Christmas Eve 2016

Luke 2:1–20

 

COMING HOME TO GOD FOR CHRISTMAS

 

Two of the most popular Christmas songs of all time are “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” and “There’s No Place Like Home for the Holidays.” “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” was first released in the midst of World War II. Imagine how these words struck a chord with soldiers deployed in distant lands:

 

 “I’ll be home for Christmas You can count on me Please have snow and mistletoe And presents under the tree.

 

 Christmas Eve will find me Where the love light beams I’ll be home for Christmas If only in my dreams If only in my dreams.”[1]

 

In December 1965 on Gemini 7 astronauts Frank Borman and Jim Lovell asked the NASA ground crew to play this song for them.

 

“There’s No Place Like Home for the Holidays” was first recorded in 1954. While growing up in Wisconsin in the 1960’s, I remember hearing Perry Como sing: “Oh, there’s no place like home for the holidays ‘Cause no matter how far away you roam When you pine for the sunshine of a friendly gaze For the holidays you can’t beat home, sweet home.”[2] I attended St. Olaf College in Northfield, Minnesota, for my freshman year. After several months away I remember how excited I was to be going home to Portland for Christmas.

 

Elizabeth Eaton, Presiding Bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, has fond memories of the home she grew up in on the west side of Cleveland. “I still dream about it,” she writes in her Christmas message. “It was a place where I felt safe, where my family was and it was full of wonderful Christmas memories . . . I still miss it and can still remember every feature of it. And I realize that all of us have a deep longing for home.” There are children, of course, who do not grow up in safe homes. Such children are likely to have an even deeper longing for home or at least for a place that feels like home.

 

Neither “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” nor “There’s No Place Like Home for the Holidays” are religious songs. For followers of Jesus coming home for Christmas takes on special meaning. At Christmastime the deepest longings of our faith have to do with coming home to God. Where do we need to go to be home with God for Christmas?

 

On Christmas Eve a good place to begin is to let our imaginations take us with Mary and Joseph to Bethlehem. Now in one sense Mary and Joseph were not home for the first Christmas. They were from Nazareth, 80 miles away, and traveling on foot or by donkey to Bethlehem took several days. And apparently they did not have relatives to stay with in Bethlehem. Imagine how unsettling it would have been for Mary to bear a child away from home. And yet in another sense Mary and Joseph were home for Christmas, because the Christ child was with them.

 

During Advent we sang two verses of “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” at the end of each service. Emmanuel means “God with us.” The humble birth of Jesus reveals that God has made a home with us. The Christmas story is an invitation to come home to God. Revelation 21:3 affirms that God’s home is with us: “See, the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them.”

 

Luke stresses the humble beginnings of Jesus to make clear that the birth of Jesus was good news of great joy for all people, not just for an elite few. The people of God had high hopes for the coming Messiah. They envisioned an ideal king, like the greatest of Israel’s kings. Isaiah prophesied: “authority rests upon his shoulder; and he is named WONDERFUL COUNSELOR, MIGHTY GOD, EVERLASTING FATHER, PRINCE OF PEACE. His authority will grow continually, and there shall be endless peace for the throne of David and his kingdom.” The people of God were looking for a king, you see, like the powerful Emperor Augustus, viewed as the bringer of peace in the Roman Empire. One would have anticipated that this great king would be born in a palace or a mansion.

 

Jesus had no such birthplace. He had the humblest of beginnings. His father Joseph was a carpenter, a working man. His mother was a teenage girl. Mary gave birth to Jesus and laid him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn. The good news of his birth was not announced in the temple or in the halls of power. It was first announced to lowly shepherds. The story of Jesus’ humble beginnings has become so familiar to many followers of Jesus that we can almost take it for granted. But for those who want to come home to God this Christmas these humble beginnings are a crucial indication of where God chooses to dwell.

 

Once upon a time there was a great ruler who every so often would disguise himself in common ordinary clothes and walk incognito among his people. He would not even tell his closest advisors, when he was going to do this. For security’s sake, his advisers asked him to stop this practice. He responded, “I cannot rule my people, unless I know how they live.”

 

God sent Jesus to live among us, so that God might know the life we live. Jesus did not claim any special privileges over common, ordinary people. He lived as one of them. He came not to be served, but to serve and give his life for many. The message of Jesus’ birth as well as of his life and death is that God’s home, God’s dwelling place, is with common, ordinary people.

 

Clearly, to come home to God we do not have to travel far. God is very, very near. A church sanctuary is often referred to as the house of God. I hope you are experiencing the presence of God in worship this evening. We believe that God is present in the word of God that is proclaimed. We believe that God is present in, with, and under the bread and wine of the Lord’s Supper. Surely we will experience the presence of God as we light the candles and sing “Silent Night.”

 

But the humble beginnings of Jesus alert us not to limit our search for God to this house of God. In the Parable of the Sheep and the Goats the king announces to those on his right: “Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.” Those on his right are puzzled— they do not remember doing any of this for the king. He tells them, “Truly I tell you, inasmuch as you have done it to one of the least of these who are members of my household, you have done it to me.” God is as near as our neighbor in need.

 

This parable also implies that God is present in us in our time of need. No matter where we are in this world, God is with us. We do not have to travel far to come home to God.

 

That is certainly good news for refugee families. According to Matthew’s version of the Christmas story, Joseph and Mary had to flee to Egypt with newborn Jesus to escape King Herod’s violent threats. In other words, they were refugees for a time, until King Herod died and it was safe to return home to Nazareth.

 

Many refugees in our time are far from home and have little hope of returning home. The Alajrabs, our Syrian Muslim refugee family, are an example. The good news is that God promises to be with them wherever they are. Every human being is a child of God, so wherever God’s children are found, we can be confident that God has made a home with them.

 

A careful reading of Luke’s Christmas story reveals another way in which the household of God is much larger than we tend to imagine. Luke affirms that God’s presence was made manifest to the shepherds, while tending their flocks in the fields. I like to imagine that when the angel appeared, the stars were out in all their glory. Psalm 96, the Psalm we read this evening, celebrates God’s handiwork and presence in all creation. Verse 1 of “Joy to the World” exhorts the whole creation to sing praise to God: “Joy to the world, the Lord is come! Let earth receive her king; let ev‘ry heart prepare him room and heav’n and nature sing, and heav’n and nature sing, and heav’n and heav’n and nature sing.” Martin Luther once affirmed that “God is substantially present everywhere, in and through all creatures.” In Luther’s view God is fully present in the baby Jesus in Mary’s lap as well as in a grain of wheat. He once said, “If you really examined a kernel of grain thoroughly, you would die of wonder.” God is fully present in the most majestic Cascade mountain and in the tiniest grain of sand on the Oregon Coast, in the brightest star and in the darkest depth of the sea, in the tallest Douglas fir tree and in every blade of grass, in the most powerful lion and in the tiniest insect.[3] Yes, we do not have to travel far to come home to God.

 

Be assured that those who recognize the presence of God in the baby in the manger have come home to God for Christmas. Be assured that those who see the face of Jesus in the least of these have come home to God for Christmas. Be assured that those who know God is present with refugee families wherever they may be in the world have come home to God for Christmas. Be assured that those who rejoice in God’s presence in the most insignificant of God’s creatures have come home to God for Christmas. Be assured that those who recognize Jesus as our bringer of peace on Earth have come home to God for Christmas.

In Jesus’ name, AMEN.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 



[1] http://www.metrolyrics.com/ill-be-home-for-christmas-lyrics-christmas-song.html.

[2] http://www.metrolyrics.com/theres-no-place-like-home-for-the-holidays-lyrics-perry-como.html.

[3] Brocker, Coming Home to Earth, 57.