St. John's Episcopal Church

Sermon for December 24, 2017 

Christmas Eve

The Rev. Carol Hancock


St. John's, Centreville
Christmas Eve, 4 and 10 PM
December 24, 2017
Luke 2:1-20
      Now may God who brightened the skies over Bethlehem, filled the shepherd's hearts with mysteries, and transformed a stable into a thing of immortal beauty, brighten our skies, fill our hearts with mystery, and transform our lives forever. Amen.
    We have come together on this most holy might to celebrate the birth of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. We have spent the last four weeks of Advent preparing ourselves for this life-changing event. We have waited with anticipation and expectation.
     We have survived the traffic, the lines in the stores, the endless playing of Jingle Bells, and all the secular trappings of Christmas. We have made it to Christmas Eve where hopefully we can relax and enjoy the moment - the moment when we realize that God has sent God's Son into this world as a helpless baby, to very ordinary people, to show us God's love for each and every one of us. God came to be one of us, to be one with us, to experience what we experience, to show us a better way to live.
     Jesus is born to Mary and Joseph, two poor, humble peasants from the hill country of Galilee, to these people who said "yes" to God to bear and raise the Savior of the world. Obeying the orders of Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered, they traveled to Bethlehem, an arduous journey for a woman who is nine months pregnant. Bethlehem was the city of David and Joseph was descended from the house of David.  But when they arrive, they find there are no vacant rooms in the inn, because everyone else is there for the census as well. So they are directed to a stable with straw on the floor and animals filling the place. But at least it was a private place for Mary to deliver her child.
     We can imagine that this was not the plan that Mary and Joseph had for the delivery of their baby. They had most likely planned to deliver the child at their home, with a midwife to help, and perhaps Mary's mother and other women there for support and encouragement. But the emperor derailed those plans when he ordered the census to be taken.
     As all of this is taking place in Bethlehem, shepherds are watching over their sheep outside the city. Suddenly they are visited by an angel of the Lord, and, as angels do, they begin with the phrase, "Do not be afraid." The angel announces the Messiah's birth, followed by other angels who sing their glory to God.
     So the shepherds leave their sheep, perhaps in the care of other shepherds and they hurry to Bethlehem to see what the angels are talking about. They find the stable where Mary and Joseph are, and they see the baby Jesus wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger, usually used to feed the animals. They tell Mary and Joseph what the angels have told them and Mary ponders it all in her heart.
     So here we have Jesus, born to two ordinary Jewish peasants, homeless refugees, a carpenter and a teenage girl, in a stable surrounded by animals. Their faith must have been strong in order to do what God asked them to do - to give birth and to raise the Savior of the world.
     So why did God choose these very ordinary people? Why not choose royalty, or wealthy people who could give Jesus everything he wanted, with servants who could wait on him hand and foot? And why did God choose shepherds who were illiterate, dirty, at the bottom of the social ladder? Why did Jesus have such a humble start to his life in this world?
     Jesus came to be one of us, to be one with us. He came from humble beginnings so we could identify with him. If he had born into the lap of luxury, it would be hard for us to identify with him. He wouldn't have had some of the same struggles and hardships that most ordinary people have.
     If Jesus were to be born today, where do you think that might be? Perhaps in a refugee camp, or a jail, or an immigrant center, or a homeless shelter, maybe in the inner city. It would be in a place where he would be surrounded by the marginalized, by those who have no social status or power, by those who seem to go unnoticed.
     Jesus came into this world to be present with those for whom there is no room in our society, those who don't belong, those who are ignored or cast aside. Jesus came to stand with the shepherds, the lowest of the low, with poor peasants like Mary and Joseph from the hill country - the unnoticed, those who are deemed unimportant.
     God arrives, even when things don't go as we had planned them. In the midst of life's messes God is there. God is with the weak and the poor, the sick and the powerless. The angels appear to the shepherds with the good news that God has come for all people - not just the rich and powerful, but to all people. The angel does not appear to the emperor or to those in power. The angels appear to ordinary shepherds as they are doing their work in the fields.
     God is present with us in the midst of the ordinariness of our lives - as we are working or raising our children or caring for our parents or going to school. God is with us when we are quietly going about our lives and trying to be faithful to God. Usually what we do does not go viral on social media or make it on the nightly news. But we can spread the gospel of Jesus Christ everyday in our ordinary lives by our words and our actions.
     As one author put it, "God's love isn't for the pious and perfect. God's grace doesn't come only in moments of quiet contemplation, when everything else is wrapped up and settled down and put to bed. But God's love breaks in on us precisely in those days when it is the last time and place we would expect God's love to be - in the emergency room, in the homeless shelter, where people's hearts are breaking, where people are struggling for justice, where everything seems hopeless, joyless, or filled with sorrow or fear. It is precisely in these times that God's love comes, that God's love holds us together, just as it did in a stable in Bethlehem. And suddenly the world is hushed, the chaos pauses for a moment, the angel appears, and the heavenly chorus sings. The Savior of the world is here and new life begins."
     The birth of Jesus some 2000 years ago continues to give us hope and strength and courage as we face the many highs and lows of life. God lives in us and with us and surrounds us with God's love. It is God's promise that God will never abandon us, no matter what. And that is the good news of Christmas Eve. Nothing....nothing can separate us from the love of God in Jesus Christ. No matter what we have done, no matter how far we have strayed from God, God constantly calls us back - back home, back to God's loving embrace, back to the peace that only God can give.
     The extraordinary Word of God did not just fall from heaven but became flesh and blood and lived among us in the person of Jesus Christ. That is what we celebrate here tonight. The story of the birth of the Christ child is not something that just happened in the past. Christmas happens whenever we let God into our lives......Christmas happens whenever we let God into our lives. O come, O come Emmanuel. Come and enter our hearts this night and all the days to come. Amen.
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