Isaiah 9: 2-7; Psalm 96; 1 Thessalonians 5: 16-24; John 1: 6-8, 19-28
THE REV. JAMES M. L. GRACE
In the Name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. AMEN.
I welcome all of you here to St. Andrew’s this Christmas Eve. However you got here, wherever you are on your spiritual journey, you are welcome here as a friend.
Tonight we are all gathered here because it is Christmas Eve – we are here to celebrate the birth of Jesus into a world that centuries ago was not ready to receive him. Even before his birth, his very pregnant mother Mary,likely a teenager about fifteen or sixteen, and her husband Joseph, were not welcomed into any hotel or home in Bethlehem.
No one was going out of their way to open up their homes when they saw this young couple in need of a place to stay. The hotels were all full, the only place they ended up was a corral for animals.
From his birth, Jesus was largely misunderstood and often not welcomed. This doesn’t really change much as Jesus grows into a man. No longer a small infant sleeping in heavenly peace, as an adult, Jesus spoke truth to power and authority, courageously proclaimed the hypocrisy of the priests in the temple, healed and fed people, and befriended tax collectors and others who were equally outcast.
At the end of his life, Jesus was murdered by the people he came to save, one final reminder that he was not welcomed by all. But tonight were not supposed to think about all that. Were supposed to think of a sleeping infant wrapped in swaddling clothes, angels proclaiming the message of Christ’s birth to the shepherds. That’s what we want Christmas to be about, not all the messy stuff that happens afterward. Tonight we want to focus on welcoming the Christ child, we want to keep him in the manger where he is safe. But we can’t.
See, this is what happens. We will all go home, our hearts full, our eyes a little heavy, and we will go to sleep restful and content. Tomorrow we will wake, spend time with our families or friends, maybe open some presents, and eventually we will move on in our lives, largely forgetting what it means to welcome Jesus who was born.
We will forget Jesus was born until something happens to us that makes us very uncomfortable. It’s different for all of us, but for me the moment is when I am in the car driving and I pull up at a red light, and there is a person standing on the corner, and they are out of money and like Mary and Joseph, they don’t have a home. What do you do?
For me, when I see that person on the corner, I can’t help but to see Jesus in the guise of a homeless person as unwelcome and as much of an eyesore as Jesus was to many. So, when I am at the street corner and there is a homeless person there, I do my best to roll down my window and I talk to them, to respect their dignity as a human being, made in the image of God. Sometimes I give them money. Will they spend it on booze or drugs? Maybe. Am I enabling them? Maybe. Is it right to do? I don’t know. But here is why I do that, and it is because that person on the street corner is no different from the unwelcomed infant child born in the manger in the city of Bethlehem.
I reach out to them because for me, Christmas is a moral obligation. We are obligated morally to reach out to the underserved and to the hungry, period. Because that is what Jesus centered his whole life around – he didn’t reflect back the world’s lack of concern or hospitality that he got and that he endured. Instead, he modeled, and taught all of us how to model – lives that seek to welcome others. And the purpose of Christmas, if there is any purpose at all – is to welcome Jesus into our lives and into our hearts, not for one night out of the year, but every day of the year.
Last week I was loading some food from a food pantry into the back seat of a car, the driver of which was a client at the food pantry. While unloading the food, I quickly glanced into the back seat and I saw several small children, two of them were watching videos on two different cell phones. My initial reaction was “what are these people doing getting free food at a food pantry if they can afford cell phones for their kids to look at? Isn’t there someone who deserves it more?” And I quickly realized where that thought was coming from: judgment. I was judging them, and I realized my error: it’s not my job to say who is and who isn’t welcomed. No one goes to a food pantry because they want to. They go because they need it. And in that moment, I realized again, how easy it is to forget Christmas: Jesus born into a hostile and unwelcoming world became the most loving, welcoming person the world has ever known.
Mercy and welcome without judgment. That is what Christmas is about. When your moment comes to welcome Jesus tomorrow or the next day - and it will – how will you respond? Will you judge? Or will you be merciful? I hope for all of us, that we will do the later. The world has enough judgment. What the world needs, what we need, is mercy. AMEN.