by Kristin Berkey-Abbott
The readings for Sunday, December 25, 2016:
First Reading: Isaiah 62:6-12
Psalm: Psalm 97
Second Reading: Titus 3:4-7
Gospel: Luke 2:[1-7] 8-20
First Reading: Isaiah 52:7-10
Psalm: Psalm 98
Second Reading: Hebrews 1:1-4 [5-12]
Gospel: John 1:1-14
In my younger years, I'd have guessed that the Christmas story would be one of the easiest to preach. What could go wrong when you had a story this great? Now that I'm older, I see many pitfalls to preaching the Christmas story.
First of all, there's the fact that many people only go to church around Christmas. This may be the only story that they hear. For many of us, Christmas is our favorite holiday. But it's a sanitized Christmas that we often love.
Think of the parts of the story that are left out (or not emphasized) most years: the yoke of empire bearing down on this young couple in many ways, from the trip to Bethlehem to the fleeing Herod when the wise men launch Herod's wrath. Think about this young couple, with so few resources, pulled into this story of God breaking though into this prison of a world.
Many Christmas sermons will focus on that sweet baby, but that approach, too, is fraught with problems. In a Facebook post, one of my female minister friends reminded us to "please be aware that the imagery of holding a new born is not comforting to those who have not had those dreams fulfilled this year...or worse, by those who carry the great, but silent, grief of fetal loss." She reminds us that we might not know of these losses, since often they are not discussed.
Many people I know are having trouble believing the good news that the angels sing. It's a hard world we live in, and this year, many of us have suffered brutal losses. It may be the intensely personal loss of horrible health news or the death of one we love. It may be the larger loss, the suffering that drives people from their homes into perilous journeys. We may see that we live in a world of dangerous dictators, a world where empires afflict people or refuse to act, and we may wonder where, exactly, God is breaking through.
But it is precisely in these times that we must have fortitude. We can choose to live as people of God. We do not have to weep in the ruins of our cities. Advent has promised us that help is on the way, and Christmas gives us the Good News that the redeemer has come, and in the most unlikely circumstances.
That’s the way redemption works—not in the ways we would expect, but in surprising ways that take us where we could not dream of going, and sometimes faster than we would expect. If we could travel back in time to tell the people of 1985 that the Soviet Union would soon crumble and South Africa would be free of white rule, the people of 1985 would think we were insane. If we could travel back to the first century of the Roman empire to tell of what the followers of Jesus would accomplish, those people would laugh at us—if they even knew who Jesus was.
I'm thinking of the last time that Christmas fell on a Sunday, in December of 2011, when the world lost many great leaders, among them Nelson Mandela and Vaclav Havel. I'm remembering a celebratory essay in The Washington Post by Madeleine Albright, who said of Havel: “He declared himself neither an optimist (‘because I am not sure everything ends well,’) nor a pessimist (‘because I am not sure everything ends badly’) but, instead, ‘a realist who carries hope, and hope is the belief that freedom and justice have meaning . . . and that liberty is always worth the trouble.’”
Christians, too, believe that freedom and justice have meaning and that liberty is always worth the trouble. And if we believe in the Good News that surrounds us at Christmas, we can be wild-eyed optimists. We know that things will end well; we have a multitude of promises and plenty of evidence that God will keep those promises of liberty for the captives.