Remembering how God comes into the World

abstract nativityA sermon for Christmas Eve, December 24, 2018.  The scriptures are Isaiah 9:2-7, Psalm 96, Titus 2:11-14, and Luke 2:1-20

Listen to the sermon HERE.

I began this Christmas Eve the way I’ve begun for years—organizing my morning around the 10 AM live broadcast of A Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols from King’s College, Cambridge. Even though I listen to that service every year and I often listen to Choral Evensong on BBC 3 online, there is a part of me that still bristles—or if not, “bristle,” as least I notice—when we pray for the Queen. Of course, we pray for the President in our services and for our other leaders, but something about praying for the Queen sends a little shock through my American heart.

I think a part of my attention to prayers for royalty has to do with my ambivalence around authority, in general. Deep down, I’m a rebel and I question all authority. But there’s another part of me that longs for a leader—I want political leaders to be smart, savvy, broadminded, and honest. I want religious leaders to be holy, and moral, and good, and humble. I want academic leaders to be honest and brilliant. I want business leaders to be creative and ethical and entrepreneurial— all at the same time.

With all my expectations of other people, it will not surprise you that I’m often disappointed. As a wise friend of mine cautions me to remember, “Expectations lead to resentments.”

What startles me in the Christmas story this year is so basic and fundamental, it’s embarrassing to say out loud. But I need reminding—yearly, weekly in church, daily in my prayers.

At the Incarnation, the moment of God’s disclosure we name as Christmas, God did not come to the powerful. God did not come to the wealthy, the well-respected, the morally upright, the religious officials, the rulers, emperors, kings and queens. Some of them would come to God—eventually, though it would be difficult, as difficult (using Jesus’s words) as a camel walking through the eye of a needle—yet (also, as Jesus points out) all things are possible with God. (Matthew 19:24-25).

God comes to Mary, a poor, young, Jewish woman living on the outskirts of Nazareth.
God comes to Joseph, an older tradesman, a carpenter.
God comes to the shepherds, the field hands, the roving workers, the ones who live among the animals, close to the ground.
The Magi or Wise men or Kings come later, but they make it through that proverbial “eye of the needle” by risking everything in order to follow the newborn messiah. They put their reputations on the line; the put their lives on the line, and in so doing, their material riches are transformed into the riches of a spiritual poverty.

Saint Oscar Romero, the martyred archbishop of San Salvador, spoke honestly about this in a Christmas Eve sermon in 1978. He said,

No one can celebrate a genuine Christmas without being truly poor. The self-sufficient, the proud, those who, because they have everything, look down on others, those who have no need even of God—for them there will be no Christmas. Only the poor, the hungry, those who need someone to come on their behalf, will have that someone. That someone is God., Emmanuel, God-with-us. Without poverty of spirit there can be no abundance of God. The Violence of Love: The Pastoral Wisdom of Archbishop Oscar Romero, Harper & Row, 1988.

My conflicted relationship with authority continues. I will keep on trying to hold bishops, business leaders, and politicians accountable. But I’m going to try to remember the Christmas Story and the Gospel, that the way God comes into the world—FIRST—always and everywhere, is to the poor, the needy, the forgotten, and the friendless. Whenever I make myself poor—by giving up, by simplifying, by sharing, and by serving—I will experience new life in God.

Christ was born in Bethlehem. But Christ is also born in our world and wants to be born anew in each of us.

May this Christmas bring us a renewed sense of Christ’s life in us and around us and may we have new faith in the Light of the World.

Amen.

About John F. Beddingfield

Rector of The Church of the Holy Trinity (Episcopal) in New York City on East 88th Street between 1st Ave and 2nd Ave.
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