Awaken to Life
A homily preached by Rev. Ginger E. Gaines-Cirelli at Foundry UMC December 24, 2019, Christmas Eve.
Texts: Isaiah 9:1-7, Luke 1 & 2 (selected verses), John 1:1-14
Love Divine, All Loves Excelling, one of Charles Wesley’s “greatest hits,” isn’t technically a Christmas hymn (no one would list it as a Christmas carol). But as I worked on the reflection for tonight these words twirled like sugar plums into my head: “Come Almighty to deliver, let us all thy life receive, suddenly return and never, nevermore thy temples leave. Thee we would be always blessing, serve thee as thy hosts above, pray and praise thee without ceasing, glory in thy perfect love.” In this stanza alone, we’ve got a plea for God to come and deliver us, to share life with us; there’s mention of heavenly hosts, glory, and perfect love. That’s Christmas stuff. Not to mention, “joy of heaven to earth come down, fix in us thy humble dwelling…” Heck, the more I read the poetry of the hymn pretty much all of it is in some way Christmas stuff.
How could I have missed this seasonal message all these years? Sometimes familiarity may lead us to miss aspects of a person or a thing or a song that were always there. That can happen with the story we tell tonight.
After all these years, we may wander right past what we celebrate at Christmas on our way to the bar or the buffet or the gifts or the game. After all, we’ve heard it before. Like any long-term relationship, if we’re not careful, we end up taking things for granted. We may think, “Of course the God of the whole universe becomes a human baby and is born in a barn and slept in a manger.” But the truth is that this didn’t have to happen. And it didn’t have to happen in the way that it happened. The “joy of heaven”—God in Christ—didn’t have to “come down” to earth to deliver us. God didn’t have to come to us in vulnerability; didn’t have to suffer as we do; didn’t have to risk insult and humiliation by not only standing on the side of the poor and despised and oppressed but by being born into that very state. God didn’t have to be so humble or so generous.
Many of us have heard it so many times it becomes like white noise, but I will proclaim again that the Christmas story is evidence of God’s endless penchant for doing loving and liberating things in small and surprising ways through small and surprising people. It wasn’t to Caesar or Quirinius or any other rich and powerful person that herald angels sang—but to shepherds living with the sheep in the fields. Jesus’ mother was not well-heeled nor well-connected; she was a young woman who was confused and afraid, facing an unexpected pregnancy and the burden of society’s shame for bearing a child outside of marriage. Joseph, tradition tells us, was a carpenter, just a run-of-the-mill-Joe whose marital engagement was complicated and difficult but turns out alright in the end because Joseph, evidently, turned out to be a good guy. This simple family gets thrust into the frightening center of a far bigger narrative about oppressive power and ultimately become targets of state violence, fleeing for their lives as refugees and asylum seekers. It was not through the secure and sated, but rather through the simple and vulnerable ones, that God entered this world. //
If we are awake to the story, we will see that Jesus was born in the middle of a mess. From start to finish, things were complicated and hard and insecure. God’s life and love is made manifest in and through run-of-the-mill Joes who do the right thing instead of the safe thing; God’s life and love is embodied in the young woman who finds her extraordinary voice and courage to press on and claim the life that is hers when everything and everyone surrounding her would do her harm; God’s life and love is proclaimed to those who perceive the light of God’s hope shining around them even as they go about their jobs; God meets us in the simple places, the everyday places, the suffering, confusing, messy, disappointing, unjust, fearful places of our lives. Perhaps this is the heart of the good news. God is loving you and drawing near to you precisely in the places that are the most difficult and painful, in the places where you can’t save yourself or make it through alone. It is easy to forget this truth—until something happens to remind us—perhaps when we have hit a low point or had a deep scare or suffered a devastating loss and experience God creeping quietly into the places even we don’t want to dwell in order to care for us and nurture our lives.
And here’s the other thing that is SO easy for us to “know” but to ignore: God comes to us through vulnerable, impoverished, humble ones; those like children who show us what it looks like to be dependent and trusting; those like Alice a beloved Foundry member who was trying so hard to find her way but died on the street last week; or like Jesus, a Palestinian Jewish baby who grows up, risks everything for the sake of love and justice, and dies on a cross. We want to make the story a Hallmark card, tidied up and shining as though it all happened in an outdoor Christmas party decorated with those cool retro lights and tasteful “simple” décor a la Joanna Gaines. But that party barn would have been full. There wouldn’t be any room there since everyone wants that. And I’m not saying that God isn’t present in our beautiful places and parties and celebrations. It’s clear in the Bible that God loves parties and banquets and beautiful, shiny things. But the story we tell tonight is that Jesus is born in the ghetto, the back alley, the barn that no one else would enter since it’s probably full of rats. Christ is present in the hungry, the imprisoned, the sick, the vulnerable, the unhoused, the addicts, the rejected, the children in every place…
“Come Almighty to deliver, let us all thy life receive…” Come, Almighty to deliver us from our failure to receive your life being offered to us in the lives of those discarded by others. Come, Almighty to deliver us from our failure to perceive you in the faces of every person we encounter. Come, Almighty to deliver us from failing to receive the Christ child’s loving presence in our own broken hearts and lives.
My Christmas prayer this year is that God will awaken us to receive with joy all the ways God’s life and love are made manifest in this world. Because the promise is that Christ meets us in the mess of our own lives and gives us grace and love to be present with others in theirs. The story we tell and the song we sing is that somewhere in this mystery is found abundant life, new life, and even perfect love. And where we least expect it. For that I say thanks be to God.