Speaker: The Rev. Deborah Meister
“But 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...a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.” (Luke 2:10-11)
A number of years ago, I was speaking with a woman whose life was wreck. She was telling me about the last time it had been a wreck. She’d been involved with a man and had become what the Bible calls “with child.” He left her, and there she was, a student living on almost nothing, trying to finish her degree, trying to get a job, trying to deal with the fact that she was about to be a mother, and had not wanted to be one. And she said to me, “It was a dark time, both in my life and in our nation. I was desperate and all the news was bad. But then in December, in the middle of it all, right at the darkest time of the year, there was this baby, and I knew everything was going to be all right.” Listening to her, I realized I was hearing the voice of Mary: “and then, in the middle of it all, there was this baby, and I knew everything was going to be all right.”
The story of Christmas is a story of joy snatched from terror, of the light that shines in even the deepest darkness, the light of God that cannot be put out. The Bible wastes few words, so when St. Luke writes, “But the angel said to them,” we need to pay attention. That one small conjunction, “but,” tells us everything we need to know about the work of God in this world. It tells us that God does not come because we have deserved it. It tells us God does not come because the world is ready to receive him. (Are we ready?) It tells us God does not come because of how we have lived or what we have made or how much we have earned. It tells us that we were not ready; we had not deserved it; we were not prepared to receive him -- and God came anyway. God. Came. Anyway. Not because the world was a fair and just place, but because it was a wreck and because it needed light. God came because we needed good news, because we needed joy. God came, not because of who we were, but because of who God is: God is the One who brings light in the darkness, come what may. God’s goodness is never just grace: it is always, “Grace, anyway.”
The whole story of God’s people is one of grace squandered and grace received. Jesus even told a story about it (later, once he was a man grown). He told about a man who had two sons. And one day the younger son came to his father and said, “Old man, you’re in my way. Give me right now the stuff I’ll inherit once you’re dead, so that I can leave you and live my life on my own terms.” Think about that. It’s easy to miss the sheer cruelty that’s buried in the younger son’s request: not only greed, but the meanness with which he treats the one who has given him life. But (there’s that word again), but the father does it: he takes his assets and divides them and entrusts half to his younger son, and the man goes away and squanders it all. And when a hard time comes, when the son has nothing to eat and is living like an animal, he remembers that he once had a home, and he decides to go back to his father and beg to be allowed to return. But (hear it?) but when he approaches the house, he sees a distant figure running toward him, and with a lurch in his stomach, he recognizes his father. And his father comes to him and embraces him and kisses him, while the son is still stained with travel and mired in the dirt of his shame. And while the son tries to stammer out his unworthiness, the father is already dressing him in fine robes, calling for a feast, placing his own ring on his son’s hand. Grace squandered and grace received. Grace, anyway.
Jesus can tell that story because he has lived it: not as the prodigal, not even as the father, but as the robe and ring. Jesus is the gift God gives us even though we have wrecked our world, the gift God gives us because we have wrecked it. Because we need good news. Because we need a savior.
That baby lying in the manger is God’s sign to us that God’s promise will never be broken. No matter how far we have wandered from home, no matter how deeply we have buried our best selves, still, God is with us, working to save us, even from ourselves. Jesus is the robe that clothes us in grace, hides our sins, and makes us lovely again. And Jesus is the ring that binds us to God, the shining symbol that we are sought out, not forsaken, eternally beloved.
I think that's why, in all the pictures, the stable is dark, with all the light gathered on the face of the child: because this world is a troubled place and always has been, but the love that moves the moon and the stars is gathered in one place in that manger. And if we gaze upon him long enough, if we look at that tiny, wrinkled face and those fists like flowers and the astonishing toes on each miniature foot-- and if we come to him honestly, as we really are, trailing the dust of world with all its beauty and all its broken dreams -- what we see is that it is all gift: Jesus, this world, our life, our faith, the hope that rises in our hearts, the grace that comes in spite of everything. It is all gift, lavish gift poured out upon us by a God who loves us, even as we are, of a God who loves us too much to leave us as we are, but sends us a robe and a ring, sends us truth and and a way and life, lifts us from the dust and makes us new. Grace, anyway.
And we, like the shepherds, have to go and see what God has done for us. When you think about it, it's amazing that they went. They had their work, their responsibilities, their conversation. They had a fire, probably, to keep them warm through the night. But when the angel proclaimed that there was good news, they got up on their feet and went to see it, because they knew they needed good news. Because if there was great joy anywhere in this world, they wanted to be part of it. And maybe, just maybe, they knew that the flocks would be all right that night, because there was a true shepherd now and all the world would be safe in his hands.
I bet they told that story for the rest of their lives. I bet they told it to their children and grandchildren, saying, “It was a dark time, both in my life and in our nation. I was desperate and all the news was bad. But then, in the middle of it all, there was this baby, and I knew everything was going to be all right.”
And that story is ours to tell, as well, and that gift is renewed each Christmas. So let us even now go to Bethlehem, and gaze upon that child, that baby, that promise of grace. Let us kneel at his feet and touch his tiny hands, and let us open our hearts to the gift we have been given: the gift of God's eternal love. Let us look at the light that streams from his face, and watch as it brightens, gathers strength, gleams on the face of oxen and cows, gilds the dusty straw, as it seems to reach beyond the doors of the stable, and out into the cold night and a darkness that already seems just a bit less dark.
Tomorrow, we will bear that light into all the corners of our life, just as Christians everywhere bear it into the far corners of this earth. We will wake with a new confidence that the forces of hatred and division have already been conquered by God's quiet, mighty work of peace and love. And we will show mercy and speak out against cruelty and we will welcome the stranger and care for those in need, and we will be agents of contagious joy. But tonight is for wonder, and tonight is for joy, and tonight is for accepting that all our life is gift, and this Child Jesus, most of all.
Have a blessed and joyful Christmas.