Poor Billy isn’t the only one to get it wrong. Once again, we’ve spent the time between Thanksgiving and Christmas getting into arguments over nativity scenes in public places and angrily debating whether to say “Merry Christmas” or “Happy holidays.” We’ve seen the news coverage of shoppers knocking each other down in stores as they try to save a few bucks, and we’ve wrung our hands about the rampant consumerism that has overtaken the holiday. And despite our resolutions just a few weeks ago to simplify our own celebrations so that we’re not so stressed, to get our shopping done ahead of time so we’re not dealing with the traffic and the crowds at the mall at the last minute, to cut back on extravagant gift-giving and give our credit cards a break, to take it easy with the eggnog and the cookies and the cheese dip, here we are, at least some of us: exhausted and stressed out. For others, despite our best efforts, we once again find ourselves feeling down. Christmas brings up memories of every other Christmas, and sometimes those memories are bittersweet as we remember people we love but see no longer, as we remember better times. Or we have a sense that somehow, other people are enjoying the holiday more than we are able to, and we wonder what is the matter with us.
There’s one thing, though, that I think we’ve all gotten right tonight: we’re here in church. Now, I know we’re all here for different reasons. Some of us are here because we love singing “Silent Night” by candlelight. Others are here because we want to see our children and grandchildren in the pageant. Some like to hear the familiar readings once again, that wonderful passage from Isaiah, “For a child has been born for us, a son given to us; authority rests upon his shoulders, and he is named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.” Or the familiar story from Luke, “And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn,” even though we really wish it still said “swaddling clothes” instead of bands of cloth. Some want the opportunity to say our prayers, and to receive communion. And I’ll bet some of us, I’m sure only a couple of us, really, would rather not be here at all, and can’t wait to get home. Whatever brought you here tonight, whatever reason you have for being here, welcome. I hope our worship provides a measure of peace and joy for you on this most holy night.
The story of Jesus’s birth that we just heard from Luke and which our young people will present in a few minutes is so familiar and beautiful that you probably know a lot of it by heart. Joseph and Mary travel from their home in Nazareth to the city of David called Bethlehem. When they get there, there’s no room for them in the inn, and they sleep in a stable. Mary gives birth to Jesus in that stable, and lays him in a manger: a humble birthplace for any child, much less the Messiah, the son of God. Luke tells us that Jesus’s birth is announced by an angel. But the angel doesn’t go to the king, doesn’t appear to the important people in government, to the high society types, or the news media. Rather, the angel appears to a ragtag bunch of shepherds out in the country. They are terrified, and I expect if I ever saw an angel, I’d be frightened, too. The angel says, “Do not be afraid (as if that ever helped anyone to not be frightened); 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.” Anyways, you know the rest. Luke tells us how Jesus, the Messiah, is born in humble surroundings, worshiped by simple, lowly shepherds.
What Luke doesn’t quite explain is what all of this means. For that, we look to John’s version of the Christmas story, which Lina read for our second lesson. While Luke’s version gives us the details, John’s version tries to explain what it means. John writes in a sort of dense theological way as he tries to explain who Jesus is. In the beginning, John writes, was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. Finally, John writes, this Word became flesh in Jesus Christ, became flesh and lived among us. But I think John sensed that this was still not clear enough, and so he sums it up at the end of the passage. He writes, “No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known.” In other words, if you want to know what God is like, look at Jesus. Look at Jesus who surrounded himself with the poor, the sick, the marginalized, and the untouchables. Look at Jesus who was criticized by the religious elite for hanging out with sinners. Look at Jesus who treated women with dignity and respect at a time when that was unheard of. Look at Jesus who taught his disciples to love their enemies, to give without expecting anything in return, to overcome evil with love. Look at Jesus who wept when his friend died, who suffered on the cross, who forgave those who persecuted him. The Quaker theologian Elton Trueblood puts it this way: “The historic Christian doctrine of the divinity of Christ does not simply mean that Jesus is like God. It is far more radical than that. It means that God is like Jesus.” It means that God suffers, God forgives, God cares for the poor, God cares for the sick, God loves God’s enemies.
Maybe, like me, you sometimes have your doubts about God. I struggle to make sense of the violence and suffering in the world, I ask why innocent people are killed, why good people get cancer, why life is so hard and seems to involve so much pain. I know better than to ask Jesus for a bicycle for Christmas, but I hesitate even to pray for health or world peace because I fear I’ll be disappointed and I don’t like to think about what not getting something I pray for says about either me or God. But the hope that I take from this holy night, the hope that I’ll try to remember tomorrow and the next day and next week when the happy Christmas memories have faded, is this hope of the incarnation. God loved us enough to become like us. When God wanted to show us what God is like, God showed us Jesus. That is the good news this Christmas night, the hope of our faith. I pray that it is the hope that will sustain us through the rest of the year. Merry Christmas.