December 24, 2018 – The Rev. Dr. Stephen Shaver

Year C, Christmas Eve, Revised Common Lectionary
Isaiah 9:2-7
Psalm 96
Titus 2:11-14
Luke 2:1-14 (15-20)

+ + +

This is no time for a child to be born,
With the earth betrayed by war & hate
And a comet slashing the sky to warn
That time runs out & the sun burns late.

That was no time for a child to be born,
In a land in the crushing grip of Rome;
Honour & truth were trampled by scorn—
Yet here did the Saviour make his home.

When is the time for love to be born?
The inn is full on the planet earth,
And by greed & pride the sky is torn—
Yet Love still takes the risk of birth.[1]

That’s a poem by Madeleine L’Engle, author of the famous children’s book A Wrinkle in Time, a writer for children and adults and, incidentally, an Episcopalian. She wrote it in 1973, during a Christmas marked by the appearance of a major comet—but aside from that, almost everything in the poem sounds like it could have been written today.

Is it ever a good time for a child to be born? Welcoming a child into the world is incredible joy—but it’s joy accompanied by a healthy dose of fear and trembling. The world isn’t safe, or convenient, or easy. It’s been said that having a child means having your heart walking around in the world outside your body.[2] Childbirth is risky. It’s scary. It’s a loss of control.

What an odd and amazing thing it is to imagine God taking that chance. Two thousand and some-odd years ago, the eternal, unfathomable Creator of all things decided it was time to have the heart of God walking around in the world. Our world. Dangerous; unpredictable; full of beauty, yes, but also full of terrible things that happen to good people, and terrible things that people do to one another. For God it was worth the risk. And so Jesus, the holy Child of God, was born in a little village, in an occupied country, to poor parents, the kind that were pushed around by important bosses with names like Augustus and Quirinius who decided it was time to have a census, no matter what kind of hardship it inflicted on the ordinary people who had to travel across the country. The kind of parents who didn’t have the money or clout to make sure there was room in the inn. The kind who found whatever place they could, a stable, or whatever could put a roof over their heads.

It’s not hard to think of places like that in our world today. A loud, cold underpass beneath Highway 101. A crowded, flooded stadium-turned-refugee-camp in Tijuana. The shattered city of Mosul in Iraq, devastated by years of war. Or even a friend’s couch after losing a home to a wildfire. Jesus was born to people who endured that kind of uncertainty. It seems to have stayed with him. As an adult, he would tell his friends, “Foxes have holes, and birds have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head.”[3]

Life is risky. And it doesn’t always turn out the way we want it to. Jesus knew that too—this holy child of God whose life took him down a road that ended with the cross. And yet somehow, even knowing that from all eternity, God decided on this night that it was worth it. Why? Why risk the sorrow and the struggle?

For just one reason. For love.

Tonight we celebrate God’s overwhelming love. This is a God who simply couldn’t stand to be apart from us, from you and me. As the famous verse puts it, God so loved the world as to send the only-begotten Son, the Word of God. The one who shows us what God truly looks like, distilled down into a human life. Jesus became incarnate, which is a fancy theological word to say that Jesus became flesh, flesh and blood, made of matter like you and me. That’s the name of this church: Incarnation. And that’s the incredible truth we celebrate tonight. Do you want to know who God is? Does God feel far away or too mysterious to know? The good news of the Incarnation says: God has come near. You can know exactly what God is like. If you want to know God, look at Jesus. Because within the boundaries of a human life, Jesus shows us exactly, with complete fidelity, the personality of God.

As one of our prayers says, “Living among us, Jesus loved us. He broke bread with outcasts and sinners, healed the sick, and proclaimed good news to the poor.” That’s the life of Jesus: and there you have it: that’s the personality of God.

It takes faith to believe that in this world. It might feel just as easy to believe that the universe is random and uncaring, that there’s no reason why any of us are here, that power and brutality are basically what will win in the end. It takes almost a crazy faith to believe that God would choose to be more like Mary and Joseph than Augustus—that God would stoop to be born in a ridiculous little place unfit for human habitation, to be worshiped by shepherds and laid in a cattle trough. But here in this place we’re dedicated to just that crazy kind of faith. It’s a faith that has room for you, and me, and all God’s children—even, in the end, for bigshots like Quirinius, once they learn to take others at least as seriously as themselves.

God took the risk. God did it out of love for you—you. And me. Because God wanted to come close to us. And so tonight, in the form of a little baby, we come close to God, with joy.

When is the time for love to be born?
The inn is full on the planet earth,
And by greed & pride the sky is torn—
Yet Love still takes the risk of birth.[4]

[1] Madeleine L’Engle, “The Risk of Birth,” in The Ordering of Love: The New and Collected Poems of Madeleine L’Engle (Colorado Springs, CO: Shaw Books, 2005), 16-17. I have altered the third stanza to reflect the slightly different version that appears in The Genesis Trilogy (Colorado Springs, CO: Shaw Books, 2001), 16-17.

[2] Attributed to the author Elizabeth Stone.

[3] Luke 9:58.

[4] Madeleine L’Engle, “The Risk of Birth,” in The Ordering of Love: The New and Collected Poems of Madeleine L’Engle (Colorado Springs, CO: Shaw Books, 2005), 16-17. I have altered the third stanza to reflect the slightly different version that appears in The Genesis Trilogy (Colorado Springs, CO: Shaw Books, 2001), 16-17.