Year A — The Second Sunday after Christmas

Commentary for January 2, 2011

Click here for today’s readings

Jeremiah 31:7-14

Many of us will be dealing with themes of a “fresh start” or a “new beginning” on this first Sunday in a new year. Jeremiah knows something about that; his theme of God’s salvation of the remnant, the survivors, those who have lasted another year and are still hanging in there is both poignant and encouraging.


Verse 9 is such an excellent focal point: “With weeping they shall come, and with consolations I will lead them back. I will let them walk by brooks of water, in a straight path in which they shall not stumble.”


That’s kind of what we wish for after all the hustle and bustle of the season just past, isn’t it? Not that we finished Christmas in tears (necessarily), but to feel the strong leadership of God beside the “still waters”…to know that there’s a clear path ahead, one in which we shan’t stumble. That’s a promise worth holding on to.


Psalm 147:12-20


Lots of nature imagery in this psalm. One can’t help but reflect on the ways it is illustrative of the “storms of life” that blow through from time to time. It may be true that “neither snow, nor rain, nor heat, nor gloom of night” keep the courageous postal workers from delivering their precious cargo…but the blast of God’s breath is depicted as an awesome force to be reckoned with here.


The place of refuge is within the gates of Jerusalem — here God grants peace and blesses the children.


Ephesians 1:3-14


How long has God planned for the salvation of the world? The Apostle informs the Ephesians that they (and us) have been chosen in Christ “before the foundation of the world.” I kind of like to say it like this: “God decided that we would be loved, redeemed, and chosen before any of us were ever born.” God’s love is never conditional. That’s what I call a theological biggie!


With the Holy Spirit, God seals our salvation…a sort of pledge, or promise. As one of my colleagues said when commenting on this passage, “God never breaks a promise!” True that!


John 1: 1-18


Each of the readings for this Sunday mentions children in some way. Verse 12 of the gospel informs us that God has given us power to become “children of God” by believing in the name of Christ. 

Not to reduce our Christian experience to “easy believism” (see Donald McKim, Westminster Dictionary of Theological Terms, p. 85…or you could just click here) — but the gospel certainly is rooted in the experience of faith. 


Like children, we are sometimes called simply to trust in God. As Liston Mills, late Professor of Pastoral Care at the Vanderbilt Divinity School used to say: “All of life’s experiences can really be boiled down to one question for the Christian: can God be trusted?” (No reference here…just my personal recollection of class and conversation with the inestimable Dr. Mills.)


Verse 18 sums it up pretty well: since we never have and probably never will actually see God in this lifetime, we are called to trust in Christ, “who is close to the Father’s heart” and has made God known to us. 

Can God be trusted?


Sermon
by the Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton
(A version of this sermon appeared originally in  Homily Service, Volume 42, Number 1)

In her preface to the American edition of “Eats, Shoots and Leaves,” (a surprisingly funny book about punctuation) Lynne Truss writes:
By far the oddest and most demoralizing response to my book, however, took place at a bookshop event in Piccadilly.  It is a story that, if nothing else, proves the truth of that depressing adage about taking a horse to water.  I was signing copies of my book when a rather bedraggled woman came up and said, despairingly, “Oh, I’d love to learn about punctuation.”   Spotting a sure thing (you know how it is), I said with a little laugh, “Then this is the book for you, madam!” I believe my pen actually hovered above the dedication page, as I waited for her to tell me her name.
“No, I mean it,” she insisted — as if I had disagreed with her.  “I really would love to know how to do it.  I mean, I did learn it at school, but I’ve forgotten it now, and it’s awful.  I put all my commas in the wrong place, and as for the apostrophe . . .!”  I nodded, still smiling.  This all seemed familiar enough.  “So, shall I sign it to anyone in particular?” I said.  “And I’m a teacher,” she went on.  “And I’m quite ashamed really, not knowing about grammar and all that; so I’d love to know about punctuation, but the trouble is, there’s just nowhere you can turn, is there?”
This was quite unsettling.  She shrugged, defeated, and I hoped she would go away.  I said again that the book really did explain many basic things about punctuation; she said again that the basic things of punctuation were exactly what nobody was ever prepared to explain to an adult person. . . .
Throughout the encounter, I kept smiling at her and nodding at the book, but she never took the hint.  In the end, thank goodness, she slid away, leaving me to put my coat over my head and scream.
(Eats, Shoots and Leaves Lynne Truss, Gotham Books, 2003, pp. xxi-xxii)
In the NRSV John 1: 10-11 reads: He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him.  He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him.
Eugene Patterson in his The Message translation renders verse 10 this way: “He was in the world, the world was there through him, and yet the world didn’t even notice.”
The world didn’t even notice . . . Lynne Truss can feel John’s pain.  Here she has written a book teaching adults how to use punctuation, and a woman with that very book in hand complains that there is nowhere to turn to learn punctuation.
“. . . and yet the world didn’t even notice.” It’s an odd note to sound in the wake of a month-long celebration of the birth of Christ, but the reality is the world has noticed Christmas; there is serious doubt as to whether it has noticed Christ.
Of course, that’s what the church’s witness has been about, ever since the day John the Baptist came out of the wilderness, especially since the day he pointed to Jesus as the Christ.  “This is the one of whom I said, ‘He who comes after me ranks ahead of me because he was before me.'” (verse 15) Not many people got it then, not many people get it now.
The problem is, because it is so difficult to get people to see Jesus as the Christ of the Scriptures, we in the church are tempted to make it easier for them by presenting a more visible and palatable Savior. This is not a fault simply of Liberals or Conservatives, Liturgicals or Evangelicals, Mainliners or Mega-churchers; we are all guilty. 
We all try to present Christ in a way that is attractive to our slice, our niche of the culture.  And some of that is legitimate and necessary.  But we must be careful not to bend Jesus out of shape, not to turn the Gospel into something it isn’t.  This text is a reminder to us of the unlikeliness of the story of Jesus and of our call as Christians to live it and tell it as it is, trusting God to use our telling to open eyes and change lives. 
Not to say the world’s indifference is not frustrating. 
About 15 years ago my family moved to Nashville, Tennessee.  We lived in a three-room apartment on a hill above a strip mall with a grocery store.  Friday night was family night and we went to the grocery to pick out items for home made pizza and desert.  This was pre-Blockbuster and the grocery store had a video section where the boys and I picked out the evening’s entertainment.
One night I noticed the World War I epic All Quiet on the Western Front, shelved among the WESTERNS.  I helpfully took it off the shelf and carried it up to the bored teen-ager at the counter and said, “It’s an understandable mistake, but this movie isn’t a western.  It’s about World War I and should be shelved among the dramas.”  And the kid took it from me and said, “Thank you very much,” and placed it under the counter.
The next Friday night, and the next, and the next, this little scenario played itself out. I continued to do it for the somewhat perverse pleasure of it and as an experiment to see if anything ever would change.  After 15 months we bought a house and moved away and changed grocery stores and All Quiet on the Western Front was still safely nestled between John Wayne and Clint Eastwood. But I still had hope.  Somewhere in that persistent telling, I had hope that somebody heard me about that rather unimportant thing. 
And as important as it is for us humans to have hope in God, it is even more important that God has hope in us.  Otherwise God would have given up on us long ago.  No rainbow after the flood; no covenant with Abraham; no ten plagues and ten commandments and manna and pillars of fire; no judges and prophets and  anointed kings; and most of all no Jesus, no Savior.
God acts and the world doesn’t notice.  Our calling is to be like John the Baptist and keep on pointing to the mighty acts of God in our lives and in the world and to trust in God’s hope for us.




Year A — The First Sunday after Christmas

Commentary for December 26, 2010

Click here for today’s readings.

Isaiah 63:7-9


Isaiah’s message is all the more pointed when considered in connection with the gospel for this day. After affirming that God has, indeed, acted in the life of God’s people Israel, the prophet takes up the image of children who are cared for in their distress. Making it a point of some pride, he indicates that it is no mere angel or intermediary that cares for God’s children; it is God, the personal presence of God, that comes as “their savior.”


Hold on closely to the ending words of this lesson: “in his love and in his pity he redeemed them; he lifted them up and carried them all the days of old.” We’ll need those strong, comforting arms to endure Herod’s wrath in the gospel.

Psalm 148

John Calvin wrote, concerning Psalm 148 in his Commentary on Psalms, that “there is no part of the world in which the praises of God are not to be heard, inasmuch as he everywhere gives proof of his power, goodness, and wisdom.” (Read a free online version here.)

That pretty much says it for this psalm — what a reach, from the outer limits of the universe (in v. 6) down to the infinitesimal detail of the flora and fauna of creation– and in every human heart– God is praised!

Rev. James Anderson, who translated the commentary from Calvin’s French, notes that “Milton, in his Paradise Lost, (Lib. 5. line 53, etc.,) has elegantly imitated this Psalm, and put it into the mouth of Adam and Eve as their morning hymn in a state of innocency.”


Hebrews 2:10-18

Hebrews reminds us that Jesus became like his brothers and sisters “in every respect” (v.17) — which included his suffering and death. Further, God has allowed Jesus to do this to bring many “children to glory.” The writer makes explicit the link of “flesh and blood” between Jesus and the children of God; they have shared the experience of death and will thus share in the defeat of death. (v.14)

Because Jesus has suffered, he is able to help those who suffer — now and in all places and times. (v. 18)


Matthew 2:13-23

As preachers, we rarely come to a more difficult text to interpret than “The Slaughter of the Innocents.” In evangelical circles, preachers are fond of invoking the great cost to God of providing salvation through the life of Jesus; though I have rarely heard this passage mentioned, it certainly speaks to the “great cost” of accomplishing this particular redemptive mission.

There is a good deal of question as to the historical veracity of this account, as it is mentioned in no Roman or Jewish records of the time. What is well-documented is the tightly-coiled anger of Herod “the Great” — anger that was released in a number of deadly assaults on (real or imagined) threats to his power.

[For an in-depth examination of the issue of the historical reality of Herod’s slaughter, click here to read an article by Gordon Franz in which he claims, among other things, that Herod has been diagnosed by modern psychologists with Paranoid Personality Disorder!]

 How can we be redemptive with our handling of this text on this first Sunday after Christmas? As Dr. Chilton suggests in the sermon below, one way is to ask us to take a look at what is considered “normal” in our world. Are we so inundated by bad news and slaughter in our world that our hearts are unmoved by the good news of Christ’s coming to change us? And what is our part in redeeming a world that slaughters children every single day by means of neglect, abuse, malnutrition, and lack of adequate health care?

To do nothing, one might deduce, is the same as to live as vindictively as Herod. Hopefully, Christ’s Mass calls us to live differently, counter-culturally…and with what Pastor Robert Schnase calls “extravagant generosity.” (An excellent resource is his book, Five Practices for Fruitful Congregations; read an excerpt here.)

Sermon
by the Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton

When my son David, who is now 27, was a little-bitty fella, he loved Richard Scarry’s Christmas Book.
It is a book with no words, just pictures. It shows a traditional New England or Midwestern town going through the Advent season: pictures of families decorating the house, baking and eating cookies and pies.
It shows the town workers putting up lights and decorations downtown and Sunday School folk at Christmas play practice and Santa Claus in the Toy section of the Department Store
There is a scene of Candlelight Communion and a Christmas Day multi-generational family dinner and then the opening of gifts around the tree and the blazing fireplace.
Throughout the month of December, David — and later Joseph — would sit on my lap and we would page through this book. The first few times, I told the story; after that the boys took over, narrating and describing the activities on each page
And, as is the way with all children, each night they said exactly the same thing in exactly the same way.
The last page was a two-page panorama showing Christmas trees out by the mail-box to be picked up by the garbage man, people going to work, city workers taking down lights and decorations, etc.
At this point, the boys loved to slam the book shut and shout at the top of their lungs: BACK TO NORMAL!
Christmas Day, 2010 has come and gone. I’m guessing some of us are pretty anxious to start the process of putting out the trash, stowing away the decorations and trying to return our lives to normal.
The question is: has the Birth of Christ, the celebration of Christmas, really changed anything?
Or was it just a brief interlude before we collectively get BACK TO NORMAL!?
When we think about the Gospel lesson for today it’s hard to see where the birth of the baby Jesus has improved anything for anybody.
Mary and Joseph have gone from a happy couple planning a wedding in their village to outcasts whose baby was born in a barn in a strange town.
And now, their life gets even worse; they have become “illegal aliens,” “political refugees,” “strangers in a strange land,” to use the Biblical phrase.
They are hiding from cruel King Herod, who has been changed by the birth of Christ, but not for the better. He has become even more paranoid and bloodthirsty, taking out his anger and his fear on the innocent little children of Bethlehem.
At first glance, it does not appear that the first Christmas has done anything but make matters worse for everyone involved. Where’s the Good News in that?
Again, we must ask: Has the birth of the Christ child changed anything; or are we always and forever BACK TO NORMAL?
This sense that things have not improved is not just in the Bible, in the Gospel reading; it’s in our modern world and on the TV news and the internet. It is halfway around the world and in our own backyard, including the slaughter of the children through violence, sickness, starvation and neglect.
Is this the NORMAL we come back to after the warmth and glow of Christmas?
Did the birth of the Christ change nothing?
Well, we must remember that the birth of Jesus was a beginning, not an end.
For most Americans, the month of December, the time leading up Christmas Day, is “the Christmas season.”
For them, Christmas day is the end to which all preparations have been directed. When Christmas Day came and went, Christmas was over for them.
But for those who pay attention to the tradition of the Church Calendar, this is not so.
The time leading up to Christmas Day is NOT the Christmas Season; it is Advent, a time to prepare for Christ to come to us. On the church Calendar, the Christmas season begins on Christmas Day and continues until the Epiphany on January 6 — the 12 days of Christmas.
In structuring things this way, the Calendar seeks to teach us all an important spiritual lesson: the birth of the baby Jesus is just the beginning of the work of God in Christ to save us, not the end.
This work of salvation, of rescue, of change, is a gradual work that does not happen suddenly in all of us. Nor does it show itself in all people in the same way and at the same time. The work of God in Christ takes place slowly; it is about Christ changing us and then, through us, changing the world.
I once heard Tony Campolo, sociology professor, pastor and writer, tell a story about one of his students.
In a class on Social problems, Tony required his students to volunteer at a downtown Philadelphia Rescue Mission.
There was a man at that mission whom Campolo called “Joe.” He had once been a homeless drunk, but he had gotten “saved,” and then got sober, got clean and got a job.
Joe also turned out to be a very caring and compassionate man who spent his free time at the Rescue mission, helping others. He did the grunt work: mopping up vomit, scrubbing toilets, feeding people who were too sick to feed themselves. One might say that he was the “Mother Teresa” of that Mission.
One night, Campolo preached the “Sermon before Supper” that homeless people expect at missions. Most of them were enduring it, just waiting until it was over so that they could eat.
But one man responded by coming forward and kneeling down to praying out loud. He cried out to God: “Change my life, make me like Joe, make me like Joe, make me like Joe!”
One of the sociology students was kneeling with the man and whispered in his ear, “Don’t you think it would be better if you prayed: make me like Jesus?”
The man stopped praying and looked at the student and said, “This Jesus– is he like Joe?”
Christmas comes and Christmas goes, and year after year the world returns to its normal pace.
BUT, if indeed the Christ child has been born in us, it is the beginning, not the end. We can never return to normal ever again.
We have received the grace to be like Jesus, to be like Joe, to be like the godly, caring and compassionate person God made each and every one of us to be. We have been changed by God, and we are called by God to go into the world with the love of Christ living in us so that the world can be changed– and so that the world will never be normal again.
Amen and amen.

Year A — Christmas Eve

Bonus Edition: A Sermon and a Story
by the Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton 

Christmas Eve Dec. 24, 2010
Text: Luke 2:1-20

Several years ago, I saw a cartoon in a religious magazine that showed a young boy talking to his little sister. He was saying: Now the Shepherds were busy washing their socks by night.

It’s an interesting picture, isn’t it? Several tired and dirty shepherds who,
after a long day watching their flocks, have finally gotten the sheep settled down for the night.

They have finished their simple supper, eaten standing up around the fire.
Now they boil a kettle of water and after removing their work boots, peel off their dirty, stinking socks.

I imagine them wearing long, white, tube socks, with reinforced heel and toe, you know, the ones with a little band of red or orange around the top.
The shepherds sit back and stretch their feet out to the fire, wiggling their toes and massaging their insteps.

Ah, what a relief after a 16 hour day chasing sheep up rocky hillsides and down dusty roads. So, they wash and rinse and wring out their socks, propping them on little sticks near the fire to dry before they stretch out on their blankets to catch a little sleep.

Just another day – just another night on a boring job in which every day is
pretty much like the day that went before.

Suddenly, the sky is filled with a blinding light and an angel is hovering in the air above them. They quake and shake and hug the ground. “They were sore afraid,” is one of the great understatements of the Bible.

The angel talks about the Messiah and a baby and the city of David.
Then a whole choir of angels appears, singing about peace and love.

And then, the shepherds get up and put on their damp socks and cold shoes and tramp off to Bethlehem to see what all the fuss is about. At least, that’s what I think about when I hear the words washing their socks by night.

Now, this whole business of thinking about shepherds washing out tube socks by the fire was very helpful for me, because it helped me remember that they were, after all, real, ordinary people like you and me.

Yes, they were ordinary people, going about their ordinary lives in ordinary ways, when something truly extraordinary– extra-ordinary– suddenly intruded and changed their lives forever.

All too often, we fail to remember that most of the people in the Bible were more like us than otherwise. They didn’t spend their days waiting for a prophet to come to town or scanning the horizon for angels.

No, most of them spent most of their time going about the ordinariness of life; going to work, paying bills, cleaning house, gossiping with neighbors, quarreling with the in-laws, worrying about taxes and the girl Junior’s been dating. They went to the Synagogue on the Sabbath and then went home and talked about the Rabbi being long-winded and the sanctuary being too hot. They were a lot like us.

And, just like us, while they were hopeful that next year would be better than last year, or the year before that, they weren’t really expecting things to change, not really. In their heart of hearts they weren’t looking for God to do anything dramatic any time soon.

And yet tonight we gather to celebrate and remember that there came a time when God did act, when God did do something totally un-ordinary

God came calling, with trumpets blaring and angels singing and stars in the night. While the shepherds were washing their socks by night, God showed up with a gift.

It was a gift of God’s self, a gift of love and joy and forgiveness, all wrapped up in a very surprising package, a little baby born in a spare room, sleeping in a feed trough.

We have been given a great gift, the greatest gift of all, the gift of God’s Son, the Christ, Our Savior.

It would be a terrible shame if, after we have gone to all this effort to celebrate this gift, we fail to fully receive it into our lives.
It would be sheer folly to celebrate Jesus as the Son of God and yet fail to obey Him when he invites us to take up our Cross and follow.
In order to receive God’s gift into our lives this Christmas, we must let God’s love and peace and forgiveness go to work in us and in all we do.

God has shown up in the midst of our ordinary lives, shattering our timid normality with his own brazen originality. 
 

God has exploded into our lives, upsetting everything forever, and the question is: what are we going to do about it?

AMEN and AMEN

A TRUE STORY:

When I was a little kid, we lived in a four-room house: Living room, Kitchen, Parent’s Bedroom, Children’s bedroom, outhouse in the woods. On Christmas Eve, we went to Grandma and Grandpa’s for dinner then we came home and went to bed by 9 o’clock, the four of us in one room, all of us under ten.

Daddy always reminded us that if we heard noise in the night we should stay in bed, because Santa would take our presents back if he caught us peeking.

Early on Christmas morning, long before dawn, we slipped from our bedroom to the living room next door. We opened our presents and squealed with delight, our mouths full of candy we found in our stockings. Suddenly we were aware of a presence in the room then we heard a loud noise, like a cow stuck in a barbed wire fence.

We turned and saw upon the couch a large man with white hair and a beard, tall black boots sitting on the floor; he was asleep snoring loudly, his huge belly going up and down in fretful rhythm. We were, to use a Biblical phrase, “sore afraid,” for we were sure we knew who this visitor was. We did the only thing we could do; we gathered up all the toys and candy and hid them in our beds, then we retired there too, cowering in the dark and cold, waiting for him to leave.

A couple of hours later our parents came to see why we were not around the tree. “Is he gone?” we asked. “Is who gone?” they said. “You know, HIM. Santa,” we said. I thought my mother would die laughing, I really did.

Our visitor was her Uncle James, her mother’s brother, a man once described by his own sister as “the most worthless human being God ever devised.”

James had showed up around midnight, on foot and a bit tipsy, on Christmas Eve with nowhere to go. And my parents put him to bed in the only place they had, the living Room couch in front of the Christmas Tree.

I have seen many Christmas plays and movies, I have heard and preached many Christmas Eve sermons. But none of them has taught me more than what happened the night my parents made sure there was room for one in need, even if he didn’t deserve it.

Year A — The Fourth Sunday of Advent

Commentary for December 19, 2010

Click here for today’s texts

 Isaiah 7:10-16

“Not gonna’ do it!” became something of a buzz word in the late 1980’s. Dana Carvey, then of Saturday Night Live fame, made a significant portion of his career impersonating President George Bush (the first one, by the way) and his soon-to-be infamous pledge not to raise any taxes. The phrase came to symbolize token resistance, at best, and a blatant outrageous lie, at worst.

Ahaz, the king of Israel, says in effect to the word from the LORD, “No, not gonna’ do it! Not gonna’ ask you for a sign, God.” He is offering token resistance to God’s prompting…or is he just outright lying about his willingness to participate in any spiritual awakening God seeks to provide?

What about us…are we “resisting” God’s prompting voice in any way during this Advent season of preparation? (Thankfully, God goes ahead with the “sign” of the season, anyway: Immanuel, God With Us, will still be born!)

Psalm 80:1-7, 17-19

Does God ever get angry when God’s people pray? Hmm, evidently so. 

What would possibly make God angry when we come for some “face time” with the Divine? Are there any attitudes that you or I bring to worship that might be displeasing?

Certainly, as v. 17 reminds us, God’s strong hand is upon the “one at your right hand” — a reference taken by the church to be the soon-coming Child of God.


Romans 1:1-7

The advent of Christ has been foretold by the prophets of Israel, according to the Apostle; it is a promise from God. And God always makes good on God’s promises!

Even in this season of celebration of the birth of the Christ, notice that it is in the resurrection that Jesus is declared with power to be the Son of God. The creche of Christmas will give way to the cross of Calvary; angels sing glory now, but will testify one day soon of the empty tomb and risen Savior!

 If you’ve never heard the hauntingly beautiful hymn, “Christmas Has Its Cradle, Easter Has Its Cross” by Rae Whitney, you can find the text here


Matthew 1:18-25

Does it ever stun you to think that Christmas could have just gone away quietly, with no fuss and bother about a baby born out of wedlock? That’s what Joseph’s plan was, evidently. 

Who can blame him? This work of God –the birth of a Savior?– was something of an embarrassment to him personally; he didn’t really want young Mary to have to endure the scandal and whispers of the community. “She’s PREG-nant, you know!” Can’t you just hear the tongues of the fine church ladies lashing away? (We don’t even want to imagine what the MEN were going to say!)

But in the midst of the clutter, the voice of the Lord: “It’s okay, Joseph; just do it. God is with you.” To borrow a phrase from Mastercard, hearing the calming, comforting and assurance-giving voice of God in the midst of our doubt and confusion –PRICELESS!

No wonder Joseph was so happy to call the young lad Emmanuel…God is with us!

Sermon
by the Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton
“The True Meaning of Christmas”

The other day, I got up early, made a pot of coffee and settled down to my early morning ritual; watching Gunsmoke on TVLand. It was a “Christmas” episode.

The story went something like this: A pleasant and good-hearted ne’er-do-well got fired from the orphanage for drinking on the job. He then told off the stern, old-maid headmistress for not celebrating Christmas for the “kiddies.”

As usual, things got a bit complicated and everybody in Dodge got involved; but finally there was a Christmas Party for the children at the Long Branch Saloon and everybody once again — and just in time — learned the TRUE MEANING OF CHRISTMAS!

While watching the show, I remembered a lot of TV shows and stories from my youth that followed the same plot, one which was perfected by Charles Dickens in his classic “A Christmas Carol.” There Ebenezer Scrooge gets to learn what? The TRUE MEANING OF CHRISTMAS.

A few years ago John Grisham wrote a book that became a movie starring Tim Allen. It was called Skipping Christmas, and the main character gets cheap and selfish, but eventually learns, what? The TRUE MEANING OF CHRISTMAS.

Now, here’s a good question. 

What, exactly, is this TRUE MEANING OF CHRISTMAS everyone has so energetically been learning? I hate to say it, but I don’t think it’s the same meaning that Matthew and Luke had in mind when they wrote about the shepherds and wise men and angels and animals and the strange doings in Bethlehem of Judea.

No, the TRUE MEANING OF CHRISTMAS as proposed in these modern times has something to do with these ideas:

1) it is more blessed to give than to receive

2) we should be nice to everybody

3) having lots of stuff won’t make you happy, only loving relationships will make you  truly rich and happy.

All these are admirable sentiments, but they are not unique to Christianity and they are not even remotely close to what the writers of the Gospels wanted to tell us about the birth of Christ.

What we usually do is pick bits and pieces of the Biblical story to “proof text” and “prop up” these ideas. Let’s see: the wise men brought gifts so we should give, the angels sang something about “good will to all people” so we should love everybody, and King Herod was rich and miserable and Mary and Joseph were poor but proud, so there you go.

I’m sorry folks, but giving and niceness and a mild rejection of materialism are not the TRUE MEANING OF CHRISTMAS.

That meaning is found in one little word that occurs in two of our lessons for today: Isaiah 7:14 and Matthew 1:23 both refer to Emmanuel, God is with us.

That is the true meaning of Christmas. Emmanuel, God IS with us. Not God WAS with us, long ago and far away. Not God WILL be with us, pie in the sky, by and by. But present tense, here and now, in this time and in this place, Emmanuel, God IS with us.

Not only God IS, but hear clearly, God is WITH us.

Not God beyond us. Not God a way off there somewhere, remote and removed from our everyday lives. 

Sometimes we like to keep God at arm’s length, we like to keep the holy tied up in the church, like a lovely Christmas present; nicely wrapped and tied with a bow, carefully stashed beneath the tree, but having nothing to do with our daily and ordinary lives. We have God and church and Christ neatly cordoned off into an inoffensive corner of our lives. 
We may think we have kept God from interfering in the way we live our lives, but that won’t do. Emmanuel, God is with us, won’t allow it. Emmanuel refuses to stay in the corner, Emmanuel insists on messing around in our lives, Emmanuel is God WITH us.

Notice also that it is not God beneath us. 

Some people treat God and godly things as an interesting subject for observation and study. They are charmed by the Christmas stories; they find it interesting how the church adopted the approximate date of the winter solstice as a date for Christ’s mass, the day when the SUN begins to return to life. OH, THE IMAGERY IS SO FASCINATING. 
And then, of course, there are all the parallels with the pagan mystery cults; and of course Handel’s Messiah is such a lovely piece of music. Why Christianity is just embedded in the very fabric of Western Civilization, etc., etc.

But Emmanuel, God is with us, will not allow this. Emmanuel is not God beneath us, nor God beneath our microscope, as some sort of object for our curiosity or admiration. NO, Emmanuel is God with us, God in our midst, God in our lives.

I must warn you to be careful how much you study godly things, for God is very sneaky, and in the midst of your study you may find yourself drawn into relationship with the one who IS; for God is not beneath us, God is WITH us and works continuously to draw all things into the Divine Presence.

God is not beyond us, God is not beneath us, and God is not between us. 

There is way too much religious strife in this world, way too much “God is on my side and against you!” Emmanuel, God is WITH us, came to all people, not just the people like us, or the people we like. God is WITH us, not between us. Emmanuel brings us together, does not push us apart.

For the TRUE MEANING OF CHRISTMAS is this: In a mystery too deep for words, too profound for theologians, too irrational for philosophers and too unproveable for scientists, God’s love dictated that God enter humanity and be with us, all of us, to share in our joy and sorrow, our triumphs and tragedies, our fears and our faith, our life and our death.


And so, the story goes, it happened one night, long ago, in the city of David, that a child was born whose name was Emmanuel, God is with us.

And the Gospel for today is God is STILL with us and will be with us forever and ever, amen.