Grace Church Cathedral, Charleston, SC
Isaiah 9:2-4, 6-7; Titus 2:11-14; Luke 2:1-14
I cannot imagine there is anyone here tonight who is not keenly aware of the gap between the is of the world and our desired ought to be of the world. Isaiah knew this gap as he and the people of Israel were held in the captivity of Assyrian dominance, essentially prisoners of war. Mary and Joseph knew of this gap seven to eight hundred years later as they negotiated their way back to Bethlehem in the midst of the oppressive regime of Emperor Augustus. The darkness is real in their age and in ours.
So where does Isaiah get the audacity to proclaim a coming time of endless peace and a vision of perfect justice? How do we take seriously the promise of peace and joy as sung by the angels to the culturally despised shepherds, shunned like present-day beggars at the side of the road? These are fair questions to toss back at tonight’s readings to lift us out of any haze of pietistic sentimentality.
We are not talking about anything in the abstract here. Our readings this night are filled with political intrigue, economic hardship and other forces manipulating and shaping people’s lives. Right – some things never change. Isaiah, the prophet/truth-teller, was a man making concrete promises to real suffering human beings for something new and hopeful in the midst of the darkness of the time. The birth of that longing is what we are celebrating.
In the manger, we discover through a newborn child the sign of a promise that God is in this with us and that history has a purpose. The light of hope born in the darkness of despair speaks of the divine persistence that never gives up on any of us! It breaks the grip of death and nothingness. What was promised in the child is pure gift from the supreme Giver of the Universe. It is the magic and joy of this night.
Even so, it is important that we not lose the sense of the scandal of God’s enfleshment in the vulnerability of the infant Jesus, born outside of town to a yet-to-be-married couple. These realities help us remember for whom this birth has occurred. He was born not for religious insiders, but for those on the edge, even for those who do not believe. He was born for people with a deep longing to be changed, to be different, to be accepted for who they are. He was born for those yearning to be set free from physical infirmities and spiritual, mental and relational brokenness that holds them captive. He was born for those wishing to be liberated from self-doubt, released from a life without meaning and destructive behavior patterns. He was born for those needing to hear a “well-done, you are loved beyond your wildest imagining,” and find yourself able to be in touch with the god-self that is within every single one of you.
This is the promise of Christmas and therein lies our hope. God’s vision for humanity is found in this Jesus and it is in his birth that we find the purpose of our birth, for the gift of the Bethlehem manger shows forth the possibility of the touch of this remarkable Jesus in the life of every person on the earth. Our longing for peace, justice and right-relationship is a longing found in all of us. I saw it in 1991, as I sat with some fellow journeyers in the living room of Queen Noor in Amman, Jordan, having dinner with her, the Colonel of the Jordanian Air Force and his family. I will never forget the words to me of this Muslim man – “All I want is for your children and my children to be able to sit down in peace.” Do we not still see the yearning of the heart in the people of our beloved Charleston now more than a year after the horrible incident at Mother Emanuel Church? I see this longing in the eyes of returning military from Afghanistan caught in the terror of post-traumatic stress, and yes, in the fear-filled eyes of a parent sitting in vigil next to a hospital bed. Perhaps you can touch the longing found in your own heart this night.
No matter the story where we see the gaps between the is and that for which we hope, wherever there is love, and forgiveness and healing offered, there is the birth of Christ known. Look at the life of Nelson Mandela. Twenty-seven years in prison, yet one might say he was a person born for his day. In his dream, a god-like vision of the reign of God where justice and right-relationship would win the day, by his witness he broke the back of a racist apartheid that spread hatred and violence among God’s people. That work is not finished, but it is where we see God’s hope breaking in to the present in real and concrete ways. There God’s vision for us takes a deeper hold on the creation.
So tonight we dare to do a subversive thing. We dare to sing and pray into being a new possibility. When we sing of justice, peace and hope in the hymns and carols, we become what we sing. When we sing and pray of love, we become better at it. It begins to take root and change us. It is why we must do it over and over again, for our sakes and for the sake of the world. I can tell you it works, for I remember sitting around a campfire in the north of El Salvador in 1995 with those who had fought in the civil war, who had lost husbands and brothers and sons, and we sang of our hope. We sang of love. We sang of forgiveness. We sang into being a new awareness of humanity, a new relationship with one another that was forged into new possibilities for a future into which we are still growing.
Hope was inaugurated through a baby in a stable in Bethlehem, the infant Jesus arriving in the midst of sweeping political events and no vacancies. God still shows up, even tonight, now to be born and lived in you.