What's Christmas Mean to You?, Old First Sermon 12.22.13

What's Christmas Mean to You?, Old First Sermon 12.22.13

Isaiah 7:10-16; Psalm 80:1-7, 17-19; Romans 1:1-7

The Gospel lesson for today is Matthew’s story of the birth of Jesus. But when I was choosing the readings for today, I decided, if you want to hear that story, you should come to church on Christmas Eve!

So we’re left with the Isaiah prophecy, the Psalm and Paul’s Letter to the Romans.

But first, about Christmas Eve. It’s the service each year where we welcome more guests to Old First than at any other time. And since so many of our regulars are away visiting family for the holidays, I joke sometimes,
“our Christmas Eve Candlelight is my annual preaching engagement, when I get to offer a sermon to a congregation I don’t know.” They’re a good looking congregation. A bit better dressed than most of us on a regular Sunday morning. And they appear devout, and give me their full attention. It’s just that I don’t really know any of them…

I know it’s a busy night for us all. I especially remember from when my kids were young, how much there was to get done on Christmas Eve, before a very early Christmas morning. But if you’re going to be in town, I hope you’ll make it to church. It is after all one of our high holy days after all.

And, as I suggested in the numbers of guests we receive, there’s some work we need help with around here. But before you dismiss me, thinking to yourself, “Is the preacher crazy, trying to put anything on my plate for the next few days?” Before you tune out, let me tell you something… what’s funny about church work:

If you are overwhelmed and feel you have to do it all by yourself, church work can actually… easily can get in the way of worship. But when you are just doing your part along with everyone else — rather than getting in the way of your worship… instead of taking away your feeling God’s presence — SERVING actually makes you more sensitive to spiritual perception, can open you up to greater experience of closeness with God.

I don’t know how many of you noticed in this week’s E-pistle, (there were some technical snafus so it only landed in your inboxes yesterday — twice no less– if you were missing it…) but I wrote an article, an invitation really, about some of the help we could use around here on Christmas Eve.

Most of the work is distinct, tasks that one or two people can easily accomplish in a half hour or so — if everyone participates. And some of the jobs have already be claimed. But there’s still help needed. For example:

We need to get the nativity figures out of the Creche in the afternoon, so there’s room for the real people during the 5 and 8 p.m. services.

And we need someone to set out the luminaries and light their candles in the front courtyard as it gets dark.

And before that we need to hang the Pinata, and get a portable spotlight on it.

And we’re still looking for angels and their parents to serve as greeters at the 5 p.m. service.

And a couple of people who can help walk the animals when we go caroling.

And a gatekeeper to let the nativity people in and keep the animals from coming out.

There are readings to be done in both services.

We can even probably still get you a part if you want to be a shepherd or a King.

And if you are really getting excited, even impatient about rolling up your sleeves and helping out, Alice can use you right after worship today, helping her get the candelabras in place on the chancel and in the pews.

And then there’s the more general, everybody’s need work — hosting, welcoming and greeting,
directing people who aren’t sure to go,
making sure guests know how important their presence is to us…

If you want to help out… if you know what you want to do… or if you’ll do whatever we need help with, please see me after worship or in fellowship hour.

Which gets us, hopefully, smoothly, easily past all the preparations and even Christmas Eve and on to Christmas itself. As I said when I started, we aren’t hearing the story of Jesus’ birth in worship today.
Instead, we have these three arcane theological assertions.

1. Isaiah’s talking to King Ahaz,
who’s probably having trouble listening because he’s so preoccupied and worried
about the Syrian army and their threat of invasion.

But God’s not afraid to give him a sign, make him a promise.
About this child who somehow’s going to make the needed difference.

2. The Psalm is also a bit thick. God, as we heard in the intro., is mad at or about the Israelite’s prayers. So angry, or perhaps, better disappointed, that the Israelites feel they are being punished — that they’ve become the scorn of their neighbors and their enemies are laughing among themselves.

So the Psalm becomes a petition, a prayer really, as ironic as that is, asking God to make “your face shine among us, and save us.”

Finally, we have Paul’s letter to the church in Rome. It’s about the length to which God goes in order to save.
It’s about God sending his son, even unto a certain death, and after death sharing him with all nations. It’s about the good news that is God’s welcome in Christ Jesus.

So what are we left for, just days before Christmas?:

A sign. (that may or may not be welcome)
A prayer. (from those whose prayers God’s already questioned)
Our calling. (how much God, nonetheless, is depending on us)

That’s kind of powerful if you think about it:

God assures us.
We in turn ask for help.
And in response, God gives us work to do. Relies on us.

All good points, that actually, support my invitation for your help with the Christmas Eve service. (I love when Scripture works that way– proving whatever it is I just said!)

But how exactly do they connect, anyway more than tangentially or poetically, to the birth of the one who is to be named Jesus, our Emmanuel?

Let me try this.

I’ve told you before about what I learned from one of our seminarians when I was the Regional Conference Minister:
how her preaching professor said that anyone preparing for ministry — (and that’s not really just people moving towards ordination; everyone sitting here in a pew this morning should see him or herself as here preparing for ministry) —
…anyone preparing for ministry ought to come up with her or his most basic faith commitment — in as few words as possible — so that every sermon, indeed the whole ministry can be judged against one’s own standard of faith.

The woman who share this suggestion with me, she and her husband have worshiped with us here at Old First.
Her was bedrock belief was “God is omnipotent.” I’ve shared mine before, 2 words, curiously without any overt reference to God, but that only make sense if God’s written big behind them. My basic truth is: “People matter.” Anybody and everyone!

What I want to ask you to do today is take a minute and figure out what your most basic faith commitment about Christmas might be. Beyond all the bright wrapping paper and tinsel, after the parties and the rituals of our civil religion, what can you claim, and hold on to and trust about Christmas. Nothing long and complicated. You don’t need to understand the mind of God or explain all holy mysteries. I’m just asking for one, deeper insight, in as few words as possible… about what happened when Mary gave birth to the child Jesus. about some how that the incarnation makes a difference for you.

Isaiah might have said, “Immanuel is a sign.”

The Psalmist might have sung, “When God’s face shines upon us, we will be saved.”

Paul might have written, “There are no boundaries when it comes to God’s love.”

But my question isn’t what their kernels of Christmas truth were. I am asking what you know or believe? What’s you most basic truth in Christmas? What is the core Christmas credo you find at Bethlehem?

I have been asking people this week how they might answer that question, and what you’ve come up with, while not always the in the fewest words (it turns out people like pastors sometimes need more words to say something important!), what folks have shared with me, it’s deep.

Some people rattle their truth right off, like they’ve been waiting for someone to ask them. Others say, “Let me mull it over, and I’ll get back to you.” And some of them actually do get back to you.

Here is some of what people declared to me:

“Jesus is God putting himself in OUR care for OUR sake.”

“The Messiah’s birth means, it’s not just godly poetry or wishful promises. It’s God’s own truth.”

This was one of those rattle right offs: “Christ is a ladder down from heaven and a bridge to our neighbors.”

Some one thought for a minute and then sang (I will sing too) “Children, go where I send thee; how shall I send thee?(Yes, the first singer sounded better than me!)

One of the people who got back to me wrote, “God was born so I’m not even alone when I’m alone.”

One that sort of gave me goosebumps was this one because it was so experiential: “You know how you can pick up a baby, and suddenly the whole world feels right. That’s exactly what the Christ child was like, but more, because he actually made the world right.”

Someone said, “Ministry is making sure no baby or family has to face what Jesus and his parents faced.”

You’ll hear the seminary education in this ordained person’s truth: “As Joshua led his people over the Jordan and into the promised land, Jesus carries us to the other side.”

The shortest one so far was just two words made up of only five letters: “God is.”

Maybe next year, the quotes about Christmas that we hang on the fence that the visitors to the Creche might reflect on Christmas deeper than the barnyard tableau, maybe instead of famous writers, poets, theologians and pastors, maybe we’ll just share our own insights into Christmas…

I’ve thought of mine too: “Jesus comes down because nothing’s below God because God can lift it all up.”

Your UCC and God knows you’re good at doing what you think is right, but I’m asking you each to come up with your own sentence, some fundamental, ground-rock truth that Christmas holds for you.

You can share it with me if you wish. Or with someone else. But what I really hope– that have birthed even the littlest baby articulation of your Christmas faith, that you’ll embrace it, cherish it, particularly on Christmas Eve and Christmas, and through the rest of our holiday celebrations.

I invite you to use it like a mantra or a refrain, like Paul did in the Psalm, kept repeating “shine your face upon us; save us.”

Repeat it. Pray it. Reflect on it.
And see how it helps you experience Christmas differently, or deeper. Or maybe how it helps you to begin to behave in surprising new ways for the rest of the season… In the highs and the lows of the next days and weeks, remember your Christmas faith:

So when you’ve been with too much family for too long, return to the truth you find in the nativity.

When you’re feeling all alone, remember the truth you find in the nativity.

When what you hoped for didn’t arrive, or when what you gave didn’t seem to be appreciated, find your footing on the truth you find in the nativity.

When you are missing someone this holiday, hold on to the truth you find in the nativity.

When you wonder about the whole holy story, look for the truth you find in the nativity.

When you family or friends are just too much; or when they aren’t what you wish they would be…

When you are wondering if you will see next Christmas…

When you keep thinking about a Christmas that was so long ago…

When you are exhausted and falling asleep, close your eyes with the assurance of the truth you find in the nativity.

When you wake up and it’s the day after, and you can breath a sigh of relief, the truth you find in the nativity will still be with you, ministering to you, strengthening you.

Beloved, if we can steady ourselves spiritually on our truth, if we can cherish our truth, pray our truth, witness to our truth, share our truth, then I believe we will have a Merry and blessed Christmas, and have so much more to offer others. Amen.