December 24: Christmas Eve

The Rev. Joseph Peters-Mathews is the vicar of St. Hilda-St. Patrick. The sermon for Christmas Eve 2020 was preached based on the below manuscript. The texts for the day were Christmas Day I.

On his album about
losing his faith and going through a divorce
singer-songwriter Derek Webb
writes about his new Christmas norm:
The tiny christmas tree
The empty stockings hanging
The house devoid of chaos and life
While daddy’s getting drunk
The peanuts kids are dancing
There’s no star atop the tree tonight
‘Cause i’m taking what you give
The baby god returning
Bringing peace to every house but mine.
Webb’s desperation about this Christmas
comes through unmistakably
as he concludes the song
“So a toast to all my friends
Who are lost and beat and bleeding
Still chasing empty mangers out of faith.”

This desperation, sadness, and longing
about Christmas —
when so many of us are usually with our families —
echoes true for so many of us tonight.
You are not here with me tonight.
Your children aren’t in a pew from college
being dragged to hear the relatively new priest
who isn’t nearly as hip as he thinks he is.
There aren’t children in pajamas
or thrown together impromptu pageant costumes.
Topher isn’t asleep on someone
until Brandon can get here.
This is not the Christmas we’re used to,
the Christmas we know and love.
It’s the Christmas we’ve been dealt, though
almost a year into this pandemic,
with the death toll rising daily.

Luke tells us that
in those days —
the days and months after
Gabriel tells Mary she’s been chosen
and after John the Baptizer is born —
a decree goes out.
The whole of the world is to be registered,
a census is to be taken.
Censuses aren’t just about counting people
or apportioning spending and representation.
A census for Mary, Joseph, and the shepherds
is a clue that their wealth is being counted.
That wealth is being counted
so that it can be taxed away.

A puppet Syrian governor
under the control of the Roman empire
expects people to return to their family cities.
Mary and Joseph
have to travel to Bethlehem to be counted
even as Mary is very pregnant.
Mary and Joseph would not have been
the only members of their family
making this journey.
We’ve extrapolated a lot of imagery
out of the words,
“laid him in a manger,
because there was no place for them in the inn.”
The only miracle in Jesus’ birth as Luke tells it
is the miracle of birth itself,
and the miracle of the creator of the universe
coming to humanity as a helpless,
dependent baby.

As Mary and Joseph are caught up
in the realities of giving a baby,
no angel shows up for them.
Luke doesn’t tell us about a star
that appears overhead.
Rather than heralding kings
an angel appears to shepherds,
hard laborers on the margins of society.
Like greeting Mary and Elizabeth beforehand,
the angel greets them,
“Do not be afraid!
I am bringing you good news
of great joy for all the people:
to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior,
who is the Messiah, the Lord.”

Do not be afraid.
Born this day in the city of David
is a savior.
We look for flair and excitement and royalty,
dashing to Matthew’s stargazing kings for that image.
Luke has the King of Kings and Lord of Lords
rested in a manger,
swaddled like any other baby,
The savior of all creation’s birth
is announced to the poor on the margins.
Mary and Joseph don’t even know about the angels
until she shepherds show up.

Luke’s dating for when this happens —
censuses and governors and emperors —
is a little off from corroborating histories.
That’s not the point.
As Fred Craddock says,
“Caesar Augustus
is more than a date for the story;
he is an instrument of God’s will.
There does not have to be a miracle
or an unusual event
for God to be at work.
God works miracles in Luke,
to be sure,
but God works without them, too.”

This year,
like this birth story we hear every year,
has not been full of miracles.
Nonetheless, God is at work.
God works with miracles,
and God works without them.
Brandon got his first COVID vaccine dose today.
One of my cousins
and a woman from my church in Alabama
got theirs this week.
No angels appeared,
no stars moved,
and God is at work in human hands.
From the day of the nativity,
God has been at work in the human body,
becoming human
so that we might become divine.
Jesus has come into the world,
“the grace of God has appeared,
bringing salvation to all.”
It’s may feel like it’s been a year
of chasing empty mangers.
Do not be afraid.
Born this day in the city of David
is a savior.
As we stand at the manger
the feeding trough that holds Jesus
the true Son of God,
fully human, fully divine
we celebrate emmanuel:
God with us.
Standing at the manger —
sitting at home —
the miracle of God with us in Jesus
is the third verse of O Holy Night
is our normal as Christians
“Truly He taught us to love one another;
His law is love and His gospel is peace.
Chains shall He break for the slave is our brother;
And in His name all oppression shall cease.
Sweet hymns of joy in grateful chorus raise we,
Let all within us praise His holy name.”

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