Christmas Eve Sermon 2016

December 24, 2016

I came across a quote from Hildegarde of Bingen, who was a German mystic in the 1100s, who said: Be not lax in celebrating,  -  I hope we have not been lax in our celebrations! Merry Christmas! to you and all your loved ones in this special season.

A friend of mine decided to build a simple nativity scene out of cardboard, with all her children helping.  Everyone got something to make, Mary and Joseph, the animals and manger and so on. But it was a disaster. Nothing worked the way it was supposed to. Fold here! Insert flap #1. Whatever they tried, everything leaned sideways or over. The manger was torn and the angel fell down. Then the six year old looked at it all going nowhere and said, "Mommy, where is God in this mess?"

Out of the mouths of children! I’m sure I’ve said that to myself many times, when the world seems to be falling apart, when so many people live with impossible situations.  Where is God in this mess?  Here is the meaning of Christmas!

God came into human history in the middle of political oppression and poverty, to a backwater town, to a couple without shelter, shamed by their pregnancy out of wedlock, who would become refugees and immigrants, when they fled from a cruel ruler and feared for the life of their child. God still comes into our human lives and gives us hope.  Human life IS messy, the world is messy, and it’s always complicated.

Every year I think that the world is in a worse state than it ever was before. Whether or not that’s true, it feels like it, especially when so much information abounds on social media. Though the war in Syria has been going on for years, this past month I was stopped in my tracks by the human stories of people waiting to evacuate or waiting to die. Across the world and across this nation, the voices and actions of unkindness and hate, bigotry and racism, aggression and bullying, violence and persecution, persist in making themselves louder than the stories of goodness and mercy that I know exist alongside all that is wrong.

Tonight and every Christmas night, if not every night and day, we need to hear once more the hope that comes with Christmas, that God has come right into the middle of human messiness and given us the gift of infinite love and grace, and the promise of peace and an end to suffering.

The reading from Isaiah speaks to this hope -  and offers us the strong images of light shining in the darkness,  of breaking the yoke on their shoulders and the broken rod of their oppressors, and the boots of the warriors and the bloody clothing burned in a fire, destroying all that has caused such suffering. 

For a child has been born for us, a son given to us; authority rests upon his shoulders; and he is named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.

That hope is picked up in John’s gospel about Jesus, The light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it. Where is God in this mess of a world? 

Right here, in a manger with the animals, right there with those who are hurting, with those who are waiting to die and those keeping vigil by their bedsides, with those who are hopeless and in despair. The God of creation took a great risk and placed the future of humanity’s hope in the hands of a vulnerable, fragile, tiny baby, whose skull could be crushed with one hand, a baby who is totally dependent on others for every need.

It’s hard sometimes to have hope, to believe that God is in the messiness when we are faced with so much. I find myself comforted and inspired by the prayer of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, in prison, at Christmas, in Germany in 1943,

"God, to you I call early in the morning.
Help me pray
And gather my thoughts to yourself
I cannot do it alone.
In me it is dark,
But with you is the light;
I am lonely, but you forsake me not;
I am faint-hearted, but with you is help;
I am restless, but with you is peace;
In me is bitterness, but with you is patience;
You know the way for me…
Give me the faith that rescues me from
Despair, addictions, and vice,
Give me the love for God and humans,
That destroys all hate and bitterness,
Give me the hope that frees me from
Fear and despondency"

I have seen that hope in others facing desperate situations. I saw it in the eyes of the women in Elmwood jail that a few of us took communion to this past week.  I heard it in the story of a young woman that I ministered to for years, who struggled with mental health issues and suicidal thoughts, though she was strong enough not to act on them.  Five years ago she landed up in psychiatric hospital at Christmas time, facing constant thoughts of taking her life with the sheets and the hinge on the bathroom door, with check ups on her every 15 minutes.  On Christmas Day I took her communion, and we sang the first verse of every carol from the liturgy, and said all the prayers. It was a very moving experience. Slowly she inched forward in faith and trust and hope, despite the intense medications she was on.  Yesterday I read her blog that told her story, and rejoiced that her hope was fulfilled, that she has held a teaching job for more than two years now, has climbed Mount Kilimanjaro to celebrate her 30th birthday, and is a wonderful, well functioning young adult. I could not have imagined that for her five years ago. There is always hope, because of the child in the manger, because God comes to us in our messiness, and simply loves us, gives us grace, because God can do no other.  Like a waterfall does not know it is wet, so God loves because God is love alone.

We might not be in prison, but sometimes we feel imprisoned by our circumstances, whether it be finances, or addictions, or family situations or relationship breakdowns, or death and grieving we cannot overcome. Into our messy lives, the Christ-Child brings hope. Every Christmas we proclaim that hope and shout it from the rooftops with joy! It’s that hope that makes it possible for us to act in love and hope, not live in fear or despair. As we act to combat bigotry and fear and despair, we gain courage to continue living out the love God brings to the middle of the mess.

I love the poem by Madeleine L’ Engle, that reminds us of this Christmas hope, First Coming.

He did not wait till the world was ready,
till men and nations were at peace.
He came when the Heavens were unsteady,
and prisoners cried out for release.

He did not wait for the perfect time.
He came when the need was deep and great.
He dined with sinners in all their grime,
turned water into wine.

He did not wait till hearts were pure.
In joy he cameto a tarnished world of sin and doubt.
To a world like ours, of anguished shame
he came, and his Light would not go out.

He came to a world which did not mesh,
to heal its tangles, shield its scorn.
In the mystery of the Word made Flesh
the Maker of the stars was born.

We cannot wait till the world is sane
to raise our songs with joyful voice,
for to share our grief, to touch our pain,
He came with Love: Rejoice! Rejoice!

Nadia Bolz-Weber, Lutheran rock star pastor says that "To experience Christmas is to trust that God can do this thing again.  God can again be born in me, in you, in this broken mess of a gorgeous world."  Tonight, whatever you are facing, you can trust that God loves you, God gives you hope, and God is with you in the messiness of your life and the mess of our world. Immanuel – God with us. Know that God is with us. God can again be born in you, in me, and offer your heart, your longing, your desire, your mess. Because God comes with Love, Rejoice! Rejoice!

Whoever you are, wherever you are on your journey of faith, you are welcome here.