Christmas Eve, December 24, 2016
Isaiah 9:2-7 Luke 2:1-20
Unto us a Child is Born
It has been a tough year… a year of violence and fear across the world, violence against innocents, in so many places, among them: Aleppo, Baghdad, Orlando, Nice, Berlin, … we are exhausted by it all, our hearts are broken to the point of being numb. The people who have walked in darkness, indeed. It has been a difficult year for us in this nation – a divisive year of hate-filled speech and action, an anxious year, leaving us wondering how we will move forward together. Those who have lived in a land of deep darkness.
It’s almost as if Isaiah is right here with us, as if he knows what we are living through. Which he does – because he and his people have lived through a version of it, in their own time and place. As have people in the thousands of years in between. All of that time collapses into one moment tonight, when these promises of God as spoken through the prophet are fulfilled.
The people who walked in darkness – have seen a great light. Those who lived in a land of deep darkness – on them a light has shined. For God has multiplied the nation, has increased its joy, has broken the yoke of the people’s burden, broken the rod of their oppressor. For unto us a child is born, unto us a Son is given; authority rests upon his shoulders; and he is named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
On this night, in a time of history very much like that of Isaiah’s or our own, when the world was overwhelmed with violence and oppression, God entered human history and unto us a child is born.
We are still brought up short by this moment, by the birth of a child, by the audacity of God to break into the world in the most vulnerable of ways. By the sheer madness of it, by the cost of it – to God’s self. This moment of light and love; this gift of grace; this child. And we catch our breath, even us. Hardened and sophisticated, we’re well-versed with special effects and virtual reality, it’s got to look good, seamless, and touch-ably real for us to buy in. We are people of the 21st century after all. And yet, we are here tonight, even if someone coerced us a little. If we’re honest, we’re secretly hoping that this moment will take hold within us. Become real for us; that something will happen. Because what’s out there, in the world of commerce and technology, seamless or not, is really only about as deep as a flat screen or a tablet or a phone, and will not, cannot possibly sustain us. And we know it, no matter how much we try to convince ourselves otherwise.
That’s why we put so much of our energy and hope in the outcome of the political process this year – because we need to put our hope and our energy somewhere that feels as if we matter. We need to believe that something will finally make a difference. And the drama and the anxiety ratchet up and up and up, until it seems we are walking out onto a precipice of danger, one more step, either direction, … and disaster.
Truly, it’s a miracle that any of us can sleep at night. I don’t mean to make light of the political situation in this country, I realize that things are serious, have been serious, and will continue to be serious… yes, of course.
My point is that none of this is really new. Because while it’s possible that this is the first time this particular circumstance has occurred in the realm of history, it’s more likely that it simply hasn’t happened to US before. Friends, we know better than this; we walk in the footsteps of ancestors in the faith; we have inherited the long arc of history and the deep faith that it does indeed bend toward justice – God’s justice. Breathe, deeply. God’s people have been here before, and God was with them through it all. Exhale. All shall be well. We don’t need to put our hope and our trust in the political structures of this world to save us, we have a Savior. God saw to that – this night. For unto us a child is born.
We are called to be in this world, to participate in the ways of the world to bring justice and peace, mercy and compassion to those in need – absolutely. To make those structures and systems as just and as compassionate as they can be; but not to put our faith in the systems and people of the systems of this world. Our faith we put in God alone; our trust in one another to care for each other well, and those in need of our care; and our love we lavish upon those we have been given to love, and all those in need of our love. Which right now might just be everyone we meet.
On this holy night, unto us a child is born. Into the mess of human history, God sends a vulnerable newborn, and the world catches its breath. A baby born to an unlikely couple in an obscure place, heralded by angels, but welcomed by shepherds. Honored by foreign wise men, dignitaries even, but hunted by the powers of Rome from the start. So not long after the shepherds and angels and wise men leave, Mary and Joseph take this baby and their few belongings and flee to Egypt to escape Herod’s violence, to save their child’s life. In Egypt they seek asylum from violence specifically aimed at them. Having taken it upon themselves to escape, they must rely upon the mercy of God, the warnings of angels, and the kindness of strangers.
As a community, here at St. Bart’s, we see this situation with new eyes this year. For in the past year we have been part of a newly formed response to families seeking asylum in our own time and place. Last winter we heard that there was no room at the family shelter in Portland and there were families having to sleep in the offices of General Assistance. Together with the community at First Universalist, and now also with the Yarmouth Church of Latter Day Saints, we have formed the Yarmouth Compassionate Housing Initiative. Through this response team we have hosted families of asylum seekers in area homes while they were waiting for room to open up at the shelter. Since the effort began in July, we have hosted 12 families, a total of 48 people. As they are seeking asylum from situations that are unsafe for them, and because there was no room for them at the shelter, we have provided safe shelter, beds, meals, rides, support: a warm welcome. And our lives have been changed as we knew they would be, we are so much better for having been able to be even a small part of their journey to safety. It is good to be able to do something truly meaningful in a world that feels like it’s gone mad.
And, unto us a child is born…four actually. Of the 12 families we have hosted, four arrived expecting an additional member to arrive shortly. So we have gained four members of our community by extension: little Johane, who is now 4 months old; Randall, now 3 months old; a baby girl Celestina, 1 month old; and just two weeks ago, baby Nathaniel. These infants, 2 originally from the Congo, one from Angola, and one from Burundi, have all arrived since being hosted here in Yarmouth. (And as children of asylum seekers, they have no status as citizens currently.) As one of the family coordinators wrote: “While none were born while in our care, all got their start with us in Yarmouth because there was no room at the inn, so to speak! They are all safe and comfortable in permanent housing. We have in big and small ways depending on the family, helped with their multiple transitions.”
Unto to us a child is born… indeed.
Friends, if you want this holy night to matter, to work within your own life and soul – I suggest making some room. Unto us a child is born – make some room within yourself to receive him. After all, he won’t take a ton of space, this is a tiny child we’re talking about. But once you make some room within yourself for God’s light and hope; you’ll find you want to add a little room in your life for compassion and grace for the people around you. Next thing you know you’ll be sharing some mercy, some lightness of being; you might be welcoming a stranger, or find yourself being kind without bothering to measure the cost. For once we begin to make room for the impossible love of God, we are changed. We start to live without fear, we become people of God’s extravagant love, who can change the world.
On this holy night – unto us a child is born. Thanks be to God.