Pastor Annabelle P. Markey
Year C – Christmas Eve
Community Lutheran Church, Sterling, VA – December 24, 2018
We’re glad you’re here! You are welcome, just as you are, whether you’ve been at Community Lutheran forever or this is your first time ever in a church. Grace and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.
Moses Elder, a homeless man, stood outside in Phoenix, Arizona holding a sign that read, “Help serve the homeless. God bless you.” People rushed by, ignoring a sight that is sadly all too common. But this was different. When a few people did slow down to give Moses a few coins or to show him the time of day, he paid them back. With $100 bills! This surprising change of events was orchestrated by “Secret Santa,” a wealthy businessman who anonymously gives out money to those in need over the holiday season. Moses was entrusted with $3000 to give away to whomever he saw fit. Those people included a father of seven who dropped some change in Moses’ cup, not knowing how he was going to afford presents for his kids. He cried as he received an unexpected $100 for his kindness. Moses gave money to people in search of jobs, to a homeless mom of five, to people from his church. And in the end, he said, “even when you’re homeless, it feels so much better to give than to receive.” That day, people’s expectations and experiences were turned upside down.
There are so many hopes and expectations this time of year. We carry them around in our hearts and we load up this holiday with them – the perfect family gathering, the perfect Christmas meal, the gift that’s spot on – it feels like we build and build, running around frenetically and then… it’s over. And we’re sometimes left feeling disappointed or kind of deflated like one of those sad, flat Christmas lawn decorations!
But the crazy story of Jesus’ birth tells us that that’s not what this season is all about. That’s not how God comes to us. Instead of working through the power of emperors or kings, God surprises us in the tender helplessness of a baby. In Mary and Joseph, oppressed people forced to move following government decrees. In the gentleness of new parents watching over precious new life. In the proclamation of divine messengers to rough, ostracized shepherds who become the first people to bear witness to the good news and to worship.
God comes down and is born into the chaos of creation with animals, a feeding trough, shepherds, angels… Think about it, Joseph and Mary weren’t even welcomed in Joseph’s hometown by his family. In a culture driven by hospitality, that’s saying something. The whole event is basically a hot mess and, yet, God makes it holy with God’s presence. God enters into the weirdness and imperfection and God’s messengers sing out: “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors.” And here’s the thing – God favors and is pleased to dwell with all of us. With a poor young woman from Nazareth. With a man who doesn’t quite know how to navigate his role as surrogate father to the Son of God. With shepherds on night duty just trying to do their job. With you and me.
We may find this radical news that God comes to us and is pleased with us hard to believe. I think it’s part of why the angel starts off with the words, “do not be afraid.” There is so much we are afraid of in this world. Change. Our own unworthiness. Our past. You may even be struggling right now – fighting to experience Christmas cheer when a myriad of other things are weighing you down. Health issues, grief, relationship struggles, parenting, unemployment, caring for others, worries about the future, or even anxiety brought on by the daily news.
But when Christmas doesn’t resemble “a picture print from Currier and Ives,” the angel’s message is for you: “Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.”
When we encounter the divine, it’s startling and sometimes unnerving. We catch a glimpse of God in everyday life and we think, “could it be?” In those moments that take our breath away, we ask, “how have I been so lucky? Who am I that God should come to me?” And God answers: you’re the one I love. That’s the story of Christmas. It’s an unexpected extravagant love that comes to us. It’s a gift we can barely wrap our minds around. It’s hope, joy, and life rekindled in us.
Yes, the God of the cosmos wants to spend time with us! And what’s more, it’s not just for some special occasion, it’s every day. It’s in the mundane and simple things – sitting in traffic, at work, in the faces of family and friends, and even those we don’t get along with. It’s God showing up in the waters of baptism, in a story that touches our hearts, in a chaotic family meal, in the touch of a friend, in the messy blessedness of community, or in plain bread and wine. At Christmas, we’re reminded of this surprising God in the story of a birth. Nothing is more unpredictable than a child! The child is expected, awaited, and prepared for, but there is also wonder, mystery, and joy. God comes to us as a baby – dependent on others to care for him. That’s insane! If that’s not contrary to expectations, I don’t know what is! God is with us. It’s as simple and as beautiful as that. It’s as holy as that. And it’s as hard to live into as that. Because knowing this news, we are called to be like the shepherds: “glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen.” We, like Mary, are to give birth to this good news in our own lives and in the world.
Maybe the show Stranger Things can help us here. Stay with me. In the show, the characters discover a parallel dimension called the “upside down.” This place is a darker reflection of the world as we know it. Communication and travel are possible between the two dimensions. And in the show, the characters must brave the upside down in order to rescue their loved ones. In the Christmas story, God breaks in bringing light into the darkness of our world, showing that God does not remain far off and apart from us. Instead, God unites Godself to us in the flesh, turning everything on its head, righting the wrongs, raising up the weak, and bringing down the powerful. Mary sings about it, the angel tells about a tiny baby who is the Savior – a title usually given to Caesar, and the lowly shepherds experience it receiving news from an army of angels. Out of love, God comes into our upside down in order to bring us hope, freedom, and new life. Not only is this a “stranger thing” than anyone has experienced, it is as the hymn puts it, “Unexpected and Mysterious.”
This ridiculous and radical story is where the joy of Christmas comes from. It’s the unexpected joy that is rooted in knowing the absurd lengths God is willing to go to in order to show us that God is pleased with us. That God loves us. It’s the story that will continue with love shown on the cross, and the power of love that destroys death on Easter morn.
We have expectations that are not always met. We experience disappointment. But Christmas invites us to ponder mystery and rejoice in Christ’s presence our everyday lives. To look for God in the unexpected and little things as we seek “to embody God’s compassion for each fragile human life.” To remember God is with us in our longing, in our hopes and dreams and expectations. As we will sing in “O Little Town of Bethlehem,” “the hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight.” The God we worship and adore tonight with wonder and joy is the God who accompanies us through all of life. The God who comes to us as a baby is the God who will walk with sinners, saints, the marginalized, the hurting, those in need of healing, the sorrowful, the weak, the powerful, and all of creation. This is the God who will walk with us even through death to the dawn of new life. This is the God who thwarts all expectations. The God who loves us and is pleased to dwell with us. Thanks be to God! And Merry Christmas! Amen.