The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness—on them light has shined. (Isaiah 9:2)
The angel said to them, ‘Do not be afraid; for see—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 Saviour, who is the Messiah, the Lord.
In this world there’s a whole lot of trouble. In this world, there’s a whole lot of pain.
In this world, there’s a whole of trouble, but a whole lot of ground to gain.
Why take can you could be giving? Why watch as the world goes by?
It’s a hard enough life to be living–why walk when you can fly?1
And she said, “Tell me are you a Christian, child? I said,“Ma’am I am tonight.” 2
A blessed Christmas to all. I’m honored to stand here and give what voice I can to the power and the promise, the gift and the invitation of this holy night.
Hear these words from a Scripture text that we typically read in church on Christmas Day:
When the goodness and the lovingkindness of our God appeared, he saved us, not because of any works of righteousness that we had done but according to his mercy, through the water of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit. This Spirit he poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that, having been justified by his grace, we might become heirs according to the hope of eternal life. (Titus 3:4-7.)
We might assume that whoever wrote about “the goodness and lovingkindness of God appearing” was referring to the birth of Jesus, but it’s not likely. For among the earliest followers of Jesus, who after the resurrection wrote every word about Jesus recorded in the New Testament, there wasn’t nearly as much interest in Jesus’ birth as there is for us today. For centuries Christians didn’t celebrate his birth. Because their starting point with Jesus wasn’t when he was born; it was the experience and the memory of what it was like to be in his presence.
And so tonight I speak to you about the man whom baby Jesus grew up to become, and why he matters; and driving the point home, why it matters that we who call ourselves Christian in whatever ways we do, claim him not only as our Lord but, also as the carol says, “our lifelong pattern.”3 For those who of you who aren’t Christian, I simply hope to paint a picture of why we who are believe our following him is meant to make this world a better place for everyone. We fail at that task with humbling regularity, but it is part of the Christian job description.
The poet Maya Angelou once said that after we’re gone, people will probably forget most of what we said and most of what we did, but they will never forget how we made them feel. That was certainly true about Jesus. People wrote down what he said and did, but what they were trying to convey was what it felt like in his presence. For starters, they wanted us to know that he genuinely liked all manner of people. If Jesus were alive today, he would be completely at home at any one of our Christmas gatherings. He’d be the last one to leave and he would seek out the very people we try hardest to avoid. After the party, he’d slip out the back in search of those in our communities that we don’t even see, who aren’t invited to anyone’s parties anymore, if they ever were.
The earliest Jesus followers wanted us to know how much he cared for people, especially those who were suffering, and he was surrounded by suffering. Many stories of his life begin by describing how he was moved with compassion by a person’s pain or grief, or the grinding poverty that afflicted most people of his day. In fact, the only thing that seemed to anger Jesus was when he saw people who were in a position to show compassion instead withhold it; or when he saw people in power and authority, particularly religious authority, lord over other people and made them feel unworthy. For whenever he could heal someone, he did. If he could spare someone’s pain, he did. And he taught in ways that made people believe that God actually loved them even when they felt unlovable. He forgave so quickly and completely, and people felt forgiven and freed from the weight of guilt and shame.
Jesus had an amazingly deep and personal connection to God, but he never acted as if that made him special. He wanted everyone to know that we could have the same intimate, loving connection, especially when we feel or have repeatedly been told that we are unworthy of God.
Another thing about Jesus: he didn’t experience the world as divided between religious and secular, or in the religious lingo of his day, clean and unclean. He didn’t want anyone else to experience the world–God’s good creation–in that falsely divided way, as if God could only be found in a place like this or approached through a sanctioned leader. That kind of thinking and the power dynamics it set up made Jesus crazy.
Finally, it’s important to know that Jesus wasn’t simply going around being nice to people. You don’t get crucified for being nice. His mission, his life purpose was to call people like you and me into a movement, a new way of living, fully reconciled to God, forgiven and freed, committed to loving other people the way he did, and creating human communities defined by love, hospitality, generosity, forgiveness–which is what he called the Kingdom of God. Those called by Jesus were called to courage: If you’re going to follow me on this path of love, he’d say to those drawn to him, be warned. You’re in for the ride of your life.
Jesus was an amazing person. So much so that people began to wonder about him: what manner of man is this? From where does he get his authority? Isn’t he Joseph and Mary’s son? Many in his presence found themselves thinking, in the words of world religion scholar Huston Smith, “that if divine goodness were to manifest itself in human form, this is how it would behave.”4
Those who killed him assumed that that would be the end of him and little his band of followers, but his death was just the beginning of the movement that bears his name. The goodness and lovingkindness of God that they experienced while he lived didn’t leave them when he died. It grew stronger as time went on, and they grew stronger, more confident in his love for them, his presence with them, and they grew more confident in the call, stronger than ever, to pattern their lives after his. They came to believe that he really was God with them, divine goodness manifest in human form. “I am with you,” he said, “to the end of the age.” And isn’t that what the angel said? “And you shall call him Immanuel, God-with-us.” It was never a matter of his followers trying harder to be like him. He was with them. They were leaning on his power and grace and love, as they did their best to follow in his path.
And this faith in him, and the experience his presence and his love, his forgiveness and his call, is something that kept going, from generation to the next, in the least likely ways, through the most imperfect people, like you and me. It’s a mystery how it happens, but it does. And it doesn’t happen just not just once in a person’s life, but over and over, as we experience something that feels like we’re not alone, that we’re in his presence, that his love and his forgiveness and his strength, and his compassion and passion for justice is with us, and in us. But it’s never just for us, as if following him makes us part of a special club of saved people. His life–from beginning to end–was for the whole world. Remember what the angels said “Behold I bring you good news of great joy for all people.”
He is with us now, here, tonight. He’s not just with us; he’s saving us from all that conspires to keep us small and anxious and afraid, so that we might live as he lived, love as he loved, with kindness and courage, with compassion and resolve. And he’s not just saving us, he’s calling. For if we’re going to call ourselves Christians, he actually needs us to step up and step out: Because in this world there’s a whole lot of trouble and a whole lot of pain. He needs people like you and me willing to give rather than take, willing to love rather than hate, willing to forgive, to heal, to reach out, and work for justice and peace for all people.
The Methodist minister Adam Hamilton say it this way: “Our mission at Christmas is not to get stuff for people to open on Christmas morning (although that’s nice, too–and I did that). It is to be people of hope who let Jesus’ light shine through us, who act as his witnesses so that others see him in us, who offer hope and help, who pray and work so that our world looks more like the kingdom Jesus proclaimed.”5
She said, “Tell me are you a Christian child. I said, ‘Ma’am I am tonight” If you are, or want to be, you can say yes tonight for the first or the thousandth time. Then get ready for the ride of your life as he continues to teach you day by day how to love, shows you when and where he needs you, in particular, to show up because you are needed. He will continue to work in and through you in ways you will never fully understand, even through your failures and mistakes, in part so that you never forget that the gift of his love and the privilege of sharing it isn’t something any of us can earn. It’s a gift.
And remember, that when you and I are gone, what people will remember is the difference we made for them, how we made them feel, if, in any way large or small, we conveyed something of the goodness and lovingkindness of God that we have known in Jesus.
There’s a star on the far horizon, rising bright in the Christmas sky
For the rest of the time that we’re given, why walk when we can fly?6
1. “Why Walk When You Can Fly” by Mary Chapin Carpenter
2. “Walking in Memphis” by Mark Cohn
3. “Once in Royal David’s City”
4. The Soul of Christianity by Huston Smith
5. Not A Silent Night: Mary Looks Back to Bethlehem by Adam Hamilton