Series

When Christmas Is Born in You

O holy Child of Bethlehem, descend to us we pray; cast out our sin and enter in, be born in us today. Amen. 

Well, we have a lot packed into our readings for today. On one hand, we have the authors of the texts emphasizing Jesus’ Davidic lineage to us, clearly naming him as the Messiah. In fact, right before our passage for today, the Gospel of Matthew begins with a genealogy of Jesus through  Joseph’s side. The last part of the genealogy reads, “Jacob was the father of Joseph, the husband  of Mary-of whom Jesus was born, who is called the Christ.” This odd phrasing sort of binds  Joseph to Jesus’ life, but not completely. It’s not until the passage we just heard that Joseph takes on the role of father. By naming Jesus, Joseph acknowledges Jesus as his son and, in effect, adopts him.  

But let’s rewind for a moment. The other part packed into our readings for today is this awkward, difficult, and unexpected situation. Joseph is engaged to Mary and, at this point, finds out that she is pregnant. He decides to do the honorable thing by calling off their engagement quietly. After deciding this, he falls asleep, has an encounter with an angel in his dream, and resolves to get married to Mary and name the baby Jesus. If you are like me, you are thinking that all of this (virgin births, visits by angels, and paternity questions) is a lot to take in. So, what is going on here? What is God up to? And, what might the scriptures be trying to convey to us?  

I’d venture that the scriptures, in part, are trying to express that God intervenes in unexpected ways. Let’s take Paul for a moment, the author of today’s Epistle passage from Romans. Paul was called Saul before his conversion experience, and Saul was known for his persecution of the followers of Jesus. The Book of Acts goes as far as to say that he “breathed out murderous threats” to Jesus’ disciples and sought to arrest them and throw them in prison. God took Saul, this person who was staunchly anti-Jesus and anti-follower of the Way, and chose him to be the most fervent supporter of Christ. God’s intervention in Saul’s life was so swift that it knocked him off his feet. It is not always so dramatic, though. Look at Joseph. Joseph, in our Gospel text,  is named a righteous man. This meant that when he found out that Mary was pregnant, he had to do what the Law and customs prescribed and break off his engagement to her. His intent was to do it quietly because he loved Mary and did not want to cause her public harm. He, however, also had to show that he loved God and put God first in his life, which is why he had no choice but to dismiss her. God, though, once again, up ended things and intervened in Joseph’s plans, in essence, to say I am doing a new thing here! The Holy Spirit is at work! You do not need to end your engagement with Mary. So, Mary said yes to God in her own way, and Joseph said yes in his.  

But what about that genealogy that carefully lays out Jesus as a son of David and Abraham? God certainly intervened there in unexpected ways. If you actually read the genealogy, instead of skipping them over -like, let’s be honest, most of us do-you’ll notice that it is filled with names of men, with the exception of five women; four are named, and one that goes unnamed. Tamar,  Rahab, Ruth, Bathsheba (the unnamed individual), and Mary. These women were righteous in the face of difficult and horrendous circumstances. Tamar was treated cruelly by Judah and, in turn, did what she had to do to avoid a widow’s death. Rahab, living in Jericho, recognized the  God of Israel as the true God and made a pact with the Israelite spies to save herself and her family. Ruth, a Moabite woman, and widow, through love, chose devotion to her mother-in-law Naomi and Naomi’s God and, by doing so, faced near-certain death. Bathsheba, sought after by  King David, was raped and lost her baby, which came as a result of that encounter. After, she was taken into the royal household and was married to David, and eventually gave birth to  Solomon. Through her courage, she got Solomon selected as the successor to the throne of Israel. And Mary assented to God’s plan, changing the trajectory of her life, knowing that it would cost her the life she had envisioned. 

In many of these circumstances, things happened quickly, and people had to respond quickly in turn. I can say in my own life it’s not been so easy to recognize God at work so quickly. This week I received one of those Facebook memories on my timeline. It was for a visit (5 years ago)  to Elmwood Jail that I did with some of the members of my parish back in California and with our bishop at the time, Bishop Mary Gray Reeves. The memory that popped up reminded me of a  conversation that I had with bishop Mary on our way out of Elmwood. She said, “this ministry  that you are involved in and your time with the men here, this is truly a gift from God.” I  remember thinking at the time that she was right but that perhaps that I didn’t fully understand what she meant. Fast forward a few years later, as I was preparing to go to seminary and had to say goodbye to the men that I had come to know. It was at that moment that I fully realized the impact that they had on me and truly the gift that their presence was in my life. God had saved me from the self-focused life I had been living, where I had primarily been living life for me; for my needs and my wants. Somehow, between the time that I started my search for a church and my time in jail ministry, my life as I knew it had been upended by God’s intervention.  

God’s ultimate intervention, however, is the Incarnation. In one week, we celebrate the birth of  Christ into the world. God’s reconciling love and intervention, however, didn’t stop there. It is in the whole of the life, death, resurrection, and ascension of Christ that we see the entirety of  God’s intervention in the world. And that is the good news for us today. There’s this hymn written by bishop Phillip Brooks that’s in our hymnal that helps explain my point. It’s ‘O Little  Town of Bethlehem’ (how still we see thee lie!). The last stanza goes, “O holy Child of  Bethlehem, descend to us; we pray; cast out our sin…” Let’s stop there for a moment. What does that mean? Cast out our sin? Cast out our hate. Cast out our pride. Cast out our indifference. Cast out our fear and our shame. Cast out the ways that we hurt ourselves and hurt others. Cast out the ways that we participate in the sinful structures of the world. “Cast out our sin and enter in, be  born in us today.” To borrow a phrase from Bishop Curry, “when Christmas happens in you, when Christmas is born in you, Pentecost becomes an extension of the Incarnation.” The Spirit becomes the extension of God’s reconciling love and intervention in the world, and you are a  part of that amazing grace. In other words, when the Spirit of Jesus is born in you through the gift of the Holy Spirit, you participate in the Incarnation.

I have a friend who was ordained to the  Diaconate yesterday. The bishop told him that over time, through the work of the Spirit, he prayed that he would diminish: that his will, his pride, and his self-centeredness would diminish so that Christ might increase in him. The Jesus that is born in us, the Christ that increases in us, is the Jesus that preaches the beatitudes to our hearts. It’s the Jesus that says, blessed are the poor in spirit; blessed are the meek, blessed are the peacemakers; it’s the Jesus that says, love the Lord your God with all of your heart, and with all of your soul, and with all of your strength, and love your neighbor as yourself; It’s the Jesus that says you fed me when I was hungry, you gave me drink when I was thirsty, I was naked, and you clothed me, I was sick and you took care of me. 

These unconventional occurrences, these upending experiences that happen in our lives, can be signs of God at work in our midst. Sometimes it is apparent to us and abrupt; other times, it is slow, and we don’t recognize it until after the fact. But mind you, saying ‘yes’ should not be romanticized. Saying ‘yes,’ and opening yourself to God’s work in your life and in the world is not easy. It can be messy, hard, and wonderful. I want to end with a poem by Richard Wilbur. It is entitled ‘A Christmas Hymn.’ The stones it references refer to Jesus’ response that upon his last entrance to Jerusalem, if the crowd were to hold its peace, the stones would immediately cry out. 

A stable lamp is lighted, whose glow shall wake the sky; the stars shall bend their voices, and every stone shall cry. And every stone shall cry, and straw like gold shall shine; a barn shall harbor heaven, a stall becomes a shrine. 

This child through David’s city shall ride in triumph by; the palm shall strew its branches, and every stone shall cry. And every stone shall cry, though heavy, dull, and dumb, and lie within the roadway to pave his kingdom come. 

Yet he shall be forsaken and yielded up to die; the sky shall groan and darken, and every stone shall cry. And every stone shall cry for stony hearts of men: God’s blood upon the spearhead,  God’s love refused again. 

But now, as at the ending, the low is lifted high; the stars shall bend their voices, and every stone shall cry. And every stone shall cry in praises of the child, by whose descent among us, the worlds are reconciled. 

As we enter into Christmastide and into the new year, ask yourself, what does your shout; what does your ‘yes,’ look like for you? 

Amen.