Saturday, December 25, 2010

Christmas Eve and Christmas Day sermon, Yr A- 2010: The Scandal of Christmas

Lectionary: Isaiah 9:2-7; Psalm 96; Titus 2:11-14; Luke 2:1-14(15-20)

Joy Carroll Wallis, an author and Anglican priest, tells the story of a Christmas song that came out about 10 years ago, written by Cliff Richard, a popular British musician. The song is called, “Saviour’s Day” and it includes these lyrics: “Life can be yours on Saviour’s Day, don’t look back or turn away.”

A teen magazine, reviewing this Christmas song wrote: “This song is OK, but there’s no holly, no mistletoe…no presents around the tree, no Santa, in fact, this song hasn’t got anything to do with Christmas at all!” This is pretty typical of how the world sees, isn’t it? But God sees things differently, and asks the same of us.

The real meaning of Christmas has become a scandal once again in our culture. But it’s the wrong scandal…it’s missing the point. People struggle to find the politically correct way to wish each other well. Whether you say Merry Christmas or Happy Holidays, somebody’s going to be insulted. Christmas decorations seem to appear in the stores shortly after school starts now and rarely (if ever) make it until the twelfth day of Christmas – The Feast of the Epiphany, on January 6.

Christmas as a scandal is not a new thing. The same was true of the first Christmas and they too were focused on the wrong scandal.

According to the Gospel writer, Joseph, who is descended from the house of David, must travel to Bethlehem to register in accordance with a decree from Caesar Augustus. Mary, who is engaged to Joseph, is pregnant and near delivery, so they travel together.

Ordinarily, travelers like Mary and Joseph would have stayed with family or friends who live in the area. But Mary and Joseph can find no place to stay. The Christmas story, which we know so well, says ‘there was no room for them at the inn.’

We need to remember that in first century Palestine, an inn was not a hotel. It was the guest room in a typical “peasant house in which family and animals slept on different levels in the same enclosed space…” Mary and Joseph had to stay in the part of their friends’ house where the animals were kept, and the baby would have been placed in a feeding trough” to keep him above hoof level, so he wouldn’t get trampled accidentally by an animal.

But noting the real scandal in this story, Joy Carroll Wallis suggests that Joseph and Mary might have been shunned…their family and friends morally outraged, because Joseph showed up on their doorstep with his pregnant girlfriend” and it wasn’t even his baby.

People looking at Joseph and Mary saw sinners whom they felt justified in rejecting and excluding. But God saw partners in redemption.

The Messiah was being born in their home, and they missed it because they were busy moralizing…hence the scandal of Christmas. The judgment of God, who is the only real moral authority – is (are you listening?) salvation for the whole world. And this salvation is in Jesus the Christ.

By taking on flesh Jesus links heaven and earth, eternity and time, from ages past to this present moment reconciling us to himself and ensuring that everyone is included in God’s plan of salvation …the clean and the unclean, the Jew and Gentile, the saint and the sinner.

Now there’s a scandal!

Some would have God limit grace only to those who deserve it. Well the truth is, none of us deserves it, yet all of us receive it, because that is the nature of the extravagant love of God.

Luke affirms this in his telling the Christmas story. The first to hear of this scandalous birth were the shepherds in the fields.

For most of us, the thought of shepherds brings to our minds peaceful, pastoral images… we see Jesus with a lamb wrapped around his shoulders, the Good Shepherd, lovingly caring for his sheep, even leaving the 99 to seek the lost one. But that’s because we have the benefit of 2000 years of the transforming love of God imposed on that image.

In the first century, “Shepherding was a despised occupation…they were scorned as dishonest people who grazed their flocks on other [people’s] lands.” They didn’t bathe much so they didn’t smell good – and worse yet, they were ritually unclean, which means, they wouldn’t have been allowed in church.

And this particular group of shepherds to whom the angels appeared, was the lowest of the low. These were the shepherds working the grave-yard shift. But God, who sees differently than the world does, chose these shepherds to be the first to see the Light, the presence of God, which, Scripture tells us, shone all around them when the angel spoke.

Today, it is us whom God is choosing. We are God’s present partners in the plan of redemption. We are the believers described in the letter to Titus as: people who are zealous for good deeds. Zealous because the light of God’s love fills us to overflowing and we want to share it – we can’t help but share it. Mother Theresa of Calcutta used to say, “If you know how much God is in love with you, you can’t help but live your life radiating that love.”

What we often interpret as our own good works is really God’s love radiating from us into our world. In other words, it isn’t by our efforts that good works happen but by God’s love working in us.

Last Wednesday we served over 600 people at the Shepherd’s Table (our feeding ministry). On our own, we couldn’t do this. A year ago, no one would have believed we’d be doing this. But knowing that God is doing this work in us makes anything possible.

The good news of Christmas is for us, a present reality, not just an event in ancient history that we remember and talk about. Christ is being born in us again right now. We gather together to hear again this scandalously good news, and hopefully, to be amazed and changed by it.

Tonight (today) we are reminded to look with God’s eyes, not with the world’s eyes, and we seek this child Jesus in our midst, remembering that salvation extends to the unworthy and the lowly, as well as to the righteous. And hopefully, like those shepherds in the Gospel story, we will be so moved by the reality of this good news that we’ll want to run and tell everyone we know about the true meaning of Christmas - which (I’m sorry) has nothing to do with mistletoe, or presents, or Santa…

For us, Christmas is about responding with love to the God who loved us first… to the God who loved us enough to become one of us, to share our vulnerabilities, and take all our fears into his tender embrace…. to the God who loved us enough to bring IN all whom the world would prefer to keep OUT.

So, as we celebrate together tonight, let’s sing out our praise: Glory to God in the highest heaven! For to us is born this day a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.

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