CHRISTMAS EVE 1974
A sermon preached by The Very Rev. Bill Maxwell at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Port Townsend, Washington, Christmas Day 2014.
A number of years ago, I saw a painting of the stable in Bethlehem. The Christ Child and his mother were there, St. Joseph and a couple of shepherds, a cow and a donkey. It appeared at first glance to be a fairly typical Nativity scene.
But suddenly I became aware of what the artist had done. The rafters of the stable cast shadows in such a way that leading out from the manger was the shadow of a cross. It was stark and dreadful and unexpected. And it was true.
The baby in the manger was no ordinary child, although I’m sure he acted like one. He cried and smiled. He fell as he learned to walk, and ran to his mother to be comforted. But Jesus had a destiny which was to lead from that stable in Bethlehem through Calvary to triumph at the right hand of the Father. The stable and the cross are bound together.
The issue, to reduce it to its simplest possible terms, is that of loving. God created humanity to share in the joy of his loving. He made us to know the wonder of what it means to reach out to other persons, to care for them, to honor them, to delight in them. And all of our loving is to be a practice session, so that we might learn to love God.
Of course we messed it up, and we continue to mess it up. We turned reaching out into grabbing; we turned caring into possessing and controlling; we turned honoring into pride; we turned delighting in others into satisfaction wit ourselves. That is sin, pure and simple. We bend and twist the gifts of God’s love into bizarre and unrecognizable shapes, and then we wonder why our lives fall so far short of the hopes and fantasies we had for them.
The claim of Christmas is that God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the Law, to set us free from the mess we’ve made. The Lord Christ reached out to us, entering into the reality of human life by becoming what we are. He quite literally blessed this mess by willingly becoming part of it. He cared for those he loved by feeding them when they were hungry, by healing them when they were ill, by rebuking their sin, by forgiving them when they were guilty.
And in all of this he honored us, every one of us. The same humanity which is in us is in Christ Jesus. He is our brother, our companion, ad our friend, and because this is true, he is our Savior, and we are honored in him. And the Lord Christ delights in us, as we begin to discover what it means to be loving.
Thus to those who are willing to entrust themselves to his loving, He not only shows a way out of the mess, he IS the Way. He gave us a new commandment, that we love one another. And that loving calls us to care about people we will never know: the victims of Ebola in Liberia; the black teens in New York City who apprehensively look over their shoulders as they see a policeman across the street; the despairing old man in Port Townsend who has been out of work for six years.
And somehow Christ enables and affirms and fulfills our halting attempts at love, perfecting them and offering them, wrapped in his love, to the Father.
All of this is what we as Christians celebrate on Christmas Day. But we need to remember what it cost our Lord to be faithful, to be loving. The cross looms large behind the manger, and it is a cross of our making. The world rejects love.
The world repudiates its lovers. Love is too costly a commodity. Lovers do strange things.
The picture of the manger and the cross was trying to say all this, and to some extent it succeeded. But it didn’t go far enough, for beyond the cross lies the reality of glory. The cross is real enough, no doubt about that. the nails, the pain, the fear, the isolation, these were the gifts the world gave Jesus in response to his loving. But beyond the cross are the wonder and delight and joy of our risen Lord, the wonder and delight and joy that God shares that new life so freely, so gladly, with those who know that there is new life to be had for the asking in Christ Jesus.
St. Paul knows what that is all about. He writes, “For this reason I bow my knees before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth takes its name. I pray that, according to the riches of his glory, he may grant that you may be strengthened in your inner being with power through his Spirit, and that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith, as you are being rooted and grounded in love. I pray that you may have the power to comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.”
The baby in the manger didn’t stay there …. he went on. And he invites us to go on with Him and with each other in this lovely, curious, sometimes frustrating body which is his Church. St. Paul’s Church. Today.
P.S. A few weeks ago Sue was looking through an assortment of old papers, and this sermon, which I preached 40 years ago today, appeared. I thought it could be appropriate today, with only a few changes appropriate to 2014 in Port Townsend.
So I’ve done it, and I think it survived the 40 years. I hope you found it relevant, and now that you know it is 40 years old, perhaps you find it fun that both the sermon and the preacher have survived to be here today. I hope you have a blessed and happy Christmas!