Let us begin by spending time in silence remembering the firefighters who were killed in Webster this morning and their families who have been plunged into tragedy this Christmas.
I failed to make sure that on Sunday—yesterday—we celebrated a very special happening. We are all still here. December 21 came and went, and along with it the end of the Mayan calendar and, well, actually it was just the end of the Mayan calendar. I understand that some who are into new age spirituality are saying it was never supposed to be the end of the world, but a (surprise, surprise) new age.
We love the sense that we can wipe the slate clean and start all over again. In another week many of us will try to do so again. I have long lost track of the “new ages” I have declared in my life! Things are going to change! Sometimes they do, at least a little, and that is not such a bad thing. But it is still me on the other side of the declaration that things are going to be different. It is still me and all the stuff I bring with me.
Some people have talked, and still do, about the birth of Jesus as having inaugurated a new age. We divide up the Bible as if that were the case: “Old” Testament and “New” Testament. But I am not so sure how helpful that kind of talk is. I am not sure that is what God intended.
The Gospel writer Luke seems to want us to know that Jesus was born in the stream of history: in the days when Augustus Caesar was Emperor, and Quirinius was the governor of Syria (which at the time included Judea). That history carried on without so much as a blip caused by the birth of Jesus. If it was the dawn of a new age, angels appearing to a bunch of shepherds fell a little short, even if it does make a pretty picture and lovely music.
The truth is that God does not seem to like big, flashy shows of revelation and dramatic dawnings of new ages. He seems to rather like sneaking into the picture under the cover of desperate men and women and their unlikely babies, as we have heard this evening.
Abraham and Sarah are often portrayed as the exemplars of biblical faith, and yet Abraham consistently doubts that he is going to get this promised child and Sarah, well, she falls into giggles when the three strangers make their solemn promise. It was a great promise when they were young, but a lot of life had passed them by.
Moses, destined for death like all Jewish boys of his day, ends up being raised in the household of Pharaoh, one of God’s neater tricks. Also, notice how many women are the heroes of the story of Moses’ birth and upbringing. Strange for anyone headed for authority.
Eli the priest believes Hannah is drunk, yet she is praying desperately for a child, and when she has one, in typical biblical irony, she gives him to Eli to raise.
David and Bathsheeba have experienced the tragic loss of the child conceived out of their adulterous and murderous affair. Yet along comes another and they are redeemed. The prophet Nathan, often a thorn in David’s side, declares that Solomon has another name, “Jedidiah,” “Beloved of the Lord.” Yet it is also true that this birth is barely mentioned.
Each of these births is an important part of the story, but none of them pretended to be the dawn of a new age, none of them caused history to spin on a dime or had much of any impact on the powerful of this world (with the possible exception of Solomon). They were obscure births to obscure people, members of an obscure nation in an obscure corner of the world. If God had wanted to get the world’s attention, he could have done a lot better.
What these births—including the birth of Jesus—testify to is that life with God is life in a perpetual new age, with the newness best found bubbling along in the ordinary, the obscure and the marginalized. New life is a daily phenomenon, every moment is pregnant with its possibility, and the things that tend to get in the way of this possibility are the things we use to have control and power over others.
The paradox of the Christmas story is that if we try by our own power or control to make our lives new, we are doomed to failure, but if we are able to let go and accept the fact that God is much more likely to be found in a cow barn than a mansion, the newness at our disposal will stun us.
We call this good news, glad tidings, and salvation on this holy night, but we are skeptical of it at best and stubbornly opposed to it at worst. For example, how do we keep children safe in our elementary schools? Increase the power of the good guys so they have more power than the bad guys? Human history is riddled with the destruction brought on by that theory. A spokesperson for the NRA says, “The answer to bad guys with guns is good guys with guns.”
Really? Is that all we’ve got? If it is, Jesus weeps, and God help us all.
But one must admit that the way of the glad tidings of the angels this night seems risky and even foolhardy. It is the way of vulnerability, the way of love, the way of justice, the way of peace. The deeper story here is how we as a society still shame and isolate people who happen to suffer from mental illness. We tend to fear them as if they have a deadly, communicable disease.
The saddest story I heard related to the Newtown shootings was a classmate of Adam Lanza’s talking about how he kept to himself, was painfully shy, and alone almost all the time.
My friends, at the heart of the Christian good news is that no one need be alone, because, in fact, no one is alone. God has visited his people and, despite being born in a cow barn and crucified on a hill outside the city, God still chooses to call us beloved.
Everyone has a right to know that. Everyone has a right to know the truth about themselves. If there are Christian people around, how is it possible that anyone could be lonely? If we see loneliness it is our job to change it. And this is especially true if the lonely one is a stranger or different, even to the point of making us uncomfortable.
The Christmas story is meant to shatter our illusions that love has its boundaries. It never did. The birth of Jesus did not start God loving the world in a profligate and prodigal way. If anything it was the moment when God said, “OK, I guess I’m going to have to get my hands dirty.
December 21st was not the dawn of a new age. It was another day of newness on the story of God and God’s people, another day when God’s people could choose to partner with God to make peace on earth and good will—that is, justice, to the men and women and the creation God loves. Everyone deserves to know the truth about themselves, the truth told in the baby we celebrate this night.