I preached a homily at both Christmas Eve services this year. I went in completely different directions for both of them because of the different tone of the services. I think next year I might go a little bit shorter. Actually, I’m sure I’ll adjust a couple of other things, too – this was my rookie year, after all.
5:00 – Family Worship & Pageant
Through The Eyes Of A Child
A few years ago my whole family went to Disney World the week between Christmas and New Years. I had always wanted to do “Christmas in Disney” and – given – the prospect of celebrating Christmas with warmth, sunshine and the happiest place on earth – it did not take long for the rest of my family to hop on board with the idea. We flew to Florida the day after Christmas.
And I have to say: Despite the fact that apparently the week between Christmas and New Years is the most popular time to visit Disney World (they literally had to shut down the Magic Kingdom one morning due to overcrowding), this trip will always go down as one of my favorite vacations ever.
Now – there were several factors that made this a good vacation. Running outside in December in 70-degree temperatures was high on the list for this girl from Connecticut; the lights that adorned the streets of the different parks were absolutely picturesque; and the snow that was artificially manufactured and fell from the sky every night was purely magical (and the fact that we were able to experience snow without having to shovel it and drive in it was an added bonus). Throw in a parade of Disney characters dancing and singing, unlimited coffee refills because I bought the special collector’s edition mug and a bracelet that gave us access to “extra magic hours” that led to shorter lines to Splash Mountain at midnight and you can understand why I was sad when it was time to pack up and head home to Connecticut at the end of the week.
But the real reason that this was more than just a good vacation – the real reason that this trip will always go down as one of my favorite vacations ever – was because my five-year-old cousin was on the trip with us. And for the first time in my adult life I was able to experience Disney World through the eyes of a child.
Suddenly the lights seemed brighter, the characters seemed larger than life, the music seemed less cheesy and the lines even seemed shorter. Suddenly I just had to buy Gabriella the princess hat because of the way her face lit up when she saw it in the store. Suddenly I discovered the inner child within myself and found myself posing for pictures with characters and buying my own keepsakes. To see Disney through the eyes of a child was truly a magical experience.
I love Christmas pageants. Even though they certainly fall under the category of “controlled chaos” (a little nerve wracking for any worship leader), a Christmas pageant is the one time every year that adults are able to see an important story in their lives through the eyes of a child. And to see Christmas through the eyes of a child is truly a magical experience.
The Gospel of Mark records a time when people brought their own children to Jesus. “Some people brought their children to Jesus so that he could bless them by placing his hands on them,” the Gospel says. “But his disciples told the people to stop bothering him. When Jesus saw this, he became angry and said, ‘Let the children come to me! Don’t try to stop them. People who are like these little children belong to the kingdom of God. I promise you that you cannot get into God’s kingdom, unless you accept it the way a child does.’ Then Jesus took the children in his arms and blessed them by placing his hands on them.” (Mark 10:13-16, CEV)
“I promise you that you cannot get into God’s kingdom, unless you accept it the way a child does.” Is that not the most beautiful proverb you have ever heard?
Jesus told his followers that if they really wanted to enter into God’s kingdom that they would have to accept it the way a child does; that they would have to view the world and their faith through the lens of a child’s eyes. And because of this proverb we are reminded today that sometimes we should not take life so seriously. We should view our lives, our faith and our stories the way that children do. We should ask childlike questions when we are curious, we should jump for childlike joy when we are excited and we should feel childlike excitement and anticipation about not only what we are doing but also what we are looking forward to. Because I think it is only when we find our inner child that we truly begin to understand what God is calling us to do in our lives.
Tonight, we get to see the Christmas story come to life right here in this sanctuary; we are – through the hearing and seeing of the Nativity told and acted out by our children and youth – given the opportunity to see Christmas through the lens of a child’s eyes. Our children are telling us this important story – and we are able to experience it with them. We are invited to wait with baited breath for the end of the story.
And so I invite you to embrace this opportunity. Open yourselves up and pretend you are experiencing Christmas for the very first time. Remove the lens of adulthood, of the reality of the world that we live in, of the grief, worry and stress that often accompany your day-to-day lives. Imagine – just imagine – that you are actually apart of the very first Christmas. Step into the story. Feel the anxiety, feel the waiting; fill yourself with God’s strength and guidance; feel the chill of the night, the stillness of the darkness; and feel the hope, peace, joy and love that will burst forth as the story unfolds. Experience the magic of Christmas.
‘Let the children come to me! Don’t try to stop them. People who are like these little children belong to the kingdom of God. I promise you that you cannot get into God’s kingdom, unless you accept it the way a child does.’
Find the child within yourself. Let that child emerge tonight. See Christmas through a child’s eyes. I promise you that you cannot experience the magic of Christmas, unless you experience it the way a child does.
Experience the magic of Christmas.
Merry Christmas to you all! Or – as my grandmother would say in Hungarian – Boldog Karácsonyt Kivanok! May it be nothing short of sheer magic.
11:00 – Service of Lessons & Carols
Today’s Cry For Emmanuel
Merry Christmas, everyone! Or – as I said in the early service – Boldog Karácsonyt Kivanok, as my Hungarian relatives would say.
In keeping with our theme of “Lessons & Carols”, I want to start of this evening’s homily by singing the first verse of a familiar carol. Let us sing together the first verse of “O Come O Come Emmanuel”. If you would like the music and words you can find it on page 110 in your hymnal.
O Come, O Come, Emmanuel, and ransom captive Israel.
That mourns in lonely exile here.
Until the Son of God appear.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel shall come to thee O Israel.
This well-known Advent hymn was written in remembrance of the cry of the Jews being held captive in Babylon in sixth century B.C.E. Come, come, Emmanuel! Come, come, God with us! Save us – Israel – from captivity! Save us from the desolation that is happening around us! Save us from our lives! Give us new life!
“O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” is my favorite Advent hymn. In a simple way, this song describes every stress that I feel when I go about my day-to-day life, of every devastating reality that exists in our broken world. It tells the truth about our cries and about our prayers. It speaks honestly about every hope that I have for equality and peace on earth. It reminds me that it is okay, even within my own faith and Christian story, to cry out in fear.
And it also reminds me of the ways in which God is present through it all.
Let’s look at the first verse of the hymn, the words that we just sang together.
“O Come, O Come, Emmanuel, and ransom captive Israel.”
I think many of us can relate to “captive Israel.” The past few years have been extremely difficult and trying. The U.S. is desperately trying to pull out of a recession. The millions of jobs that were lost have not yet been fully recovered. The housing market has not come back up. Food banks and pantries often have bare shelves. Homeless shelters have no room. People are tapped out for giving. Millions died of hunger and treatable diseases in the Third World. Our soldiers are still at war. Technological advances have created passive aggressive forms of communication, given us less free time and often make us feel overwhelmed and not in control.
We are – in our own way – captive. We are held down, maybe not by someone or something, but by life in general.
“That mourns in lonely exile here.”
How terrifying must it have been for the Jews being held in captive. They had nothing tangible to prove God’s existence. There was no ark, no tablets etched with the Ten Commandments, not burning bush, no voice heard in the wilderness. There was no visible encounter with the living God. They had to rely solely on their own faith, on their own belief in the unseen.
The world can be a scary place, especially when you think about all of the things that hold us “captive”. Sometimes it feels like it is every man or woman for himself or herself; we do not know who we can trust; we get ourselves dug so far into a hole that we are not even sure where to begin to crawl out.
Life is not easy – we all know this. And sometimes it feels so overwhelming. And we want so desperately for someone to come and save us.
“Until the Son of God appear.”
Wait – that sounds like hope. The Son of God is going to appear. In the flesh; walking on earth; tangible proof that God is with us and that we are not alone. The prophet Isaiah prophesied long ago: “For a child has been born for us, a son given to us; authority rests upon his shoulders; and he is named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.” (Isa. 9:6 NRSV) Is that prophecy going to come true?
It did. Last Sunday we heard of the Angel Gabriel appearing to Mary and telling her that she would bear a son, the Son of God. And tonight Mary and Joseph will travel to Bethlehem and she gave birth to her firstborn son, the Son of God. The Messiah. A savior. Emmanuel – God with us – is coming.
Okay, so maybe the captive Israel was saved, but what about us? What about God’s children who cry out today? What about those who are struggling in the United States? What about those who wake up cold, hungry and sick all over the world? What about those who are grieving during this holiday season? What about those who are feeling stressed and overwhelmed? What about those who need Emmanuel right here, right now?
In the late 1700s biblical scholars started to turn away from religious models of looking at scripture and began to look with historical models. The “Quest for the Historical Jesus” was an attempt to piece together the biographical realities – the facts – of Jesus’ life. This included Jesus’ birth.
This movement is fascinating. Scholars are literally using scientific evidence to piece together stories from the bible. And because of this we understand the historical and cultural context in which the bible was written in ways we never have before. We understand this Christmas story in ways that we never have before.
But here is what I do not like about this particular quest. “History” – to me – implies something of the past; something that the door is closed on; something that is not going to happen again. And I do not think that is how we should view the Christmas story, how we should view the Christian faith, and how we should live our lives.
I think that when we celebrate Christmas tonight, this year and every year – when we sing the familiar hymns, when we hear the familiar stories and when we share in the familiar fellowship – we should do so as if the Son of God is being born tonight. We should do so as if we are crying out for Emmanuel – God with us – here, right now. We should do so not as if we are rejoicing in prayers answered 2,000 years ago, but in prayers that are being answered today. We should take comfort not in what has happened, but in what is happening. We should know that the hope that Christ brought 2,000 years ago is being brought to us here today. We should experience the anticipation and the waiting of that first Christmas night – and then feel the hope that it brought back then over and over again now and in the years to come.
“Rejoice!! Rejoice!! Emmanuel shall come to thee, O Israel.”
Emmanuel – God with us – is coming. There is hope, peace, joy and love surrounding us tonight in this sanctuary and in this Christmas season. God’s grace and mercy will shower us all right now and in the year to come.
While the first verse of this hymn is notably the most well-known, the fourth and final verse is actually my favorite:
O come, desire of nations,
Bind all peoples in one heart and mind;
Bid envy strife and quarrels cease;
Fill the whole world with heaven’s peace.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel shall come to thee, O Israel!
Let’s sing this verse together!
Rejoice in the good news that is happening right now! Hope for peace on earth. And have a very Merry Christmas. Amen.