Sermon – December 24, 2014 Christmas Eve

Christmas Eve 2014
No Man’s Land

“The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness – on them light has shined.”

A deep darkness had come upon Europe in 1914. The Great War had begun, and just four months in, combatants on both sides were beginning to feel the effects of such violence, sacrifice and degradation. The German army had pushed into France. But the British forces had arrested the campaign.  And now, as winter settled in,
both sides dug deep trenches and faced off. They were close to one another. In some cases along the 27-mile line, the no man’s land that separated them was no more than 60 yards. They could hear each other talk.

The weather was horrible. Rains turned the trenches to mud, and everyone was caked and cold. It was thin consolation that those in the trenches just a few yards away were suffering just the same as they were.   As Christmas Eve neared, though, soldiers began receiving packets from loved ones and from their respective governments. There were tins of food, packs of cigarettes and bags tobacco, warm clothes.  Even some cake.  On December 24, the weather had cleared, raising the spirits of the soldiers on both sides.

It’s not clear how it all began, but by most accounts the German soldiers began to sing Christmas carols. The British, not to be outdone, would sing back from their trenches, and some reports say they would even exchange choruses.   Then, Christmas trees, small pines lit with candles, appeared along the German line. That seemed to be a tipping point.  An invitation.  Soldiers from both sides tentatively ventured into the no-man’s land, and a truce of sorts began.  A few men from both sides milled around the pock-marked stretch of land that separated them, exchanging cigarettes and conversation.  That night they returned to their own sides.

The next day, 100 years ago this Christmas Day, the cease-fire led to a momentary peace.  Soldiers from both sides met between the trenches sharing pictures, food and songs.  Some reports tell of a soccer game that broke out only to be interrupted when the ball was deflated after hitting the barbed wire along the lines.  Something of a metaphor itself.  Generals in the high command were dismayed at this fraternization, and issued stern orders for it to stop, but mostly those orders were ignored.  Both sides took the opportunity to gather and bury their dead and in one report I read, there was even a joint burial ceremony between the Germans and the British.  “Peace on Earth and good will to men,” they sang.  And for a moment their prayers were answered.    And the light of  Bethlehem shined and transformed No Man’s Land.

Alas, the truce ended and the fighting resumed, but today we remember that a power greater than that of fear or hatred, war or violence, prevailed, if only for a day and the light of God’s promise in Christ broke through the darkness and gave the world a glimpse of what might be.

“The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived at a land of deep darkness – on them light has shined.”

That light has shown us the way to our gatherings and celebrations this season. Led us to this fellowship tonight.  It illuminates the love that we share with one another as we light candles, share gifts, make truces, sing songs, delight in children and lift up prayer and praise. I am so grateful for those gifts and I know that you are too. In these we recognize and celebrate that gift of love and light and hope that is ours in Christ.

We are also aware that many have come from our own trenches of grief and disappointment sadness or fear. I know that there are some of you who are grieving this Christmas, remembering lost loved ones.  I know that some are facing disappointment with unrealized expectations.  I know that some are dealing with difficult medical concerns and others struggling with jolting and disorienting change.  And I know that families are not always what they appear to be.

More broadly, our world is still wracked by war and terror.   Refugees flee from danger into depravation.  Frightened children come to our own borders only to meet fear and suspicion.  And we know that millions will rise on Christmas morning to hunger, thirst and disease.

All this may cause us to hunker down in our trenches of doubts, even cynicism, but tonight, again,  we encounter the beautiful surprise – that there is no no man’s land.  There is no place where Christ cannot be encountered.  There is nothing that cannot be transformed by this light and love.

There is no no man’s land. That is a place of emptiness and fear that retreats against the love, the light, the hope that has come down.  Tonight we come to embrace that hope, to receive that transforming gift.   We come tonight to begin again.

Tonight, brothers and sisters, the candles are kindled again along the trenches.  Tonight we come to make truces.  To grant forgiveness.  To seek peace. To raise the light of hope against cynicism and fear.   To proclaim God’s  unconditional love for all people.   To embrace this peace that the angels proclaimed.  And to resolve to live the next day differently than the last.

Tonight we raise along the trenches a candle of hope – concrete, living, illuminating, abiding, hope- that seeks to transform a world where children are born into hunger and fear.   To raise that hope, alive and concrete, that rejects the ethic that tells the hungry there is no food, the sick there is no medicine, the oppressed that we don’t want to interfere, to tell the poor to help themselves.  Tonight we raise the light of hope against the divisions of race and class and creed, daring to believe that change is possible.  Because hope is borne into the world alive and concrete, we believe that peace is possible.    Because hope is alive, we resolve to share it with those in despair.  We raise the light of hope as a powerful tool to challenge fear and despair and inertia and cynicism.  It is the bane of No-Man’s Land.

Because Christ is born, the promise is kept, the Savior is come, things will never be as they once were.  Now something is happening.  Listen again as the angel speaks to you.  “Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ, the Lord.”

Tonight, the light breaks through.  The torches are kindled again. And nothing can overcome it.  Not wars, not walls, not fear, not despair, not doubt, not cynicism, not the mistakes of our past, not our own incomplete understanding.   Because Christ is born, the No-Man’s Land is occupied and transformed in your life, in your family, in your heart, in the world . . . and we will never be the same.

“The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light.”
Oh, Indeed!   Thanks be to God!

Merry Christmas, Everyone.
Amen