Christmas Eve 2013
Tonight we are joining our songs and prayers with people all over the world in nearly every language, race and space. More gatherings of diverse people assemble on this night than any other. This in itself is reason enough to pause with joy and gratitude. But the reason we are gathering is even more occasion for joy and gratitude: to celebrate what the Gospel calls the Good News of Glad Tidings that unto us a Savior is Born, who is the Messiah.
The other day I was reading the great Christian writer Frederick Buechner. He once said, “The whole Christian story is strange.” We could start anywhere to prove Buechner’s point, but since it’s Christmas Eve let’s start here, with the familiar story from the Gospel of Luke. “The Incarnation, Buechner’s says, is “a kind of vast joke whereby the creator of the ends of the earth comes among us in diapers.” This is the ironic humor that overturns all our expectations of how the world should be and how God is supposed to act toward such a world. The joke of course is on us! We who are most in control, or want to be in control, especially when it comes to the terms of our salvation, have to surrender the levers of power to the Holy One who chooses to play a joke on us so that we might truly grasp the astonishing love that is directed toward us in Jesus. The inscrutable and mysterious God who sustains all creation in mercy and love, chooses to be near us is amazing enough; but for this God to choose this entrance – not to the places of power, not to royalty, not with the all flash accorded GOD – but rather as a utterly vulnerable child, born in manger surrounded by mooing cattle, baying sheep, adoring shepherds and an unwed couple exhausted with wonder. For those who have ears to hear: that is funny. Jon Stewart is envious.
While we are reveling in the strange humor of the Christian story and of Christmas itself, Buechner concludes, “Until we have taken the idea of God-With-Us seriously enough to be scandalized by it, we have not taken it as seriously as it demands to be taken.”
I think he is right about the seriousness of the scandal that we easily dismiss because it is so outrageously offends our sense of order. But I would might add, until we have taken seriously the idea of God-in-the flesh seriously enough to be scandalized by it, we have not taken it joyfully enough either; because in fact all who truly hear the message of the Gospel have been let in on God’s divine humor that resides at the center of the world’s salvation.
Let’s break down what the angels sang to those frightened shepherds:
*Do not be afraid. Fear is a paralyzing emotion that keeps you locked up inside, suspicious and wary; unable to live in the freedom that brings you life and joy. When the angels arrive the first thing they say is “Don’t be afraid.” Again and again, in the Bible, the appearance of God is preceded by the counsel: be not afraid.
And why not fear the shepherds might have asked, giving voice to your own nagging questions. Because this is Good news of glad tidings. Everything about this message that gathers us together tonight is Good News of great joy. These days one hears a great deal being said in the name of Christianity, much of which is punishing, shaming, excluding and blaming of others who are deemed sinful in some case simply because of who they are. This is anything but good news to anyone. It’s the old bad news of the world as it is without a Saviour. In their day, Shepherds were marginalized people often held in suspicion by others. The angel is emphatic: fear not, I am bringing you Good News of great joy.
*Unto us. Who? Well, one could say all of us and of course that would be true. But it might be more accurate to say the poor, the lame, the blind and all those who have no place to call home. The amazing thing about Christianity, the humor at the center of the universe, is that the very people who are the most excluded are the ones who get a seat a table. Those of us who depend upon our means to manage our lives in this world alone, without the help of anyone much less God, will find a place at the table when such means are let go as the illusions they are. Unto us, says the angel to the Shepherds, and all the worlds poor rejoice. Those of us who have ears to hear, rejoice because the joke is on us.
Why all this rejoicing? Why, of course, it’s the very reason we are here. A Savior is born. Matthew, Luke’s companion in telling the story, adds his own emphasis, just in case anyone might miss point. He shall be called Emmanuel – God with Us.
So there it is in all its astonishing brilliance. Be not afraid. Let go of your fear of dying, let go of your fear of living, let go your fear of failing, your fear of strangers. There is nothing to fear; for the Good News is that God has come to us – to all of us, the powerless and poor, the wounded and whole, to us a Savior is born that we may live with joy and with freedom. This is love – a baby king. This is Christmas. The joke is on us.
Rejoice and be glad!