Isaiah 9:2-7, Luke 2:1-20
When you think about Christmas time, the season of Christmas, what comes to your mind? I want as many answers as you can give me. When I think about Christmas, a lot of different images and ideas come to my mind: the birth of Jesus, angels, shepherds, magi…stable, inn, donkeys, manger….lots of images that are an important part of Christmas. But also, cookies, presents, buying, holiday songs, decorations, buying, parties, family, buying, Christmas cards, …and oh, yes, did I mention buying?
These are not bad things. It is good to buy presents, though I have to admit that my yearly Christmas list includes some people that I only see once a year and for whom buying a present is not only difficult, but not very heart inspired. Still, when my heart is in a joyful, generous, grateful place, I really enjoy being able to give presents to others. Decorations and songs and parties are uplifting and God wants us to celebrate – hence Jesus turning the water into wine at the wedding in Cana… celebrating is a gift from God and a good thing, too. Spending time with family – this is very important: making and taking the time to remember that God has blessed us with our families, celebrating with them, eating, feasting. All of these are good things. But I think in the midst of that, it is difficult to actually focus on the birth of Christ and what that means for us.
We might say, “Well, we do that at church on Sundays and on Christmas eve.” Okay. But I’ll tell you the truth. In my A-personality way, I have a data-base of every sermon I’ve ever written and preached in the 20 years now since I’ve been an ordained pastor (and also included are the ones I preached during seminary as well), and I realized that not one time have I preached a Christmas sermon at Christmas. The only time I preach on Christmas is on Christmas in July Sundays. During Advent we are focused on Advent, which means preparing, repenting, making way for what is coming. Usually the Sunday after Christmas, in which we are actually in the Christmas season, pastors take off on vacation since these are typically the least well attended Sundays of the year. And Christmas Eve? Well, in the churches I’ve served, the Christmas Eve message has always been presented by either a children’s pageant or a service of lessons in carols or both. And these are good ways to present the Christmas Biblical passages…the Biblical passages tell us the Christmas story and it is good to hear them again and again. It is also a wonderful time to affirm the gifts of our children in encouraging their participation in the presentation of the Word, to affirm the gifts of music and of our choirs, to celebrate again with something a little different.
But as Presbyterians, we value the “interpretation of the Word” as well, and this just plain doesn’t tend to happen with Christmas itself. We value this because it helps us to look more deeply at the scriptures, to hear them in a new way, and to spend time really reflecting on the message in a particular passage, even when we disagree with what that particular preacher’s words or message may be. Taking time to communally study these passages is an important part of our life as Christians, as Presbyterians.
Additionally, sometimes people get stuck in thinking that Christmas is only a birthday celebration for Jesus and has no deeper meaning than that. It is a birthday celebration for Jesus. But it is so much more than just a big birthday party.
It is for these reasons that many churches around the country are now practicing “Christmas in July” or setting aside a Sunday as a time to focus really and truly on the birth of Christ, without the distractions of decorating, feasting, writing cards, celebrating and buying, buying, buying.
At the same time, it amazes me how quickly even this has been followed by a commercial response. As I was studying and preparing for today, I googled “Christmas in July” and was truly horrified by the number of web-sites that popped up that were saying “Christmas in July sale!” or “Christmas in July – buy your presents now!!”
It amazes me how quickly commercialism sets in whenever and wherever it can. And I invite you to work hard to truly focus - whether it be now or in December – on Christmas, on incarnational theology or the presence of God with us, among us, as us, coming as an infant, as an innocent, as a helpless , precious and newborn baby. And that is what I want us to do today.
For us as Christians, the birth of Jesus is significant because it is the story of God’s presence with us. It is the story of God being with us, not just as a Spirit or as a Parent from afar, but as another human, as one who has experienced all we have experienced, and as one who stands with us as friend, as brother, as teacher, as companion - all of these things. We can delight in these. But there are other aspects of Jesus’ humanity that we think about less often, or even that are less comfortable. And these are shown to us most particularly when we think of Jesus as a person who was first a child, first a baby. God, in Jesus, has also experienced what it is to be taught by humanity, to be cradled in human arms, to be loved by human people, to be scolded and corrected, no doubt, by human parents and teachers. Incarnational theology, or the belief that God has been with us as another human, requires as much faith as does belief in the resurrection. To believe that God is really truly with us, has lived a human life and therefore understands our pain, our sorrows, our joys, and yes, our desires, our temptations and even our anger…that God has lived and felt these things, too - this can require just as big a leap of faith. What is it like to look into the face of another human and see God dwelling there? What must it have been like to look into the face of an infant and see God there, amid the baby tears, amid the toddler temper tantrums, amid the pre-teen and teen rebelliousness? Can you see God in the midst of these human behaviors?
Today this can be harder for us. We don’t have the baby Jesus to look at, to see the reflection of God’s face. For us, then this means that we need to spend concrete and intentional time remembering that God has been incarnate in humanity. And it means we need to both look harder for that incarnation in those around us, and be that incarnation as often as we can be for one another.
A dear friend of mine, whom I’ll call Daniel, grew up in a very large, and yet very poor family. When he was only seven he caught pneumonia. His mother took him to the doctor who gave him a prescription for penicillin. This was about seventy years ago and at that time penicillin was very expensive. My friend told me that his prescription cost about as much as his father’s take home pay for a week. When they arrived at the pharmacy the pharmacist refused to fill the prescription. Daniel told me that he remembered cowering at the base of the counter while the pharmacist berated his mother for not paying more on her bill. Finally they had to leave without the medicine.
About a week and a half later the doctor, upon arriving at 7:00 a.m. Sunday Mass, was asked by Daniel’s teacher when he would return to school since he had already missed many class days. The doctor told her that Daniel should have been back to school by now. So she relayed what she had heard from Daniel’s brothers and sisters, that he was still quite sick at home. Immediately the doctor left church, even though it was very early in the morning and he would miss mass, and he went to Daniel’s home. Daniel told me that he vividly remembered the image of the Doctor trooping down the stairs to his bed, medical bag in hand, with Daniel’s mother following close behind insisting that he needn’t have come. She could not comfortably accept charity to the point where she had said her goodbyes to Daniel and had come to accept that he would die. But the doctor pushed through.
He found Daniel with a high fever and fluid in his lungs. On recalling the story, Daniel couldn’t remember too much else about the visit except for the very cold stethoscope and later being rolled over and given a shot. The Doctor stayed there for a long time, until well into the afternoon, nursing Daniel back to strength. Daniel’s mother was very embarrassed and continued to insist that the Doctor needn’t have come. When he left he went to the pharmacy and returned with the filled prescription and a strict admonition that Daniel was to take every pill as instructed and was to come to see the Doctor the next morning at his office. He insisted that if Daniel needed a ride he was to call the Doctor who would come to get him. As Daniel said in his own words, “Years later, when I was grown, I spoke to the Doctor about it. He acknowledged that I had been a very sick child. That I had nearly died. When I thanked him for coming (especially since I now knew that he didn’t get paid for the many visits we made to his office) he said, “I didn’t do anything special. I only did what my God would have me do.”
These stories – these are modern examples of God incarnate, in those moments, in those faces, at those times. We don’t get to see Jesus as a baby, born into this world, fully human and fully Divine. But we are given glimpses of that God incarnate when we look into the faces of those who would serve God, would choose God, who would follow God with their whole beings. This is the meaning of Christmas. This is what it is to see Jesus born among us as one of us. It is our call then, both to look for God among us every day (not just at Christmas time!) and to strive to be God’s children in every day (not just at Christmas time!).