Here is the recording of the sermon preached at the Episcopal Church of the Good Shepherd, Pawtucket RI on Christmas Eve, 2017. Text: Luke 2:1-20 and Titus 3:4-7
If you prefer to read. ….
Christmas is a time of journeys.
First there are the hectic journeys to shopping centers and malls to find the perfect gifts for loved ones—epic quests which can rival video games for their complexity and hazards. There are trips to the supermarket—when just getting into and out of the parking lot with your car intact is a major achievement.
Then there are journeys to the holiday gatherings and celebrations. Some of us have journeyed from our houses to be with family or friends here. Others of us are hosting those who have journeyed to us. Sometimes the journeys are short—from Seekonk to Darlington—but some may cross several bridges or even a state line, while others of us may make a simple journey to a friend’s house or a local restaurant.
Then there is the journey each of us has made here tonight. We have come from our home, or the home we’re visiting, to this place of worship. Why have we come here? Why have we travelled here, to the manger, to the altar? We have come seeking something. Bethlehem represents where God gathers things earthly and heavenly, where the divine shines forth. [+Jake Owensby, 12/19/2017]
We have each come here tonight on a journey to Bethlehem. We have come here longing to meet God.
We come by different pathways, propelled by different things.
Some of us, like the magi, or astronomers, whose story we will hear next Sunday, have been brought to the manger by our curiosity, our intellectual study, our wonder at the natural world, which has led us to want to praise the God who has set the stars in motion and to know that God more deeply.
Some of us, like the shepherds in Luke’s Gospel, have come to the manger because we have had a direct experience of God, in some way—maybe not as dramatic as the heavenly host bursting into song right in front of us, but we’ve had some direct personal experience of God acting in our life which we cannot deny, and which we want to deepen, or build on.
And then many of us have come to the manger tonight Simply because it is what our calendars say to do on December 24. Like Joseph and Mary needing to get to Bethlehem because they were required to by the Roman census-takers. They didn’t choose their itinerary in consultation with a travel agent—it was simply the next thing their life presented them to do. A woman more than nine months pregnant would not choose to go on a hundred-mile hike away from her home. But it was what the business of life required.
Maybe we’re here just to honor our parents’ wishes, or our partner’s, or because we’re on the Altar Guild, or just because it’s what we’ve always done before wrapping the presents on Christmas Eve. Or maybe we’re here almost in spite of ourselves, fighting against grief or loss or sadness, or discouragement, or illness. Mary surely was fighting an aching back and near-exhaustion and great fear and anxiety about what it would be like to give birth. But like Mary and Joseph, even though we have come here with other things on our mind, nevertheless we have journeyed to the manger.
Even though we have journeyed away from our physical homes to come to the manger, I believe each of us in fact comes to Christmas, comes to the manger, seeking home.
By home I mean that place where we know we belong, where we know we are loved unconditionally, and even exuberantly, even with all our flaws and shortcomings, in all our idiosyncrasies. We come looking for a place where we will be warmly welcomed even when we bring with us all the wounds we have suffered and the guilt from wounds we have inflicted on others. Perhaps we come together with family, people with whom we share some ties but also some torments. Or perhaps we come believing ourselves to be desperately alone.
When they were there, the time came for Mary to deliver her child …. and she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth and laid him in a manger because there was no room for them in the guest lodgings. ….
And the shepherds went with haste, and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger. When they saw this they made known what had been told to them about this child; and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them.
At that moment, Mary knew in her deepest self that of which she had perhaps had intimations ever since the angel Gabriel had visited her ten months earlier — that her journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem was not the main feature Nativity journey. Nor was the shepherd’s journey, nor the journey the Persian astronomers would soon complete. Nor are our journeys to this manger the central story, whether those we have made by car or in our souls.
The largest and longest journey made on the first Christmas was that God, who set the stars spinning in their courses and established the pillars of the earth, and envisioned the mad variety of the natural world, this God became human The ruler of all creation took our flesh as a squalling baby, and made a divine home in the straw and muck of our humanity.
The immortal and all-powerful God does not shy away from ordinary, finite, and even mundane creatures like us, but rather draws near, eager to embrace us like a lover too long separated from the beloved. [David Lose, Dear Partners In Preaching blog, Christmas 2016]
Gazing at the baby in the manger, we see the immense dignity that we have—that we are indeed God’s treasured children.
And that is not just the case for those standing within sight of that animal feed-bin in Bethlehem over 2,000 years ago. Jesus was not born just for the shepherds, or for Mary and Joseph, or for the magi—Jesus was born for us. When God came to earth, it was so all of us could become, as Paul writes to Titus, heirs of the royal household.. We no longer have to go searching for a place where we are accepted, some physical location over there, which requires a journey, which we have to do on a certain schedule and following directions closely, and when we get there all is still dependent on other fallible human beings being able to welcome us. No—home has come to us, and abides with us.
The early English church historian known as the Venerable Bede put it best:
“[Jesus] was born not in the house of his parents but at the inn, by the wayside, because through the mystery of the incarnation he is become the Way by which he guides us to our home, where we shall also enjoy the Truth and the Life.” [Bede, Exposition of the Gospel of Luke 2.7]
Yes, we have all made journeys to be here tonight, and we are all seeking an experience of God, that most profound experience of home, of our true belovedness.
But the amazing wonderful mystery of God becoming human is that God has journeyed to us. And by taking on our flesh, God has made our belovedness something we bear in our very bodies, wherever we are.
As the 20th-century Anglican poet T. S. Eliot wrote,
“We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.”
― T.S. Eliot, Four Quartets
So tonight, we come in praise and wonder and awe.
In closing, I offer the words of a contemporary English priest, Rosalind Brown:
Ponder long the glorious mystery
breathe, in awe, that God draws near;
hear again the angels’ message,
see the Lamb of God appear.
God’s own Word assumes our nature:
Son of God in swaddling bands;
Light of light, and God eternal
held in Mary’s gentle hands.
— Rosalind Brown