A pastor makes an announcement at the beginning of the Christmas Eve service saying there will be a meeting of the church board immediately following worship. Once the service ends the church’s leadership gathers in a room to confer about what surely is a critical matter. To everyone’s surprise a visitor, a complete stranger to the church, joins them. The minister addresses him in a kindly fashion, saying, “My friend, do you understand this is a meeting of the church board?” The visitor responds without hesitation, “Well sir, after your sermon I am as bored as I have ever been!”
We gather tonight to celebrate an event so significant our culture has divided human history into what happened before it and what happened after.
Since the dawn of humanity we have been wondering how we got here. The Judeo-Christian tradition holds a Higher Being has created all things, including us. We believe this Being, whom we call ‘God’, can be known in part through the creation God has brought into existence. Creation reveals God is intelligent, the architect of wonder and beauty. There is a majesty in the orderliness of creation and a mystery to its random chaos. Both speak to God’s nature. Because God made it, all creation belongs to God. We believe God tasks us with the care and keep of this world.
A specific group of people – the Hebrews – encounter God through historical events. God sides with them to deliver them from bondage and oppression when they are enslaved in Egypt. God promises to be with them to guide and protect them. God reveals to them a code of commandments for spiritual and moral living. This people comes to believe God blesses them when the obey and punishes them when they disobey.
Over time, a series of prophets begins to understand God in new ways. First, they say obedience is not concerned just with outward behavior. It must originate in the heart. And second, they realize the punishment they endure as a people far outweighs anything they have done wrong. They come to understand God is ‘long-suffering’ – a word which means God’s compassion never fails, never flags, never ends, no matter what we do. We may turn away from God but God never turns away from us.
And while this is a vast oversimplification, in a nutshell it describes everything humanity learned about God prior to the birth of a baby boy in an obscure little middle-eastern town called Bethlehem. We knew a lot about God and about God’s will for us before then, but what we knew was not nearly complete. For us to have as full a knowledge as possible, God had to become one of us. God had to take on human flesh so that human flesh could comprehend God’s very nature.
What we did not and could not understand before, a boy happened upon by mistake one year during his school’s annual Christmas play. This particular year the students performed a program called “Christmas Love.” They were all dressed in festive holiday sweaters and hats, complete with mittens and boots and everything else you associate with this time of year. Each student held a big cardboard poster with a huge letter on it. Collectively, the signs spelled out CHRISTMAS LOVE.
The first child spoke up: “C is for Children.” The second child said, “H is for Happy.” And so it went. There was only one problem and it was obvious for everyone to see, except the child holding the M. Unbeknown to this child, he held his sign upside down and what should have been a M was now a W. The children who could see it could not contain their snickering and try as they might the teachers could not get them to stop.
When it came to his turn, the little boy raised his sign, which now read W, and said, “M is for magic.” This elicited howls of laughter and the little boy turned bright red with embarrassment, not understanding what he had done. But when all the children were finished and all the cards were held high, a bright smile came over every face in the audience. The display intended to spell “CHRISTMAS LOVE” now unintentionally read “CHRIST WAS LOVE”.
To read the story of Jesus is to hear the story of God incarnate, of love in action. Jesus lives his life reaching out to the last, the lost, and the least. He demonstrates God’s wisdom by teaching the simple, God’s compassion by healing the sick, and God’s mercy by forgiving the sinner. He invites the prominent and the powerless to join him in doing the work of God’s Kingdom. And in the end, he gives his very life to expose and defeat the powers of death and darkness. The only way any of this is aspect of God’s person to be knowable if for God to take on human flesh and show us what the divine nature looks like lived out in our world. Short of this, we can only guess at what it might be. Short of this, we cannot even begin to imagine how much God loves us.
Most of you know I have had an interesting couple of months this fall. I have been to the emergency room four times, urgent care once, and hospitalized on three different occasions (including a stint in the ICU at Norfolk General); all in an attempt to deal with my blood, which seems to like to clump together and clog up my vessels. One of my nephews (who serves as an army medic) encouraged me to enjoy my stay while I was at, what he called, “a very expensive, low-amenity, all-inclusive”. Well, that is one way to put a positive spin on my experience.
I have to tell you what I went through has changed me in ways I still don’t fully understand. It wasn’t that I stared death in the face and survived, because that wasn’t my experience at all. I was deeply affected by what the prayer book so eloquently describes as “the loving care that surrounds us on every side.” Beginning with the doctors, nurses, and hospital staff, to family and friends and colleagues, to all of you, I not only knew I was loved, I felt it in a very profound way.
Don’t get me wrong, before all of this I was not hanging my head low wondering why no one cared about me. I have always felt very appreciated and valued. But this experience made it real. Love and compassion made itself present to me in flesh and blood. It would have been easier for doctors to text a message with the results of my latest test along with a link I could click on for further information, but no, each came to my room to explain what he or she had learned and patiently answered my questions. The nurses and staff could not have been kinder or more compassionate. And your love and concern for me was written on your faces and ringing in your voices in a way I will never forget. Love incarnate changes us. It has changed me.
I never really understand those bible-thumping churches where the preacher holds up the ‘good book’ and bellows God loves us so much he sent us this love letter. It seems to me the Scriptures, while holy and sacred and indispensable to our faith, are still at least one step removed from the love made flesh in Jesus. They point beyond themselves to something much more profound. As one person put it, “Action is always superior to speech in the Gospels, which is why the Word became flesh and not newsprint” or, we might add, just a book. Tonight we celebrate God’s love made present and known in human flesh, through Jesus Christ.
Tonight we also invite God’s love to dwell in our flesh that we might shine with God’s light. Nothing is more valuable in this world, nothing more precious, and nothing more necessary.
There is a story of a five-year-old girl who is over-the-top excited to give her parents a very special gift at Christmas. She is so excited she wants to keep the gift a secret. She insists her parents set her up with a box, wrapping paper, a bow, ribbon, scissors, and tape and then leave her be. She is adamant neither can see her special gift until Christmas morning. Well, it may not have been the prettiest wrapped present ever, but all things considered the little girl does a decent job. When she is finished she places it under the Christmas tree and checks it several times a day. With each visit the girl becomes more and more excited and the parents more and more curious.
What has she put in the box for them completely apart from their knowledge or doing? As Christmas gets closer and closer and their daughter gets more and more excited about the gift, the parents’ suspense and curiosity grows and grows. Each night, it takes all their power not to sneak a peek after their daughter has gone to bed.
Finally, Christmas morning comes and presents are opened. As if to heighten her parents’ pain, the little girl insists her gift to them be opened last. Wrapping after wrapping gives way to one present after another until finally there is only one left. With a joy her little body can barely contain the girl hands her gift to her parents. They hold it. It does not appear to have any weight to it at all. They shake the box, but there is no sound, no movement inside.
Slowly they open it and are startled to find the box is completely empty. They are absolutely puzzled until their daughter jumps in their laps, wraps her arms around them, and excitedly proclaims, “I blew kisses into it until it was completely full of my love for you and then I wrapped it very carefully so none got away!”
Tonight we remember and celebrate how we do not know God’s love is until it is made incarnate. We did not know how much God loves us until God came to be with us to show us. We never know how much we are loved until we experience that love made real through the lives and actions of others. And we never love the world until we let God’s love shine through us.