Pondering

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This is my sermon from Christmas Eve 2020. The format, like everything else this year, is a little bit different.

Sermon Part I

It is Christmas Eve. It’s the night when we tell the story.

We tell the story year after year. We have told this story through wars and famines. We have told this story through economic depressions and pandemics. We have told this story in homes and in cathedrals. We have told this story on ships at sea and around the fire on the Oregon trail. We have told this story in the high language of our greatest poets and in the simple songs of a children’s Christmas pageant.

And if we are very lucky, we have told this story, and sung the carol by candlelight, and stepped out into the night, and watched the snow fall gently in the moonlight, and gone to our warm and comfortable houses, and poured some nog, and sat in front of the fire… and pondered.

We have told this story so many times—we have heard this story so many times—that I probably don’t need to tell it to you again.

We have told this story so many times—we have heard this story so many times—that you probably have it memorized. And if not the words, then the outline. We know the shape of the story in our hearts.

We have told this story so many times—we have heard this story so many times—that it probably doesn’t surprise us anymore. Most of us probably don’t ponder anymore.

But it is a wondrous story. And, like so many wondrous stories, it begins with a journey.

Reading I: Luke 2:1-7 (KJV)

And it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be taxed.

(And this taxing was first made when Cyrenius was governor of Syria.)

And all went to be taxed, every one into his own city.

And Joseph also went up from Galilee, out of the city of Nazareth, into Judaea, unto the city of David, which is called Bethlehem; (because he was of the house and lineage of David:)

To be taxed with Mary his espoused wife, being great with child.

And so it was, that, while they were there, the days were accomplished that she should be delivered.

And she brought forth her firstborn son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger; because there was no room for them in the inn.

Sermon Part II

Mary is pregnant and far from home.

Now, I have never been pregnant. And I know that some of you have handled it like champs. And I know that our image of Mary is an image of a blessed and patient woman who is absolutely the best at being pregnant. But my guess is that she is achey… and tired… and feels a little bit yucky all the time.

And she had to ride from Nazareth to Bethlehem… on a donkey… for, like twenty hours… because Caesar Augustus—and don’t get her started on that guy, but he is going to be scattered and brought down from his throne and sent away empty when God helps his servant Israel according to the promise that God made to Abraham and his descendants forever—because Caesar Augustus wanted to take a census… with everyone in their ancestral hometown.

And Joseph is great and all. He’s really trying. But, again: nine months pregnant… twenty hour donkey ride. And when she and Joseph get to Bethlehem, there are no rooms. So they make do. And they go to stay with the livestock.

And then the contractions. And the miracle of birth. And Mary holds her son… and cleans him up… and swaddles him… and lays him in a manger.

And, if the pageants are true, a cow starts to sing Go Tell it on the Mountain.

Mary knows, of course. An angel told her.

You, Mary, have found favor with God. So you will conceive and bear a son and name him Jesus. And he will be great. God will give him the throne of his ancestor David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and his kingdom will have no end. He will be holy. He will be called the Son of the Most High. He will be called the Son of God!

Mary knows. Her son is the Messiah. Her son is the promised king. Soon, the proud will be scattered. Soon, the powerful will be brought down from their thrones and the lowly will be lifted up. Soon, the hungry will be filled and the rich will be sent away empty. Soon, God will fulfill the promise that she made to Abraham and his descendants so long ago. Because her son is the Messiah; because her son is the promised king.

But I don’t think that she is thinking that right now. As she holds her son… and cleans him up… and swaddles him… and lays him in a manger… and gently shushes the cow… I suspect that she simply thinks, “This is my son. Loved and worthy of love.”

And then these shepherds show up. Because, you see… while all of this was happening… well…

Reading II: Luke 2:8-20 (KJV)

And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night.

And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid.

And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people.

For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord.

And this shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger.

And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying,

Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.

And it came to pass, as the angels were gone away from them into heaven, the shepherds said one to another, Let us now go even unto Bethlehem, and see this thing which is come to pass, which the Lord hath made known unto us.

And they came with haste, and found Mary, and Joseph, and the babe lying in a manger.

And when they had seen it, they made known abroad the saying which was told them concerning this child.

And all they that heard it wondered at those things which were told them by the shepherds.

But Mary kept all these things, and pondered them in her heart.

And the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things that they had heard and seen, as it was told unto them.

Sermon Part III

Mary is a new mother and far from home.

Now, I have never given birth. I have certainly never given birth among the livestock because there weren’t any rooms available… after the twenty-hour donkey ride… that I had to take because some emperor wanted to…

Sorry. Getting a little off track. I have never given birth.

But my guess is that—as Mary looks at her son, swaddled and lying in a manger, and thinks, “This is my son. Loved and worthy of love,”—she is sweaty and exhausted and feeling a little gross.

And then these shepherds show up. And they have this… story.

We were in the fields, watching over the flocks, when the sky rumbled and bulged and ripped open. And there was this light. Bright and intense and overwhelming. And then this voice just said, 

“Do not be afraid. I am bringing you good news of great joy for all people. For today, tonight, right now, in that town right over there, a savior is being born… the Messiah… the Lord. Glory to God in the highest! Peace on earth! Good will towards men!”

And then… then it was just night again. And… and… well… we thought we would come and see. And then we saw you. And we saw your baby swaddled in a manger. And the angels said we would find a baby swaddled in a manger. So… we think that might be him.

And they’re telling this story to everyone. And everyone is amazed. And, after a while, the shepherds leave, singing and shouting and praising and glorifying.

But Mary just sits there, and looks at her son, and holds all of this in her heart, and ponders.

Mary doesn’t begin to know, of course. The angel didn’t tell her the whole story. And something—something that’s not the exhaustion and something that’s not the adrenaline—something is tickling the back of her mind. Something is saying, “This might be bigger than you thought.”

But right now, she kneels down beside the manger, and puts her hand on the side, and rests her chin on her hand, and reaches down to stroker her son’s cheek. And if the songs are true, as she hears Joseph in the background explaining that this just isn’t a good time for a drum solo, she thinks, “This is my son. Loved and worthy of love. Glory to God in the highest.”

Lighting the Christ Candle and Reading III: Isaiah 9:2-7 (NRSV)

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.

You have multiplied the nation, you have increased its joy; they rejoice before you as with joy at the harvest, as people exult when dividing plunder. For the yoke of their burden, and the bar across their shoulders, the rod of their oppressor, you have broken as on the day of Midian.

For all the boots of the tramping warriors and all the garments rolled in blood shall be burned as fuel for the fire. For a child has been born for us, a son given to us; authority rests upon his shoulders; and he is named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. His authority shall grow continually, and there shall be endless peace for the throne of David and his kingdom. He will establish and uphold it with justice and with righteousness from this time onward and forevermore. The zeal of the Lord of hosts will do this.

You, O God, come to us in Christ, born in humility, among a dispossessed people in an occupied land, amid the animals and shepherds… and raised to glory. You, O God, come to us in our humility, at home and far from hope, among our trials and tribulations… to raise us all to glory. And so we light a candle, knowing that the candle is nothing but a reminder of the true light of the world that we encounter in Christ.

Look! Our savior comes! Glory to God in the highest! Let us rejoice and be glad!

Sermon Part IV

It is Christmas Eve. It’s the night when we tell the story.

We tell the story year after year. We have told this story through wars and famines. We have told this story through economic depressions and pandemics. We have told this story in homes and in cathedrals. We have told this story on ships at sea and around the fire on the Oregon trail. We have told this story in the high language of our greatest poets and in the simple songs of a children’s Christmas pageant.

And it’s a story about a lot of things. But one of the things that it’s about is a young woman who is pregnant and far from home… and who is then a new mother and far from home.

And tonight… tonight… we are not far from home—many of us are at home—but we’re far from home, y’know? We’re not where we want to be and we’re not telling the story in the way that we want to tell it.

But we’re still telling the story. And we’re still hearing the story. And there’s so much to this story.

I mean… there’s a lot more to this story than just the little bit we are hearing tonight. There’s the whole God-loved-the-world-this-way of it. And there’s even more than that. There are mysteries we cannot understand.

But those parts are for other days. There’s so much to even the little bit we are hearing tonight. That’s why we tell this story year after year. It echoes through the good times and the bad times and the in-between times. It speaks to us. It asks us to ponder.

Tonight there is a new mother… a dispossessed woman living in an occupied land… amid the animals and shepherds… resting her head on her hand on the side of a manger… gazing into the wondrous eyes of her newborn child, as the world moves on around her, thinking, “This is my son. Loved and worthy of love. Glory to God in the highest.”

And something deep inside that newborn child is looking back at her—and at all of us—and thinking, “This is my creation. Loved and worthy of love.”

So later tonight, after you’ve sung the carol and turned off the video and done all of the things that need doing, while you’re in your warm and comfortable home, maybe while you’re sitting next to the fire sipping a glass of nog, ponder that. In all of the hustle of the world, amid all of the trials and tribulations, God is looking at you… and me… and all of this… and saying, “This is my creation, these are my precious children, loved and worthy of love.”

Glory to God in the highest!

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