Rev. Sarah Mount Elewononi
Christmas Eve 2013
"Be near me Lord Jesus, I ask thee to stay close by me forever and love me I pray. Bless all thy dear children in thy tender care and fit us for heaven to live with the there!"
"Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven."
The ornament was once shiny and new. Made of polished metal that brightly reflected any light that shown on it. When a child, attracted by its dazzling brightness drew it near and peered at it, several tiny faces were reflected back by its jeweled surfaces. The child loved that ornament best of all, and every year when it was found among the other ornaments, it was given a prominent place on the tree.
It happened ever so gradually as the child grew and became an adult. But slowly over the years the ornament grew dull with age so that it was no longer able to reflect anything. A close look only made it clear that it had been covered with a layer of tarnish. The child, now grown, still loved the ornament, remembering what it had once been, and continued to give it a place of honor on the tree. But the ornament was loved as a reminder of what was long ago, not for what it was now, or what it would be in years to come.
Christmas Eve was once magical. When I was a child, and the sanctuary had been decorated, and the special music had been rehearsed, and we had lit all four candles of Advent I loved riding in the car to our church on a starlit Christmas Eve (and we lived where we could really see the starts). I loved going to worship in the evening and I loved seeing all the people! Those I saw every week, who knew me and loved me, and lots more people, so many we needed to set up extra chairs at the ends of the pews. The hymns made my heart glad O Come All Ye Faithful, Joy to the World, What Child is This, The First Noel. I didn’t have to imagine the Bible Story because it was presented over and over again in Christmas pageants and living nativities. It had drama, no room at the inn, a baby coming, angels surprising the shepherds with a chorus of good news, the baby was born. I felt like I was swept up into heaven, joining in the few words of Latin uttered in my Methodist church – Gloria in excelsis Deo! Then at the end we’d sing Silent Night by candlelight and quietly go home. Christmas Eve would end with me trying to fall asleep while anticipating the gifts of Christmas Day.
Is that how it was for you as a child? Is that why you are here tonight? Come again to hear the familiar story from the Gospel of Luke – even though you may already have heard Linus recite on a rerun of Charlie Brown’s Christmas. Are you here for the lovely music, a chance to be with some friends and family? Our church is rarely this full even on Easter, but it is oh so nice to have you all here! Are you hoping to receive some gifts this Christmas? Gifts that meet all your desires? In spite of those who would emphasize giving over receiving, do you secretly hope that this year you will receive the best gift ever?
Or is Christmas these days a bit like that old ornament dulled over time. You still go through the motions, you buy all the gifts, prepare all the special foods, clean the house and decorate and make time in your schedule to be here this evening. You are patiently listening again to the old familiar story of the birth of Jesus. You expect to hear some familiar hymns to make you nostalgic. But the magic just isn’t there the way it was when you were a kid. No matter how many lights you add to your tree, or your house, you can’t quite recapture the hope you felt at Christmas time when you were a child. In a couple of days, when it is all said and done, the ornaments put away and the needles vacuumed up, here you will be, the same old you, with the same old problems, and struggles. You may be tempted to think it’s all kid stuff, the sparkle, the shine. The bling of Christmas might fool the children into really believing that something tremendous is about to happen. Perhaps they can believe, “The hopes and fears of all the years are met in Christ tonight.” But you’ve become pretty skeptical that any everlasting light can shine in the dark places you have encountered in your adult life.
And then the word of God comes to us from the least expected place. A short letter in the New Testament written to someone named Titus. A letter that is often overlooked by most Christians because it is full of instructions. Go ahead and read it sometime, it’s only got three short chapters. We get a list of instructions for how church leaders like bishops and elders should behave. Then it admonishes regular members of the church to be temperate, serious, prudent, self-controlled. Titus says wives should be submissive of husbands and slaves should be submissive to their masters. It seems as dull and uninspiring as that old Christmas ornament. But then we are surprised. Listen again
11For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation to all… we wait for the blessed hope and the manifestation of the glory of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ. 14He it is who gave himself for us that he might redeem us from all iniquity
Many of those in the “keep Christ in Christmas” campaign keep pointing us away from the presents and parties to the baby. But here Titus is pulling our gaze away from the baby born long ago in a manger, and like a magician, Titus shows us what has actually appeared. Surprise, Christmas not really about the baby either. Christmas is nothing less than the grace of God bringing salvation to all. And that baby in a manger is not doomed to be a perpetual rerun of a Baby Jesus asleep in his cradle, year after year after year. And, even better, Titus is arguing with that pious statement that it is more blessed to give than to receive. The good news of Titus is that there is indeed a Christmas gift waiting for us. One that will transform our lives and “fit us for heaven.”
During the season of Advent this year at SWUMC, we have been imagining ourselves walking to Bethlehem. And we have used Bethlehem, the place where Christ was born, as shorthand for salvation.
You see the Christian faith teaches that every human being is made in the image of God. If God is like light, then like that shiny new ornament, God made us to perfectly reflect that light. Like a clean mirror, the reflected light is supposed to be equally as bright as the source. God keeps shining on us all through life. But things happen in our lives so that we fail to be as reflective of God as we were meant to be. The tarnish can come from different places. It can surely come from our own sins, times when we willfully turn away from God like a golem so we can foster the vices of pride, selfishness, jealousy and lust. At other times the world (including some people in the church) would put the tarnish on us, telling us that we are less than a brilliant child of the light because of who we are – female, or dark skinned; attracted to the wrong gender, or born in the wrong part of the world; disabled or overweight and unfit. We sometimes believe the world and stop trying to reflect the light of God so brightly. Sometimes we let the Evil One convince us that we are unlovable, even by God, and we loose hope that God can fill our lives and set us free from our dark, dull lives.
The word of God comes to us today through Titus. Listen again to Eugene Peterson’s translation in The Message.
11-14 God’s readiness to give and forgive is now public. Salvation’s available for everyone! We’re being shown how to turn our backs on a godless, indulgent life, and how to take on a God-filled, God-honoring life. This new life is starting right now, and is whetting our appetites for the glorious day when our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ, appears. He offered himself as a sacrifice to free us from a dark, rebellious life into this good, pure life, making us a people he can be proud of, energetic in goodness. The truest gift of Christmas for you is the gift of salvation through Jesus Christ. That gift first appeared as a baby in a manger, but grew to be Jesus Christ the Lord – fully human and fully God who died on a cross in order to restore the full shine to each one of our lives. That restoration of the world is a work in progress, carried on by the Holy Spirit who calls together the church, and works through the members to help us become holy like God.
As a work in progress we need to attend to it every week, every day; not just on the holy days that feel most magical. Like an ornament tarnished with the years, it will take many hours of gentle rubbing and polishing, one facet at a time for the dazzling brightness to be fully restored. God’s light is always shining on us. We need to learn how to receive it and let it set our lives on fire.
The salvation of God restoring our light is meant for all – every soul in the world. But it starts small; one person at a time, in one community at a time. Churches are formed so that the members can learn to take on a God-filled and God-honoring life; week-by-week, year-by-year. And when a church is living as Jesus ordained, it will get brighter and brighter each year. Christmas won’t be the same rerun as last year.
Do you want a renewed sense of hope this Christmas? Would you like to be given the best, most perfect gift of all? Do you want to walk as a child of the light? The risen Christ is here tonight, ready to give it all to you. All you need to do is ask and receive. Let the words of the next hymn be our prayer
Light of heavenly life divine,
Cause thy light in me to shine
Breathe and give a pure desire,
Let my soul to thee aspire.
Now renew and sanctify,
Let all sin within me die;
Let thy image now be given,
Make me pure, and meet for heaven
In the United Methodist tradition communion is for all who are seeking salvation, because salvation is for all. If you love Jesus and repent of your sin, those places in your life that don’t reflect the light of Christ, and you seek to let that light shine on everyone – living in peace with your neighbors, you are welcome to receive. But in preparation for receiving tonight I ask you to be bold and prayerfully ask for some gifts of the Spirit. Some are listed on the blue insert in your bulletin. Take a moment of silent prayer to consider what gifts you need to follow Jesus as a child of the Light. Look at those on the list and ask which one is the most dull and tarnished right now. Perhaps two or three speak to you.
Love, Forgiveness, Faith, Freedom, Patience, Peace, Strength, Healing, Confidence, Kindness
Jesus is ready to fit us for heaven, a heavenly kingdom that is coming here on earth. So take what you need, pull them off and put them in your pockets. In a moment we will share Holy Communion, and as you receive the gifts of God, remember that the gift you have just asked for is being given to you.