Prayer of Invocation:
Gracious God, on this Christmas Eve, we prepare ourselves to hear again the message of the angels, in heart and mind to go even unto Bethlehem and to see this thing which is come to pass, and with the shepherds and the wise men to adore the Christ child lying in his mother's arms.
We will read and mark in Holy Scripture the tale of your loving purposes from the first days of our living amidst a good though often suffering creation to when, in the fullness of time, you came as we are, in the flesh, to show us the redeeming power of love and the disarming power of tenderness and vulnerability.
We do this in the spirit of hope for the needs of this whole world; for forgiveness and goodwill over all the earth, within our nation’s borders, within this region of the Berkshire Mountains, within the town of Lenox, and within each of our homes and families as we celebrate the presence of your Holy Spirit, the promise of your perfected creation, and your persistence in our regard, that we might know your aim of abounding joy and eternal love.
We do this in the spirit of hope for the needs of the poor and the helpless, the cold and the hungry, the lonely and the oppressed; the sick in body and in mind and those who mourn; the rich whom, even unbeknownst to them, are every day sent empty away; and all who do not know your loving kindness.
Let us do this now, as we are ready. Amen.
Scripture: Luke 1:26-38, Luke 2:1-7, Luke 2:8-20, Matthew 2:1-12, John 1:1-5, 14
Text: The president of the United States is often called the most powerful person in the world. But I always wonder at that. Is that true?
Look how the Christmas story unfolds. With two references to those in power, the Christmas story unfolds from their pervasion.
The Emperor Augustus was the pinnacle of power, and he shows up in the story by way of his exerting that. He sent out the decree that made it so all within his realm (which was basically the whole imaginable world) had to return to the place of their birth in order to be registered in the census. Unleashing what might have been a real scramble among the people, it’s the perfect illustration of how the powers and principalities can set the whole world to wobbling, and by but one gesture, one whim.
For this, Joseph had to go from Nazareth, where he was living, to Bethlehem, where he was from. And for this, Mary, though far along in her pregnancy, had to join him. For this also, of course, the birth of Christ took place in the way: a stable, a manger, animals and shepherds.
On the one hand, the Emperor had all the power in this story, all the events of it pouring forth of his actions. On the other hand, once he’s mentioned, he’s just as soon gone. Not of interest, certainly not of any otherwise importance in this, one the most important stories ever told, the most powerful person in the world fades to black.
Herod was the most powerful person in this region, Judea. The client king of the Jews on behalf of the empire, he shows up in this story for his ruthless protection of that—his own reign. A new king born to the Jews threatened his power, and he wouldn’t stand for that. Next Sunday, we’ll hear how far he’s purported to have gone in order to guard his throne. For now, it’s useful to notice how the journey of the Magi unfolded as it did because of his actions, because of his manipulation of power.
Following that, though, he comes to nearly nothing. The Magi defy him. Mary and Joseph (for now) ignore him. Jesus is born and will be paid homage for what he would come to be in the world and for the world—king and God and sacrifice.
This story insists upon the little things, things that would otherwise be easy to dismiss. It suggests that God insists upon the little things, the unimportant people, the little town of Bethlehem. That we’re to focus on the things which history would have rolled on past, that we’re to train our attention on things rude and simple and commonplace as if here takes place actual power, actual wonder: so, this is Christmas.
For what it’s worth, I believe it, which maybe goes without saying. What’s more, the Holy Spirit would have us trust it—that small acts can play out greatly, the momentary graces can amount to so much.
Magical thinking, you suppose? The old timey belief that you can cast spells, can impact greatly things though from afar: just say the magic words. And maybe so; maybe it is just magical thinking. We live in a disenchanted world, after all. The modern era has made sure of that. Prizing human reason, prizing secular liberal thought, with no reference to anything beyond this realm of hard facts: get real.
But if we clearly effect so very little, why do anything at all? It seems to me the most reasonable among us would be the first to adopt cynicism as “getting real.”
I can’t live with that. Can you?
The incarnation of God in Christ suggests all sorts of things to us. That God, who is transcendent and omnipresent and absolute, would enter history; that God, who is limitless, all flow, would take on flesh, which is to take on limits, severe limits—limits of time such that you’re mortal, limits of place such that you can only do so much, limits of the body which is to be vulnerable to injury and pain, illness and cruelty, and which is therefore also to be existentially dependent on love: that God would choose this?
Dear everyone, I think we’re in for a rough year ahead. Our country’s governance is heading into unknown territory, and the stakes are high. We could really rip at each other given what’s coming. The rest of the world isn’t any better off. The rise of populism and authoritarianism, along with the rising temperatures and rising sea levels, though threatening, also feels inexorable, like a ride we’re strapped into, we’re been perhaps long been strapped into though it’s been just warming up. The fracturing of old alliances and consolidation of new ones suggests a new set of values at play, and the deception and double-speak about it all has me suspecting they’re far less good. The powerful are engaged in exchanges of power, all way over our heads, though setting the whole world to wobbling. Really, the ancient words of ancient prophets seem hardly overmuch: “Why do the nations rage?”
Yet it all only strengthens what has been a gathering trend as the modern era grows late, to disempower us all as participants in our world. The postmodernists, fifty years ago, imagined us here—spectators in our common life and little more. But if the postmodernists were early prognosticators of the illness, the coming of God in the Christ child was earlier still with the medicine.
Here’s what to do. Find a baby lying in a manger and love it. Find burgeoning life somewhere, anywhere, and nurture it. Lift this gentle life with your hands into your arms, set your heart to the task of bringing it up. As it happens, here in the Berkshires, such burgeoning life abounds.
The Literacy Network: you could volunteer to be a tutor. Railroad Street Youth Project: you could become a mentor to a young one, which means you could get to know a young one. Berkshire Theater Festival: hand out playbills for their shows, help people find their seats and the bathroom when they need it. Staff the Lenox Food Pantry or the soup kitchen at South Church, Pittsfield. Volunteer at the prison, teaching a class, leading a prayer group. Read stories to the kindergartners at the Morris School. Shelve books at the library. Become a firefighter. Run for the select board.
Bill McKibben, the climate activist who has been at it for forty years, claims the way forward through the roiling to come is in connecting with actual community. Lucky us in the Berkshires: we have so many ways to connect.
You could also, I have to add, join in on congregational life.
As it happens, we’re accepting new members here.
But if this isn’t the one for you, go in search of one that is.
This is how you do it, according to Eugene Peterson, longtime Presbyterian pastor who recently died and left quite a legacy of quietly going about great small things. Look for the smallest congregation within easy distance of where you live. Go there for worship every week for six months. If then you figure it’s not a good a fit, try the next one. But by then, you very well might have made it a good fit simply by bringing to it yourself. You know, the Magi probably didn’t fit in with the shepherds already there. But it’s not like they were all gathering at the inn, where there had to be room. When times are lean, you make room. That’s the blessing of lean times. And humans have a funny way of becoming involved with one another, of influencing our environments. It’s really hard to keep your distance when you’re in the same place.
Meanwhile, the nations will rage. The emperors will on a whim set the whole world to wobbling, and their toadies will go along because their political power is the only power they have.
But they’re the least interesting part of the story. The real story is down here, with us, we who aim with our lives to love, we who aim to spend our time with care.
The baby is born. The mother ponders. The father protects. The shepherds gather. The angels sing. Alleluia! Alleluia!