Bishop Skip’s Christmas Sermon (2015)
Sermon for The Eve of the Feast of the Nativity of Our Lord, December 24, 2015
The Rt. Rev. Gladstone B. Adams, III
St. Paul’s Church, Syracuse
Isaiah 9:2-7; Psalm 96; Titus 2:11-14; Luke 2:1-20
I wonder if you see the improbability of the scenario put before us in the scriptures this night? Bethlehem, David’s City, the place of the Savior’s birth, is a small outpost just south of Jerusalem. Its population is 200-300 at most, with 20-30 houses in the first century. Arguably the event that has had the greatest impact on the history of humankind is about to unfold in “nowheresville.”
The improbability continues in reference to the Child’s mother, Mary. As a female she had no standing in the society of her day—no rights, unable to own anything, existing purely at the whim of the rule of men. Even more, she is recently engaged, more than likely 12-14 years of age, which was normative in that day, and surprise…she is pregnant! Scandal is written all over this piece of news.
If any of that is not enough, we have this moving story of a long journey through the middle-eastern desert, prompted by the demands of an oppressive Roman government. The couple had difficulty finding a place to stay because of the influx of displaced peoples like themselves. There are angels speaking to shepherds who were just minding their own business tending sheep. Then their curiosity gets the best of them as they go off looking for the possibility of a new hope found in an infant born in the midst of the mess of the world of their day. Whew! It about takes one’s breath away, for the picture that is painted is a God of the unexpected and the unconventional.
So what great truth is Luke seeking to convey here? This magical event, that has inspired some of the greatest music and art the world has ever known, and indeed, over the millennia has motivated and inspired thousands to work tirelessly for justice and mercy for the people of the world, is to be a sign of God’s great preparation for the healing of the entire creation.
I wonder how many of you have seen the first “Hunger Games” movie? There was a poignant moment when the tyrannical President Snow of the evil Capitol says, “The only thing that is greater than fear is hope.” This was his response when the characters of Katniss and Peeta rose up from District 12 as potential champions, for they offered the possibility of hope to the people. President Snow said that hope must be contained so that it did not gain a foothold and take away his ability to control and manipulate the populace by fear. Sound familiar in today’s political climate?
Not unlike the theme of “The Hunger Games,” the Christmas scriptures are infused with hope in the face of great evil. Even as we have been assaulted over the last few weeks with constant reminders of the brokenness and violence of the world, the celebration of Jesus’ birth arrives as a gift, seeking to take us on a search that longs for a new possibility for humanity. The prophet Isaiah was facing the domination of Assyria and its plan for world power. He sought to address the power struggles of the nations as, get this, Syria and Israel invade Judah to try and force them into a coalition against Assyria. Some things just don’t change.
In the face of such a threat Isaiah had the audacity to proclaim a vision of a singular hope in God in the midst of troubling and violent times when he says, “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light… the rod of their oppressor has been broken…a child is born and a son given,” all in hope for a new day of justice and peace.
The sign for us is the Child lying in a livestock feed trough some 2000 years ago. In him, Jesus, we discover God’s dream for the world, a dream for justice, peace and hope. We get a sense of that longing for hope in the midst of our too often anguished present when we listen to people from the margins, the shepherds and the Mary’s and Joseph’s of our day. A couple of weeks ago on Syracuse.com there was a heart-wrenching account told by a Syrian mother who had come as a refugee with her family to the United States, fleeing the violence of her country and the murder there of her 7 year-old son. She, her husband and three girls were waiting with bated breath for that one rescuing word of welcome to a new home of hopefulness in Baltimore.
Isaiah and the Manger dare to stare down hopelessness. The promise of Christmas can give us the courage to persevere even when, and perhaps especially when, times seem the darkest. The Psalmist tonight implores us to sing a new song for all the whole earth as we await the blessed hope of God. We do not do this, however, by passively sitting on our hands.
There was an editorial in Saturday’s paper that said in the face of evil, prayer is not enough. I agree. Prayer is good, I would say essential, yet prayer, by itself, is not enough. My mother taught me that we are never to pray for something for which we are not willing to be a part of the answer. So we hear Titus’ call in response to the gift of Jesus—“be zealous for good deeds.” In other words, pray knowing it all depends on God. Act as if it all depends on you.
The Kingdom of God is already here within us, right here at St. Paul’s and within each of you! Our mission is the love of God as we give hope to the world through God’s vision in Jesus to make all things new, “on earth as it is in heaven.” To engage this work we find our hope in the One whose birth we celebrate this night, or rather, God born in us. God’s hope was made flesh in Jesus. Now it must take flesh in us. As a people of the Manger we are to remain unsatisfied with the way things are when they are less than God’s dream for the world. We seek to change it by participating in the great hope announced by the angels to the Shepherds. It is, by the way, why the building of walls, religious profiling and any other way we restrict God’s all-embracing love is not an option for a follower of Jesus.
“Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people, for to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ, the Lord.” Speaking and acting this word of hope and love may be the most radical thing you can do. It starts right here in Syracuse, NY.