Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
If you could meet anyone famous from history, either ancient or recent, who would you choose? For me, it’s hard to say. It depends on my fancy in the moment, I suppose. It’d be great to meet Confucius. Or Winston Churchill. Pocahontas would definitely be an interesting person to meet. Martin Luther King, Jr. What about Queen Liliʻuokalani of Honolulu? I can only imagine the life wisdom she could impart. It’s hard to pick just one person from history I’d like to meet if I were given the opportunity. So many “greats” to choose from…
We think about people from history, and we often have a tendency to romanticize, or paint a prettier picture of the world where they lived in than things really were. It’s easy to do, as human beings. We look at the world around us and things are tough. Things aren’t easy. And we idealize, maybe even idolize the past, even the past that we didn’t even participate in. We can create in our minds images of life at Marie Antoinette’s Versailles, what with its parties and balls and fancy gowns for the ladies of court and the powdered wigs and high-heeled shoes for the gentlemen and noblemen, all the while forgetting there wasn’t any running water at the palace and that everyday people were literally starving to death all around the king’s chateau. Or maybe the “memories” we form in our minds of life in George V’s England take on the sepia hue of nostalgia-never-lived because of such shows as Downton Abbey, even as we look more closely and realize that period in world history was marked by a terrible world war which subsequently gave rise to corrupted socialism and communism, and rabid nationalism and fascism, that ultimately led to yet another world war. We have a way of thinking the past was better, and that the people of the past were somehow different, somehow resistant to our serious, graver problems today.
But the truth of the matter is, no matter who’d we want to meet from the past, be they renowned or notorious, they could tell us stories how their lives were marked by ups and downs, good times and bad times, simplicity and difficulty just like ours today.
But even still, meeting these people from history would have a way of bringing something of the past into the present. In our minds, these people from history, and the circumstances they faced, are from the past. They lived in a particular time, in a particular place and those times are now past and those places are now different, if nonetheless shaped by what happened there in the past. We can’t go back and have a conversation with Cleopatra or share a drink with Benjamin Franklin. Their lives are confined to the past, to a world that although like ours, was still different. They lived in a particular time, in a particular place, and no amount of our desiring will make it so that we could meet them—as much as we might like to. That’s the nature of the past…you can’t go back to it.
Today we remember an event in the past.
Today, we remember someone from the past.
We remember the birth of Jesus Christ, some roughly two thousand years ago, in Bethlehem—a small town in the Judean countryside. We don’t just remember his birth, we don’t just remember him, but we celebrate his birth, we celebrate him. In fact, we celebrate Jesus’ birth every year on this night. Not only do we celebrate his birth, but we celebrate him—this baby born to Mary and Joseph, a poor couple from Nazareth of Galilee, who for all intents and purposes were nobodies, not famous people at all. Neither Joseph nor Mary were people we’d have expected to make anyone’s list for folks from history someone might want to meet. And their child wouldn’t have been someone we’d have likely listed either. Another poor baby who’d grow up to follow in his father’s footsteps, as a carpenter who’d live and die like the rest of the nameless people forgotten to history from Nazareth and surrounding regions. And yet here we are, again this year, now for two hundred centuries running, celebrating not only his birth, but celebrating this very child.
What makes him different?
As the shepherds were in the fields tending their sheep, an angel appeared to them. An angel, a messenger of God, appears to them, and declares to them, “to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.”
This is good news, “good news of great joy for all people,” as the angel puts it. This is the heart of the Christmas message. It’s the reason for the season, if you will. To you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord…What does this mean?
This means that God has chosen to become part of human history. God, perfect in every sense of what we could possibly imagine it means to be perfect, didn’t think so much of himself that he had to cling to that perfection for himself. Not at all. When the time came, he set aside the privileges of deity and took on the status of a servant, became human! But not a human being as popular wisdom might expect from a god who chooses to take part in mortal life.
God could’ve entered history as a great warrior or general, or as a king coming down from the sky atop a mighty winged steed, or a glorious priest bedecked in silver and gold vestments. But no—God chose to come as an utterly defenseless infant, reliant on others, reliant on a poor teenage woman and her husband to take care of his every need like any other infant. It was an incredibly humbling process.
In Jesus, God comes down from heaven, gives up all the benefits of being God and chooses to become a human being like you and like me, to participate in the fullness of life, in a particular time and particular place—when Cæsar Augustus was emperor of Rome and when Quirinius was governor of Syria. God chose to enter human history, and for us and for our salvation, he did it as one of us, a real person, in real time. And through his birth, life, death, resurrection, and ascension, this little baby born in Bethlehem, this Jesus of Nazareth, became arguably the most famous person in world history—God incarnate, man divine. Would that we could meet him…
But what if we do?
Isn’t that what we celebrate at Christmas? Meeting Jesus? Remember the angel’s proclamation to the shepherds?
“To you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.”
Those words proclaimed to the shepherds on Bethlehem’s hillsides over two millennia ago still ring true today. They ring true for us. They ring true for you. To you is born this day…Today…For you.
God’s promise is an eternal promise. It has no beginning. It has no ending. The same Word that God spoke at the dawn of time, that preexisted the first eruption of light at the moment of creation, that same Word spoke to the people of God in Egypt, later spoke to us through the prophets, and later that same Word became flesh and lived among us in Jesus. And that same Word continues to speak to us today. That Word is none other than Jesus Christ our Lord, whose birth as a human being like you and like me we celebrate today. That same Jesus Christ, that same embodied promise of God, is true for us just as it was true for everyone who went before us in full, abundant, vibrant relationship with God. “Jesus Christ,” St. Paul reminds us—”Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever.” The promise, God’s Word sent from heaven by an angel messenger to shepherds in the countryside surrounding that Judean podunk Bethlehem, that promise is the same yesterday and today and forever. To you is born today a savior. All the benefits of knowing God, of truly knowing him, of living with him, of having a relationship with him—all that is for you today, not only for other people in some distant past when the Christ child was born. Jesus is for you, today, in the present, in this place, in real time.
We meet Jesus like those in the past met him. We encounter him in God’s Word, when we’re comforted knowing that nothing will stand in the way of God’s desire to share life with us. We meet Jesus when we share communion—when we enter the mystic union of shared body and blood not only with God but with everyone God claims as daughters and sons. They are our sisters and brothers from yesterday and today and forever. We meet Jesus when we share the love of God with those we know and those we don’t know, when we reach out with our own hands, crucified by our own trauma, to extend compassion’s embrace and charity’s support. God’s love takes on flesh, becomes real, when we who share in God’s love, when we who make up Jesus’ body in the world go out and live that love in a world that desperately yearns for a return to God’s first peace.
We meet Jesus, God made flesh, in unexpected places, in unexpected ways, much like the shepherds unexpectedly met him in a stable among muck and mire, but we do meet him. Jesus isn’t confined to the history of the past, but is very much alive today, born today, born every day—for us and for our salvation, and for the salvation of the world that God so dearly loves. We celebrate that today. We celebrate that God is with us, has always been with us, and promises never to abandon us. That’s the meaning of Christmas—that we meet Jesus today and every day. We have seen the salvation of the Lord.
To you is born this day, and every day, a savior, Jesus Christ, who is our Lord and our God. Glory to God in the highest and peace, goodwill to all the earth.
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.