remain in love remain in God and God remains in them.” (adapted for Christmas) 1 John 3 – 4
Christmas invites us to live deeply within God’s love. God’s love came to us amid systemic violence, judging religious leaders, human lonliness, tyrants, and poverty. Love always chooses to ‘dwell with’. Love must come near. Love must be laid in an improvised cradle and be crucified in the presence of criminals. God sent Love to dwell with all who are suffering. Once we know that Love, we must give Love away. Love always sends us out to comfort and heal. Love always longs to widen the circle and make more room at the table. Love offers free Mom hugs to the world! Love faces down our fears by solidarity with all people. Love puts us on mission. Love demands justice.
So hear the invitation of the prophets. Hear Jesus’ first sermon. Hear what Love looks like. Hear Love’s mission. Dwell in it, and then offer it to the world: ( adapted from Isaiah 61)
Today, with prophets of long ago,
we ask God’s kin-dom of love to be born anew in us.
Today, I ________________ say with all God’s people everywhere
the Lord God’s Spirit is upon me, yes on me,
I am beloved of God, made in God’s image,
and because the Lord has anointed me; God’s Spirit is sending me.
God’s Love is sending me, to bring good news to poor people,
to bind up the brokenhearted,
to proclaim release for captives, and to liberate the oppressed.
God’s Spirit of Love is sending me to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor
and a day of justice from God, to comfort all who mourn,
to provide for everyone who mourns.
God’s Spirit of Love is sending me to give others a crown in place of ashes,
joy in place of mourning, a mantle of praise in place of discouragement.
Oh, that I might know Christ’s love so deeply,
that I would dare to name others as oaks of righteousness,
Oh that I might help others know they are beloved by the Lord.
For when we know we are beloved then together,
we can rebuild ancient ruins;
we can restore deserted places; we can renew ruined cities,
we can inhabit dreams abandoned by past generations.
Oh, come beloved by God, let us know the Love that widens the circle and sends out in mission. Love always widens the circle. Love always has room for room one more person at the table. Love always seeks to be with anyone who suffers. Love always opposes unjust rulers and breaks through systems of oppressive yokes. Knowing we are loved, let us stand in solidarity with all who suffer. Let us embrace each other in love. Let us confer on all people the crown of hope and the slash of belovedness. Let us see in the humble loneliness of Christ’s cradle and cross the incarnational love of God. May we know Love so deeply we find liberation from our fear and God’s power to embrace the world with Love. Amen.