Sermon for Christmas Eve, 2013
I only peeked inside a gift once. Sometime before my ninth birthday, I rooted around in my parents’ closet and found a book about guinea pigs, which clued me in to the idea that I was going to get a guinea pig for my birthday. But other than that, I’m pretty good about not snooping, because I really don’t want to know what’s in the box until I open it—the not knowing and anticipation is part of the excitement in getting a present, and then the satisfaction of opening it, seeing, and playing with it or wearing it or whatever you do with the kind of thing it is.
There’s this little baby lying in a manger tonight, wrapped in a bunch of rags. And hearing the angel’s words to the Shepherds and to us, we know that this baby is a gift. “For unto us a child is born, a son is given.” It doesn’t look like a savior. It doesn’t look like a messiah. It doesn’t look like the Son of God. But it is. And over the next 33 years, layer upon layer of gift wrap will be taken off until finally there is Easter morning and Mary Magdalene can see the risen Lord and cry out “Rabbi!” Mary, Joseph, the shepherds, maybe even the angels—they look at this gift of a child and don’t quite know what it is. It certainly is a gift—every child is a gift—but even with all the prophecies, with all the strange dreams and angels and visitors—there is no way for them to really know what they’ve been given. The fullness of it only comes with the teachings, the life Jesus lives, his death, and his resurrection.
We have the privilege of knowing the rest of the story tonight. But do we really know what we’ve been given in Jesus? The English writer G.K. Chesterton once wrote, “Christianity has not been tried and found wanting; it has been found difficult and not tried.” (from What’s Wrong with the World) I think we’re still mystified by what it means that God gave us his son. There’s a line in Romeo and Juliet when Juliet is waiting for Romeo to show up after they’ve been married, “O! I have bought the mansion of a love, but not possess’d it, and though I am sold, not yet enjoyed!” Different context, but I feel like that’s sort of where we are. 2000 years of theology and Christian living after Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem, we still haven’t fully possessed what it means that God has granted us salvation. We don’t yet enjoy living in the mansion of love, even though that’s where we are. In theological terms, this time we’re in is often referred to as the “already-not yet”…. We have already been saved, but we have not yet come fully into God’s glory. Jesus has already come, but we have not yet managed to accept it.
Jesus lived and preached and taught things that are difficult for us to follow. Sometimes we can’t really believe that yes, we’ve been forgiven for our sins, that yes, we’ve been promised eternal life, that yes, God loves us enough that Jesus is the Son of God and Jesus does die for us. And sometimes we find it difficult to really love our neighbors; to share what we have; to respond with compassion rather than self-interest. It’s rather like we’re looking at the gift but afraid to play with it. We’re afraid to fully invest ourselves in cherishing it and letting it in to every corner of our lives. We’re still in the anticipation phase—or as if we’ve gotten a gift and we put it up on a shelf where we can look at it, but don’t take it out of the box.
Let 2014 be a year for you and I and everyone to unwrap one more layer around this prince of peace lying in the manger. Take Jesus down off the shelf and see what he can do. What layer of wrapping could you undo this year? Could you discover Jesus the teacher—and truly follow his teachings about love and justice? Could you discover Jesus the healer—and let him heal your wounds and restore your life? Could you discover Jesus the bringer of Good News—and turn around and share that good news with a world in need? Could you discover Jesus the man who prayed—and let his prayers enliven your own prayer life? Or could you discover Jesus the man who forgave sins—all of our sins, things done and left undone, known and unknown, and slip out from the burden of guilt and sin?
If each of us unwrapped just one more layer around the baby in the manger tonight, what a difference it would make in the world that God loved so much that he sent that baby. When the world sees Christians behaving like Christians, it gets excited. See the joy around the response to Pope Francis—suddenly, a role that had been pigeonholed as judgmental and out of touch with ordinary lives has come to life with compassion and humility. We could have a larger conversation about whether the Pope is actually managing to change in the Roman Church—but just at the level of how he presents his faith to the world, I am convinced that the world knows a real Christian when it sees one. We know a real Christian when we see one. And not only do we recognize it, we like it. We see it and we know oh, yes, that’s what Jesus was talking about. That’s who that child in the manger really is.
Tonight the gift is a baby. Even if you don’t really like babies, when you see one, and it looks up at you and smiles you can’t help but smile back. So too with Christians. Even if you don’t really like them, when they act like Jesus, it’s hard not to smile back, to feel warm, to want to be a Christian in return. So maybe our work tonight is not just to unwrap the Christ Child and reveal him to ourselves; maybe our work tonight is to allow ourselves to be unwrapped—to be shown for the gift we are to the world. May we be as unselfconscious as a baby in our smiles and our reaching out to touch the world. We have good tidings of great joy to bring to the world, and when the world hears those tidings, have confidence that heaven and nature will sing; that the lowly will be lifted up and the mighty brought low; and that peace will prevail. Amen.