God loved the world like this:
In the days when Israel was ruled by Rome, God sent an angel to a young woman named Mary, who was engaged to a man named Joseph, and that angel said,
You will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.
And when it was time for Mary to have her son, she and Joseph was in the town of Bethlehem. And because there was no room at the inn, they stayed in a stable. And Mary gave birth to the her son. And because they were in a stable, she took that Son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger. And the Son of the Most High was made low.
And in that same region there were shepherds: dirty, and smelly, and hanging out with sheep all the time. And an angel of the Lord appeared to them and said,
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 Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.
And that angel and a host of angels sang: “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!”
And the shepherds went to Bethlehem, and found a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger. And they ran around telling everyone. The lowly telling the world about the Son of the Most High… made low.
And that is how the Word of God, who is with God and who is God, a light in the darkness through whom all things were made, came into the world to be one of us.
God loved the world like this: He made himself low for our sake. He made herself low… for us.
For the last four Sundays, we have been in the season of Advent. We have lit candles for hope and peace and joy and love. We have prepared for Jesus Christ to come into the world.
And now, on Christmas Eve, we stand on the threshold. We wait in holy anticipation for God to enter this world. Not as a conquering supernatural creature, but as a baby. Not in a palace in the capital of an empire, but in a manger in a small town in a backwater province. Not welcomed by kings and potentates, but by shepherds.
And we light a candle for Christ… our light in the darkness.
We know who we are through the stories that we tell. And we tell this story: that God came into the world as one of us, that God came into the world among the poor, and that if we want to find God we look among the least of us.
We know who we are through the stories that we tell. And this is a story that you’ve heard before. You’ve heard it on its own.
You’ve heard it mashed together with other stories in a Christmas pageant. You’ve heard Linus tell it, standing in a spotlight on a stage in a school auditorium, near a sad and small Christmas tree sitting on Schroeder’s little piano.
It’s a story that we hear every year. And we can get so used to it that it can fade into the background. It can become just this story that we tell amid all of the other things that happen during the Christmas season.
A few years ago, in my last job, I was flying home from Biloxi. I had been there for a board meeting or a staff development event or something. And I was at my usual layover in Atlanta or Dallas-Fort Worth. And I had done that thing where you wait for a couple of hours at the gate… and then you get on the plane… and then they discover a problem… and then you get off the plane… and then you go to another gate and wait there.
And I was tired and crabby and I just wanted to go home. And this guy started talking to me. And, somewhere in there he asked me what I did. And most of you know that I was a fundraiser for an organization that helps people living in poverty. So I slipped into fundraiser mode and told him what I did and what my employer did… and I think I stopped just short of asking him for money.
And then he asked me how I liked it. And—because I was tired and crabby and I just wanted to go home—I said something like this: “It’s okay. I get to eat food and live indoors.”
And a guy who was standing a little bit ahead of us in line looked back and said, “So you’re better off than the people you’re serving.”
I had gotten so wrapped up in my life and my work and my stress that I had forgotten why I did it. I was so tired that I had forgotten that there are people who drink so that it’s easier to sleep on the concrete under a bridge. I was so crabby that I had forgotten that there are people who are at the end of their ropes. I wanted to get home so badly that I had forgotten that there were people with no home to go to.
And I know that Christ was among them.
I know that it is Christmas Eve. This is a night of celebration and family and community and love. Christ is coming into the world! As a baby… in a small town in a backwater province… wrapped in cloth and laid in a manger… visited by shepherds.
But I can tell you that Christ has been here all along. He stays out of the way during the day, and sleeps on a bench in Lincoln Park at night, and goes to the Referral Center when he can.
She is sitting in a detention center at the border… and in a refugee camp in Jordan… and in a prison cell in Fort Madison.
They are walking out of their house because their parents didn’t accept them, and they are desperately seeking a community that will welcome them in, and give them a hug, and tell them that they are the precious child of a loving God.
Christ has been here all along. And we meet him in the hungry and the thirsty and the lonely, the naked and the sick and the imprisoned. And we tell this story—about a baby wrapped in cloth and laid in a manger—so that we can remember that.
We know who we are through the stories that we tell. And the Christmas story is about a poor and vulnerable God, who we meet among poor and vulnerable people, and who we serve through love and generosity.
It is, as G.K. Chesterton said, a story “built upon a beautiful and intentional paradox; that the birth of the homeless should be celebrated in every home.”
It can be hard to remember that. It can be hard to remember that when we’re dealing with all of the stresses of our lives, like when we’re in an airport and we’re tired and we’re crabby and we just want to go home.
And it can be hard to remember during the holidays, when we have families to entertain, and parties to attend, and decorations to put up, and presents to buy, and food to cook.
So we light a candle. We light a candle for Christ.
We light a candle for a little baby who was wrapped in cloth and laid in a manger… and for every baby who needs love… which means, for every baby.
We light a candle for a man who ended up on the wrong side of power… and for everyone who is marginalized and threatened and hurt.
We light a candle for a God who loved the world like this: She made herself low for our sake… she became a light in the darkness, for us.
We light a candle… for Christ.
And we don’t just do that this week. We don’t just do that tonight.
Every week, someone carries a light into this sanctuary and places it on these candles on this table. They are symbols of the light of Christ, the light that shines in the darkness and that the darkness cannot overcome, the true light that enlightens everyone.
And every week, someone takes this these symbolic lights out of this sanctuary.
And, it’s true, all of us carry the light of Christ… in our hearts… out into the world.
And, it’s also true, all of us go into the world to look for that light, to look for Jesus in the places where he hangs out today… in the mangers of our world… among the shepherds of our world.
And every week, every day, every hour, we have the chance to bring good news of great joy to all people, to share good will with all of our neighbors, and, through our actions, to praise God.
Gloria in excelsis Deo. Glory to God in the highest!