Sermon given by the Rev. Clare L. Hickman on December 24, 2016
Texts: Isaiah 9:2-7; “First Coming” by Madeleine L’Engle; Luke 2:1-14(15-20)
Clare L. Hickman
St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, Ferndale
Dec 24, 2016—Christmas Eve
Isaiah 9:2-7; “First Coming” by Madeleine L’Engle; Luke 2:1-14(15-20)
The shepherds were on a hillside when the story broke, in the middle of the night, surrounded by the smells and the sounds, the dirt and the danger of their trade. Mary had been in her house, perhaps attending to one of the many tasks of her day when the angel brought her into the story. Joseph was in bed, safely (he thought) asleep. Herod was in his palace, busy with that whole business of ruling a kingdom, when God’s story suddenly broke into his life.
And you? Maybe you were kneeling in a quiet dark church, singing Silent Night. Or maybe you were just sitting in your living room, or by a hospital bed; maybe you were climbing a mountain; maybe you were driving a car; maybe you were lying in a gutter. It could well be that you’re still waiting for it to happen, wondering when God’s story will finally break through (REALLY break through all the stories you’ve been living by all these years) and let the good news be born in you.
Angels sing the news to the shepherds … which is good, because it’s dark on that hillside, and angels come with their own lighting system, after all. Not to mention, they’re also a pretty clear indication that this story, God’s story, is better than the ones the shepherds have been living by. Better than the ones we’ve been living by.
God’s story is so much better, so much more powerful and hope-filled and overflowing with grace and transformation, than any of the stories we tell ourselves about, well, about ourselves and about the world. God’s story is better, first and foremost because it does not shy away from how broken we actually are, does not try to pretend about the ways in which we are capable of sin. God’s story is also better, because it does not let us dwell in that brokenness, but sets us on the path to forgiveness and a new way of being. God’s story is better, because it cuts through all the pride and selfishness, all the insecurity and fearfulness that keeps us isolated from each other. God’s story is better, because it calls us into our identity as creatures of God, beloved children of God, valuable coworkers in God’s re-creation and redemption of the world.
We can tell God’s story is better, as Nadia Bolz-Weber points out, because of the strange and wonderful things that continually happen in it. Old women are blessed with children, a shepherd boy becomes king, slaves are freed, demons are cast out, and people are restored to life. Wonderful things, impossible things happen in God’s story ALL THE TIME. Things like a ragtag band of shepherds (seriously, they’ve been living out on the hillsides with animals for God knows how long) being the first ones ushered into the presence of the new-born king.
How about THAT for a shift in a person’s narrative? Imagine who these guys might have been. Imagine the stories they were sure were the TRUTH about themselves. Who knows? Maybe one drank too much and had driven away everyone he loved. Maybe one was told he was an idiot all his life, and this is all he was fit to do. Maybe one spent time with the sheep because the other kids wouldn’t play with him because he had a club foot and they called him a freak. All we really know is that this wasn’t a prestige profession. No shame, perhaps, but no privilege either.
But in God’s story, they are given front row seats. They are offered the narrative that THEY are the ones God wants to speak to. They are the ones God has entered this world to touch. They are precisely the audience God desires.
Imagine, if they can start living inside God’s story, instead of the one they have accepted as truth for so long. Imagine, if they can believe that they do not need to apologize for themselves. Imagine, if they can live in a world in which their life, their story, their gifts and talents matter enough to be brought before the King of kings.
Imagine how astonishing God’s story really is. Imagine how it challenges the stories we tell ourselves every day: stories about hopelessness; stories about our own worthlessness; stories about how we shouldn’t be bothered, or how we shouldn’t bother other people; about how we don’t matter or how nothing matters. Stories about impossible. Stories about inevitable. Stories that demand less of us, or tell us that we are less than we actually are.
God’s story is better than all of those. All we have to do is grab hold of the truth that they are also more powerful (no matter how strong the pull of those old stories that whisper in our ear). God’s story is absolutely flooded with power.
God’s story comes to a teenage girl, filling her with the courage to say yes to giving birth to redemption. God’s story comes to a man who must face down public disgrace to protect that act of creation. God’s story comes to innkeepers who thought they did not have room in their business and in their hearts to make space for possibility to be born.
God’s story breaks in, and pushes aside the smallness, the insecurity, the selfishness, the fear and the apathy that can so often be our guiding narrative. God’s story breaks through things. God’s story breaks things.
Herod knows this. Herod hears the power of God’s story more clearly than anyone, perhaps, and it terrifies him. He hears the promise that he will be cast down. He hears the claim to true kingship. And that’s where he shuts down. That’s when he strikes back, seeking to destroy this child who appears to be his rival.
He senses the power, and can only feel threat, because God’s story challenges his story about his right to control the power and wealth of the nation. Which makes him deaf to the fullness of the good news, unable to imagine that ending his reign of terror might be the beginning of his own liberation, might well be the healing of his soul.
God’s story, born in a stable in Bethlehem, offers us so much possibility. It is sung by angels to shepherds, making the lowly the first witnesses to a new kind of king. But it sings into our lives as well, offering us a new story to replace the ones we tell ourselves about hopelessness and inevitability. God’s story asks a lot of us, and assures us we are just the ones God needs; God’s story fills us with courage and power; God’s story calls a new reality, a new creation, into being.
And it is born on this night. Let it come to life and grow within you. Let it speak louder than all those old stories you’ve been telling yourself all these years. Forget the sugar-plums: let visions of pregnant old ladies and gob-smacked shepherds dance in your heads! This is God’s story. This is OUR story. Christ is born; let us rejoice! Amen.