Text from the Christmas Eve message at Plantation UMC.
I don’t remember how young I was the first time I went to a Christmas Eve service. Probably 7 or 8 years old. My family didn’t attend church, but on Christmas my Uncle Kevin would visit us, and he’d take me with him to the Catholic church in town. I loved that service. First of all, let’s be honest, as a kid I loved it because I got to stay up really late for Midnight Mass!
But also I loved the smell of the church, kind of a woodsy, smoky scent from the incense that was burned. I loved the candles and the organ and the way the priests just seemed to float down the aisle in their long robes as they processed in and out. I loved the little kneeling rail in the pews, and figuring out when to stand, kneel, or sit during the service. I loved the music and the songs. And I loved being there with my Uncle, who smelled like pipe smoke and soap.
I attended that Christmas Eve service every year with him and loved it. But I have to tell you, I can’t recall one single sermon that was preached. Not one!
And that gives me really high hopes
for what you’ll remember about my sermon tonight!
In my late teenage years, I started to notice that some of the people who attended that Christmas Eve service — all dressed up and pretty and smiling — were the same people I ran into during the rest of the year.
The mean man who lived across from the town library, who would actually throw stuff at us if we took the short cut across his back lawn.
The lady I had once seen beating her dog in the grocery store parking lot.
Other kids I went to school with who cheated on tests, or who cheated on their boyfriends.
And I started thinking that the whole thing was less magical than I had thought. I started thinking that maybe everyone there was faking the whole “I’m-so-nice-and-I-go-to-church” thing.
Add to that, that everyone around me seemed to know all the songs. Not just all the songs, but all the verses to all the songs. I couldn’t always figure out which book we were in, let alone what page. I didn’t want to sit in an uncomfortable pew listening to a minister preach a sermon that I wasn’t going to remember anyway.
So why ruin a perfectly good Christmas Eve by going to church?
After all, I just really wasn’t that interested in church. Eventually, I became pretty antagonistic toward it. I wanted nothing to do with it. And the whole Jesus came into our world as a tiny baby thing? That just seemed such an easy way to make faith controllable. There is nothing more portable, more maneuverable, I thought, than a baby. Pick it up, dress it however you like, put it down wherever. I mean, what is more cute and cuddly and non-threatening than a baby?
A God who becomes a baby? I thought that Christmas was all about a faith that puts you in charge.
And I was not interested.
Fast forward about ten years. I was working in a job I seriously disliked, unsure of what my future held, and wrestling constantly with what exactly my purpose on this earth was.
After one horrific week at work, I was completely disgusted, and heading home on the dark country road. Off to the right I could something bright on the side of the road. I slowed down as I approached, and realized it was the stained glass window of a church I had driven by hundreds of times before, but never paid attention to.
After all, I was not interested.
That stained glass window shining in the night was one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen. And I could not get it out of my mind. After several weeks, I decided that I needed to see it again. From the inside. Even though I was still not interested.
Long story short, I met Jesus there, in that little country church.
Not in the words of the preacher
(though I really wish I could say that!),
not in the music
or in the prayers.
I met Jesus in the people.
I met Jesus through their love.
These were people who didn’t pretend to have it all together. People who were flawed, and who were honest about their mistakes. They didn’t judge me, look down on me, or offer me unwanted advice. They just loved me.
And then, finally, it hit me. The Divine coming down to earth as a baby on Christmas wasn’t about giving us a controllable faith.
It was about
If you remember nothing else from this sermon tonight — and from my experience, that’s entirely likely — this is what I would love for you to hear:
Because of God’s love for us,
God came quietly,
in the form of a newborn
in a dirty barn
in a backwater town.
Because of love.
Think about that for a moment. I mean really think about it. There is nothing more vulnerable than a newborn baby. Completely dependent, utterly defenseless.
When you love, really love, you put yourself at the mercy of the one you love. The God who created everything that is, powerful beyond all imagining, loved us enough to be put into our hands. To be vulnerable.
Tonight we remember that this baby whose birth we celebrate, he came for a reason. He came to teach, to heal, to challenge, to die for us, to give us the promise of heaven. Jesus came to love. He came to give of himself so fully in love, that he — through whom the Heavens and Earth were made — he made himself completely and utterly vulnerable in his love. And that love would eventually take him all the way to the cross. For us.
When I realized this, suddenly I was interested.
Really, really interested.
Because of love.
Not the kind of love defined by the Merriam-Webster dictionary as “strong affection for another.” (Boooring!!)
It’s a love that is best defined
by the Greek word for love
used throughout the New Testament:
Agape (ah-GAH-peh) is a powerful, life-transforming love. It is a love that is consciously chosen, a love of the will as much as of the heart. It is a love that is all-encompassing and self-giving. It’s the kind of love that God offers to us in Christmas.
I’ve met and talked with some of you tonight. And you look lovely and put-together and happy in your Christmas Eve outfits. You’re beautiful!
But I also know that you’re not perfect. You make mistakes. You have regrets. You mess up every day — you may have messed up on your way here tonight.
Or, maybe I’m wrong, and you are perfect!
Maybe the pastor preaching to you tonight
is the only one who’s not perfect.
(Which is a super depressing thought.)
But in all likelihood, you are like me. Some days are great and you feel on top of the world, and others are, well, maybe not quite so stellar. I know this because you’re a human being, living in a messed-up world, torn in a million different directions every day, just trying to make your way. Just like all the other beautiful people in this room tonight.
So, remember I said that there was just one thing that I wanted you to take away from the sermon tonight, that God came down to earth on Christmas because of love? Did you remember that one thing?
Well, I’ve changed my mind. There are actually TWO things I want you to remember tonight! The other is this:
Jesus came down to earth to be born in a stable surrounded by animals, to become vulnerable and to give of himself so fully, not just because God loves us.
God did it because God loves you.
You. Really. You! All this, because God loves each of you, so much, that he came down to earth on Christmas. And that is why we are here tonight.
Our bishop in Florida is a brilliant guy named Ken Carter, and he gets the truth of all that. The other day he posted on Facebook a poem he had written. I don’t usually read poetry on Facebook, because, well, most of it is just awful. But he titled it “A Christmas Eve Prayer for Those Who Don’t Go To Church.” With that title, of course I had to read it! I’d like to share it with you tonight…
A Christmas Eve Prayer for Those Who Don’t Go To Church
I don’t go to church very often, Lord.
I don’t go at all…well, I am here at Christmas.
I’m home then. I feel drawn to it.
I like the Christmas Eve service.
The coolness of the air,
the aroma of the candles,
the familiarity of gathering with strangers.
I feel like a kid again.
I know it’s common to make fun of people like me.
What can I say? I’ve drifted…
But something pulls me back
Are You speaking to me?
I connect with something in the sermon, sometimes,
but mostly it’s the music and the candles.
What is it about the candles?
Darkness and light.
Light and darkness.
I know about light and darkness. I live in both.
I’ve got some of both in me.
And yet there is an impulse,
a movement to be closer to the light.
And so the flame of a stranger touches mine
and I sing the chorus,
“Son of God, love’s pure light
Radiant beams from thy holy face…”
That is the light, the face, the life I seek,
and in this moment, I am touching it.
And then a voice reminds me,
in the echo of ancient words
that are always needed,
“the light shines in the darkness,
and the darkness did not overcome it.”
I am speaking to you, Lord,
but on this night, from every conceivable direction,
you are speaking to me.
And I am listening.
I have to say that my life began to change in that little country church with the gorgeous stained glass window, when I began to listen, when I put aside my cynicism, and when I finally allowed myself to become interested.
And so my Christmas Eve prayer for us — for all of us here, for you and for me — is that we would become interested in finding out more about this God who loves us so much.
who came down to earth
on that first Christmas
out of LOVE…