“To Such a World as This”

Christmas Day—2016


Long ago in another century, when I was a child—I was still in grade school—the strangest thing happened at Christmas. Christmas fell on a Sunday! Can you imagine that? I still remember the, well, the trepidation I felt as that childhood Christmas approached, talking with my parents about what would happen.

“You mean we’re going to church on Christmas morning?”

“You mean instead of staying in a house filled with presents, still in pajamas and warm robes, we’re going to get dressed and go to church?

“You mean—let me get this straight so we’re all clear about it—we’re going to church?

Yes, yes, and yes.

Days like this don’t come all that often. The last time Christmas fell on a Sunday was 5 years ago—back in 2011. It will be on a Sunday again in 2022. Because of Leap Year we can go five, six, or even eleven years between Sunday Christmases. So enjoy this one!

Young or old, I’m glad you came here to worship this morning.

We’re doing something that the calendar doesn’t let us do very often.

And we’re doing something very Congregationalist. Our Congregational ancestors ignored Christmas Day and both the pomp and the frivolity that they thought accompanied the day in England. You might say we started the original “War on Christmas.”

In colonial New England, all those Congregationalists worked on December 25.

But they always worshipped on Sunday—this weekly celebration of the resurrection.

And now that we’re some ten hours into Christmas Day, I guess I can ask:

Who got what they wanted for Christmas?

What did you get?

There was a department store ad a few years back that showed people jumping up and down with great excitement. An announcer told us: “Better gifts get better reactions.” Anybody jump up and down this morning?

O.K. Who didn’t get what they wanted?

Dare I ask what you didn’t get?

For many people this has been a year of not getting what they wanted. Official counts show that Hilary Clinton won the popular vote but she and her supporters didn’t get what they wanted. Just last Monday, the Electoral College elected Donald Trump as President—but already many who voted for him are having some regrets—the website that reports on this calls these misgivings “Trumpgrets”.

Regardless of who you voted for, most people don’t want the incivility, the upheaval, and the uncertainty of these days. Most people don’t want the racism, the sexism, the homophobia, the religious intolerance that seems on the rise in our nation and around the world.

Now, I know this doesn’t sound very “holly jolly,” but here we are on Christmas morning, the day of incarnation, greeting the dawn. And Christmas morning calls us away from Bethlehem back into the world.

Here we are on Sunday morning, the day of resurrection, with the dawn calling us into a new and vulnerable hope.

That we might go from Bethlehem into the world with hope and renewed strength, recall those words from John’s Gospel: “In the beginning was the Word…And the Word—God in action, creating, revealing and redeeming—the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.”

There’s that wonderful story of the child who was awakened in the middle of the night by a violent thunderstorm. Frightened, she went and woke her parents. Through her tears she told them how scared she was. Her parents, in an attempt to reassure her, said, “Try not to be scared. Remember, God is with you.”

Speaking for most of us at some time in our lives, the little girl replied, “I know God is with me, but tonight I want someone with skin on.”

Skin we understand.

Flesh we can see and touch.

At Christmas we celebrate the good news beyond our deepest fears and wildest hopes: Jesus is Emmanuel, God with us, God “with skin on.” This is God with a body, God with a face. This is a Creator who relates to us creatures as one of us.

In Jesus, God becomes incarnate—taking on human flesh, human life. That’s always kind of embarrassing for Christians because it means we don’t worship a grand and noble God, distant in the heavens. We worship a God best known in human flesh. We don’t proclaim a God who shows us how our souls can be raised to a heavenly stature. We announce a God who takes on the limitations of earthly, fleshy existence, who, as we sang in the carol, came down to such a world as this.

And if God can embrace flawed human flesh, so too God will embrace flawed human lives. And that, of course, is good news. All the ways that we don’t measure up, all the ways that we have failed, all the ways we have, well, sinned—God embraces them, embraces us with a forgiving love that calls us away from past regret into the future.

There are times, of course, when our bodies know human evil and human pain quite well. At such times, if we do not flinch, if we do not doubt in the face of pain and evil, we have forgotten what it means to be human ourselves. Our human lives are fragile. Our human institutions are fragile.

This is the human condition that God embraces in Jesus. As Christians, we are those who affirm and follow the Word made flesh who is still at work in the world in our own bodies, which together somehow can be thought of as the body of Christ. When we speak from faith, we confess that in Jesus, God took on the suffering of the world and then called the followers of Jesus to carry on that mission—what Howard Thurman called “the work of Christmas:” to find the lost and lonely, to heal the broken.

And we begin to see once more that the Word who became flesh and dwelt among us loves not only human beings, but this earth, our home. We are still called to care for this earth, to tend it, to be stewards of the earth even as our very human actions imperil the well-being of life on this planet.

When people say that Christmas has become too materialistic, I wonder. After all, it’s been said that one of the blunders religious people are particularly fond of making is the attempt to be “more spiritual than God.”

The problem is not that we are focused too much on the physical rather than on the spiritual. We need to change the direction in which we are looking, not our focus. We concentrate on many “things” because we have forgotten the one thing that is necessary.

Let us then celebrate these days of Christmas with our own skin on. Let us begin with our own flesh and blood experiences, for we are probably closer than we realize to understanding what Christmas is all about.

            Our bodies shivering in the cold.

            All the searching and seeking that we have done.

            Every card sent in an attempt to be in touch with other people.

            The unchecked impulses to give, to be kind.

            The rushing and running of all our days.

The more we are involved in the world,

            the more we are living, physical bodies,

the more we can remember that it was as a human being—not as a spirit—that God chose to come to us.

Look. See God in this human flesh, God known not in heavenly visions but in a person—this Jesus—born as we are, born amid labor pains and birth cries.

God does not leave this world alone.

God does not leave you alone.

God loves human and earthly things. God has come to us in human flesh that we might love our time, our world all the more. And in loving family and neighbors, in welcoming strangers we might glimpse the eternity that carries us all.

So let us go from this day remembering both incarnation and resurrection—the birth and new life that God makes possible.

Let us give thanks for what we have received—maybe even if it not exactly what we wanted. And in the face of what we didn’t want, let us resolve to bring change into this world in these days that we have been given.