Sermon – December 24, 2003 – A Night of Hope

Well, here we are, finally. We’ve gone to a lot of trouble to get here tonight, a lot of trouble over the past few weeks to get to Christmas Eve. We’ve finally arrived at this much anticipated night.

The season gets us busy from our living rooms to the board rooms. Businesses over the past weeks have been running their frenzied sales, decorating their stores, piping in that wonderful canned Christmas music, hiring new staff. . .

At home we’ve hung lights and tinsel, decorated the tree, Grandma’s favorite recipes are being prepared for family meals, we have put up the stockings, we’ve sent out our Christmas cards.

As a community we have street decorations, public places celebrating Christmas, free parking, at least in Urbana.

And in the church, isn’t it lovely, our banners, the candles, the paraments. The children’s pageant was wonderful. That took a lot of work. The choir worked hard and sang like angels. Pastors and musicians choir directors turn up the gas as we go into this season, because so much is at stake.

Ah, yes. Much is at stake this season. We put a lot of our eggs in the Christmas basket.

For business, 25 percent of retail business is accounted for in this country during the holiday time, 217 billion dollars. There’s a lot at stake. It’s make or break for many business people, this season.

We have a lot at stake at home. We want to have the perfect celebration for our kids, to share in the best ways that we can. We don’t want them to lose sight of what this is all about. We hope we have the right presents. We hope that this will be the year that Uncle Larry and Aunt Marge don’t fight about who owns Grandpa’s boat. A lot is at stake. We feel that this is the time that families ought to be together and behave themselves, transcend those old arguments and celebrate and share. There’s so much at stake on this night in our families.

We want our communities to reflect a common spirit of joyfulness and hopefulness and rise to the standard of the night.

And in our churches, we want to do a good job, say the right thing, so that those on the margins of faith or those who only darken the door on this night will hear something sustaining, that causes them to say I want to hear more, I want to be a part of this community. . . we want the regular worshippers to have a new experience, new insight. . . we want the children to know the joy of this season . .

Much is at stake. . . . and you know what the common underpinning of all these things is? . . . . Hope. Hope. This is a night of hope, if it is anything.

All of our efforts or struggles, our expectations have to do with hope. Now, it gets disguised or overshadowed, by the busyness, by the ironic anxiety that this season of hope brings, but what’s going on here tonight here in this church, in this country, in the world, in your family, whether you’ve put your finger on it or not . . . is a celebration of hope.

That’s a good sign. That’s a glimpse of what’s real in this night, it is a peek, a reflection of what is truly authentic in this season. . . and that is that God has come bearing hope, inescapable, persistent hope through this Jesus. . . into your life, into your family, into this community and nation. Hope is what drives all this stuff this season, and that is a good thing.

Now, I know that sometimes we want to throw up our hands and lament that they are ‘taking Christ out of Christmas.” That we’ve overcome the ‘reason for the season.’ As if we could. As if we could.

I like what the writer Brennan Manning has to say about this. He says, “Once a year Christmas strikes both the sacred and the secular spheres of life with sledgehammer force. Suddenly Jesus Christ is everywhere. . . . his presence is inescapable. You may accept or reject him, affirm him or deny him. But you cannot ignore him. Of course he is proclaimed in speech, song and symbol in all the Christian churches. But, he rides every red-nosed reindeer, lurks behind every Cabbage Patch doll, resonates into he desacralied ‘seasons’ greetings.’ He is toasted in every cup of Christmas cheer. Each sprig of holly is a hint of his holiness, each cluster of mistletoe is a sign he is here.”

He is here. The babe in the manger transcends all this, and we look to him tonight. This is the season of God’s persistent, undeniable hope, that has driven itself into our hearts, wedged itself in between us and that which would separate us from God. Hope is alive tonight.

And I guess that’s what we have to share tonight. That in a dark and mysterious Palestinian night centuries ago, a heavenly voice proclaimed to the most lowly and humble, “Do not be afraid. Do not be afraid, for tonight is born for you in the city of David, a savior who is Christ the Lord.”

That voice resonates among us here tonight, reminding us that this hope is for you, you who are the occasional visitor, you who are full of the zeal of the gospel, you child and you grandma, and you heartbroken in your loss, and you stumbling in your faith, you fearful of your job, you
quiet mother. . . hope has come for you this night and it rises above all else. Mysterious, unwarranted, but powerful and real . . . Here is one now come to bring you hope, to forgive your sins, to bear your burdens, to shine his light in your darkness.

This is for you, this hope. And tonight as we remind each other why we are here and we share this hope, this joy. . . we discover that it is almost enough.

Almost, but not enough, .. . . if it stops here. You see this hope is a gift to you and to me. A gift given for a singular and holy purpose. That God’s peace may reign in our hearts and in the world. Almost, but not enough, until we receive this gift, that it might touch our anger and despair, our fearfulness, our separation, our hard-heartedness. It’s not enough until we receive it, and then not yet, until we share it.

I said earlier that we put a lot of eggs in the Christmas basket. Well, God has put all of God’s eggs there. Everything is at stake in this one who has come among us bearing hope and peace. God has given us all, and that is the gift we share and bear . . because all is not yet well in the world.

In Bethlehem tonight, danger and hatred and poverty and strife have reduced the pilgrimage, the celebration from thousands to a scattered few. On our streets stumble folks who because of the fog of addiction, or the clouds of despair, or the pain of violence and betrayal, have not, cannot yet hear the angel’s voice.

Violence and destruction have called many to battle far from home, and the end is not in sight.

For too many hungry or sick children, this night is no different from any other.

There are places where this hope has not been heard, where this light has not yet shone.

But what did the angel say, “I am bringing you good news of great joy for all people, and the night is not complete, it is not enough, until we receive this hope and bear this hope and this light from this place and out into the darkness. Then the circle closes.

In a few moments, we will light our candles and sing of the dawn of redeeming grace. As we sing, I would invite you to reflect with gratitude how Christ’s light has shone in your life, how the angels’ song has awakened hope on your journey, and then please consider how you might share that gift of hope in your family, in this community, in the world.

I pray that you will be called out by the ‘good news of great joy for all people . . . that for you tonight is born in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.”

Amen