God in the Midst

As far back as I can remember, Christmas Eve has always held a special place in my life. We would have our home traditions: hanging stockings, putting out the cookies and milk, reading Christmas stories, and recording our Christmas wishes first on cassette and Super-8, then later on VHS for posterity’s sake. And then we would go to church. The worship was predictable and comforting: sitting in the balcony, the lights going dim at the end of the service, candles held aloft, singing “Silent Night.” So many years later, it just doesn’t feel like Christmas to me until that happens. But…is predictability really what we should be aiming for?

Don’t worry: we’re still gonna do the candles and the lights and “Silent Night” and all that. We’re not going crazy here. But I do want to raise the question: how does familiarity fit in with the story from Luke we just read, if at all?

The politics that surround the birth of Jesus were rough. The story reminds us of that right up front, telling us who was governing and ruling over the various regions. The times were unpredictable, so much so that Joseph and Mary had to hurry off to Bethlehem for this forced Roman census. And in that rush, they ended up with nowhere to stay, and so Jesus was born amidst the animals. And who was it that came to celebrate the birth? His grandparents? Neighbors? Joseph’s cousins? Nope: Shepherds. Migrants. Nomads. Does this sound like any other birth story that you’ve ever heard?

When we remove the story from the haze of time that has built up around it, the whole thing just seems to teeter on the edge of collapse. This child that is born, the one whose birth we celebrate in worship here tonight, will be the Savior of all! And if not for the angels, we could easily forget the universe-shaking significance that it has. Because for the most part, this story just sounds like a poor child born to a poor couple in a really horrible period of time. Merry Christmas!

It’s jarring, isn’t it? But maybe that’s the whole point, how jarring it is…After all, we’re talking about incarnation; the divine made human; grace and mercy not as abstract concepts, but as flesh and blood! This is amazing, absurd stuff! And yet, somehow, it ends up being a story about how God is right there in the thick of it, working, causing something absurdly beautiful to come through in the end.

I don’t know about you, but that’s the piece that I most need to hear right now: that the God whom we worship in Jesus Christ is always right there in the thick of it, no matter what might come. The ravages of Hurricane Sandy; an economy that is seemingly held captive by those whom we have elected to represent us; another school shooting which reverberates in our souls; war in Syria and Gaza, and indeed, around the world. Storms may rage; there are times when we may feel as though the very earth beneath us has given way. But at no time will God ever abandon us.

And maybe that’s the point of the familiar things that we do here tonight: the comfort in knowing that this holy, merciful presence is more powerful than anything that the world might throw at us.

When that first candle is lit tonight, I don’t care where you are in this room, or how dark it might get. You will be able to see it. As vast as the darkness might seem, it is no match for the light of the world.