It’s always so wonderful to see the sanctuary so blessedly alive as it is on Christmas Eve.
Some people are dedicated, eight o’clock service kind of people, and we expected you, and here you are, and we love that.
Others here are the kind who get everyone motivated and come with a whole pew’s worth of companions, sort of like modern-day shepherds, and of course, we love that, too.
And then some of you are people who managed to slip away from wherever you were and come to church.
At this very moment, back at your house, they still may not even know you’re gone.
We promise we won’t tell.
Sneaky devotion is a much bigger part of the Christian tradition than you’d ever believe, from the catacombs of ancient Rome to the house churches of modern China.
We love knowing that we may be just counter-cultural enough that someone still sees us as a secret to be kept, a people too scandalous to know.
But whether you have been long-planning to come or just find yourself here right now because you were driving by, you’ve come because tonight is the night when we tell the story.
We’ve been building up to it for weeks now—all around the world, we’ve been building up to it.
All around us at this time of year are reminders that Christmas touches us in ways that no other season quite does.
It speaks quite deeply to us to see lights in darkness, and greens indoors, and wreaths with red ribbons on doors—it’s as if the world decided to dress up for the occasion, and to make the kind of effort that is harder and harder to make these days.
We may not do it in other times of the year, but we’ll do it for Christmas.
It’s one of the ways that we show that there is life in us yet—and memory, too.
The memory of Christmases past, maybe, when for so many people, the world seemed to come alive and there was so much celebrating to do—so much cooking and singing and zooming around after this or that.
Is that how you remember it?
So many people will look back and recall that there was just so much that went into it…that you could not help but get caught up in the rhythms of it…that you could not help but be delighted to see so many others you might not otherwise expect get caught up in it, too.
After all, if Ebenezer Scrooge could come around and get into Christmas, how could it be any surprise that others did too: the old lady in the apartment down the hall, who seemed to disapprove of children, making gingerbread men for your family, or a city bus driver, improbably wearing a Santa hat, or your grouchy and impatient great-grandfather, smiling as you brought him egg nog?
That might have been a long time ago, in a world we’ve long-since left.
But almost like veterans, squeezing into an old uniform on the morning of Memorial Day, we remember at Christmas—we remember, and we honor, and we try to be true to the memory of that other, bygone world.
And so, here we are, all these years later.
And if now the blazer has gotten a little snug, or if words were exchanged as you realized you were running a little late—if you discovered that, yet again, your brother-in-law has inattentively blocked in your car—or if your children have come home and were actually telling you about their lives, and in this great moment, out of the corner of your eye, you saw that your husband was discreetly checking his Blackberry and missed the whole thing—well, nevertheless: here we are now.
And may we each, in our way, find some way to connect with those Christmases past, and bring some of their warmth, and their surprise, and their belief in the capacity for deep transformation into our hearts and into our lives, not only tonight, but in the days to come.
Or maybe that’s not how you remember it.
Maybe as you look back, Christmas has always been at the center of a harder season—a time when tensions always used to boil over, or a time when all the things that weren’t right managed to engulf the few that were, and so, even now, even removed from all that, the cheer and the sentimental talk about togetherness gets hard to take.
That’s a Christmas prayer for transformation, too. A prayer to let our pain go, to travel lighter, to find the energy to follow a star rather than stay hunkered down in the darkness.
That’s a different kind prayer for deep transformation. But a prayer just the same.
And I think that has its place at Christmas, too.
Because that’s what the Christmas story is, of course.
It’s a story of deep transformation.
It begins with a world where hope has come to be in short supply and says that God is present in it, and that, therefore, hope should be, too.
It begins with a world where so much is wrong that it seems as if nothing could ever be put right, and says that God insists that, indeed, it can be put right, and if we will but follow Him, it will be put right.
It begins with a world that looks to appearances and to worldly power, and sees them full of selfishness and danger, and says that God is the antithesis of all of that—and yet that it is He who saves and nothing else.
That world, of course, doesn’t sound all that different from our own.
Maybe that gives us pause.
The Christmas story is an old, old story now—and yet it seems as if the world has not particularly changed in its wake, or at least, not as much as predicted.
Last week, I read an editorial that said, “Twenty-five years ago, Christmas was not the burden it is now. There was less haggling and weighing, less quid pro quo, less fatigue of body, less wearing of soul; and most of all, there was less loading up with trash.”
And I thought: RIGHT ON.
And then I looked a little more closely, and realized the editorial was written in 1904.
Our problems are not new.
And yet, the claim of Christmas is that, even if the problems and shortcomings of the world have not particularly changed, neither has the solution.
The love and presence of God are here for us to claim.
The deep transformation that God offers us, and that God offers the world in Jesus are still before us.
In the eyes of Scripture, Christmas was not simply an event that happened; it was a force that was permanently unleashed.
At the other end of the story, this becomes clear.
After Good Friday and Easter, Luke describes the day of Pentecost, saying: “They were all together, when suddenly there came a sound from heaven like the violent blast of wind, which filled the whole house where they were seated. They saw tongues like flames distributing themselves, one resting on the head of each, and they were all filled with the Holy Spirit…”(Acts 2:1-4).
The story that Luke begins with the sudden pop of the star, appearing in the fields over Bethlehem, announcing the birth of the savior, he continues with sudden wind of the Spirit filling the lungs of God’s people to proclaim and enact the message.
We all know that, at Christmas, Heaven and nature sing; Scripture wants us to understand that they’ve never stopped singing, that at Christmas, something decisive, something permanent came into the world, and it has never left.
A force was permanently unleashed, and that force has never subsided, and while its work is far from finished, its power is beyond anything that human ingenuity could ever control, much less stop in its tracks.
And thank God for that.
The question for us tonight is, can you and I feel that force?
Veterans of the story that we are, can you and I kneel before the manger…not because we have all the answers…and certainly not because we’re perfect—but precisely because we don’t have all the answers and are still working on being the people we hope to become?
Doesn’t God’s dream for us, and for the world, come alive somehow at Christmas, in ways that we can still feel, that still pull at us—in ways that still push us?
I think it does.
Somehow, in these days, it seems easier to feel how God keeps calling out to us—because the power of the Christmas story still has some sort of claim, some kind of toe-hold on our inmost selves.
So much in our world speaks to our heads, but in our hearts, few of us who gather on a night like this can fully deny that claim.
Because tonight, somehow, we still feel that force—that force, pulsing through this old story, and that force, deeply alive in our hope for a world renewed, redeemed and at finally peace with itself.
Tonight we embody the community of those who live in the light of that story, as surely as the magi lived their lives in the light of that Bethlehem star.
Deep transformation is still possible. For us, for the world—indeed, for every dark corner of the globe and the even darker corners of the human heart, deep transformation and the healing love of God are still possible.
The star still shines, and the wind still blows.
Isaiah puts it this way:
“For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given: and the government shall be upon his shoulder: and his name shall be called Wonderful, Counselor, The mighty God, the everlasting Father, the Prince of Peace. Of the increase of his government there shall be no end, upon the throne of David, and upon his kingdom, to order it, and to establish it with judgment and with justice from henceforth even for ever” (Isaiah 9:6-7).
And at Christmas, through the grace of God, somehow we know in our bones that it is so.
May we carry the knowledge with us tonight, and all our days.
Merry Christmas, one and all.