On this night we once again hear an old familiar story. It’s one we all know, even if all we know of it is seeing Linus deliver its words in King James English on A Charlie Brown Christmas. But it is so familiar we often lose sight of the scandalous nature of it. An unwed teenage mother-to-be named Mary and her fiancé Joseph make the trek from Nazareth to Bethlehem under orders to be enrolled, no doubt for tax purposes, from their Roman overlords. No doubt the reason they end up in a stable is because nobody in Joseph’s extended family is going out of their way to welcome the pregnant girlfriend – whose pregnancy is of questionable origins anyway. While they are in Bethlehem, Mary gives birth to a son and we hear that a messenger from God appears to shepherds who get the initial report of the birth of the Messiah. Now this takes the scandal to a whole new level. Shepherds, in first century Palestine, are shady lowlifes who cannot be called as witnesses in a court of law and … well … they smell funny. So our God comes into human form under scandalous circumstances and the news is first announced to a bunch of lowlifes – because that’s just how our God rolls. After getting the news, the shepherds decide to go check this out and they find things just as the angel had reported to them. They found what they were looking for! And while they found what they were looking for, what they did not know and could not fully comprehend in that moment over 2,000 years ago is what this child would mean for them … and for us.
While Luke tells us the events of Christ’s birth, in essence answering the “what happened” question, we are left with another question: “Why did it happen?” Why did God choose to come to us and live as one of us? Part of the answer is found in the three short verses from the Letter to Titus:
“When the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of any works of righteousness that we had done, but according to his mercy … so that, having been justified by his grace, we might become heirs according to the hope of eternal life.”
I paraphrased the passage to clarify the point of the author: the birth of Christ happened to save us. It happened precisely because we could not save ourselves from the mess of living life on our own terms. If we could have done so, we would have, right? But human history has proved that we can’t do it in and of ourselves. So God took the initiative and set about this saving work, not because we earned it in any way, but solely because of God’s grace. What a radical idea this is – especially in light of our capitalistic meritocracy-based culture. We are programmed by the messages of our culture that we need to earn everything – including earning love by being good “little boys and little girls.” Some of us have internalized a message that we are not loveable and that God expects us to get our act together in order to be worthy of God’s grace. And that … is … wrong! It’s not how our God rolls.
Our salvation was a free gift of God’s grace. Grace is that love which God has for all of creation and is poured out on everything and everyone – regardless of whether we deserve it or not! The letter to Titus goes on to say that this grace “justifies” us which means it makes our relationship with God right and balanced. God initiates making the relationship with us right. Make no mistake, we have the obligation to respond to this invitation and participate in a right relationship; however, we do not initiate the action – God does. And the reason God makes this relationship right is so that we might become heirs, that is children of God, with a hope of eternal life. Eternal life is an often misunderstood concept and often posited as “going to heaven when you die” which turns it into some kind of celestial evacuation plan. But that isn’t what the scriptures mean by the term eternal life. Eternal life is living fully and freely in the present now, loving God and each other. This lifetime of loving presence happens right here and now and continues forever.
So when we think about the birth of Christ beyond the story of what happened and consider why it happened, it leads us back to the question “Did you find what you were looking for?” Perhaps you haven’t considered that question in this context but do so for just a moment. You are here, in this church, on Christmas. Why did you come? You didn’t have to come, you know. Oh sure, some of here will give a nod to attending church on Christmas being part of your family tradition, or maybe it was to appease parents or grandparents, and some of you are accustomed to regularly attending church. But regardless of why you think you are here, ponder in your heart for a moment what you are really seeking because perhaps something deeper brought you here. What are you really looking for?
We all have a deep longing – a sense of something missing in our lives. Some call this the “hole in our soul.” It is the nagging feeling that we are incomplete and lacking – which is true. We humans are consciously aware of our fragility, our finitude, our faults and our failings. It is a fearful thing to acknowledge this truth. Most of us spend our lives running away from this stark reality by attempting to fill this hole in our soul with anything which promises to fulfill or fix us. But try as we might, we cannot fill this hole ourselves because it was placed there by God when we were breathed into existence. It was placed there for a purpose: to draw us to say “yes” to God’s free gift of love in Christ. It was put there as a space for God to enter into you – for each and every one of you is an Innkeeper this night and your heart is the place where Christ wants to dwell.
Christmas is the proclamation that God spoke an eternal “yes” to us by slipping through the back door of history as a helpless baby, to grow up and live with us, die for us, and be raised from the dead to prove once and for all that our fragility, finitude, faults and failings do not define us and they do not get the last word! Christ is still renewing, redeeming, and giving life to us – all of us, no exceptions.
No matter what your life circumstances are this day, God called you here to speak a word of eternal life and love to you: a love that you didn’t have to earn or prove yourself worthy to receive. God’s movement is towards us and for us in the birth of Jesus Christ. This love is mystical and it is the only enduring and life giving way to fill the hole in your soul. It comes to us through Word and Sacrament and is present through this community. So come. Come to this Table. Come as you are. Come here this night and you will find what you are looking for.