Isaiah 9:2-7; Luke 2:1-14
Good evening and Merry Christmas! Welcome to St. Paul’s on this most wonderful night. I love the audaciousness of this late service on Christmas Eve, when we come out in the cold and dark to celebrate the in-breaking of light in the birth of Christ. And I have gained a much greater appreciation for light, and more respect for darkness, since I moved here 2 ½ years ago. After living in New York City for nearly a decade, one of the things I treasure most about life here in Berkshire county is relative lack of light pollution—I see stars now, and I am much more in tune with the rising and setting of the sun. At this time of year, when the days are so short, and the nights so long, there is a special joy in candle light at this service. For me this is a wonderfully mysterious and beautiful way to celebrate Christmas, and to anticipate Christmas morning. Thank you to all of you for being here tonight, and a special thanks to Bishop Fisher for honoring us by celebrating the Eucharist here at St. Paul’s on this Christmas Eve.
And as we come to the end of another year, I can’t say that I’m going to miss this one when it goes out. 2017 has been a dark year. Politics in America have hit a new low. Legislators seem more focused on business and profit/loss sheets than on caring and compassion. Our eyes have been opened to the realities of sexism and predatory behavior in the workplace that for far too long had been ignored. And our fragile earth is under real threat, and this fall natural disasters of epic proportion throughout the world almost seem like the cries of a strangled planet. Perhaps you remember the words of the Christmas classic, “O Holy Night” – It says, “long lay the world in sin and error pining” – that’s a pretty good description of our world today.
In the face of all of these goings-on, I, as a preacher feel a heavier weight than normal. What is the prophetic word in the face of these events? How can I help all of us find Christ in the midst of the turmoil? Where is the good news?
I am not the only preacher looking for guidance and inspiration this Christmas Eve. A priest friend on my Facebook feed this week asked the rest of us what our focus would be for our Christmas sermons. One or two said they planned to focus on dignity in this time where inequalities in our society are coming to light and we seem more and more to be engaged in disrespectful behavior (or at least are becoming more aware of those behaviors). Another said he was going to focus on the idea of belief—what that means in terms of relationships and trust. Still another said she is thinking about making space for Christ to be born in our weary, distracted hearts.
All interesting avenues, to be sure. But as I think about where I am, and what I am feeling, I find that, more than anything else, right now I need hope. I need to believe that things will get better. I need reassurance that God is breaking in to the dark places with light.
Fortunately the nativity story is one of great hope, even in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds. Putting together the Christmas narrative from all of the gospels, we see the hope of new life, first as the birth of John the Baptist is foretold, and then the birth of Jesus. John the Baptist proclaims the hope for a Messiah, one who will usher in God’s salvation. And Mary proclaims hope for justice and mercy for the world in her beautiful song, the Magnificat.
When I think of Mary’s beautiful song of hope, I am reminded how far we have strayed from her vision for the world. Today it seems that the rich are being filled with good things and the poor are being sent empty away. In the face of a world upside down, how do we hold on to hope? How do we claim that hope in the midst of so much turmoil? And what about false hope? Are we only making ourselves feel better by hoping? Does hope blind us to reality?
Now, I must confess that I have quite a history with hope. An integral part of the education to be a priest is a program called Clinical Pastoral Education. This is an intense program of supervised interaction with people in crisis, most often in hospital settings, designed to help a pastoral caregiver become more aware of him or herself in these emotionally-charged situations—to identify and reflect on the feelings and reactions that come up when faced with big emotions.
In that process, my supervisor coined a term for me: She called me a bright-sider. More often than not, when I went into a patient’s room and began to have a pastoral conversation with them, I would turn the conversation to a message of hope—“It’s going to be all right,” or, “I bet you’ll feel better tomorrow,” or something similar. In many of the rooms I walked into that summer, that might well have been false hope—in any event, I learned that my optimistic statements were usually a reflection of how I saw the world. I was not allowing those patients the opportunity to identify their won feelings. Walking into the hospital room of a person who is dying and telling them it’s all going to be OK is not usually very helpful.
That astute observation from my supervisor, however, was helpful to me. I worked hard to understand better why I was living in that place of hope, and came to realize that a “glass half full” reaction to life is what got me through a very difficult childhood. I became a class-A “bright-sider” to get through a tough adolescence.
That attitude has served me well in life. It keeps me positive. And it has spurred me on to make things better—to fulfill that prophecy. But understanding this tendency of mine has also made me a little suspicious of hope.
Theologian Joe Stowell spells it out more clearly:
For many of us, hope lacks a sense of certainty. It is more like a wish—something that we want to happen but have no way of knowing that it ultimately will. So we keep our fingers crossed and “hope” that everything will go the way we want it to.
“The reality is that often life doesn’t turn out the way we hoped it would. Hope is a fragile commodity. When life is disappointing, our optimism is replaced by feelings of discouragement and hopelessness. Before long we run the risk of becoming cynics who believe that there is nothing in which we can confidently hope.”[i]
He goes on to note that this place of cynicism was exactly the landscape when Jesus entered the world. “The prevailing mood of Israel was anything but hope. The once proud nation was now a puppet state of the pagan Roman Empire.” And those looking to God for help were growing weary. “Centuries before, they had been promised a deliverer who would restore Israel to its former glory, but it had never happened.”[ii]
And in the midst of that doubt God came to earth as true hope, genuine hope, bright-star hope, all in the most unlikely form of a baby. Of course, it’s not that God hadn’t loved the world before this moment. But what we remember tonight is that God took the radical step of incarnation—of coming to the earth as one of us. As the prophet Isaiah notes, those who lived in darkness found themselves showered with light. The one named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace—Christ came to earth, fully God and fully man, to fulfill the hope for everlasting light.
And that hope is also fulfilled for us. We are a people sorely in need of light and hope, and Jesus comes to us with the same urgency, the same surprise, the same love he did on that night 2,000 years ago and halfway around the world. I am sure of it—Christ’s way of being, his laser-focus on love is the hope I need tonight. That love is stronger any of the ills that beset us. And we in the church are the community that exists solely to point to that hope, and to help one another live into the way of hope and love that is life patterned after the way of Christ.
It may be audacious to cling to hope. But God has never been afraid to make bold moves, or to expect the same from us. Listen to this poem by Madeline L’Engle, Episcopal mystic and author of the much-loved book A Wrinkle in Time:
This is no time for a child to be born,
With the earth betrayed by war & hate
And a comet slashing the sky to warn
That time runs out & the sun burns late.
That was no time for a child to be born,
In a land in the crushing grip of Rome;
Honor and truth were trampled by scorn—
Yet here did the Savior make his home.
When is the time for love to be born?
The inn is full on the planet earth,
And by a comet the sky is torn—
Yet Love still takes the risk of birth.[iii]
Above the noise and bustle of the season, beyond the hype of consumerism, and precisely because of the unrest swirling all around us, we all need the simple hope that comes with God’s incarnation as one of us. I need the hope of Jesus, and his dream for each of us to reflect his light of love for the world.
And maybe I’m just a bright-sider, but I truly believe that we are surround by the light of Christ. It shines in each one of you. This Christmas may you see once again the light of love that radiates from this community, from those you love, and above all from you. May you embrace that love, knowing that God promises hope to each of us, wherever we are, whatever our brokenness may be. And may you find the way to carry this light of love, this Christ light into the new year, and into all the dark corners that long for the warmth and hope it brings.
Merry Christmas, my friends. And to quote again from “O Holy Night,” may you experience the thrill of hope, as well look to the in-breaking of a new and glorious morn. Amen.
[i] Stowell, Joe. https://getmorestrength.org/daily/the-hope-of-christmas/, accessed 12/21/2017.
[iii] L’Engle, Madeline, quoted at http://mincingword.blogspot.com/2010/12/risk-of-birth-advent-poem-by-madeleine.html, accessed 12/21/2017.