Christmas Sermon: Jesus Disrupts Everything
The world had grown old. “Unknown ages from the time when God created the heavens and the earth … Several thousand years after the flood … Twenty–one centuries from the [first covenant with] Abraham and Sarah; thirteen centuries after Moses led the people of Israel out of Egypt … one thousand years from the anointing of David as king … the seven hundred and fifty–second year from the foundation of the city of Rome. The forty–second year of the reign of Octavian Augustus.” This was the fullness of time.
Things had not turned out well for God’s chosen people. Time and time again they had been conquered and exiled. They now lived under the most brutal oppression yet – a Roman puppet for a supposed Jewish King. The rest of the world, too, was tired. The noble ideals of the Roman republic had collapsed into dictatorship. Even the great pagan religions had been abandoned for a slow slide into luxury, lechery, and practical atheism.
The poet Auden imagines King Herod surveying the landscape on that winter day: “There is no visible disorder,” he remarks. “Today has been one of those perfect winter days … and this evening as I stand … high up in the citadel, there is nothing in the whole magnificent panorama of plain and mountains to indicate that the Empire is threatened by a danger more dreadful than any invasion of Tartars on racing camels or conspiracy of the Praetorian Guard” (p. 391).
What is a cause of joy and wonder to us – that God would become man in the stable of Bethlehem – was certainly a threat to Herod and all the other “powers that be” – a threat greater than an invading army or a rebellion from within. Christ comes this night in great humility, but we should not forget that He comes to upset everything.
For our world, Christianity is no longer a threat. It is precisely belief in Christ that seems to have grown old. But for those who believe, what we celebrate (this night / today) is not just a fond remembrance of ages past, but something eternally present and young, something new and earth-shattering that changes absolutely everything.
For the world grown old of 2,000 years ago, the infant in the manger is the longed-for new beginning – the “thrill of hope” at which “the weary world rejoices.” After endless ages of the power of Adam’s sin reigning over mankind, the remedy for human imperfection is found in the little child who comes to bring new life. He is the new Adam who will undo the mistakes of our fathers, the new beginning for Adam’s sons and daughters who have lain “in sin and error pining.” He comes to disrupt and overthrow the kingdom of darkness that has held sway over the earth from Adam until His birth. But He is not just a conqueror – He offers a new beginning than will be even better than Adam and Eve’s earthly paradise.
Many of us are also looking for a new beginning, a chance to start over. Maybe it’s the beginning of a new that we desperately hope to be much different than the last, or maybe it’s deeper – mistakes and regrets that you want finally to leave behind. That new beginning is already here in the Christchild in the manger. He is the new beginning, the new chance for which we long.
Faced with this need for a new beginning, the human heart oppressed by sin tends to react in one of two ways: Either we try to dig ourselves out of the hole we are in, or we give up to despair. But the divine infant in the manger, in His humility and vulnerability, shows us that “our redemption is no longer a question of pursuit but of surrender to Him who is always and everywhere present” (Auden, p. 390). The One who always has been and always will be has broken into time – not just into the stable in Bethlehem, but into your home and heart as well.
What we have been looking for is already here. He is here not only in the manger, but in the even greater Christmas miracle that extends His incarnation, His taking flesh, into time. Every time that the Church celebrates the Eucharist, Christ takes flesh again under the appearance of bread and wine. He has upset not only the kingdoms of sin and Herod, but even the very nature of matter itself, as He transforms the humble elements of a Jewish meal into His own body and blood – the same flesh and blood that Mary lay in the manger.
He disrupts even the natural order of the relationship between God and man – the Creator becoming subject to His creatures in his mother, Mary, and foster father, Joseph. And more marvelous yet, the same child who becomes vulnerable to Mary and Joseph becomes vulnerable to us. That this miracle should take place not only in the womb of the pure and sinless Virgin but in the hands of sinful men – this is a miracle and a divine condescension that boggles the mind beyond even the adoration of shepherds and magi.
A person in the process of becoming Catholic told me once that though he had been raised to regard Jesus as truly human and truly divine, the full gravity of Christ’s divinity had never really struck him until he began attending Mass. It is only in worshiping the Christchild present in the Host that we can experience the real magic of beholding the Godman in the manger. He was wrapped in swaddling clothes and laid in a trough where animals feed, and now is lain on the altar from which we are fed the true food of eternal life.
If then, the Divine Infant of Bethlehem has come to upset all of reality, if He desires that we surrender to Him rather than continue our vain pursuits, what does He expect from us? Surrender to Christ means recognizing that He has come not only to inspire us with sentiments of joy, but to win the redemption of our sins. He desires our repentance, and our determination to walk away from here today as different than we arrived. He is, after all, “Born that man no more may die; Born to raise the sons of earth; Born to give them second birth.” Knowing who He is will always be insufficient unless it leads to welcoming Him into a pure heart, especially through His real presence in the Eucharist. This is how the sons of earth are raised and given second birth, because God lays His body and blood not only in an animal’s feeding trough, but in the human heart.
“Light and life to all He brings,” sings the carol, “Ris’n with healing in His wings.” In John’s Gospel, we hear, “In him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” The darkness has truly not overcome the light shining from Bethlehem this night. No matter to what depths of darkness your soul has seemed to descend, His light cannot be extinguished.
Tonight, He offers to all of broken humanity a new beginning of grace. The humble child of Bethlehem is the same Savior who will break the chains of death as He rises from the dead to heal the brokenness of the human race. Glory on high, to this newborn King.
The Rev. Royce V. Gregerson
Parish Church of St. John the Evangelist, Goshen
The Solemnity of the Nativity of the Lord, A.D. MMXX
W. H. Auden. For the Time Being: A Christmas Oratorio. In Collected Poems, ed. Edward Mendelson. New York: The Modern Library, 2007.
Image: Gerard von Honthorst. Adoration of the Shepherds. 1622. Wallraf-Richartz Museum. Adoration of the Christ Child (Honthorst) - Wikipedia