24 December 2012

Sermon for the Nativity of Our Lord - "Christmas Belongs To Children"

Christmas is a time that belongs to children.  Think about all the Christmas stories and songs you know, and the role that children play in them.  

  • A Christmas Carol:  where Tiny Tim understands the spirit of Christmas better than Scrooge, Marley, and even his own father, Bob Cratchit.  
  • Miracle on 34th Street: where the child believes in Kris Kringle when no one else does.  
  • A Charlie Brown Christmas:  no adults even appear in this story!
  • How the Grinch Stole Christmas:  Cindy Lou Who speaks for all of Whoville.
  • The Best Christmas Pageant Ever:  the Herdmans, even though they get everything wrong, get it all right in the end.

Christmas definitely belongs to children.  
What is it that attracts children to Christmas?  Do they fully understand the communicatio idiomatum of Jesus’ birth, the full inter-mingling of God and Humanity?  Do they know that when Joseph and Mary kept their engagement, they were the scandal of their neighborhood because of Mary’s illegitimate child?  Do they know that Herod would soon be murdering infants to get rid of this supposed King that was born in Bethlehem?  Do they see in Jesus the one who will go to the cross for them?  NO – what attracts children to Christmas is the idea of the gift.  Under the tree there are presents to be opened, gifts of love from Mom or Dad or a strange 3rd century archbishop who somehow took the name of Claus and moved to the North Pole.  And there in the manger is a baby, a gift of love and innocence and peace for which the skies were split and for whom the angels sing.  This is not just any baby – this is the baby Jesus, and he is beautiful and wondrous and new and best of all, the angels said He was a present, too, given to us this day in the city of David.  For children, the gift is the essence of Christmas – it is the adults who pile on their concerns, their bitterness, and their complaints.  When a child forgets the essence of Christmas, the innocence and peace in which they’ve always lived is buried under fear, guilt, insecurity, futility, and a loss of hope.  And an adult is born.     
It takes an adult’s sense of cynicism and hypocrisy to resist the pull of the Nativity story.  Only grown-ups could hail the birth of Jesus out of wedlock, then look down our noses at those who do the same today.  Only grown-ups could sing songs about cattle stalls and mangers and leave our homeless out in the cold.  Only grown-ups could sing “Sleep in heavenly peace” in the same room as those with whom we haven’t gotten along n years, and probably never will.  
The birth of Jesus the Messiah, from an adult’s perspective, is scandalous.  The King of Kings born in a cattle stall in a nothing village a day’s walk from the Temple, the supposed center of God’s kingdom on earth.  The birth announced by an army of angel song, but to a bunch of smelly, dirty shepherds, who may have been grazing their sheep on other peoples’ lands when they heard the news that the Messiah was born.  Foreign magi  who didn’t even worship the God of Israel traveling across miles and miles of land to give gifts to this supposed Christ child.  Strip away all the childlike wonder of this night, and that’s what you get:  a dirty, smelly, impolite story that would be offensive if it happened here among us today.  
But when it comes to this story, you aren’t grown-ups, are you.  Not entirely, at least.  You’re here, after all.  You didn’t have to come.  Something pulled you back into the story, and even if it was your kids or your parents or your spouse, you’re still here.  Tonight.  A child of God come to worship at the manger which holds your Lord and Savior.  A child, come to hear this remarkable story again.  
Maybe that’s the way it should be.  Maybe what you need is more childlike faith in what God is doing, and less grown-up fear about the limits we see all around us.  Children have a remarkable ability to take things as they are, to take people as they are, without judgment.  Maybe this story is supposed to bring you back to the cradle in childlike wonder.  Maybe this story is supposed to make you see the rest of your world that way, too.  Maybe this story is supposed to make you remember the people around you are God’s children, too.  Maybe this story is about all of God’s children - smelly, ragged, tired, homeless, scared, grown-up - and how the Child born in Bethlehem was, and is, a gift to us all.  
Tonight the gift comes to claim us again.  Tonight we are reminded how little God worries about all the grown-up demands, all the unfulfilled promises, all the dashed hopes and dreams of an adult world that can never live up to its picture of perfection.  Tonight the gift of Jesus Christ is celebrated, Word made flesh, and no power of sin or darkness can stand against this gift.  Tonight the Creator of all things is born into His own creation, and the world will never be the same again.  Tonight the noise and chaos of grown-up human frenzy gives way to silence, to stillness, and we all gather in hushed, childlike wonder to hear the borning cry of the Child come to save us all.  

I sing of a night in Bethlehem
a night as bright as dawn
I sing of that night in Bethlehem
the night the Word was born

The skies are glowing gaily
with the earth in whitest dress 
to see Jesus in his cradle
drink deep at his mother’s breast

And there on a lonely hillside
the shepherds bow down in fear
when the heavens open brightly
and God’s message rings out so clear:

Glory now to the Father 
in all the heavens high,
and peace to His friends on earth below 
is all the angels’ cry.
We are the children of the Child.  With His birth comes our birth, a birth into His baptism, His life, His death, and His resurrection.  This Child comes to give us life, and we know that life is not always peaceful, still, or glorious.  Angels do not always sing.  Shepherds do not always bow in worship.  Mangers do not always cradle the Son of God.  The time will come when this Child will be cradled by harsher wood.  The time will come when the title, “Messiah” will be given with a slap rather than a mother's caress.  The time will come when this Child is wrapped in burial garments, not swaddling clothes.  But tonight is not that time.  Tonight we gather in child-like wonder to hear the story again, to draw near and raise our voices to praise the Child who is born for us.   Tonight we children of the Child come to give Him honor and glory, songs and praise, the best we can give.  Tonight the voices that insist on destroying our innocence and peace cannot prevail.  Tonight the song rises around the world:  “We are yours, dear Lord, such as we are: enlighten our hearts and minds – make us Your children once more.”  
We are the children for whom this Child is born.  Join the song of the angels and welcome the One who comes to make you His own, a child of His redeeming love and overwhelming forgiveness, and may the light and life of this Child strengthen and sustain you in the days to come.  The peace of God, which passes all human understanding, born this night in Bethlehem, keep your hearts and minds in this Child, Christ Jesus our Lord, now and forever.  Amen.

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