This is (almost) what I preached today at Universalist National Memorial Church, Washington, D.C. from the lessons from Titus and Luke.
I’d like to think Pastor Dave Gatton for inviting me back into the pulpit this morning.
Merry Christmas to you all.
The Christmas story, as accounted in the Gospel of Luke, is so familiar that we might not hear the words. Even if you were not brought up in a church and are, say, under 50 years of age, there’s a good chance you learned this passage from Luke off television, from A Charlie Brown Christmas, in Linus’s staggering but guileless spotlight speech.
Mary and Joseph on to Bethlehem. No room in the inn. The manger. The angels and the shepherds: these are familiar and friendly.
But this year, it’s hard not to hear the words with renewed meaning, starting at the beginning of the passage from Luke:
In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. All went to their own towns to be registered.
This was no simple census. It was a foreign intrusion and assertion of power from Rome. Resented, sparking the political movement of Zealots we would meet later, in Jesus’ ministry. Judea, his home, was then administered from Syria, the eastern reach of the Roman Empire, and later united with it. The holy family were vulnerable, and then threatened under Herod’s murderous rage.
The name Syria leaps up from this passage. Aleppo, an ancient city, existed then under another name, so with our new focus on Aleppo, it’s possible to imagine how it was for Jesus’ family in those days, or others like them. The terror and the dying. The wanderings and hunger. Living just beyond the reach of help, but shaped by powerful forces.
That was a time in Judea of religious and political radicalization which ultimately led within a matter of decades to the end of the temple, a radical transformation of Judaism and the end of an independent Israel until living memory. I need not tell you the state of the world today In this telling, the gospel crashes into today.
But, apart from a historical curiosity, what does that show us? That there is suffering always? Are we stuck with endless violence and suffering. If so, what joy is there in Christmas then? Or, put another way, apart from the celebrating, what gospel is there in Christmas.
First, it’s worth owning that we have a lot invested in Christmas, perhaps too much, which has little to do with that first Christmas. Christmas today is a magical, mysterious, otherworldly, amazing, terrifying, bewildering and perplexing time of the year. Its power is palpable and recognizable. I can’t think of another religious holiday in the United States that is so easily made emotionally and socially available to all whatever their religious beliefs. In some ways it is an all-purpose celebration of goodness and hope and that should be available to everybody.
This, on its own, has religious value. As Christians, we should look towards that time that in both now and not-yet, when will we be whole and God will be all-in-all. As with the Lord’s Supper, we share our feasting and happiness in thanksgiving and preparation for that Heavenly Feast before us.
But Christmas is the foundation of an even greater hope, if we can move past the conventions of the telling — the peppermint and snow-flecked trimmings — we see the world around us is not what it seems. The Gospel of Christmas is the direction, pointing us on the way we should go.
We already know in our hearts that the world is not as it should be, as it must be. The soul craves a world refreshed and transformed, and we must bear witness to it. This is the source of true and lasting gladness.
In the passage from Paul’s letter to Titus, we learn to grow in confidence, knowing that our relationship to God is not from what we can provide God, but because of the relationship that God has initiated with us and which is manifested through Jesus’s life which we celebrate today, “we might be made heirs according to the hope of eternal life.”
We have to remember that the Christmas story is not about one child who managed to attract God’s love and attention but as one child who leads us all back to God’s care. It’s also important how this happens.
The story itself is a story of a “reversal of Fortune”: a reversal of what is important.
Did God’s approved leader appear with strength and might, from a position of power, in a center of power to conquer? None of these happened.
Jesus was born to the Jewish nation, itself very small, and not in Rome, but far from the centers of power. And the promised savior appeared not as a political or military leader but as a newborn infant.
The hope of the ages is knowing that in our smallness, and our powerlessness, and our short lives, and that we might live richly and fully and yet without hurting or dominating one another.
(If you wonder why we gather in prayer the rest of the year, it’s to learn how.)
And yet we are not left alone. God dwells with us, another girt of Christmas. And so we live in hope, and with promises from God reflected in scripture and confirmed buy an inner voice of Truth.
If we are sad or distressed or perplexed or harassed, if we are troubled or menaced or persecuted or embarrassed remember that you are a child of the Living God and that God came to Earth to lead us through a child. And so we grow as children to adulthood with earnestness curiosity joyfulness and loving kindness.
So we celebrate Christmas, even if not in the conventional way. It’s not a prize for being good, but an orientation to how life should be, particularly when everything is going wrong.
The future does not belong to us. But it is before us. Let us approach it with a Christmas spirit: with kindness, love and boldness.