We have all gathered here for a very special celebration tonight, and special celebrations often call for a bit of reflection, introspection, a moment to pause and consider the meaning and the import of why we are gathered. We see this often at a wedding reception, when the best man or maid of honor gives a speech about the couple. The best speeches not only wish the couple every happiness, but often say something about the personality of the couple, why they seem so well-suited, and what their hopes, dreams and aspirations may be. They are at the beginning of their life together as a married couple, and what they will become together is in the future.
At graduations, too, we congratulate the student for his or her accomplishments and look forward to what they will do with all their new knowledge and wisdom and preparation – as the poet Mary Oliver says: “Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”
And when a baby is born or adopted we offer our congratulations to the parents, and the grandparents, big brothers or sisters, and any other relatives that are basking in the glow of this new family member, and we say things like: “Look at those hands; he’s going to be a great catcher!” or “See how attentive and focused she is; maybe she’ll grow up to be a lawyer like her mom!” We wish and hope and wonder all kinds of things on the momentous occasion of a baby’s arrival; we almost stand on our tip-toes and try to see into the future of the child’s life.
And so we come together this evening to celebrate the birth of Jesus – the arrival of God in human life, human flesh, God incarnate. But we are here to celebrate more than just a birthday; we are here to call to mind, and to enter into, the reality of Jesus all over again, to open ourselves to the meaning of this birth, this life, in all its ordinariness and all its uniqueness. God came to us in the person of a tiny helpless baby – and could he have chosen less impressive circumstances? A young couple, engaged (there was certainly a hint of scandal there), on the road, strangers in a small town that could not seem to make room for them, consigned to the cow shed out back of the tavern – not a very promising beginning for the Messiah, the Savior of the world.
Why did God do that? He did it to show us that we do not have to come to God with our best face on, wearing fancy clothes, holding positions of power or influence or wealth, or even with all of our ideas about God and life and spirituality all sorted out and analyzed. Instead, God comes to us, just as we are – in whatever messiness or confusion or anxiety or difficulty we may be living in. God comes to us – not because we’ve earned it or deserved it, or decided that we believe in God. God comes to us because he believes in us, and wants to show us the path to fullness of life and hope.
God came to us in a baby named Jesus who was the ancient hope and longing of his ancestors, after centuries of prayer and waiting, but he didn’t just remain a child. Jesus grew to be an adult, a carpenter by trade, a rabbi by calling, a spiritual teacher and healer who also was God incarnate. And as we stand on tip-toe at the manger, along with the cow and the ox and the sheep that trailed in along with the shepherds – as we lean forward for a glimpse of the baby, we also need to remember the man; remember what he said, what he taught and what he did.
He healed people, he drove out evil spirits, he confronted the religious authorities, he gathered a circle of disciples and a much larger group of followers, he gave sight to the blind, opened the ears of the deaf, offered good news to the poor, raised the dead; he taught at every opportunity and in every circumstance how to live with God at the center of life, according to God’s values and God’s vision.
One day a religious scholar confronted Jesus, and asked him what was the most important commandment or law or religious teaching – and Jesus answered him this way: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.” This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.
Love God, love your neighbor as if you were loving yourself – these twin truths are the center of Jesus’ life and ministry and teaching, and they color everything else that he said or did. And Jesus told us this so that we could make it the center of our lives, also: Love God, love your neighbor – and then act accordingly.
You might be thinking that it sounds simple but …. in reality is very difficult – and you would be right; no one can love God perfectly or fully, and we certainly don’t have a great track record of loving our neighbor as ourselves. Our ego, our fear, our pride, our self-centeredness, our own need and stress level gets in the way; sometimes we are just cranky and over-tired – whatever it might be, we do a less than perfect job of loving God and neighbor; this is part of what we call sin. And that is exactly the regular human life that God entered when Jesus was born. So God knows – God knows what we are dealing with, how we are made, what things delight us, and what our challenges are; God knows all this from the inside out because he has lived a human life, he has come alongside us, has been the one to extended a hand to us first.
This baby who grew to be a man ended his life by embracing suffering and death at the hands of military authorities on our behalf – going through the very worst of human life and nature – before rising to a whole new kind of God-given life in what we know as the resurrection, so that we might be able to share God’s life fully. That what was facing the baby in the manger, the Christ Child – a real, human life, intertwined with his real divine self. There is now no part of human feeling or experience or pain or joy or suffering that God cannot understand and enter into, that God cannot redeem and save and make whole, because God has been there – where you are, now, tonight, in this life.
And this is great good news because in the birth and life and teaching and death and resurrection of Jesus God offers us new life, and purpose and blessing in the life we live here and now; a life with God as the center of our love, that then flows out to our families, our neighbors, our enemies, the world around us… and indeed, the whole cosmos.
And it all started with a baby.
May your Christmas celebration be filled with joy, and hope, and the wonderful, life-giving presence of God; and may you find ways to share that joy and hope and presence with others who need to know that God believes in them and loves them.
Let us pray.
O God, you are holy and we stand in awe before you. But we remember that you came to us in Jesus, right where we live. Send your Spirit to us that we may know fully the love and goodness and favor you have towards us, that our lives may be washed through with your grace and we may reflect and shine forth to others all that we have received. Amen.
Victoria Geer McGrath
All Saints’ Church, Millington, NJ
December 24, 2013