Christmas Eve Sermon at St. Mathew's Cathedral
Our sermon begins with a familiar figure, old Jacob Marley in his clanking chains taking us to Christmas past. And the time is roughly that which Charles Dickens knew, the mid- 19th century, give or take a decade. But the difference is this, Marley is headed not to his familiar London, but for two other destinations, where two famous men had something to say about the birth of our Lord. Our first stop is Berlin and its great university, where we find the premier philosopher of his time, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, up in his study, finishing one of his overly long and obscure books. He was a lapsed Lutheran, but he was interested in the incarnation, God becoming human in Jesus. Hegel called it ‘picture thinking,’ which is to say, a fairy tale, but with a deep meaning. The divine is really what he called ‘spirit in the world’ moving through history- we might call it, evolution or enlightenment or consciousness or spirituality. What becomes incarnate is greater human potential, and this old story of a manger and a baby can finally be understood for what it tells us about ourselves in modern times. Fast forward to many a guru or life-coach or political organizer. Hegel lived a century and a half ago, but you and I recognize this way of hearing the story- maybe we have thought of it this way at some point in our lives.
But Marley now takes us on a second, longer trip ( a decade or so later). He brings us further this time, 6,000 miles, to the great east African kingdom of Buganda, there to meet the king, the Kabaka, in his palace on what would be called Lake Victoria. The Gospel has just arrived via missionaries, including Anglicans. He and his advisors are surprised by the news. The Bugandans knew of miraculous appearances and deeds of gods and spirits. And they knew of the creator God, the father high above the heavens. But after creating, he rested at a great distance from this world, which has turned out to be so sad and cruel. Surely the Father is too smart to disturb his rest and get mixed up in all this! For this reason the Christian message seemed strange and illogical.
Now you might think this sermon is itself strange- what have our lives to do with a turgid philosopher and a pagan king a century and a half ago? Well, quite a lot actually. For many hear the story of the incarnation of God’s Son in Bethlehem, and so the Church’s claim about the incarnation, in just these ways. It is a beautiful old-fashioned story about human striving for which we have better words….Or maybe we assent to the existence of a God too distant and abstract to have anything to do with this mess. These two ways of hearing tonight’s story are not outdated, in fact we all have probably had in our lives moments or phases, where we think in these ways too- maybe we do so now.
These two takes on the incarnation of God are different, but note that, practically, they amount to the same thing, namely that we are left with lots of room to run our own affairs. In the first case, the story is really about us, and in the second the Creator has gone to the coast and left us to fend for ourselves. In a way we are dismayed by this desertion, but in another we humans like it that way.
Just before COVID, a Methodist theologian and bishop named Will Willimon came to this cathedral and gave a talk titled ‘keeping Christianity weird,’ an allusion for our Texan benefit. I mention this because there is a third way to hear tonight’s gospel reading. It is stranger than the others, but actually more compelling and logical in its own way. For the real question is this: who is God? What sort of God is he? And to answer this question, as with any question of identity, of who someone is, we need to hear his story, the trajectory of what he has said and done. He is indeed the creator, and he is indeed high above all things. But he loves his creation. The great Jewish philosopher/theologian Joshua Heschel liked to talk about the passion of God, his yearning for his wayward children, an offense to philosophers and yet a truth at the heart of the Jewish Scriptures, our Old Testament. He means to dwell with us- that is what the psalm about the Lord as king tonight means. For his own mercy’s sake He means to come to his exiled children, though they in no way deserve it. That is that the prophet Isaiah is saying in our first lesson. You see, the Gospel is not first all about us, as the philosopher and the pagan king thought, but first about him. We come to be who we were meant to be in his light, in the wake of his coming.
And that coming is not just an idea or a tale, but an event. So in the Gospel we hear that the maker of all things is born as one of us, so as to live, and then die as one of us too. If you object that this ties the usual idea of a god in a pretzel you are right, one threefold pretzel to be precise. But our job is to hear the gospel on its own terms. If it seems offensive, that means you get it. If it seems strangely compelling, it means that he is in the process of getting you. The story is the same, an event, a claim, but a lifetime and more could be spent diving into it, which is what it means for it to be a ‘mystery.’
In keeping with what we have said, two things should be said about our Gospel account of the incarnation from St. Luke tonight. First, see how high and low converge in a way which is surprising and divine. The child is born in a stable, vulnerable to attack from the powers of this world, as a result of which the angelic hymn sounds forth, the song of exaltation in heaven! God’s highness is his utter freedom, even to come low and join us, though in doing so he is no less God almighty. Think of the words of Paul in Ephesians,’ what does ‘he ascended’ mean except that he descended into the lower, earthly regions; he who descended is the very one who ascended higher than all the heavens…’
Secondly, and finally, hearing the Christmas Gospel on its own terms, and putting who God is first, doesn’t mean that we find no place in this story. Once we stop upending the story to be something about us, the story’s point, and so we, come round right. For the story includes us, we are a character in it. We are the shepherds, at first bystanders, but, it turns out, more than that. We receive the sign of God’s action, and hear the hymn of praise to him. And we are able, by God’s grace, to respond. The story envelopes us. As a result of hearing, we go to where the child is, we join the song of praise, and we tell others what happened. In those verses are found all we know, and all we need to know, of what the Church of God really is.
Of course there is much more to say, and the rest of the Christian year, complementing this great festival, says it. What it means for the God of love and covenant faithfulness to enter into his children’s plight leads on to weeks of hearing the strange parables of Jesus about the Kingdom. it leads on to his abandonment and death on our behalf, on to his being raised ahead of time, and finally to our being sent, like the shepherds, to be the emissaries of this news. Marley could take us to visitations of things past concerning these too, and we would see their meanings come to be obscured in ways all too familiar to us. Already Mary is pondering what is to come in her heart. Tonight is, like every service, an invitation to the whole counsel of God, laid out week by week in the bible and the church’s year. But it is enough, and more than enough, this evening, to hear what the story for what it has to say, for what it is as a word from God, and so join with the shepherds in ‘glorifying and praising God for all that they had heard and seen.’ Amen.