Each week, Grace’s minister, and the occasional guest preacher, seek to connect scripture to the challenges of following Christ in the world today. A collection of recent sermons can be found below.
Grace United Methodist – December 24, 2018 – Rev. Dr. Amy P. McCullough
December 24, 2018
The baby was nearly ready to come when Mary and Joseph left Nazareth, heading south, following the Emperor’s orders. They had 90 miles to travel, a four-day journey on foot. By the end of the first day they were soul-weary, every step an affirmation of their own insignificance, two tiny numbers in a worldwide census. Their destination was Bethlehem, that ancient village dating back at least ten centuries and bearing the roots of King David’s family tree. Despite its history, Bethlehem was a small town, perched on a ridge with fertile hillside for grazing animals and a water source that supplied more mighty Jerusalem nearby.
The baby was very ready to come when the couple arrived in Bethlehem. So many others also were there, travelers forced by the same edict. There was no room for them, Luke tells us, no welcome for a young, strange couple. From the beginning the world was not hospitable to Christ. Mary and Joseph create room instead, finding a space near the animals, an open place where the stars piercing the dark night could peak through the entrance. Through the night the baby comes. Mary bears into the world a child she did not anticipate. Joseph guides into the world a child not quite his. Jesus comes amid all the upheaval, exhaustion, and strangeness as simply a baby: hungry, cold, and crying. A Jesus comes as miraculously as any baby: tiny fingers curling around yours, wrinkled forehead, and perfectly shaped nose. Holding him together they see flesh, breath, holiness. Welcome to the world.
It is the angels who provide the proper birth announcement: To you is born this day a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. The only ones to hear the good news are shepherds, awake at night to see the light burst across the sky. Why were these herdsmen the first to receive the good news? Surely the angel could have gone to Emperor Augustus’s palace or the heavenly choir could have serenaded around Jerusalem’s temple. But heaven’s messengers sought out the low-wage workers, the unnamed caretakers who are dragging themselves through another overnight shift. To you a baby is born, the choir sings, you who dwell beyond the official counting, on the edge of what’s acceptable, for you we sing glory to God in the highest. For Christ enters where we least expect him but where he is most needed, where we most need him. Flesh, breath and holy God, a manger of love for the world’s rejected, a gift to our most impoverished hearts. This baby is for you.
Do not be afraid, the angel sings. The shepherds are afraid: terrified by the light and shocked by heaven’s opening. When an ordinary evening turns into the night that changes the world you are bound to be a little unsettled. How is my life going to be different? What of the outside authorities, the senseless rulings, and the struggle to survive? But the hosts of angels sing the glad news: You don’t have to understand everything to fall in love with this baby, to be changed by his love for you, the hope you have sheltered for life to be holy or for God to act has been fulfilled. The only thing to do is to go see for yourself. When the shepherds arrive Mary, Joseph and Jesus are just as the angels predicted: weary but welcoming, with love lighting their eyes and extending out upon all who come.
The dark sky is turning pink with morning’s light by the time the shepherds leave. Mary holds her newborn child, watches his lips pucker, his nose wiggle, and allows her arms to curve as he buries himself deep into the blanket. She wonders what it all means. God is here: small, helpless yet solid, sturdy, with those insistent cries, undeniably real. Already a relationship has taken hold between the baby and her, between God and humankind. God is enfleshed, learning the risks and pains that make up the world. Humans are discovering a love that meets our longing. Love is born into the unexpected, messy night; a steady love whose light cannot be extinguished.
When does Christmas arrive for you? Is there a moment in the festivities when you come to the manger, take in the love-filled gift? Does Christ come when we light the candles and hold them up high against the dark night? Or when the presents have been unwrapped, the meal has been served, the tree is lit, and peace settles over the house? When do you feel in your heart the steady beat of love that cannot be halted?
It varies for me, year to year, when Christmas arrives. Reliably Jesus comes in the carols: Hark the Herald Angels Sing, with its triumphant “veiled in flesh the Godhead see . . . pleased with us in flesh to dwell, Jesus our Emmanuel” or O Little Town of Bethlehem “how still we see thee lie…the hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight.” Yesterday Jesus came with children singing from the balcony, “Glory to God, glory to God alleluia, alleluia.” Their innocent voices conveyed the pure gift of God right here, moving amongst us.
But it is not always in joy that Christ comes. Mary and Joseph knew fear, rejection, and pain the night of his birth. Those who need Christ’s light aren’t the merry souls but the anxious, the exhausted, the scraping the bottom of the barrel hungry ones. One year Christmas came at a hospital bedside, holding the hand of a woman who would die the next day. My eyes teared up in protest, Why God, this beautiful person, who has suffered enough already, this week before December 25. In my tears I looked across her room out the window to a winter scene that was cold, brown, and bare to find my prayer met by the powerful saving love of God, reminding me that God loves Jo or Sharon or Bob more than any of us do, the God journeys with us from this life into the next and that somehow even in this death was wrapped the gift of Christmas. Another year, I sat in a makeshift chapel on the evening of December 26, while the presiding minister invited the congregation to offer their prayers aloud. “I pray for my dad,” uttered one voice, “I haven’t seen him since I was a little kid. He is lost to the streets, suffering in ways I can only imagine; may he be safe today. May he know love.” Christ comes where his love is most needed, and by his fleshly presence we learn there is no place that God does not dwell.
May Christmas come for you tonight. May Christ enter your complicated, glorious life. May you take your place with the shepherds, with ears ringing “glory to God” and a heart that knows our Savior is born.