What Difference Does Christmas Make?

December 24, 2019
Reverend Timothy Hart-Andersen

Isaiah 9:2-7; 59:15b-21; Luke 2:1-20

What difference does Christmas make?  I suppose the answer to that question depends on where we stand and who we are…

For the retailer, Christmas makes the year.

For churches, it fills the pews.

For children, it delights.

For parents, it’s exhausting.

For the cynic, it rankles.

For the agnostic, it provides a holiday.

For the atheist, it annoys.

For Jews, it’s ironic, as it’s actually about one of their own.

What about for you? Can you imagine a December without it? What difference does Christmas make?

Writer Kathleen Norris tells how her dad used to play in a jazz band in hotels and clubs in Waikiki, Hawaii. Their music attracted mostly middle-aged couples who liked to dance to the old tunes. Every Christmas Eve they would play, and people would stop in for a few dances on their way to Catholic Mass.

“But for other people,” Norris writes,

“My dad’s version of ‘O Holy Night’ – with the band’s singer, Sydette, in a sexy silver lamé cocktail dress, and him on cello – was about all the religion they were going to get. And people took it seriously; the dance floor would clear, the cabaret would quiet down.

One year a tipsy couple remained on the dance floor, moving suggestively, clinging to each other more than dancing, and a bodybuilder – one of those intensely muscular men who was unbelievably light on his feet when doing the fox trot with his wife – lost his temper. ‘This is religious music!’ he shouted, picking up the couple and depositing them, more or less gently, on a sofa. Sydette and my dad kept going.” (Kathleen Norris, The Cloister Walk)

People may not understand exactly why, and that night in that club that may have been the case, but Christmas does make a difference. There’s something about the audacity of incarnation that it causes even those otherwise not interested to stop what they’re doing and take notice.

At first it may seem like any other night, but it’s not.

For the innkeeper, it stretches capacity.

For Mary, it produces joy.

For Joseph, it does the same.

For the heavenly host, it’s a singing gig.

For the shepherds, it instills wonder.

For the Magi, it kicks off a road trip.

What about for God – what difference does Christmas make? For starters, it solves a problem. Incarnation is not an unplanned, random act. It’s a strategy hatched in divine precincts to address problems on earth. The human community has lost its way, and the Creator feels compelled to respond.

“The Lord saw it,” Isaiah the prophet says in the 8th century BCE.

“And it displeased God that there was no justice. God saw that there was no one, and was appalled there was no one to intervene.” (Isaiah 59:15b-16a)

Motivated by a mixture of disappointment and determination, God decides to enter into history, directly. As the prophet tells it, God puts on “the breastplate of righteousness and the helmet of salvation,” and prepares to intervene in the world, to bring the light and love and justice that has gone missing.

“God will come,” Isaiah says, “Like a pent-up stream that the wind of the Lord drives on…God will come to Zion as Redeemer.”  (Is. 59: 15b-21)

Maybe that’s how Christmas gets started…God looks out and sees a world in turmoil and people in need and individuals in pain and nations divided and a world convulsed by violence and fear, and says, “I’m going to do this myself. I will come into the world to fulfill the hope of my people.”

And Mary says yes and the star is flung and angels are sent and the dream is dreamt and the dawn slowly brings light to disperse the shadows of the night. And people took it seriously, and left their flocks and fields, and cleared the dance floor, to stop to listen to the story told, that on this Holy Night, the very love that looked out in the prophet’s vision long ago and saw a world longing for life, came among us as a little child.

What difference does Christmas make?

Christmas reminds us that we are not alone. The heart of our faith is to trust that God is with us. Emmanuel. With incarnation God is no longer distant, or detached, but, rather, present, in attendance on earth. We live in a time thoroughly connected and yet profoundly isolated; to know we are not alone is good news, indeed. It is the Christmas promise.

I bring you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.

Christmas reminds us of the source of our resilience. We’re like the people of whom Isaiah speaks. We live in a time and a land of deep darkness, but nothing can take from us the light that incarnation brings into the world. It’s there for us to receive, to give us courage to trust that with God all things are possible.

Christmas makes a difference.

It reminds us that Christianity is something we do. Our faith is not merely what we say or believe or think or read about or study or intellectually agree to. Christianity is about flesh and blood and bone, about yours and mine and those whose bodies are broken by circumstance and system. Incarnation insists that we relocate faith from our minds, where so often it goes to dry up, and move it to our bodies, to make God’s love real, in the flesh.

For a child has been born for us, a son given to us; authority rests upon his shoulders;
and he is named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.

Christmas makes a difference. It’s a turning point. That which dwells beyond time and space has touched the here and now. The sacred comingles with the mundane and makes all life holy.

And this will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.

Now the world knows. Now the world knows what the one who created the heavens and the earth intends for this old planet and the human family and creatures that inhabit it.

And so, together, we pivot toward light and life. We turn toward love and peace, toward justice and joy. The earth renewed, enemies reconciled, communities made whole.

Christmas does make a difference.

This night, with the angels let us sing, Hallelujah to our king. Christ the Savior is born. Christ the Savior is born.

Thanks be to God.

Amen.

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