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
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
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
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
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.”
It wasn’t the center of religious devotion.
It wasn’t the center of political power.
It wasn’t the center
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
Reflecting on Christmas and the possibility of the impossible, Madeleine
L’Engle wrote: “We are all asked to do more than we can do.” 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
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
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
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.
Madeleine L’Engle, Miracle on 10th Street,