Pastor Annabelle P. Markey
Year A – Christmas Eve
Community Lutheran Church, Sterling, VA – December 24, 2019
We’re glad you’re here! Please know that you are welcome, just as you are. Grace and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.
I invite you to close your eyes. Imagine you are in the middle of a field. It’s grassy and rocky and, above you, the sky is dark, only broken up by the moon’s glow and twinkling stars. You’re sitting on a stony outcrop with other shepherds, listening to the soft bleating of sheep still awake. Suddenly the sky flashes with a blinding light. You want to turn aside, hide your eyes, and take cover. But a voice speaks out of the light, making you tremble and quake even more: “Do not be afraid; 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. …you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.”
Just as you’re gathering a shred of courage to take a peek, there’s an entire army of heavenly messengers! They’re worshiping and praising God with the most beautiful sound you’ve ever heard in your entire life, singing, “‘Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!’” You touch the rock beneath you, unsure if you’ve been transported to some other place. And suddenly it’s all gone. The sky is dark again. The stars sparkle and flash, but now it almost seems like they’re winking – in on some cosmic joke. You’re breathing heavily, catching your breath after holding it in. You look around, eyes slowly adjusting to the darkness. Your fellow shepherds look dumbstruck. With increasing excitement, you talk about what you have just experienced. You are talking over each other, eager to share. And before you know it, you’ve abandoned your sheep to run with joy to Bethlehem. You must find this child! Open your eyes.
The glory of God shone all around the shepherds. On that most holy of nights, they were surrounded – encompassed by – God’s glory. They were overcome with a sense of the holy in the middle of their everyday work. God couldn’t wait and surprised them to tell about a new thing of great joy. This vision of God’s glory in the middle of the mundane changed them. And they ran to see this new thing they were told about.
God’s glory shines all around us in bizarre, unexpected, surprising ways, people, and places. God simply cannot wait to show up and meet us precisely where we are. I notice much more beauty in the world around me when I slow down. I notice the warmth of the sun on my face, the way leaves float through the air, interesting and unique bird songs. As the children proclaimed and sang during the pageant on Sunday, I heard the Christmas story again as if for the first time. I even caught sight of the mischievous and playful side of God when the high-schoolers decorated my office with silly little gifts like unicorns, bubbles, and fake teeth. I’m reminded of God in these joyful moments.
But maybe even more often, I’ve seen God present with people struggling and in need of grace. God is there when we hold hands and pray for each other as we go through medical procedures, anxiously await diagnoses, and weep at the loss of loved ones. God is there in painful, difficult conversations and complicated relationships, when our hearts ache for forgiveness and reconciliation. And if God was born among the poor, in a family who would become refugees, we can be sure God is with the homeless, hungry, those escaping violence, and victims of those who abuse power. In the incarnation, God is with us – not just in the good and wonderful, but in the ordinary, sorrowful, and messy. Remember, the child we worship tonight was not born in a palace to the rich and powerful, but among animals because there was no place for him elsewhere. And the first people to hear about this miraculous birth weren’t the religious or upper crust of society, they were shepherds working the night shift. God will show up in different ways, but God’s presence will always point us to God and lead us to worship and praise.
God showing up inspired them to awe and amazement, sharing and praise. Does it do that for us? Honestly, I don’t always want to share how I perceive God breaking in. Will people think I’m out of touch? But deep down I want to have that kind of bold joy and openness to the God’s surprises!
Yes, it can be both terrifying and joyful to experience God breaking in. We might feel inadequate. We might miss it because of all the other distractions and voices surrounding and within us. We might struggle to believe because suspicion and cynicism have taken hold. Besides, if we keep busy, we feel important and in charge, and if God shows up, who knows what God might ask of us? Thankfully, “do not be afraid” is a message for us, too!
It’s easier to watch television or listen to podcasts or the news than to read the Bible. It’s more acceptable to society to cram our calendars full rather than pause to be still and pay attention. It’s easier to tune out God rather than try to discern how God is showing up in our lives. It’s far easier to serve ourselves rather than others. But God taking on flesh reminds us God is all about surprises and mystery. Worshiping the God who submits to the humility and shame of the cross only to rise again on Easter reminds us the God we worship doesn’t do the expected! That God shows up out of love and a desire to have relationship with us. Like the shepherds, we’re not to be blinded by the light of God’s glorious presence, but to be transformed by it, so we can praise God and invite others to worship, change, and service. As poet Mary Oliver, writes on how to live, “Pay attention. Be astonished. Tell about it.”
There’s something magical about this time of year. Something we hope will linger a bit longer than just one night. That’s why radio stations play Christmas music and the Hallmark Channel broadcasts Christmas movies beginning after Halloween. We want this special feeling to last as long as possible. But the secret is God is already with us 24/7, 365! We don’t have to wait for Christmas to experience God. It’s happening all around us. God may seem hidden or hard to find at times, but God is always coming to us. The glory of God isn’t bright and shiny, sanitized or polished. The Christmas story tells us it embraced shepherds – worn out and awaiting something better. It tells us not only is God’s glory present, but out of love, God cannot wait to take on flesh to live with us. To be with and among us. Not just at Christmas, but every day.
At Christmas we worship God incarnate as the baby Jesus, but this season reminds us God became one of us to change our lives and perspectives. If we saw God present in the world all around us, there’d be more hope and freedom to be who we were made to be and to love others as they are. We could rejoice in little things and not take life so seriously. Relying on God with us, we would learn to give thanks even in dark and difficult times. Remember, God surprised shepherds in the night when they couldn’t see clearly. Overcome by the glory of God, they were changed. Changed enough to recognize hope lying before them. Because the more you keep watch, looking for God in your midst, the more open you will be to catch glimpses of God. The more you will recognize – “this is what I’ve been looking for!”
God will work in your heart, changing it, making it a place not only capable of experiencing God, but pointing God out to others. Like shepherds sharing with Mary and Joseph, you won’t be able to contain the overflowing joy. And in you, others will see God in the flesh. Your lives, changed by glimpsing God, will be transformed into lives that glorify and give praise to God. And others will notice. It will happen bit by bit, slowly over time, but God will work in you. Because God is Emmanuel, God with us, God will be with you each moment. May you be open to perceive it! Thanks be to God! Merry Christmas! Amen.