Welcome to Christmas Eve at Christ Church! We are so glad you are here and we hope that this Christmas will be a bringer of great blessings to you. This year, especially, we are hungry for great blessings. This year, especially, we need to hear the angel say, “Fear not” from on high.
Sometimes people perceive the opposite message from on high. One of my favorite memories of doing youth ministry in my early days at Christ Church is of a kid named John. For some reason all of us were climbing up in our bell tower. At the top of the tower there are window slats that open up to McGuffey Park. You could see out but not see in.
Semi darkness was starting to fall. There were some young teens hanging around the park dressed in black: we called the “Goths” then. All the sudden, John was at the window, hidden and high above the park, bellowing out, “THIS IS THE LORD THY GOD! BE AFRAID! BE VERY AFRAID! I SHALL SMITE THEE WITH MY WRATH!” I can’t remember where the Goths went – maybe running away past our “The Episcopal Church Welcomes You” sign. But I do know for certain that John is now a Presbyterian minister. Ha! Go figure.
Fear not, said the angel of the Lord. There are two perennial fears that Christmas answers. One is obvious and the other perhaps not. The first fear is that we are all alone in the universe. Sometimes, though surrounded by people, even people we deeply love, we still feel alone. As the Irish poet says, “sometimes I can’t believe my existence, see myself at a distance and I can’t get back inside. Sometimes, I wake at 4 in the morning when all the darkness is swarming and it covers me in fear.”
I believe this to be a universal fear. Frederick Buechner says that “every man is an island… to know this is to know that not only deep in you is there a self that longs above all to be known and accepted, but that there is also such a self in me, in everyone else the world over.” All the world over, we are all alone together, longing to be known, longing to be accepted, and fearing that we are not.
A few Christmases ago, a woman who signed off as “Lonely in Cedar Rapids” wrote to Dear Abby to ask how she could stop feeling alone during the holidays. In true form, Abby told her to go do something for someone else: bake some cookies, volunteer at a soup kitchen. That is standard issue advice, and not bad as far as it goes. That is what Kierkegaard, the great Christian existentialist means when he says, “the door to happiness opens outward.”
But the problem is that if you are paralyzed by the fear of being all alone in the universe, you can’t even open the door. When all the darkness is swarming, you can’t even get up out of the chair or turn on the light. What you need at that moment is for someone to open the door from the outside and come inside where you are huddled in the dark corner. You need someone to come and put her arms around you and say to you, “I’ve come. I’m here. You are not alone. And you’ll never be alone again.”
Christmas announces that that Someone has come. That message comes not from the Christ Church bell tower, but from heavens above Bethlehem. The angel said unto the shepherds (who were kind of 1st century Goths), “Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord.”
The second fear that Christmas answers has to do with what the shepherds did when they heard that news. Again, this fear might not be quite as obvious. I believe that the human heart is a worshipping heart, always on the lookout for something or someone worthy of adoration. The second fear that Christmas answers is our fear that there is nothing worthy of worship.
When there is nothing to worship or adore, our lives are truncated. A life without adoration, without the capacity to be lost in wonder, awe, and praise is a life missing the deepest joy of being human. St. Augustine said that if you deprive a person of spiritual joy, he or she will try to make up for it with sensual pleasure.
In a classic Calvin and Hobbes comic strip, Calvin tells his pet tiger Hobbes, “Yep, Christmas is just around the corner. And what better way to celebrate a religious holiday than with a month of frenzied consumerism!” Hobbes remarks, “I’m surprised other religions haven’t picked up on that”. To which Calvin replies, “Getting loads of loot is a very spiritual experience for me.”
Don’t get me wrong, I’m a big believer in sensual pleasure and loads of loot– you should see all the fine whisky people have kindly given us for Christmas. But adoring sensual pleasure causes the door to the heart to close rather than open. Christmas answers this fear by inviting us to come once again with the shepherds who say, Let us go now even unto Bethlehem to see this thing which is come to pass, which the Lord hath made known unto us.” In the manger we find the One worthy of our adoration.
There is a Rembrandt painting from 1646 called “Adoration of the Shepherds.” The scene is affecting. Two shepherds have just arrived. They kneel before the baby Jesus lying in Mary’s lap. Some bystanders chat. A child pets a dog. Peace pervades.
But the most compelling element of the painting is the light. There is a lamp in the painting, but the strongest source of light comes from the child who is born this day in the city of David.
The light is not a glaring, searching light however. It is a warm light, a bathing light, you might even say a loving and intimate light. It is a light that covers you with love, a light that announces, “I’ve come. I’m here. You are not alone. I know you. I accept you. I love you.” In response to this light, this message, this child, the shepherds, hearts opened outward, kneel, worship and adore. I mean, who wouldn’t? In fact, isn’t that why we’re here tonight?
Aren’t we here to say, “Child, for us sinners poor and in the manger, we would embrace thee with love and awe. Who would not love Thee, loving us so dearly? O come let us adore Him, O come let us adore Him, O come let us adore Him, Christ the Lord.”
Merry Christmas and Amen.