December 24, 2017

Christmas Eve

What Christmas story would you like to hear this evening—the one about the sweet baby Jesus all cuddled up in a comfortable blanket and lying in a cozy manger, or the one about the homeless baby Jesus wrapped in rags and placed in a food trough filled with smelly straw?  Of course, there also is the Christmas story about the baby Jesus who was a threat to the Roman authorities of his day because he was thought to be the King of the Jews who would liberate Galilee and Judea from Roman occupation and control.  These variations on the Christmas story raise the obvious question about who is Jesus and what was his primary mission in this world.  Suffice it to say, perhaps there is a truth to be told in each of these emphases of the Christmas story that helps us to understand the importance of this child of God who was thought to bring peace and good will among all people.

In this regard, the story about the sweet baby Jesus presents Jesus as the one who has come to comfort us in our sorrow, heal us when we get sick, forgive our sins, and bring peace to our weary souls.  All of these things Jesus did by the power of the Holy Spirit with whom Jesus had a strong relationship that enabled him to care for people like no other.  Jesus is the one who said, "Come unto me, all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest."  Jesus reportedly healed hundreds of people who were sick or mentally ill during his 3 years of ministry.  It didn't matter whether it was a man, woman, or child, Jesus was unafraid to reach out and touch anyone who had an ailment and cure them of their disease.

Then there was the face of Jesus that revealed his preference for those who were impoverished and oppressed by feeding those who were hungry, calling on those who were rich to share with any who had need, and telling parables that always seemed to favor the underdog.  As in any generation, women and children always seem to take a back seat to the men in a society—at least in a patriarchal society.  However, Jesus made sure to treat women with equal respect and dignity, and he invited children to become visible and viable members of his beloved community.  He truly embodied the concept of having no child left behind, no matter whether that child was the slave of a Roman soldier, the daughter of a foreign woman, or the son of a poor widow.

Jesus also was known as a radical subversive.  As his mother once sang, Jesus came to bring down powerful people from their thrones.  Jesus himself declared at the outset of his ministry that he would liberate those who were oppressed by advocating for the cancellation of debts, the freedom of slaves, and the equitable distribution of the resources throughout the land.  He regularly violated the legalism of the Sabbath day in order to heal the sick and feed the hungry.  As a final effort to transform his country into a more compassionate society, Jesus went to the temple, chased out the corrupt moneychangers and animal sellers, and denounced the religious leaders for their economic oppression and their violent treatment of outspoken prophets like himself.  Jesus even defied the militarism of the Roman government by refusing to take up arms and defend himself.  As a result of this advocacy and resistance, Jesus was arrested, tried, convicted, and nailed to a cross as a common criminal.

Most people have a propensity to favor the face of Jesus that portrays him as the nice, meek, and mild person who always is ready to heal our wounds, mend our broken hearts, care for our weary souls, and pave the way for us to get into heaven after we die.  Throughout the centuries, the Church has done a tremendous job in presenting this Jesus as the good shepherd, the compassionate servant, the great physician, the gentle lamb of God, and the redeemer of the whole world.  In this regard, we all can be pretty selective about how we are attracted to a Jesus who serves our interests and needs rather than the Jesus who invites us to put aside our pride, accept the radical cross that he endured, and follow him in his way of love, justice, peace, and freedom.

In this day and age, when the common response to so many inquiries about attending church often is, "I tend to be spiritual, but not religious," I can understand the apprehension about getting involved with an institution that has put too much emphasis on the dogma about Jesus and has committed some pretty awful atrocities throughout history in the name of Jesus.  Those of us who belong to this institution can only own up to this history, and repent of the ways that we continue to be led astray by a culture where might makes right, the almighty dollar is our god, lording ourselves over others is an acceptable norm, and the inclusive diversity and equity that Jesus espoused throughout his ministry has been replaced by a divisiveness favoring the most wealthy people throughout our land.

As always, we are called by Jesus to be something more than simply being religious or spiritual.  We are called by Jesus to be faithful—faithful to the entirety of who Jesus is and what he represents.  That is why on this Christmas Eve, I am offering to you at least 3 faces or images of this Jesus, because unless we have the complete picture of who Jesus was, then we always are going to favor the easy way out and find the best way of avoiding what Jesus' complete love for us expects of us in return.

No matter whether we favor the image of Jesus as being this sweet little baby, the impoverished little baby, or the subversive little baby, the essence of who Jesus is can all be boiled down to one word, and that word is love—the love that God had for Jesus and for all humanity, the love that Jesus demonstrated to everyone in his life, and the love that he instructed us to have for one another.  Jesus understood his relationship in this regard when he told his disciples that the love with which God had loved him was the same love with which he loved them.  Therefore, they were to abide in this love by having love for one another.  At another point in time, Jesus was asked what the greatest commandment was.  His response was profoundly simple.  He said, “You are to love God with your entire being, and you are to love all of your neighbors as you yourselves have been loved by God.”

We don't have to make Jesus out to be any more complicated than this.  Therefore, no matter whether you put your trust in this Jesus or not, we all have something to learn from this baby Jesus about the way that we are to relate with and treat one another in our society and throughout the world.  Unfortunately, the way that many of our supposedly Christian governing authorities have tended to abandon this Jesus and have replaced Jesus' mission of peace and good will among all people in order to placate the most wealthy people among us, the call of this baby Jesus to counter all of this animosity, enmity, and hostility with an ethic of inclusive love, liberty and justice for all people, and resistance to any form of violence is needed now more than ever.

Therefore, I encourage you tonight to take a few moments to consider how you can be a more loving person of peace and good will in your own life.  We all have these opportunities each and every day, no matter who we are or in whom or what we put our trust.  Personally, I lean towards putting my trust in the face of God that Jesus chose to reflect—a God who loves all people, forgives us when we do God wrong, seeks justice and freedom for all people, desires that everyone have enough food to eat, and longs for the peace that will unite us in the beloved community to which Jesus gave testimony and witness throughout his entire ministry.  Jesus was willing to give his life for this vision of a beloved community for all people.  Whatever face of this baby Jesus that you might choose to emulate this night, they all point us in this same direction of embodying a beloved community of justice, peace, and freedom for all peoples and all nations.  May we all become ever more faithful to this vision of Jesus in the days ahead.  Amen.