Thursday, December 24, 2009

A Sermon for Christmas Eve

Last Sunday there was a wonderful comic (it was ‘Pickles’) where an elderly couple was sitting together.
The husband says (something like),
“I love this time of year – it always takes me back to my childhood: sledding in the fresh snow and skating on the frozen pond.”
His wife says to him,
“You grew up in Phoenix and you used to get sunburned on Christmas day!”
“There you go again,”
he replies, “ruining my memories with the facts.”

Well… Christmas time IS full of imagery, memories, and (dare I say it) magic. It’s a magical time that takes us back to our childhood. Memories of trees and gifts given; of waking up Christmas morning to find stockings filled and presents that we’ve placed under the tree for others – and of course – those that were there for us. Maybe, just maybe, not everything was as rosy as we might remember… but that’s okay. All was still in God’s hands.

Our imaginations also take us to family gatherings, meals, and times where (whether we realized it or not) God was present. In good times and bad, God was and IS present – For His name Emmanuel means “God is with us”: present tense, not “Once upon a time, God was with someone else.” And it is that “present tense” that is most important for us tonight, for tonight is really not about nostalgia – or sentimental feelings – it is in seeing and knowing the actual presence of God. For some of us that just might be the first time in a long time… but that’s okay too… for we are once again all here in the midst of God’s glory.

What are we thinking about tonight? What fills our imaginations? What fills our thoughts? What might we still be fretting over? Have we prepared for tomorrow? I know some who've been ready for months! Someone (and I’ve long forgotten who it was) commented to me back in August that all their presents have been bought and all their cards were prepared and addressed. If that was you, God Bless You! For you have truly understood what Advent has all been about!

Most of us (including myself) have saved some things for the last minute – whether we attended to them or not. Yet – ready or not – Christmas has arrived! There is no stopping it! We must be assured that in just the same way Christ is returning to us! There will come a day, suddenly upon us, when Jesus himself will be here – ready or not – here He is!

Beyond our family traditions and memories – I’d like to take our imaginations to a different place tonight. If you're thinking, “Oh, right this is church so we have to think religiously;” Well…Yes and no. What we’ve heard tonight has all been about shepherds and angels, of Mary and Joseph in a stable – the birth of Jesus in a place of poverty because no “proper place” was made available to them. Certainly there is a sermon in that alone. But perhaps a better one for tonight is why on Earth did He come to us in the first place?

Just a few moments ago we sang “In the bleak midwinter.” I hope you were listening. But just in case you weren’t its hymn 112. It is one of my favorite hymns not because it has a catchy tune – but because it is one of the most profound theologically – especially the first verse. Contrary to what many people think, the composer (Christina Rossetti) is not singing about the weather.
  • The “bleak midwinter” – really speaks of the time in human history before Christ.
    I’m not all together certain, but I believe that it was this hymn that inspired C. S. Lewis of Narnia… You may remember – where until rescued by Aslan, it was “always winter, never Christmas.”
  • The “frosty wind” – was how humankind treated one another: Cold, indifferent, chilling – absent of the warmth of God’s Holy Spirit.
  • It was Earthen hearts that were “hard as iron” – water (life it self) was stone cold.
  • The “snow” is sin – for sin fell upon sin… upon sin… upon sin…
  • And into this reality Christ breaks in! For God’s overpowering love for us was so great that not even Heaven could contain it.

In truth there have only been three moments when the nature of the Universe – time and space – have been altered. Three times. The first was when God spoke – and the universe existed. The second time – well we just heard about it tonight. It was the time when this same God entered human existence as Jesus.

One author Monsignor Guardini Romano says it this way:
The young [child] in the stall of Bethlehem was a human being with a human brain and limbs and heart and soul. And he was God. [His] life was to manifest the will of the Father: to proclaim sacred tidings, to stir mankind with the power of God, to establish the Covenant, and shoulder the sin of the world, expiating it with love and leading mankind through the destruction of sacrifice and the victory of the Resurrection into a new existence of grace… Jesus did not “experience” God; he was God. He never at any given moment “became” God; he was God from the start.[1]

The good Monsignor makes reference to the third time – Resurrection…
…when Christ overturned death itself, and bought for all who believe in Him, eternal life…
… and it is the Resurrection of Jesus Christ that is solely responsible for our even being here tonight.

You might find it interesting to know that for the first three-hundred years, early Christians didn’t celebrate a “Christmas time” at all. For them, the central moment of Faith was Easter and Pentecost. Just before and during the reign of Constantine Christians began to reflect on Jesus’ birth. And 336 AD a previously pagan winter ceremony celebrating the birth of “Unconquerable Sun”; (on December 25th) became the Christian day of the Nativity celebrating the “Birth of the Unconquerable SON” – Jesus Christ.

Our Christian hope for a fourth time is yet to come when “earth and heaven shall flee away when he comes to reign.” But for now, “a stable place sufficed – the Lord God incarnate, Jesus Christ.” It has only been in these times when the nature of human existence has unalterably changed – for God has acted – Christ has come – and He is coming to us once more.

You see, the “magic” of this time really is more mystery than anything else – a mystery we are searching for and can discover – like that present that waits just at home – a present just waiting to be opened! What will it hold? You’ll have to open it to see. And isn’t that just like God?

The mystery and magic are all about what God is doing next. The remembrance of things past pales in comparison to what comes next. Certainly the shepherds left the manger that night wondering what comes next. Mary herself would ponder this as well. Maybe that is what we are meant to be left with – what comes next? We have come to know that our God is a giving God; and perhaps that is God’s invitation to each of us – the same question Jesus’ first disciples came asking. “Where are you staying?” “Come and see.”

There is a particular question that is asked every time Christmas comes: What do you want for Christmas? Of all of our non-religious activities perhaps this question is the most holy one we – and even nonbelievers – ask. We think of the other person and consider what would bring them joy. What if we asked that of God? What do you think God would like this Christmas? Now, at first you might think that’s a tough one. I mean, it’s not even like, “What do you get the man who has everything?” It’s worse! What do you get the One who owns everything? I mean, its all His in the first place! And the hymn goes on…

What can I give him, poor as I am?
If I were a shepherd, I would bring a lamb;
If I were a wise man, I would do my part;
Yet what I can I give him – give my heart
– for your heart is the only thing Christ really wants in the first place.

When we give our hearts to God – you think the Shepherds saw a party?

If Christmas time is somehow anticlimactic for you because its not a “White Christmas” and there is no snow; we can all take solace in this: there probably wasn’t snow in Bethlehem years ago, either (of course no one knows for sure).

Tonight – this silent night, this holy night – we are once again invited to hear the angels sing – to worship and adore Christ our King! To be sure the angles are singing – and to be sure Christians all over the world worship with us.

Can we hear them?

Are we listening?

For certain, they are here just as they are all over the world on this night!

What are we thinking about tonight? What fills our imaginations? What fills our thoughts? Perhaps we can bring our hearts and minds out of Bethlehem and back into [where ever you are] where we all are – for God’s Glory is not in some far away place but right here Emmanuel: God IS with US. For Christ is once again born in each of us and right before us.

Oh, little Child of [where ever you are] descend to us we pray; cast out our sin and enter in, be born in us today.

On behalf of my Lord and Savior may I be one of the first to wish us all…

[1] Guardini, Romano, The Lord, pg. 16-17 slightly edited in the personal.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Beautiful and Different

Maranatha! Come Lord Jesus!