Christmas Eve, 2004
What Child is This? (12/24/04)
Rev. Gary Cox — Wichita, Kansas
University Congregational Church
Every religion has a foundational statement that says something to this effect: The God we can talk about is not really God. God is a mystery that cannot be expressed with language. Many who have spent several years in seminary love the subject of theology, but the literal meaning of the word theology is God talk. And as every religion knows, God talk is something we cannot do—not with any real integrity.
This is not especially good news for people of my chosen vocation, who spend week after week standing in the pulpit attempting, in one way or another, well, to talk about God. But talk we do—and probably way too much. Still, even the most verbose of preachers tend to get it right on Christmas Eve. Instead of trying to tell people what God is, we actually show people who God is.
We Christians tell an amazing story. Our faith leads us to make a claim that many find absurd, others find simplistic, and still others find so fantastic it could not possibly be believed by any human being with a functioning, rational brain. We say that if you want to catch a glimpse of God, look at Jesus. Some Christians argue day-in-day-out, year-in-year- out about what it means to say we can see God when we look at Jesus. And over the centuries we have devised creeds and confessions, and written volumes of almost impossible-to-read books of theology, using words in an attempt to say what we knew from the beginning cannot be said with words.
We Congregationalists are thinkers by nature. We don’t believe things just because we are told to believe them. And it doesn’t matter if we hear these things from our parents, or teachers, or ministers, or religious authorities… We can be a contrary bunch when it comes to accepting things into our minds as truth without a thorough examination of whether or not those things belong in there—in our minds, accepted as truth.
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So we learn all the creeds of the church, but never insist we know which ones are correct and which ones are false. And we learn about all the ways faithful Christians have thought about the relationship between the Creator of the universe and that baby who was born two thousand years ago, to an unwed mother, in a political backwater, as a part of a small and often disrespected religion, and who grew into a man who suffered the most humiliating death human beings have been able to dream up. We talk about that relationship a lot—that relationship between Jesus of Nazareth and the Creator of the universe; but we never insist we have it all figured out.
But even we Congregationalists don’t talk about that tonight. Even those of us who refuse to check our brains at the door of the church realize that Christmas Eve is about something…special—something beyond words. And we accept the fact—the irrational, unspeakable and impossible to prove fact—that we can indeed catch a glimpse of God by looking at Jesus, lying in that manger. That’s as close as we’re going to get to seeing God.
So even people like me—people who love to read theology and talk about religion and analyze the Christian faith from every conceivable perspective—even we are driven to a hushed silence on Christmas Eve, and we simply point. We point to the manger.
Christmas Eve sermons are short, and this one is no exception to that rule. Christmas Eve is a time for silent prayers, offered from hearts driven to awed silence by the mystery of the season; and a time for song. Songs of hope, and joy, and proclamation of the impossible—that the one who lies in that manger is the Christ come into the world. That baby is a holy reflection of God, born into this world to show us how to live, to remind us of what really matters in life, and to ultimately put God’s cleansing and healing stamp of approval on humanity. Yes! For all of humanity’s self-centered greed and depraved indifference, God says a big “yes” to humankind by entering the world as a helpless child, and growing into a person who would walk into the very heart of the worst evil we have to offer… and never lose his love.
We Christians have a life-long dialogue going on between our heads and our hearts. That wonderful Christmas Carol, sung to the tune Greensleeves, captures the essence of that conversation. The song begins firmly anchored in our minds, and asks the question,
What child is this, who laid to rest on Mary’s lap is sleeping, whom angels meet with anthems sweet while shepherds watch are keeping?
And the song immediately answers itself, not from the head but from the heart; not from the mind that tries to make sense of this sometimes cruel and often unfathomable world, but rather from the depths of our being, where we are anchored on the eternal love of God—where we know that life has purpose and meaning. What child is this? The song—our heart—tells us:
This, this is Christ the king, whom shepherds guard and angels sing: Haste, haste to bring him laud, the babe, the son of Mary!
Maybe it doesn’t matter so much whether or not we believe in God. What matters is that God believes in us. And God does believe in us. We know that because of Christmas. And even for the most Ebenezer Scrooge type person we know, it doesn’t matter whether or not he believes in Christmas, because Christmas believes in him. You can’t go through the Christmas season unaffected. The miserly old fellow who lives down the street—the one that everybody says hates children—he can’t help but crack a smile when you wave at him and say, “Merry Christmas.”
Christmas works its magic on all of us. Oh sure—it’s an emotional roller coaster. The season is too rich with memories—both wonderful and painful—for us to dance through the holidays unscathed. And many of the people with whom we would most like to be sharing this sacred time have passed beyond our reach. And they are never more present to us than right now—right in the depths of Christmas, when our hearts cry out that if this universe was a just place, and if God was a merciful and caring God, then we would all still be together. At least tonight. At least tonight.
And we are. Tonight we are all gathered around that same manger. Tonight, the Eternal Spirit of God breaks down all barriers. For in Christ Jesus there is neither slave nor free, Greek nor Jew, male nor female, and dare I say it, yes, in Christ Jesus there is neither living nor dead. God does not forget a one of us. Not one.
You see, this universe is a just place, and God is a merciful and caring God. We feel that truth in the depths of our hearts. We feel it in the mystery of Christmas. And we see it—yes, see that truth—lying in the manger as a helpless baby. May our loving hearts enthrone him. Yes, enthrone him now, and I dare to say, forevermore. Amen.