Summit Presbyterian Church
December 24, 2016
Psalm 96; Luke 2:1-20
I preached my first Christmas Eve sermon at Summit in 2008. Barack Obama was the President elect. It was a time of heightened expectations. Of hopes: our first African American President, one who had brought people together. And fears - it was the middle of the great recession, people were losing homes and jobs and no one knew how bad it was going to get. A lot has happened in those eight years, and now Donald Trump is the President Elect. It is, again, a time of heightened expectations. Of hopes, and fears.
Now that I’ve started this sermon with the Obama/Trump one-two punch you may be thinking, uh-oh. Doesn’t she know it’s Christmas? We’re here to get away from all that. Our family called a 24 hour ceasefire, no political arguments. “Let’s go to church and sing some carols!,” we said. Is she going to ruin it?
Well, I hope not. But my Christmas message is: Baby Jesus ruined it. Not Christmas, of course, he couldn’t do that. But the truth is, he ruined it. He ruined it for the Emperor, so intent on counting his subjects, that poor families had to travel on his orders, no matter how dangerous or difficult. Jesus ruined it for all the Empires that rose and fell in that beleaguered land. Roman, Greek, Assyrian: empires that divided and conquered, conquered and divided, setting up puppet kings, taxing the poor, making sure people turned against each other: Gentiles against Jews, Jews against Samaritans and Jews against Jews — for as we’ve learned in this election, the most bitter fights are within families. Jesus ruined it for Cesar Augustus, who commanded the peoples to worship him, and who was declared a god by the Roman Senate upon his death. But all the gods of the peoples are idols, as the psalmist said, and Jesus ruined it for every idol of every people, including us — whether that idol be a king, dictator, or president, nation or race, ideology, guns or money. . . even Christmas, in its manifestation as an American Idol, as in “how dare you say Happy Holidays to me.” Jesus did ruin that Christmas.
Before I get to how, I’ll grant it’s not easy to see the ruins. Those golden calves seem to be doing just fine thank you. Unaffected, it seems, by a baby in a manger, no feathers in his bed. A baby who grew up to be a wandering teacher, preacher and healer — an itinerant Rabbi who was tortured and executed on a cross, like thousands of other souls who fell into the machinery of Roman justice. A baby and a man we can safely say neither Emperor Augustus nor Emperor Tiberius ever heard of. On that silent night or on the afternoon he died.
But when he burst the bonds of the tomb, when the Risen Christ appeared to his disciples, when the Holy Spirit fell upon them and they went out proclaiming the good news, all the idols of all the peoples were put on notice. Their days were numbered, their powers shaken. For in rising from the dead, Christ showed that God’s love is stronger than death and stronger than the death-dealing ways of any Empire. In rising from the dead, Christ revealed that God’s love is stronger than any idol who may tempt us away from loving God and neighbor. From the manger to the cross, as he healed and taught and suffered and forgave his tormenters, Jesus showed that God’s love is stronger than our sin. Stronger than our fear, despair, pride, or whatever it is that makes us prefer falsehood to truth. This is good news of great joy for all people - emperors as well as their subjects, elected officials and voters, men and women, people of all nations: whether we’re idolators -and we all are - or idols or both. For when we ask the holy Child of Bethlehem to cast out our sin and enter in, we invite the power of God’s love into our lives and into this world. A love which has come and is coming to establish righteousness and truth and peace on earth.
On this Christmas Eve of 2016 it’s hard to overstate the gravity of our historical moment. Climate change is hurtling the world towards chaos - if we don’t change our ways, we’ll see loss and suffering on a scale we can barely imagine. Powerful men, mostly men, some of them unhinged, have their fingers poised over nuclear keys; less powerful men, mostly men, are planning to drive trucks through crowded markets. So it’s hard to overstate the gravity of this historical moment. But it’s impossible to overstate the love of God. It’s impossible to overstate the height and the depth, the width and the breath of God’s grace that came and lived among us, beginning in that manger. It’s impossible to overstate the power of that love to bring us together across all kinds of divisions. It’s impossible to overstate the power of that love to to change the world — and each one of us. So, friends, do not be afraid. The hopes and fears of all the years are met with love tonight. O sing to the Lord, a new song; sing to the Lord, all the earth. Sing to the Lord, bless God’s name; tell of God’s salvation from day to day.