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Scripture: Luke 1: 26-35, 38 and Luke 2: 1-7
Thank you to Joan Freeborn, Mary Parlee and Andy O’Neill; Margaret O’Neill, Andy and Jenny O’Neil; Brenda Barnes; Lauren Barnes; Paul Toner for sharing the gift of music.
Music: O Come All Ye Faithful, Once in Royal David City, Away in a Manger, O Holy Night, Silent Night
Reflection (Rev. Dr. Andy O’Neill)
The story of his birth is familiar to us now: the manger, the animals, the shepherds, the wise ones who came later. We sing about it in carols, it’s pictured on Christmas cards and etched into our memories. At the center of all our stories is the child, Jesus: the child who would grow to challenge power; who would give priority to the poor and those in need; and, who believed that justice, and not intimidation or force, was the path to peace.
But before all of that, though, it didn’t look like Mary’s child was going to deliver much of anything, let alone freedom or peace. A young, unwed mother-to-be, from a provincial backwater of a Roman-occupied Palestine, was not the one people expected to be carrying the weight of world-transformation in her womb. And poor Joseph – a reassuring arm and voice, to be sure – couldn’t really do much to help except be there.
We know the story now, but when it was happening you couldn’t have found two people the world knew less about. And yet this story is, for us, an encapsulation of what God is and how God moves. Not a bearded man in the sky messing with the laws of nature; not a Hollywood spectacle or a Hallmark moment. God is revealed in more personal ways than these.
Like the moment when someone forgives us, or we them, and we are healed; the moment when someone truly listens to us, and we are heard; the moment of joy we feel when we are reunited with those we hold most dear; the moment when we realize that what is most important to us is the relationships we hold dear. These are experiences of God, and they’re also the kinds of moments we have all been experiencing these past nine months.
Mary’s story begins in a grand way, of course, with an angel who brings glad tidings, God’s message of surprising love. But from there, it’s more familiar to us, more down to earth. A young couple travels a great distance; they have to scramble to find a place to stay; the news of the birth spreads by word of mouth.
The wandering star and the travelling mystics are signs of something special, many would say divine. But at the center of everything, the energy at the heart of our story, is love: God’s for Mary; Mary’s for her child and for Joseph; an innkeeper’s for a pair of strangers; a shepherd’s for the same, who brought animals to warm them.
It turns out that, even in the midst of anxiety and upheaval, even when our plans have to change suddenly rapidly and frequently; even when we end up somewhere we hadn’t expected, with responsibilities we wouldn’t have chosen for ourselves; even then, when we have love, we have everything we need. And that is Emmanuel: God with us. Amen.
Reflection (Rev. Steve Berube)
This is probably the best known story in the world. But, what do we make of it in a year that has been unlike any other for us?
In the midst of our struggles, I think the Christmas story can actually have a deeper meaning. Usually, we think of it as sort of a magical story about a simple but humble birth. Tonight, I want you to think about the struggles they faced.
– Imagine yourself as one of Mary’s parents and how you might have reacted when your 13 or 14 year old daughter tells you her story about how and why she became pregnant. (Think about that one!)
– Think about the whispers young Mary and Joseph a much older man faced around town.
– Envision being forced by a brutal foreign king to walk from Nazareth to Bethlehem, a trip that probably would have taken close to a week just so he could collect taxes on you.
– Then how cruelly they were treated when they were turned away from every door they knocked on and finally ended up in a stable surrounded by animals where Mary gave birth.
– Then strangers, shepherds, people who were despised by most, were the ones summoned by angels to bear witness. (I would have thought that God might have told the angels to summon someone more useful – like maybe a midwife.)
In those times people struggled and most would have seen the world as a dark and foreboding place, devoid of much hope. That magical night was one filled with hardship.
Yet, God was there in all of their struggles. There was God reaching out to mortals in a variety of ways; through dreams and heavenly angels and a star in the sky. There was God speaking to ordinary and extraordinary people; a young girl and an older man, simple shepherds and mighty kings. And they were willing to listen and accept that God was present in their lives and in the world and that God was about to do something new. These people dared to believe that God was calling them to transform their struggles from being rooted in hopelessness to that of hope and that they could make a difference.
Friends, I know I am and I’m sure you are tired and weary after nine months of this pandemic. But I believe God has been speaking to us and calling us to transform our struggles and focus on what is important in the common and every day. We have seen how people just started helping out others. How people sought different ways to connect with those who are isolated or lonely. We have seen those who have raised their voices around concerns ranging from seniors, to homelessness, to racism and other issues that have emerged over the past nine months. – We have seen that at St. Paul’s in your unfailing generosity.
We have also seen how relationships have been transformed. We have learned to put down our cell phones and engage with those closest to us. To look with new eyes to see the beauty and wonder of the creation that surrounds us, even in our own backyards.
And yes, we’ve even learned some new things like; washing our hands, wearing masks to protect others and even that we can worship in a different way.
I know it has been difficult and I know there is still a ways to go and I still believe we have the grace from God to continue to transform our struggles into loving and caring for our neighbours more fully.
A couple of weeks ago, I talked about realizing when I was in Bethlehem that not even a military occupation and the burden and darkness that it brings could stop Christmas. Tonight, I want you to know that not even a pandemic can stop Christmas. Christmas is about the most powerful force in the world – that even in the face of difficulties that the power of God’s love can transform us and our world.
On that night, over 2,000 years ago, in a humble stable there was great joy; for on that night, God came into the world for all people. God’s love was revealed in something that happens every day – a child was born in difficult circumstances. On that night, in a little town the world was forever changed because there was a stable filled with love, hope and joy at the birth of Jesus.
In the dark of that night, Jesus was born.
In the dark of this night, because of that birth, new life and new hope are offered to us.
Thanks be to God.
Prayers for Community
O God, you came to us in humility, as a child born in a stable. Hear us as we give our thanks and pray for those who reveal your love in our lives and in your world.
We give thanks and pray for those who become your hands and feet by doing their best for all of our brothers and sisters; for those who become your voice by proclaiming your message and speaking words of justice and peace for the broken and oppressed; for those who become your ears by listening to those whose stories and voices are often unheard.
We hold in prayer all who are lonely and hurting, grieving and in pain, hungry and homeless, sick and marginalized, knowing your heart has always been with those who are suffering and who are least likely to be thought of as those embraced in your love and acceptance.
As we remember how you came to live among us and as we celebrate your birth in Bethlehem so long ago, we ask that you embolden us to show the goodness and love of Christ each day in our own lives. We ask that you would bless us, as your people, to bear faithful witness to your hope, peace, joy and love for all. May we receive new life at this time, to share with those who thirst for meaning, and hunger for belonging.
Pour out your Spirit upon us, your people. Help us to hold on to the mystery and joy of Christmas. May your child dwell in our hearts, so we may reveal your love to all in our world. Holy child of Bethlehem, come to us, abide with us, our Lord Emmanuel. Amen.