First Congregational Church of Berkeley, Calif.
Reading for the Fourth Sunday of Advent: Matthew 1:18-25
The day has come. Christmas Eve. We have waited and it has arrived, as it does every year, on time. Whether it seems early or late, to have come quickly or quietly or belatedly, Christmas always comes on time. Every year the same, and every year not quite the same.
Whether it is anticipated with light or heavy heart, we help give birth to Christmas. We help in all of our seasonal rituals. We bring the birth of Christmas in the lighting of candles, the writing of letters, the singing of carols, the baking of cookies, the welcoming of friends and relatives into our homes, the remembering of treasured Christmases, the wrapping of presents. In the wonderful variety of our homespun rituals, we affirm what we know all year-we are connected. We are connected to faces we love and faces we have never seen; we are connected to our natural environment in all of its howling, shuddering, shining glory. This is to say, we are connected to God.
We write a Christmas card and give thanks for our connection to a friend. We put a red flaming bow on a present and celebrate the abundance of God’s gifts to us. We give toys and socks and blankets to people whose names we don’t know. We light candles and remember God’s light that shines in our darkness. We sing carols and sometimes fumble with the words and slide into the right note, but eventually we find the harmony that comes from one voice connected to another.
In our rituals, we give birth to Christmas. In the flesh. In our flesh.
“Ritual!” exclaims the Western industrial, pragmatic, techno-scientific mind. “Ritual! Bah, humbug! What nonsense! A waste of resources! All that money spent on candles and wrapping paper and sugar. All that time wasted on going to church, standing up, sitting down, singing, listening, mumbling some prayer, giving more money. To what end? It isn’t cost effective!”
And yet it is in our rituals, our home no less than our church rituals, that we affirm the presence of God in every aspect of our life. In our rituals, we express the sacredness of our living. And in some very poignant moments, we can feel the ineffable, the silent presence of God pressing in on our lives from every side. And in that awareness is Christ, born in us and through us and with us.
Because we tend to make such a fuss at this time of year, howling and hooting and exclaiming, perhaps it is most natural that on Christmas Eve a friend walks by a church and asks, “Who is this God that you worship? Tell me something beautiful, something important about this God of yours.”
And inside that church, at that very moment, we might be engaged in the ritual of reading: “. . . and wrapped him in swaddling clothes and laid him in a manger . . .”
And we might be singing: “. . . let every heart prepare him room; and heaven and nature sing . . .”
Or praying: “. . . on earth as it is in heaven . . .”
Inside that church we would be telling the most important and the most beautiful thing about our God. We are saying again what was told to us and what we have come to know for ourselves: “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth . . .” “. . . and his name shall be called Emmanuel . . .”
This is what we have to say about our God and what we say hundreds of different ways with hundreds of voices over hundreds of years: God with us.
For thousands of years God came to us in impressive and powerful ways: pillars of fire, thunder, the parting of seas. God came to us in dreams, through angels, in a burning bush. And God called us to be faithful; to believe, despite all imaginable hardship, in God’s steadfast and abundant love for us. But the immensity of God pressed upon us, for we knew no one could see the face of God and live to tell about it. Even Moses himself, on top of Mt. Sinai, only saw the backside of God. And for thousands of years since, we have yearned to know God. Our history is a history of a people who asked, “God, how long will you hide your face from us? (Ps. 13) Wondrously show thy steadfast love. (Ps. 17)”
On this day, we tell the story about the God of fire, thunder, and parting seas who became flesh and dwelt among us. We tell of a God who came wrapped in a baby, and in that child we beheld something of the glory of the divine. The story we tell today is of the answer to a thousand years of asking, “God, what are you like?”
When we tell the story, “for to you is born this day in the city of David . . .” we tell the story of God answering, “This is what I am like.”
“You shall call his name Jesus, for he shall save his people from their sins.” Jesus, in Hebrew, means “savior.” Jesus was born savior. The very birth of Jesus reminds us of the saving grace of God. We are saved from our sins, from our blindness, our arrogance, our ignorance, not by anything we do, but by the very presence of God dwelling in our midst, becoming flesh in our world. In the presence of God, we are saved. In the birth of Jesus, we know in our bones as surely as God flowed through Jesus’ bones that we are forgiven, we are accepted.
For thousands of years we asked God, “How will we know you?” “How can we love you?” We asked, “How will you know us?” “How will you love us?”
In Bethlehem, God answered:
Look and see, I will be like you.
I will be here among you.
You will know me in one another.
You will love me in one another.
I will be revealed to you in one another and you will show each other who I am.
The most beautiful and the most important thing about God is that God became flesh and dwells with us. Emmanuel. God with us in human presence.
In Jesus, God does not explain who God is. In Jesus, God shows us who God is. For thousands of years we asked to see the face of God. And God came to us, wrapped in a baby. This savior, called Emmanuel. And the most beautiful and most important thing we know about God-with-us is presence. God came to us in a way that says, “Be present to one another. Dwell with one another. Be for each other a light in the darkness.”
So we might say to the one who stands before the festive church on Christmas Eve and asks us about our God, “No, the most important thing about God is not power. It is not judgment. The most beautiful and important thing about God is presence.”
The story we tell today and tonight is the story of our God, and it is the story of all humanity. For it is with and in all people that God dwells. We are bearers of God’s glory, of God’s presence.
We are present to God when we are present to each other. So look into the eyes of one you love; look into the eyes of one who teaches your children; look into the eyes of the one who dwells with a friend in darkness and laughs with a friend in joy. When we bend toward each other in love, we bring God down to earth. In the flesh. In our flesh.
And to the one who asks us that day about our God, we tell a story that has been told hundreds of ways for hundreds of years: a dark night; a long journey; mother with child; no room at the inn. Jesus. Savior. Emmanuel. God with us. Still.
Dan Chambers served as associate minister of First Congregational Church of Berkeley, Calif.