Prompted by Adam Copeland’s blog, I preached this sermon on Christmas Eve. I hope the readers of this blog will forgive me for posting a sermon.
Our sons Adam and Ian used to love this midnight service. Ian is in Boston tonight where they really are having a white Christmas, and Adam is in Adams, North Dakota, which invented the “bleak midwinter.” “Snow on snow” is one thing. Twenty-one degrees below zero is quite another.
I don’t remember exactly how old Adam and Ian were when we decided they were old enough to stay up late enough to take part in this service. I do remember what a relief it was not to have to find a baby sitter on Christmas Eve.
Both of the boys liked to ring the bell after the last hymn – and for a while it took both of them to pull that off. And then there was the night Martha Bishop gave Ian a guinea pig for Christmas. She spent the whole service in a cardboard box under a pew right back there. (The guinea pig, I mean. Not Martha. Martha sang in the choir.)
That guinea pig lived to a ripe old age. Her name, of course, was Noel.
Perhaps you have similar memories of Christmases past. Perhaps you are making new memories tonight. It’s hard to think of a better way to usher in Christmastide than to celebrate the Feast of the Incarnation.
That’s what Christmas is, of course. Christ’s mass – the Feast of the Incarnation. It’s easy to get the impression that Christmas is something else. Although our culture has absolutely no concept of Advent, there is a kind of cultural lead-in to tonight. It begins with Black Friday and continues with Cyber Monday –or it used to.
This year, bargain-hungry shoppers were out the door and hitting the box stores and malls before the Thanksgiving turkey had grown cold. I shudder to think what it will be like next year. Bing Crosby will be crooning “White Christmas” as costumed goblins chant “Trick or Treat.”
One of those two sons of ours served on the committee that put together that lovely purple hymnal you can find in your pew tonight. The task was a labor of love, but not necessarily an easy one. Not everyone appreciates the opportunity to sing new hymns, psalms, and spiritual songs. And God help the committee that dares to mess with Christmas carols.
One of the best things the committee did with the beloved hymn, “What Child is This?” is to restore the original text penned by William Chatterton Dix back in 1871, when this sanctuary was only 35 years old.
All my life I have been singing the same chorus to each verse of that hymn:
This, this is Christ the King, whom shepherds guard and angels sing:
haste, haste to bring him laud, the babe the son of Mary.
In my younger days I wasn’t sure what “laud” was. For a while I thought it was the white stuff my grandmother put in biscuits. Then I figured out that was “lard,” not “laud.” Whatever it was, I was sure that if “laud” was good enough for the baby Jesus, it was good enough for me.
Apparently hymnal editors thought so to, so they kept those words as the refrain to all three verses.
I wonder if the hymn would have caught on so well if the editors had not made that change. I wonder if, now that the original text has been restored, the hymn will cease to so popular, for this is what William Chatterton Dix intended us to sing:
Why lies he in such mean estate where ox and ass are feeding?
Good Christians, fear; for sinners here the silent Word is pleading.
Nails, spear, shall pierce him through; the cross be borne for me, for you.
Hail, hail, the Word made flesh, the babe, the son of Mary.
It rankles, does it not, to sing of nails and spear on Christmas Eve? What could Mr. Dix have been thinking? Why must the cross rear its head tonight?
Because without the cross, Christmas is a Currier and Ives print, a rerun of a Charlie Brown Special, a CD of “It’s a Wonderful Life,” a walk down memory lane. It’s a guinea pig under the pew and an Amazon.com gift card under the tree. It’s the bottle of wine your brother-in-law gives you every year and the bottle of wine you give him every year. It’s the credit card bill in January and the let-down you feel when everything didn’t go just right.
Christmas without the cross is a sugar-fix, a temporary high, and the inevitable crash back to reality. Without the cross, Christmas is not about Emmanuel, God with us. It’s about us without God, trying our best to be of good cheer as we concoct a world that’s isn’t broken and doesn’t need a Savior. Year after year we try, and year after year we fail.
Earlier tonight we enacted a service of Lessons and Carols. The first scripture reading in that service, which was designed back in 1880, is always the story from the Book of Genesis – the one about Adam and Eve eating the forbidden fruit, which plunged the world into chaos. “The Fall” it’s called by old fashioned theologians.
The idea behind starting with that story is that, if you’re going to celebrate the birth of the Savior, you need to establish that somebody needs saving.
I sing in the Community Chorus with a fellow who attends a neighboring church. He told me they do a Lessons and Carols Service as well, but this year they’re leaving out the “Fall.” It’s too much of a downer, apparently. Not appropriate for Christmas.
What’s not appropriate for Christmas is pretending that the world isn’t fallen and doesn’t need a Savior who becomes one of us, who shares our brokenness and longing, who bears both God’s love and our failure to love on his own shoulders, and carries them up the hill to Calvary.
What’s not appropriate is a cross-less Christmas.
The cross is the sign that God is in Christmas for keeps. Mary’s child will grow up and he will not be content for shepherds to abide in the fields without a fair wage and access to medical care. He’ll ask if the gold brought by the Magi was mined by slaves, and if the frankincense is fair-trade. He’ll immigrate to Egypt for a while, and when he comes back, he’ll push for immigration reform.
Jesus won’t stay in the manger. He won’t stay wrapped in tissue paper, sitting on a shelf in the garage for another year.
He’ll call for justice, he’ll set people free, and he’ll invite you and me to join him. His love for us will be so intense, and his zeal to bring in God’s kingdom will be so fierce, that we will find him both repulsive and irresistible. He will die and he will be raised, and only then will we know him for the Savior he was born to be, the Savior of which the angels sing tonight.
The “silent Word” became the word made flesh, and in the shadow of the cross, that same Word sets this Table before us.
Word made flesh. Word of welcome. Word of grace. Christ’s mass.
For you. For me. In love for all the world.