Christmas Gets Real – Sermon, Rev. Joe Moore
January 1, 2017
One of my favorite parts of planning a worship service is choosing the hymns. It is a challenge to find the perfect hymn- one that goes well with the Scriptures, has a great message on it’s own, and is enjoyable and uplifting to sing. Some services are much easier to choose hymns for than others. Especially during Advent and Christmas. We love singing the songs of Christmas. In the church, the Christmas hymns are way better than the ones for Lent or even Easter. That’s one of the things that makes the Christmas lovefeasts so great. What is better than joining in with hundreds of other people, singing those beautiful songs of our Savior’s birth? Plus, you get to eat and to play with fire! Our love of Christmas hymns and carols is one of the reasons why we are still singing them and using the Christmas liturgy for today’s service.
We could have moved on. With today being New Year’s Day, we could have switched the focus to preparing for entering this new year. There wouldn’t have been anything wrong with that. I think that for many people, we are more than ready to see 2016 come to an end and embrace the beginning of a new year. But I’m not quite ready for Christmas to be over. And, liturgically speaking-I’ll bet you didn’t know that we have the ability to speak liturgically- this is still the Christmas season. But with New Year’s Day being on Sunday, we could just as easily make this service a celebration of the new year. But in the church, the Christmas season ends with Epiphany on January 6. And #25 of my own personal Christmas Traditions, Observances and Rules stipulates that “the Christmas season officially ends on January 2.” So we are well within all the established parameters as we continue to celebrate Christmas, at least during our worship service today.
As such, I spent a long time looking for the perfect Christmas carol to go with today’s scriptures. But without success. I like the ones that we are doing, but they certainly aren’t the more familiar Christmas hymns. And they don’t really fit with the Scriptures for today. It was almost impossible to find a familiar and beloved Christmas carol that goes with today’s Gospel reading. For some reason, there aren’t a lot of Christmas songs about Herod ordering the death of all children under 2 years old. I guess it just doesn’t fit the festive mood of Christmas.
We can sing about shepherds and angels, Mary and Joseph and the baby, the wisemen and the star; we can sing about the silent night, the holy night, on which joy came into the world, and invite the faithful to come and worship the newborn king. But no wants to sing about what happened next, about what happened after Jesus was born.
Herod’s slaughter of the innocents is not something that we sing about, or include in our Christmas plays, or nativity scenes. We don’t hang ornaments commemorating the occasion on our Christmas trees. It’s one of those parts of the Bible that we would rather overlook or ignore. It’s much easier to just have Jesus be born, receive the gifts of the Magi, maybe consider the one story we have of his childhood, when he, at 12 years old, taught in the Jerusalem temple, and then jump to his baptism and the beginning of his ministry. Stories like the one we have today, with hundreds of innocent children being murdered by a ruthless, power-hungry, king, they just don’t fit in with our expectations of the Christmas story. It is too awful, too raw, too real to be part of Christmas. It runs counter to what we love about Christmas and the Christmas story. Maybe I should have made this service more of a new year’s service. Because it certainly doesn’t feel like Christmas.
We love the way the Christmas season feels, we love the Christmas story, and we love Christmas, because it represents a break from the “real world”. We decorate our homes and our churches, we give gifts and have parties and eat special foods, we put lights and stars and candles everywhere, we do things different from the rest of the year because we need that break from the real world. The world that we live in is so full of darkness, so filled with fear and war, so full of sorrow and hate that we need a time to focus on the light, to remember the hope and the peace, to feel the joy and the love that is Christmas, that Jesus brings into our world. That’s why we love Christmas, that’s why our church is packed on Christmas Eve. We all need to take that break from the real world, to step away from the world that is and reflect upon the world as we long for it to be, the world that only Jesus can bring.
But the irony is that Jesus entered the “real world.” He didn’t enter a world of light, a time of hope and peace, a place of joy and love. He entered into a place of hate and sorrow, a time of war and fear. Jesus was born into a world of darkness. He entered into a world where a king could and did order the murder of all children under two years old. It was a world where, for his own safety, Jesus’ family was forced to flee to Egypt. The world that the “dear Christ” entered in was as real as it gets. And Jesus himself was as real as it gets.
Far too often, especially at Christmas, we dehumanize Jesus. I’m sure that if Mary heard people singing “little Lord Jesus, no crying he makes” she would respond “Yeah, right. I wish.” We talk about Jesus and worship him as being “fully human and fully divine” but we downplay his humanity, his realness. We don’t like to think of Jesus as being like we are. We don’t like to imagine him as having real emotions- as being angry or afraid or doubt filled or depressed. We don’t like our Jesus to be real because we want to see him as we long to be, as the idealized version of who we are. And we don’t like our Christmas to be real because we want it to provide an idealized version of the world in which we live. We look at both Jesus and the story of how he came into our world as ways to escape the harsh reality that we deal with every day.
But Jesus isn’t meant to provide an escape from the real world, the Incarnation isn’t about God entering a perfect world. It is actually just the opposite. Jesus entered into our world to help us to face the harsh realities of our world. The Incarnation is about God entering our imperfect world. God entered this imperfect world, Jesus had to face the harsh realities of the world that he entered in.
The world that Jesus came into was a world of darkness, of fear, of war, of hate, of sorrow. It was a world that needed him, just as our world needs him. The darkness that Jesus entered into was almost overwhelming. His people had faced years upon years of persecution and exile and destruction. They were crying out for a new king, longing for a Messiah to lead them out of the darkness and into the light.
The world that Jesus came into when he was born on that silent night was so filled with fear that every time God spoke, every time an angel appeared, their first words were “Fear not…” People’s natural, instinctive reaction was fear. The world that welcomed Jesus was a world of war- the country where he was born was “occupied territory”. The Jews had been conquered by the Romans. There were Roman soldiers everywhere, ready to use force to keep people in line.
Sorrow filled the world that Jesus came into. His people were grieving their loss of identity, their sense that they were God’s chosen people. They had been so beaten down by life, that they couldn’t help but be filled with sorrow- over what had been, what was, and what they thought was to come. Hate also pervaded the world that Jesus entered. Jews hated Samaritans, Samaritans hated Jews, they both hated Gentiles and they all hated the Romans.
The world that Jesus entered into was very much the real world. Life was difficult, darkness was everywhere. Hate was triumphing over love. Sorrow had overwhelmed joy. War was more powerful than peace, and fear had replaced hope. It sounds a lot like the world that we find ourselves in today.
I have heard many people talk about what a difficult year 2016 was- the reasons for it being so difficult were widely varied, but it seemed like everyone was glad to see it go, was glad to see the calendar turn over and a new year begin. I know that I have certainly have had better years.
On Christmas Eve, when the church was filled with light and love and joy and peace and hope; it was easy for me to stand here and say that light overwhelms dark, that love triumphs over hate, that joy replaces sorry, that peace will reign and hope prevail. It was easy because it is always easy on Christmas. Because that is when all is right with the world. We see things, not as they are, but as we long for them to be, as we want them to be, as Jesus can cause them to be. Because that baby was born, we can have light and hope and peace and joy and love. Christmas is the one time of year when we can step out of the real world. But, unfortunately, Christmas comes to an end. And we are called back into the real world.
So it is actually almost perfect that our Scripture this morning is when Christmas gets real. The jarring transition from a baby born in the manger, heralded by angels and adored by shepherds, to the pointless slaughter of hundreds of innocent children, helps bring us back into the real world. It reminds us that all is not right with the world. It wasn’t then and it isn’t now.
Yet, it also reminds us that as Jesus entered into that real world, he also enters our real world. He knows our darkness and our hate. He knows our sorrows and our wars. He knows our fears. He knows because he has been here and he has done that. And he has overcome it.
Remembering this, knowing that Jesus came into the world when all was NOT right, helps us to face our reality, it helps us to bring light to our darkness, to bring hope to our fears, to sow peace in the midst of war, to allow joy to overcome sorrow, and to ensure that love does indeed triumph over hate. It doesn’t make it easy, life in Jesus’ world was not easy and life in our world is not easy. But it does remind us that it is possible.
Today is the day when Christmas comes to an end. At least the idealized version of Christmas that we thankfully get to celebrate every year. It is when the decorations begin to come down and put back in their boxes, keeping them safe until next year. Until the next time we need that break from the real world. Until the next time we need to be reminded that all is right with the world. Today is the day when Christmas gets real, when the real world returns and life gets back to normal. Today is the day that we need to remember that even in this dark world, light is possible. Today is the day that we need to remember that hope and peace are possible, that joy and love are possible.
Light is possible because Jesus brings light. Hope is possible because Jesus shows us what hope is. Peace is possible because Jesus embodies peace. Joy is possible because the Lord is here. Love is possible because Jesus is love.