Tonight we gather again to hear the Christmas story: the story of angels and shepherds; the story of Mary and Joseph; the story of Jesus who was born in manger. It is one of the most beloved stories in all of human history. It is a beautiful story.
But it feels sometimes feels removed from real life. We hear about the angels singing, “Glory to God” and “Peace on Earth” but this Earth often seems to be quite devoid of peace. We enjoy the warm glow of the Nativity Scene and the Hanukkah Menorah in a city park, but that stands in stark contrast to the biting chill of the wind on our faces. Our world feels very different from the world we imagine when we hear the Christmas story. It seems sometimes like tonight is the one night a year when we take a break from harsh reality and pretend to believe in magical things like angels and Saviors. We tell and retell this imaginary story from “a long time ago in a Galilee far, far away.” We cross our fingers and hope against hope that our telling of this story will somehow spark the imagination of our hearts and carry us through to next Christmas, when we will come to church and hear the story once again.
But here’s the thing: our world is not a different world from the one into which Christ was born. It is the same world. The shepherds who saw the angels were poor workers. They were despised and distrusted by respectable society. They knew the struggle of making a living, the pang of hunger, and the sting of rejection. Mary and Joseph were refugees, hustled around like cattle being counted and finally forced to flee for their lives from violence and tyranny in their homeland. Mary, his fiancée, was an unwed teenage mother. We hear that Jesus was born in a stable; have you ever smelled a stable?
The Christmas story is not something that happened “long ago” or “far away.” It is the story of how God comes to meet us: and the time when God comes to meet us is now; the place where God comes to meet us is this place, with all its problems, messes, and stinky smells.
I think the reason why we tend to get so romantic and nostalgic about our Christmas story each year is because we don’t like this world we’re living in. We want to change it. We want to believe that it can become better. We think, “Maybe if we just try harder, or close our eyes and pray harder, the wish will come true and the magic of Christmas will come alive forever!” But, obviously, that hasn’t happened yet. The world we are left with now is still the same weary world into which Jesus was born two thousand years ago.
Some might take that fact as a sign of cynicism or despair, but I don’t. I see it as a grand opportunity. If the world into which Christ was born is this world (so we say), and if Christ is alive forever (so we also say), and if Christ has promised, “I myself will be with you every day until the end of this present age” (so we also also say), then the place and time where God comes to meet us is here and now. God lives within and around us in this world. If we don’t see God, it is not because God isn’t here, but because we, in the hardness of our hearts, are refusing to look.
We wish we could change this weary old world and make it into what it ought to be. But obviously, we can’t. This world is what it is and things are the way they are. We have no control over those circumstances. But that doesn’t mean that change is impossible.
First of all, the loving power that spoke the universe into existence now lives, breathes, loves, and works in each and every one of us. That truth alone is no small cause for hope. Secondly, the power of God is able to change us.
Tonight’s epistle reading tells us, “The grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation to all people.” I love that. Let’s break it down: It begins with grace. The “unmerited favor” of God, the love God gives us in abundance whether we deserve it (or want it) or not. This work of transformation begins, not with our best efforts, but with God’s decision to love us beyond our own capacity for self-destruction.
And this grace, we are told in the reading, “educates us so that we can live sensible, ethical, and godly lives right now by rejecting ungodly lives and the desires of this world.” Grace is our teacher. God’s grace changes us from the inside out. Grace gives us the power to envision a life we never thought possible. We may not have the power to change the world, but we have the power to live changed lives, not by virtue of our own strength and wisdom, but because the love of God is able to change us as we live our lives in this world.
My hope, my prayer for all of us this Christmas, is that we would come to trust this silent and invisible power of God’s grace so much that we will live changed lives in the midst of this weary world. And I further hope that we, in the words of Mahatma Gandhi, will “be the change we wish to see in this world.”
The time and place where God lives is not “a long time ago in a Galilee far, far away,” but here and now, in this place, at this time. God meets us here and now, in the messy, stinky problems of this world as we know it. God meets us in the little things, like refugee babies born in stables, and works in us through those little things to change the world into what it ought to be.