Christmas Eve Sermon 2018
Christ Church Gardiner
What if we are what we believe?
This is a time of year when we hear a lot about believing. Do you believe in Santa Claus? Does the bell from the Polar Express still ring for you as it does for all who truly believe? Do you believe that every time you hear a bell ring, an angel gets her wings? What about the Elf on the Shelf? Do you believe in him?
When I was young, we spent most Christmas Eves at my grandparents’ house in Western Kentucky. And my grandmother, my Granny, would always read to us before we were sent off to bed to wait for Santa. And each year she read the same three things from her Christmas Collection:
The first was the letter from a young girl, Virginia, who in 1897, wrote to the New York Sun newspaper to find out if Santa is real. And she got a letter back, published in the newspaper, which included an earnest response from the editor on the beauty of believing. He wrote, “Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus. He exists as certainly as love and generosity and devotion exist.He lives and lives forever. A thousand years from now, Virginia, nay 10 times 10,000 years from now, he will continue to make glad the heart of childhood.”
Next, my grandmother would read a poem by Ogden Nash: “The Boy Who Laughed at Santa Claus,” about, Jabez Dawes, whose naughtiness only caught up with him when he committed the unforgivable sin. Not believing. Here’s a favorite stanza from Nash’s poem.
Yet people pardoned every sin,
And viewed his antics with a grin,
Till they were told by Jabez Dawes,
“There isn’t any Santa Claus!”
Deploring how he did behave,
His parents swiftly sought their grave.
They hurried through the portals pearly,
And Jabez left the funeral early.
By the end of the poem, Santa gets his revenge on Jabez by turning him into a jack-in-the-box. And Jabez gets the final humiliation for his unbelief when the reindeers, Donder and Blitzen, lick all of his paint off.
The last thing that my brothers and I would hear as children before going to bed on Christmas Eve was always the Christmas story. The one we just heard. From the Gospel of Luke. With the shepherds out in the fields beyond Bethlehem, keeping watch over their sheep at night. With the Angel of the Lord that suddenly appears before them, scaring them to death and proclaiming good news of great joy, that a Savior has been born this day who is the Messiah, the Lord.
And remember wherethey were told that newborn King would be found? In Bethlehem, lying in a manger, the angels said. Wrapped in swaddling clothes, in the animals’ feeding trough.
After they heard the news and the angels left them, we are told the shepherds went with haste to Bethlehem and found Mary and Joseph and this new baby, and they made known to all they met what they had learned about this child. Who he was. And what that meant. Messiah. Lord. Savior.
So every Christmas Eve, as a child, I heard these stories. Of Virginia. Of Jabez. Of the shepherds. And all of these stories are about belief. What are Virginia and Jabez Dawes and the shepherds to believe when faced with notions that seem just too incredible to be true?
I have talked about belief from this pulpit before. I have warned about its misuse in the church and by the church. I have argued that belief isn’t just about facts and evidence and scientific reasoning—though all those things are important and have their place. Belief. is. so. much. more.
The Latin word, credo, has been translated into English for us as “I believe,” but the Latin roots are better translated as “I give my heart to…”. Believing is choosing what we give our hearts to. Choosing what will shape our vision, our commitment, and our values.
What convinced those shepherds on that cold and starry night that they would find a king lying in a manger in Bethlehem? Why would they believe that when the world told them that their King was Caesar Augustus. A man who was, in fact, called Son of God and Savior. A king who was thousands of miles away in Rome, but still powerful enough to send Joseph packing up his very pregnant fiancée and making an 85-mile journey on foot so that he could be registered for the Roman census. A king who had Roman soldiers stationed throughout Israel to keep the people in line.
In the face of that harsh reality, why would they ever believe they would find their King, their Savior…the true Son of God…wrapped in swaddling clothes in a Bethlehem stable, with a teenage, unwed mother, amongst the smells and sounds of farm animals?
Because the shepherds were ready to believe. They were tired of the reality they knew. A reality of the oppression of worldly kings seeking their own gain rather than the well-being of those they ruled. The shepherds were ready to give their hearts to this babe in a manger and to a new kind of world.
A world in which God comes to us as a baby—vulnerable, defenseless, exposed.
A world in which we are surprised by a God who favors the lowly. Like Mary, the young and unwed who opens her heart to God when called. Like Joseph, who protects Mary and this child, even when society tells him he should abandon them. And like the shepherds who had no homes to speak of, except wherever they found to lay their heads in the fields at night.
A world in which it is not power and wealth and privilege that makes a king but being born of God to bring peace and joy to the downtrodden, mercy and justice to the weak, friendship and love to the scorned and rejected.
A world in which God comes down in love and chooses to take on our human nature and enter into this messy world we have made for ourselves. Leaving us to wonder in hope and joy at this great mystery of a God that would choose to live among us.
The shepherds believed because the proclamation of the angels spoke to their hearts and revealed their deepest longing for a world of justice and mercy.
What do we believe in this Christmas? What is it that we give our hearts to? Will we believe in the world as it is? Or will we believe in the world that God shows us is possible in the great mystery of this babe in the manger…God come to dwell among us? Because if we are what we believe, and we give our hearts to this baby born tonight, we will live in the hope and light of the world that is coming, not in the darkness that we find too often in the world we know. We will live with more kindness, more compassion, more hospitality, and more justice. We will live with more love. And that’s worth believing in. Amen.