“Christmas Eve—2016

 

On behalf of the Congregational United Church of Christ I once more want to welcome those of you who are our guests here this evening, whether you are visiting with family or friends or have found your way here on your own. And I extend a special invitation to you, our guests, to join everyone else at the reception downstairs after our worship—it is always a glorious occasion. I hope that all of you are finding this a place of warmth on a cold night and a place of joy as we celebrate together.

As much as I might like to, I cannot ignore the reality that Christmas this year comes at the end of a difficult and troubling year.

Some are dealing with serious illness. For some, grief over loss is still fresh and strong. Some face an end-of-the-year overload of work or find their very employment threatened. For some the New Year will bring difficult decisions. Others feel the crunch of money or time and the sense that there never seems to be enough of either.

After the violence around the world last Monday, that day is already being referred to a “Black Monday.” We face uncertainty and disruption and find ourselves living in what Time called the “Divided States of America.” And just yesterday came talk of a renewed nuclear arms race.

It has been a difficult year.

But tonight we are offered a new vision.

The British choral composer, John Rutter, once said: “I love Christmas. It’s the child in me. Maybe I’ve never quite grown up. I still feel just for those few magic days a year that we have the world as it might be.”

In the first chapter of Luke’s gospel, we hear Mary tell of the world as it might be, the world as God will one day make it. Her song speaks of the deep human hope—and perhaps of deep human fear:

God has brought down the powerful…and lifted up the lowly;

God has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.

Christmas give us the chance to see again the world as it might be. It is more than magic. It is not for children alone but for the often weary and jaded adults that we have become. We hear the good news that God is still at work in the world, so that the world that is more and more becomes the world as it might be.

And what place does God choose for a beacon of this hope? The least likely of places: Bethlehem.

Real estate agents tell us that the key is “location, location, location,” and that seems to be the message we hear tonight.

Luke tells us that because Joseph was a descendant of David, the census required Joseph and Mary to return to the birthplace of that great king: the little town of Bethlehem.

Matthew tells of a shining star and religious leaders searching the scriptures, telling the Magi the surprising news: “You will find what you seek in the insignificant town of Bethlehem.”

And Luke, again, has the angel telling the frightened shepherds the same thing: a Savior is born in the city of David. And they quickly make a decision: “Let us go now to Bethlehem.”

Bethlehem.

It wasn’t the center of religious devotion.

It wasn’t the center of political power.

It wasn’t the center of anything.

And yet, on this night we hear that Bethlehem is where it’s at. It’s the place to be.

The name “Bethlehem” means “House of Bread.” And as insignificant as Bethlehem was, it’s been pointed out that the little town had this going for it: the village was situated in a fruitful and fertile place, with an abundance of fresh water. With work, its soil would yield food and harvest. It was favored, not so much in riches as in opportunity.

Time and time again when we open up the Bible we find the same thing: God chooses the least significant places and the least likely people to accomplish God’s great purposes of justice and peace, love and mercy in this world.

When God chooses the least likely—whether that is Bethlehem and Mary or you and me—nothing stays the same. The weak become strong; the hungry are filled with good things. What seems absolutely impossible is presented to the world as a sign of God's love.

The web of circumstance and experience is so complex, perhaps we would even dare to say that the power of God is so resourceful and creative, that at any time we may be astounded by the “impossible.”[1]

Reflecting on Christmas and the possibility of the impossible, Madeleine L’Engle wrote: “We are all asked to do more than we can do.[2]” You know what she means, don’t you? Over and over we discover this in the stories of scripture. Over and over we discover this in our own lives. At some point we come to the limit of our abilities. Just at that point, something—life or love, desire or God—something calls us beyond those limits. Our inability becomes an opportunity for greater achievement.

No wonder the hopes and fears seem to be met in that little town of Bethlehem.

In unlikely places, God sees possibility.

In unlikely people, God creates new opportunities.

The God who uses the least likely, the insignificant, does not keep us that way. The weak become strong. The mountains and hills of challenge are brought low. The valleys of our despair are filled with hope. The rough places of our lives become smooth.

Here we are, in our own Bethlehem—a somewhat insignificant place in the middle of “flyover country,” but also a fruitful and fertile place, also favored in opportunity.

At the end of this year, on this night, I listen to the strange news about Bethlehem and I am filled with wonder as I consider that God can use this unlikely congregation and all of us unlikely people to bring good news to a world in upheaval.

Let us, then, tonight, tomorrow, and in the days to come, once more tune our voices to sing of joy and faith.

Let us direct our lives to show love and mercy.

Let us continue to do all we can to shape our world into a place of justice and peace.

In the coming year, let us allow God to work among us and through us in surprising and unexpected ways.

In the coming year, let us allow God to transform what is weak within us into new, unexpected strength.

Christ is born in Bethlehem. From that little town, we hear the great good news: Along with all of creation, you are loved by God, whose mercy is great, whose compassion is eternal.

Let us look again at Bethlehem with wonder as God incarnate in Jesus comes to us and through us makes the world as it might be.



[1] Samuel Miller, What Child Is This? pg. 17-18.

 

[2] Madeleine L’Engle, Miracle on 10th Street, pg. 71.