Palmer Memorial Episcopal Church, Houston, Texas
The Reverend Neil Alan Willard, M.Div.
Christmas Eve, December 24, 2020
Jesus, you are the Morning Star, and on this holy night,
we ask you to fill our hearts with light divine. Amen.
A year ago we could’ve never imagined this night would be much different than all the other magical nights before Christmas throughout the entire lives of most of us. Yet here we are. Together, but not in the same way.
We’re missing not only walking into a crowded church to sing carols of hope and joy, with children and elders and everyone in between, but also entering a mystery, something larger than ourselves — that often overwhelming feeling of being surrounded by the Love that came down at Christmas. It causes us to smile at the whimsical ways that people often dress when they come to church on this holy night and reminds us that we’re not alone.
But it’s hard not to feel alone this year, right? Have you ever felt this way before, at some other time? You know, somehow finding yourself on the outside looking in, excluded through circumstances beyond your control from whatever important things happen to be taking place, wishing you could be there to witness them, to play a part in them?
Some of you will recall the now-infamous Willard happy family trip to Washington, DC, nearly three years ago. We left home right after Christmas that year. And we did have a great time in our nation’s capital, but it wasn’t exactly the trip we had planned. There were near-record-breaking cold temperatures. And although our family had survived many harsh winters in Minnesota before moving to Texas, even we thought any kind of outdoor activity was pretty miserable. So there were things on our itinerary that were quickly dropped and others that, quite frankly, should’ve been.
And then . . . and then immediately upon our return, all four of us had the flu. We had to isolate at home. That sure did seem wild at the time.
I know, I know, it was quaint by today’s standards. But we were really sad to miss the Rev. David Wantland’s ordination to the priesthood here at Palmer. We missed it because, following doctor’s orders, we were stuck at home.
How many experiences have you had to miss this year? They include major life celebrations, visits from family and friends, simply watching the hustle and bustle of the city, and gathering weekly around this Table within these particular walls. We’ve been left out of so much, waiting for the pandemic to end, waiting for vaccines to be distributed, waiting for friendships and family ties to be strengthened, or even repaired, after so much distance.
It’s true that for most of us there are Christmas lights and presents and for all of us there is the promise of God’s coming. But in so many ways, it does feel like we’re on the outside looking in this year, doesn’t it?
That place where we’re standing, that place where you are right now, is the place where Jesus, the Christ, the Messiah, was born. The familiar story of his birth in the Gospel of Luke puts us on the world stage.
But there’s no room for this Messiah in the world.
There’s no room in Rome, so go to the edge of the empire. There’s no room in Jerusalem, so go to the little village of Bethlehem. There’s no room in the inn, so go to the detached garage where the animals are parked. Sorry the shop heater by the tool bench out there is broken. As someone once said:
Out, out, out. The Messiah is the one left out.
Later in the Gospel of Luke, Jesus himself will say to an anonymous man who wants to follow him, perhaps to you, perhaps to me,
Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has no where to lay his head.
Jesus, of course, would reach out to others who were also left out, eating with tax collector and sinners, healing diseases, casting out demons, even forgiving sins, something which only God can do.
The story of Christmas reminds us that the true seat of power isn’t found in Rome, or Jerusalem, or Washington, or Austin. It’s found, unexpectedly, in a baby, wrapped in bands of cloth and cushioned only with a pillow of hay in a feeding trough. This holy child in the manger “brings the Spirit of the Lord, so that it fills the whole earth.” So what we celebrate tonight is nothing less than “the hidden beginning of [a] new creation.”
We’re often tempted to look at the scene of the Nativity through a kind of kaleidoscope — through Christmas glitter mixed with little statues carved out of olive wood and a sentimentality that substitutes for faith. But the story of Mary and Joseph is a personal story, a real story, a difficult story.
They aren’t ready for all of this to happen. They definitely aren’t ready for this to happen on the road. There’s no mother-in-law hovering about to help with a colicky baby. There aren’t gift cards waiting to be redeemed on Amazon.com. There aren’t groceries from HEB being delivered by an Instacart driver. Yet this is how God chooses to enter into the life of the world and into our common humanity, in great humility, in the real lives of Mary and Joseph, in our real lives too.
Those of us who take the message of Christmas seriously have, listening to this story many times over through the years, learned to look for the presence of God in unexpected places. The real action isn’t limited to great things happening somewhere else. God is also at work in the little things — the encouragement of a good friend, a handwritten note about, well, anything at all, a hug from your most difficult child, a cat that just shows up at the Rectory, the unseen beauty and, yes, even the challenges that await you. These things happen not in some far off, exotic place, but wherever you dwell right now, even in the mess that is 2020.
And the mess is always where God shows up.
A lot of us come from places not unlike Bethlehem, Nazareth, Navasota, or Nacogdoches. But even if we now live in Rome, Jerusalem, New York, or right here in Houston, we live in particular neighborhoods, on a particular block, on a particular street. That’s where God comes to meet us. The writer Eugene Peterson puts it this way:
The work of salvation is always local . . . When God fashioned a universal gospel ‘for all the world,’ he became incarnate on a few square mile of Palestinian hills and valleys. An accurate street address is far more important in the proclamation of the gospel than a world map.
We believe that Love came down at Christmas. And it comes to us again tonight wherever we are, wherever we’re living physically or emotionally. It’s Love with a capital “L,” Love that has the power to save us. This Messiah who was always left out, this Messiah who takes us by the hand precisely when we feel left out — he would later quote Psalm 118 while standing in the temple during the last week of his life, saying,
The very stone which the builders rejected
has become the head of the corner.
Jesus was referring to himself as the cornerstone of something that will endure forever, a love that will never let us go. And the mystery of that is just as real this year as in any other since the first Christmas.
I don’t know how all the loose ends of 2020 will get tied up in the year ahead of us. Some of them won’t. But I do believe God is at work in the little things.
I believe that’s true for you, for me, for the whole world. I believe we get a glimpse of that tonight in the little hands of a baby who reaches out not only for his mother Mary but also for us, always, not to condemn us but to save us. This child has been born for us, “and he is named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.” He is Christ the Lord.
1 BACK TO POST Revelation 22:16, among the Bible’s last words, refers to Jesus as “the bright morning star.”
2 BACK TO POST I have adapted some of the phrasing here to describe the Messiah’s movement to the manger, far away from Rome, from Gil Bailie, quoted by Paul Nuechterlein in Girardian Reflections on the Lectionary for Christmas Eve/Day.
3 BACK TO POST Bailie.
4 BACK TO POST Luke 9:58.
5 BACK TO POST Jurgen Moltmann, The Way of Jesus Christ: Christology in Messianic Dimensions (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1993) 85.
6 BACK TO POST Moltmann 73.
7 BACK TO POST Eugene H. Peterson, Subversive Spirituality (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1997) 190.
8 BACK TO POST Psalm 118:22 (Revised Standard Version).
9 BACK TO POST Isaiah 9:6.