Christmas Sermon

A sermon delivered on Christmas Eve, 2015, at Christ Church, Tara, and St. Paul’s, Southampton.

I.

Every family has Christmas traditions; they are part of what makes the celebration so special and meaningful.

Growing up, one of my family’s Christmas traditions was watching the movie National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation. For those who haven’t seen it, the movie is a hilarious send-up of what the main character, Clark Griswold, calls “a good ole fashioned family Christmas”. However, despite his best efforts to create his ideal Christmas, Clark fails at every turn. Clark’s antics and the growing number of dysfunctional relatives who show up to stay in his increasingly cramped house only add to the chaos. Clark takes all the noise, mishaps and pandemonium in stride, because, after all, bigger is always better, right? The chaos increases throughout the movie until, at the very end, a SWAT team is breaking through every door and window of the house, destroying what little is left of Clark’s numerous Christmas decorations. A good ole fashioned family Christmas this is not.

You see, Clark is blinded by nostalgia. He tries to fabricate something that is simply not attainable: the perfect Christmas from an imagined past. However, he keeps being interrupted by the realities of everyday life and the messiness of human relationships. He is so fixated on what could be that he completely misses what is going on around him. Indeed, Clark’s attempts to make the perfect Christmas amplifies the chaos around him and yet, because of his idealism, he remains deaf. It seems that Clark’s motivation is to escape the chaos around him; indeed, the louder the chaos grows, the more unwilling and unable Clark is to face what is going on around him.

While his confusion, frustration and detachment is played to hilarious effect, I think the movie offers us a profound reminder that Christmas is not a season of nostalgia as often depicted by holiday songs and movies. It is easy to get caught up in the hustle-and-bustle as we prepare for Christmas; for some people, the noisiness and busyness of the season is what makes special and exciting.

Now before I get accused of being Scrooge or the Grinch, please hear me out. Yes, there is space for the excitement that Christmas brings. However, if our excitement is entirely focused on buying presents, visiting family members, preparing Christmas dinner, and creating a wonderful picturesque Christmastime, the chaos will deafen us to what God is doing in and through Christmas. Christmas is “not a reminder that the world is really quite a nice place”.[1] Rather, as Bishop N.T. Wright suggests, Christmas is a reminder that “the world is a shocking bad place”.[2] We need only consider the news of the past few months to remind ourselves of this.

Now, some of you might be ready to run me out of town for wrecking your Christmas; how dare I suggest that Christmas is a reminder of our world’s brokenness! Christmas is supposed to be a happy time full of good cheer and goodwill! The suggestion that Christmas is a reminder that our world is messed up is rather shocking. However, if we, like Clark Griswold, attempt to use Christmas as a way to ignore the chaos of our world, we will be unable and unwilling to accept what is going on around us and we will be unable to see and hear what God has done and is doing in our midst.

II.

The first Christmas some 2,000 years ago was not the idealized scene we often see memorialized in crèches and paintings.  Rather, it took place right in the thick of human history. St. Luke intentionally sets the nativity in historical context to underline this. We read of an imperial decree enacted by Caesar himself in order to determine how much money he will be able to raise through the taxation of nations under his rule. One does not have the option of ignoring an imperial decree; you can imagine the chaos this created within the Roman Empire. In the midst of this, Joseph is simply one man among hundreds of thousands following a command under the threat of punishment; they are all cogs in the machinery of the empire.

In a few short verses, St. Luke masterfully creates a background that describes the messiness of human history, a history written by the rich and powerful, but borne on the backs of the weak and powerless. Here we are reminded that the Israelites are a subjected people, conquered by military invasion. They have no autonomy; any rebellion will be quashed by Roman might. However, St. Luke is setting the stage for events that will create a revolution.

This is precisely why Advent is a time of preparation. We are not preparing by wrapping gifts and backing shortbread. In Advent, we are preparing for a revolution.[3] We are preparing for an event that will completely undermine and undo all earthly power, an event that will fundamentally change the course of human history, an event that exposes, interrupts, and overturns the chaos of our world. In Advent we are preparing for the unexpected and unfathomable arrival of God amidst the chaos of the world. This is God’s revolution.

God enters into our history as one of us. But God does not come as a warlord in command of an army; he comes as an infant, utterly dependant on his human parents. And despite this helplessness, there is, as a friend once put it, “danger in the manger”.[4] He is the one who will bring God’s kingdom, a kingdom that will overturn all human kingdoms, not by the violence of the sword but by what Archbishop Oscar Romero called “the violence of love”. This is God’s revolution.

This fundamentally challenges the traditional view of the serene pastoral setting of that first Christmas. Indeed, the silence of the night is broken by the noise of animals, the groans of childbirth, the cries of new life, and the choir of angels, praising and proclaiming that the baby born in manger is dangerous because he is “the Messiah, the Lord” (Luke 2:11). He comes as an ordinary human to save ordinary people like you and me. This is God’s revolution.

I suppose it is possible that there was silence when the shepherds came to visit, a collective silence as all of creation holds its breath in holy reverence. But this silence is quickly punctuated by the joyful witness of the shepherds who “made known” to everyone who would listen about what they saw (cf. Lk. 2.20). They were so overjoyed were they that they went out into the sleepy village, waking any and all with in their proclamation of the gospel. And rather than be angry at being awoken to the mundane news that a baby was born that night, they “were amazed at what the shepherds told them” (Lk. 2.20): that this baby is the long-awaited Messiah! This is God’s revolution!

III.

We today should be no less amazed at the Christmas story: that the God who created the universe entered the chaos of human history in order to set us free. One of the things that our culture likes to tell us is that we should not put God into a box; we should not pretend to know about God or to make any definitive claims about God; that all claims about God, regardless of religion, are, in the end, all the same. However, the Christmas story reminds us that God put himself in a box and that this changes everything and challenges all our assumptions about who God is.

Like the shepherds, the witness of seeing God as a baby in a box should drive us into the world to proclaim that we have seen God and his name is Jesus. Jesus Christ is God’s body language; he is God in the flesh. The shepherds stand as a figure of the church; they anticipate the church’s mission: to go into the world telling everyone what God is doing in and through Jesus Christ, to tell everyone who will listen that God’s heavenly kingdom of peace and love will overcome earthly empires of death and suffering, to share the good news that Christ will bring an end to all earthly chaos and invites us to join his movement of love and reconciliation.

However, this good news can be difficult to hear amidst the noise of the season, amidst the sadness that many of us experience at Christmas. This good news impossible to proclaim if we are not prepared for God’s revolution, a revolution that beings in our hearts when he hear and accept the voice of the Holy Spirit. There is danger in the manger, but it can be easy to miss if we assume a noiseless Christmas removed from the messiness of human history, if we insist on a picture perfect Christmas celebration.

So, where does this leave us this Christmas Eve? Does this spoil our attempts to create a “good ole fashioned family Christmas”? The good news is that nothing can spoil Christmas because Christmas is not something that we can somehow make ‘perfect’. Not even the chaos and messiness of human history can interfere with what God is doing precisely because at the first Christmas God entered into the chaos and messiness in order to redeem it and to bring us a new way of being in the world. Christmas is already perfect because Jesus Christ took on human flesh and sets us free. This is the root of our Christmas joy; this is the reason for our celebration! “Who among us will celebrate Christmas correctly? Whoever finally lays down all power, all honor, all reputation, all vanity, all arrogance, all individualism beside the manger; whoever remains lowly and lets God alone be high; whoever looks at the child in the manger and sees the glory of God precisely in his lowliness”.[5]

O come, let us adore the God in the box, the baby in the manger, who is Christ our Lord. Amen.

[1] N.T. Wright, For All God’s Worth, p.2.

[2] N.T. Wright, For All God’s Worth, p.2. Wright continues: “Christmas is God lighting a candle; and you don’t light a candle in a room that’s already full of sunlight. You light a candle in a room that’s so murky that the candle, when lit, reveals just how bad things really are. The light shine in the darkness, says St. John, and the darkness has not overcome it”.

[3] A point made by Bishop Robert Barron in one of his videos.

[4] Kudos to The Rev. Ian Martin.

[5] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, God in the Manger.

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