Christmas Eve Sermon 2021

The story of Jesus’ birth
is a story passed down
and told to us quietly and reverently.
The registration of emperor Augustus,
the journey to Bethlehem,
the crowded town and the tiny manger…. all of these particulars
are sweetly imbedded in our memory of that miraculous night.

I daresay it was a silent night, eventually,
but we know it did not start out that way.
• From heaven there came a multitude of angels
praising God and singing Gloria in excelsis Deo;
• On Earth the startled shepherds replied elatedly to one another,
“Let us go to Bethlehem!”
and off they went, sheep and all—no self-respecting shepherd would leave his flock behind—we can just imagine all the sheep, bleating and bleating
• And there in the stable at his birth,
the baby takes a first breath and …cries, as babies do.
The night was far from silent in its beginning.

The truth is, that night was far more earthy and practical
than we sometimes make it out to be…
there were noises, smells, tired bodies and hungry mouths…
just as God intended.
The incarnation was an earthly event.
Jesus had a human birth because by no other way
could God so wholly and undeniably bind himself to humanity
than by God becoming human.
The incarnation is an act of compassion.

In seminary, I was surprised to learn just how much this word,
compassion is used throughout scripture.
80 times, and twice as many times in the Old Testament as in the New…

Compassion. (Whose definition breaks down like this:
com which means “with” and passion which is “to suffer.”)
Compassion is to suffer with another.

I was even more fascinated by how the word is used.
In the Hebrew language of the “Old Testament,”
the word we translate as compassion is racham –
which literally means womb—as in a mother’s womb.
The Hebrews so often expressed God’s mercy and love
by likening God to having a “womb” for us.

Too often the biblical translations handed down to us
have steered away from verbatim translations,
maybe so as not to confuse us? or for perhaps other reasons?
I’m afraid it stunts our imaginations and curiosity.
But be not afraid. There is much to learn from female imagery for God.
In the book of Deuteronomy God’s fidelity to the people is assured,
even when the people have not been faithful.
Moses tells the people, “return to the Lord your God, with all your heart and with all your soul…then the Lord your God will have compassion on you and you will increase…(do you hear the birthing?)
Even if you are exiled to the ends of the world, from there the Lord your God will gather you, and from there he will bring you back.
God longs for his children as a mother suffers when her own go astray.
Even Isaiah speaks clearly of God with mothering imagery:
He tells the tired and defeated people of Israel, Take heart, “For the Lord comforts his people
and will have compassion on his afflicted ones…” and the people cry,
“the Lord has forgotten us.”
The prophet replies, “Can a mother forget her nursing child?”

Jesus too speaks of himself in this mothering way,
lamenting to the children of Israel,
“How often have I desired to gather your children together
as a hen gathers her brood under her wings,
The incarnation is an act of compassion—

God loves us as deeply as a mother tearfully holding her newborn child.
God chooses to live this life, to suffer this life,
so that we may comprehend in our times of great joy,
and understand in our times of sadness,
that God knows intimately what it is to be human.

Our Wednesday book group just finished reading together
A Surprising God, Advent Devotions for an Uncertain Time.
It was lovely. The readings were good too.
Mostly, I love the fellowship and insights we share together.

This past week one discussion centered on scriptural instances
that show God’s affection for all things small, overlooked—
for younger sons and unnamed women,
for lost lambs and insignificant towns like Nazareth and Bethlehem.
One person in the group this past week reminded me
not to forget children in this list.
Children were nothing but property back in day.
Then she told us about a young three-year-old child she’d recently seen.
The child was holding up a mirror, looking at herself and saying, I am beautiful.

My friend admitted that she may have felt differently about this scene
if this had been a grown person,
she said she believes she’d have felt differently if this were a teen
admiring herself in the mirror, but this little child was not tying her looks to some idea of worthiness
or rating her hair or eyes against some social standard,
she was genuinely seeing the person to whom God gave life
and calling it beautiful—just as God has done forever and ever.

The incarnation gives us this radical reflection.
We can see God in ourselves because God chose
not only to make each of us in God’s image from the beginning of time,
out of God’s own substance,
but also because God chose to enter human history– to be human.
To be like us.
God commits to being human,
in the little brown body of a Jewish boy in Palestine
and in doing so God speaks the ultimate statement:
we are tied together, fastened to one another in love.

No matter how many Netflix or Hulu movies searches you’ve done
in the past few weeks before Christmas,
there is no better love story than this:

Heaven and earth met on this night,
in a shameless love story that is deeply human,
with sheep bleating and a baby crying.
A love story that joins us all together in the womb of God’s mercy
and calls us to ask ourselves,
what kind of world shall we build together?
What kinds of ministry will we do in the flesh like Jesus himself did?
God’s love, a force that continues to heal the world,
is born again this night—this is, good news of great joy for all people.

Thanks be to God.