In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. All went to their own towns to be registered. Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.
In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, “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. This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.” And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!” When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.” So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger. When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child; and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them. But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart. The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.
The story of Christmas, the real story of Christmas, the one we read in the weeks leading up to this day, the one Hannah read this evening . . . it’s really a story that stands on its own. It doesn’t need embellishment. It doesn’t need flowery language or a rousing sermon to bring it to life, which is a good thing because, like the rest of you, the run-up to Christmas has just about killed me once again this year and I’m not sure I have a rousing sermon in me. But besides all that, you didn’t come to hear a rousing sermon. You came to hear the story. It stands on its own. It’s powerful in its own right, because it is the story of how it is that we came to be the children of God.
This is our story, and it is wonderful, but I don’t know about you so I will just speak for myself here, sometimes it feels like it is just a story. Not always—there are certainly times that God feels as close to me as my own breath—but there are other times, too. Times when God feels distant, when I wonder what the point of all of it is. I hope this is not a shock to you, that sometimes life feels a little hopeless, but you know it as well as I do. North Korean hackers, religious extremists, athletes who beat their wives, violence in the streets of Missouri and New York and Los Angeles and in our own neighborhoods here in Atlanta, heartache and pain and struggle and all the rest of that which comes with being human, not to mention trying to spend the holidays with family without losing your ever-loving mind. I don’t need to tell you that there’s a lot of hopelessness out there. You feel it just like I feel it.
And honestly, it’s that hopelessness that makes this story so moving for me: because I’ve thought about this a lot, and I think what I am about to say is absolutely true: there is nothing the world needs as much as it needs hope. There is nothing in such short supply as hope. And this is the message of Christmas: that God so loved us that God was born in a stable, a barn, among the animals, among the smells of life, simply because god wanted to be with us; because god wanted to save us; because God wanted to give us hope. Hope isn’t a political slogan. It’s not just something to paint on a piece of driftwood and put over the doorpost in the beach house. Hope is real. It is powerful. It is God’s purpose: to love us. To give us hope. TO promise us that the worst thing is never the last thing.
The writer and theologian Frederick Buechner says it this way: Christmas is not just Scrooge waking up the next morning a changed man. It is not just the spirit of giving abroad in the land with a white beard and reindeer. It is not just the most famous birthday of them all and not just the annual reaffirmation of "Peace on Earth" that it is often reduced to so that people of many faiths or no faith can exchange Christmas cards without a qualm. On the contrary, if you do not hear in the message of Christmas something that must strike some as blasphemy and others as sheer fantasy, the chances are you have not heard the message for what it is. Emmanuel is the message in a nutshell, which is Hebrew for "God with us."
God with us. I need to hear this. I need to be reminded of this when everything around me seems hopeless. I need to remember that Christmas isn’t just a story. It’s a reality. It is real. Christmas didn’t just happen. Jesus wasn’t just born and that was it. Christmas happens. Jesus continues to be born in all kinds of places.
I think of those manger times in my own life, when I’ve been sent on a journey and need nothing more than a place to lay my head, let along a place to give birth, only to discover that there is no room at the inn. I think of those times when the only place to go is the manger out back, to bed down in a place that is nothing like what I expected. Have you had any of those times in your life: when you ended up in the kind of place you never thought you’d be, only to be reminded that God isn’t born in the maternity ward, that God doesn’t come when everything is perfect, but when it seems like all hope is lost? I mean, this is the story of Christmas: for Jesus’s homeland was occupied, his people were subjugated, nothing was as it should be. And yet that is where the birth happened.
I think of those manger times when it seemed like I was as far away from God as we are from this story, all of two thousand years, only to discover Christmas was happening right there and then. I remember the funeral I did for a teenager who had overdosed, how I had absolutely no idea what to say to speak life into that situation, and how it was that nothing I said did any good, but how the family took comfort in the words of scripture from Romans 8: that nothing, neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. I’m not saying that everything was ok after that. I’m just saying that on what I am sure was the worst day of their lives, they rediscovered hope. Christmas happened that day: not a Hallmark Christmas, but a powerful one.
Or I think about the woman we met in Mozambique, the last woman left of her age in that community, who talked about all she had seen, all the incredible ordeals she’d dealt with: a husband who slept around and infected her with a deadly disease, hunger that nearly killed her more than once, and how she’d found, in entering a relationship with God through her local United Methodist Church, a group of people who so cared for her as a human that they spent millions of dollars—millions!—on public health initiatives, on defeating disease--by doing the very thing we’ll be doing here in a few minutes, as we dedicate our gifts to the Christ child and give half the money to our efforts to completely eradicate malaria. It only takes $10 to save a life. We can do that—we must do that—if we want to create space for Christ to be born, if we want to continue to help people like the woman I met in Mozambique to experience Christmas, to discover hope.
Let me end this way. I want to share the most profound experience of hope I’ve had in quite some time. I don’t always share this kind of personal stuff in sermons, but it’s Christmas.
It wasn’t a year-and-a-half ago that the Bishop sent me to pastor a church in North Decatur, Georgia that had seen some tough times. I don’t want to dwell on that, just like I don’t think it’s helpful to wallow in the bad stuff, but neither do I think it is helpful to pretend that tough things don’t happen. The church had seen some tough times. There were 94 people here my first Sunday, including all the kids, which I am pretty sure consisted of Luke and Hadley Ayers and my daughter Emmaline. I did so well that first Sunday with the 94 people that on my second Sunday, there were 81.
You know, you enter that kind of situation and you don’t know how to respond. You want to have hope, you really do, but unless you live with your head in the clouds, you know it isn’t that easy. Pain is real. Heartache is real.
But it just so happened that God had other plans for this place, and God had other plans from me, because I have to tell you I have learned more about hope from a year and a half with you people than I did in the first 30 years of my life. You have to have hope to trudge forward, to not get stuck in those tough times like a boot in thick mud. You have to have hope to say things like, “you know, I’m not sure about that idea, but let’s try it. If it doesn’t work, we’ll try something else.” You have to have hope to believe that God is doing a new thing, even when there are so many messages out there arguing that the church is dying, that we should hang it up now, that nobody cares about loving God, about welcoming all kinds of people into God’s house, about serving those who most need us. We’ve seen more than fifty people join the church this year. That’s Christmas, folks. And because of your hope and God’s birth here among us, I find myself more excited about the next years in the life of North Decatur United Methodist Church than anything I’ve ever been involved with. And it is all about hope.
Look. This isn’t just a love letter. I guess it is that, but this Christmas, here’s what I can’t get over. If God, in God’s mischievous way, comes to us at Christmas in a manger, can you imagine what God can do with a church? My God, what wonder lies ahead, what incredible things God has left to do, what hope we have been given, as God has shown up to be born in church of all places. Thanks be to God. Amen.