Thursday, December 24, 2020 – Pastor Teressa Sivers
I remember my first Christmas here, at St. Paul’s UMC, and our three very distinct Christmas Eve services. The noon service was the contemplative one. The 9:30 pm service consisted of lesson and carols and communion and choir. And the 7:00 service, why it had, what a previous organist called the “Wow Factor.” The 7:00 pm service had a worship script that went on page after page for days—details for when music would come in, when lighting would change, when the spotlight would be used, when the children would enter for the various scenes, who would take the candlelight to which areas of the sanctuary, and on and on. People started arriving by 4:30 pm—Brass ensembles and set up folks. Sounds of instruments warming up and children running and people calling out filled the halls by 5:30 pm. The brass began playing beloved carols at 6:30 pm, and when the service started in earnest at 7:00 pm, with Parker’s wonderful voices echoing out Love Came Down at Christmas, I was uncertain if I was the pastor leading a service or the emcee at a major event—probably a bit of both. It felt like barely contained chaos, joy unbound…and yet, as the lights went out and Paul Merrill began playing a soft jazz of Silent Night, I could feel the hush of the stable, the warmth of that simple shelter. Even as hundreds of people lifted voices and candles, it seemed as if we had captured that field of sheep and the few shepherds trembling before the heavenly host. “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, goodwill to all whom God favors!”
Silent night, holy night, all is calm, all is bright….
Silent night, holy night, shepherds quake at the sight…
Now here we are, Christmas Eve 2020. This holy Eve we are each worshiping from our own homes and safe spaces. Singing is for the moment confined to solo moments or with those with whom we share a home, or outside safely distanced. And yet, the Holy Spirit has made herself known in ways we never could have imagined this year as she flows out to connect us across any distance and makes holy the technology we find ourselves using this night. Indeed, technology has become a new avenue of God’s grace even as it throws us curve balls and causes no small amount of frustration. The quote of 2020, “you’re on mute.” This technology allows for people to connect in worship who are half a country away. It allows former members to sing in the choir, to join in small group gatherings, and to be in worship from Maine to Florida to Michigan and beyond. And this ever-moving, grace-filled and connecting Spirit makes herself known and opens us to encounter the message of Christmas this night perhaps also in ways we couldn’t have imagined.
The worship script is much shorter. The brass ensemble is absent and no spotlight sits in the balcony. The sanctuary and the church hallways are quiet and empty. But Luke’s story of this wondrous night is not diminished. Indeed, it shines forth with grace and truth and love. The story starts with the might of Caesar issuing proclamation from the throne, the power to make all the known world journey forth for a great count. But Caesar is quickly supplanted by the poor, peasant couple of Joseph and Mary—a humble birth in a simple stable. The scene shifts to the working shepherds, overseeing their sleepy flock in the field. This picture of everyday life—small family and ordinary people—is interrupted by not just one angel, but the entire army of God in all its glory to give to these ordinary people a miraculous sign!
And what is this wonder of wonders that will show all the world that God is not some far, removed deity-distant and remote? What is this holy sign of God literally coming to dwell with God’s people near and far? Is it a warrior king ready to lead that heavenly army? Or perhaps that glorious star guiding wise ones from afar that we celebrate on Epiphany? No, let’s not mix our gospels or jump ahead in the church calendar. The sign that all of heaven has come to declare is a newborn baby, born to that poor, peasant couple, found wrapped in bands of cloth his parents pieced together, laid to rest in an animal feeding trough. It is a humble sign, a simple sign, one missed by almost all the world—with the exception of these ordinary folk in the field, who had the courage to stand firm in the face of the heavenly army and listen to the message.
Luke’s gift of the nativity story shines out whether we are gathered in a full sanctuary or, as now, in the intimacy of our own homes. The light of the divine is right in front of us, found in the sacred ordinary of our everyday lives. The signs of God dwelling with us are all around us if we have the eyes to see, the ears to hear. If our hearts are open to let in that grace and truth and love. The babe is laid in a feeding trough this night so that we would find the Christ in the simple bread before us, in the cup of grace, in the candle and the tiny flame. The sign is wrapped in bands of cloth in order that we might feel God’s love wrapped around us wherever we might be and be comforted. Jesus the Messiah was born into the most ordinary and humble of places so that holiness and grace would embrace us all, even in the places of the last and the least.
This sacred and holy night, across this new avenue of grace, the Spirit of the Child of the Manger comes to us, comforts us, holds us, meets us, loves us. This sacred and holy night, in hospital wards and prisons, among the hungry and those who cry out in thirst, with the naked and those who find themselves in strange lands, and right there where you are right now, Christ is born anew.
Silent night, holy night, Son of God, Love’s pure light…
Love came down at Christmas, Love all lovely, Love Divine…
Held by grace, in the safety of where we are, let us sing.