The time leading up to Christmas is one of great expectation, marked by rituals of all kinds. The scriptures for the season are like gifts we open each week, peering inside to see what message of invitation or promise God has for us. Angels — literally “messengers” — appear frequently at this time of year in our stories and from them or others, we receive gifts of nearness, forgiveness, renewal, and blessing. In these holy days, we prepare to receive again “Good tidings of great joy for all people!” The good news is none other than new life, new hope, new peace — the very love of God in flesh. Join us through this season as we unwrap each precious gift we receive from God.
Great Joy for All!
A homily preached by Rev. Ginger E. Gaines-Cirelli with Foundry UMC, December 24, 2021, Christmas Eve.
Text: Luke 2:1-20
Throughout the Advent Season we’ve been stubbornly focused on good tidings, that old way of saying “good news.” It takes some energy to keep that focus. Because as we know, the headlines and airwaves are filled with bad news. It doesn’t matter that we know that the bad news isn’t all there is. Because the bad news is truly awful and abundant. And the past two years have been complicated at best devastating at worst for the human family and all creation—and we’ve all been left depleted in one form or another, with fewer internal resources to manage the constant barrage of outrageous, disturbing, heartbreaking tidings.
On Christmas Eve, it is tempting to get drawn into pure nostalgia—pulled back into a magical moment in our own lives or imagining that the first Christmas was one of perfect peace and glowing light. But if you were to get Jesus one of those birthday presents of the newspaper from the day he was born, the headlines would be pretty terrible. Jesus was born into Roman-occupied Israel, and “whenever Caesar, or local governors like Quirinius, ran a census, there would be uprisings and revolts. The tax burden was already excessive, and people lived in a grinding poverty.” The Roman Empire was brutal and oppressive, inspiring despair and fear. There were cultural and tribal divisions and prejudices to rival our own.
And don’t forget that 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 in construction and carpentry, just a run-of-the-mill-Joe whose relationship was firmly in the “it’s complicated” camp. Jesus’s family gets thrust into the frightening center of the far bigger reality of oppressive power politics and ultimately become targets of state violence, fleeing for their lives as refugees and asylum seekers.
All this to say, the first Christmas happened with a family who had questionable external resources and support, whose internal resources must have been depleted, and who were navigating a dangerous and complicated time in history. And yet right in the midst of all of that, they welcomed precious new life, a newborn child named Jesus who held the hopes and fears of all the years in his tender flesh and heart.
Christmas is the night that God floods the airwaves with good news! The herald angels, the ones who carry God’s messages into the world, fill the skies with praise for the tidings they bring. “Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.”
And who is it that receives the message? What Luke records is that the ones tuned in to get the message are the nightshift workers, the ones who do the dirty work in places most don’t see, the shepherds in the fields tending the flocks.
The Christmas story affirms at every turn what is revealed throughout the Bible, that God chooses to draw near in and through the simple, the poor, the outcast, the oppressed, the unexpected ones. And I’ve most often thought this is a reminder of God’s nature, that it teaches us about what our God is like. But something else occurs to me this year. I remain deeply flummoxed by the different ways people receive news and how some simply seem not to receive it at all. And it makes me wonder what it takes to tune in to the frequency of God’s voice. Saint Oscar Romero, the Catholic Archbishop and martyr who courageously preached and organized in solidarity with the poor in his native El Salvador, said this:
Only the poor, the hungry,
those who need someone
to come on their behalf,
will have that someone.
That someone is God.
Without poverty of spirit
there can be no abundance of God.
“Only those who need someone will have that someone…” // It is easy to miss or misinterpret the good news of a savior if you don’t think you need one. It is easy to miss or misinterpret the good news of Jesus the savior if your idea of salvation is about ease, wealth, power, and acclaim. Because Jesus was born in a back alley barn, was raised in a town of ill-repute, and died without even the clothes on his back. It isn’t that Romero suggests we have to personally experience any of that exactly or to be poor or starving to receive the good news of Emmanuel. The scripture is clear that the gift of Jesus is good news “for all the people.” But it does seem to me that there is a humility required to be able to receive it. And that staying close in solidarity with those who cry out for help, for shelter, for food, for justice is a good way to help us learn humility and tune in to the frequency of God’s voice.
For those who by grace know we stand in need, for those who hunger and thirst for righteousness and justice, who know we need help to keep going or to do what is required of us, tonight there is one headline that eclipses all others, one song that drowns out all the other noise. God fills the airwaves with the good tidings that Jesus Christ is born! We are not alone. We have help. We are given what we need to live! We are given a savior, the Lord.
Jesus isn’t being born again tonight. Jesus is born, draws near to every heart, and saturates the world with love and grace through the power of Holy Spirit. We aren’t waiting for Christ to be born. Howard Thurman wrote that “Christmas is waiting to be born, in you, in me, in all [human]kind.”
Thurman means that what waits to be born is God’s saving love and grace in the places that need those gifts most. The Christmas story needs to be lived out in, through, and among us. We can be humble; we can open our hearts to receive God’s liberating love and then share it with others; we can be generous, opening our minds, arms, homes, and resources to those who are suffering and struggling; we can let Christ’s grace guide us to use our unique gifts to participate in God’s mending justice and peace in the world. That would be some good news that might get a headline or two. It does sometimes, actually…
So why not redirect some of our focus, energy, and time from the overwhelming awful stuff toward things we can be and do that honor the little child who leads us? Because even if your acts of love and justice don’t get any press or lots of “likes” or “shares” on social media, the people who need to receive what you’re sharing will be tuned in to receive it… And heaven and nature will sing for joy that Christmas is alive and well in the world Jesus came to save.