Christmas Eve 2016: God’s Antidote
I want to start with a song: "Have yourself a merry little Christmas….." but wait. Before we get to the “merry” part, I think we have first to name some truths about this past year that can be summed up in the statement: 2016 has been a toxic year.
2016: staggering homelessness in LA; deaths of Philando Castile, Alton Sterling and hundreds of other unarmed black or brown lives that matter; the sniper killing of police officers in Dallas; the father of a Muslim family in North Hills shooting and killing his gay son; terrorist bombings in Brussels; the Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando; the grotesque truck attack that killed more than 90 in Nice, France; the destruction of Aleppo, Syria and the death of thousands of Syrian civilians including countless children; an almost endless presidential election campaign that unleashed intolerance on all sides but especially verbal and sometimes physical assaults on people of color, AMENSA, disabled persons, LGBTQ persons, immigrants of all kinds; the death of great people like Prince—poisoned by Fentanyl; international intrigue and hacking; the killing of worshippers in a Muslim worship center in Switzerland; the truck attack on the Christmas market in Berlin; cavalier calls for a renewed nuclear arms race. Like I said, 2016 has been a toxic year.
I grew up less than a mile from the CIA in Northern Virginia, and in fact from the age of 5 to 10 or so I wanted to be a spy when I grew up. [Fortunately, I didn’t because I would make a terrible spy—I am far too transparent.] Remember the 1960’s was the age of spy spoofs like the TV show Get Smart which I loved—especially the gadgets like Maxwell Smart’s shoe phone and the “cones of silence” that almost always malfunctioned. And the age of spy spoof movies like the Matt Helm series—anyone remember those?—starring Dean Martin—with plots that usually involved a drunk Dean Martin being tricked by beautiful vixens working for an enemy with German- or Russian-sounding names who delivered their poisons in kisses from lips covered in toxic lipstick. The antidotes were usually found in lowball glasses filled with scotch or whisky.
As I came closer and closer to Christmas this week, I found myself turning again and again to that word “antidote.” I realized that “antidote” was becoming more than just a metaphor for the power of Christmas. The “antidote” is the power of Christmas. With the birth of Jesus Christ, God offers us the antidote to that—the sin--which poisons our lives, our relationships and, our world.
This isn’t the first time humanity has found itself in a toxic year. The Babylonian Exile, those 60 years between 598 and 538 BC and after Jerusalem was conquered and the Jewish leaders taken to Babylon to live in exile was a time of profound displacement and forms the background for our first reading every Christmas Eve, the beautiful passage from the prophet Isaiah who proclaims that God has sent a great light into the land of deep darkness. And that God promises that there SHALL be endless peace. There shall be no doubt. First century Palestine was no picnic either. It was a time of significant social unrest, the fracturing of the religious landscape, Roman occupation of the Mediterranean world including Jewish territory and political collusion between the Jewish ruling elite in Jerusalem and the occupiers crystalized in the naming of King Herod the Great as the Roman client king of Judah.
Ours is not the first toxic year. And so let us take heart in the message of salvation and promise that God spoke to these other challenging seasons, through Isaiah and especially through the birth of our God, Jesus Christ, proclaimed by the angels in our Christmas story who call out to us through the millennia: “Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for ALL the people. To you is born this day a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.”
This is not some campaign promise, some partisan tweet, or a piece of false news. What the angels proclaimed more than 2000 years ago is true today: God promises the good news of great joy in the birth, life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ which WILL lead to the fulfillment of God’s vision of love, restoration, righteousness and justice, and which shall—to borrow again the beautiful words of the prophet Isaiah, which SHALL be endless peace.
If 2016 has been a year of poison, the love of God in Jesus Christ is the antidote. And whatever horrors you see broadcast, there are still many, many signs of God’s promise scattered through the world that reverse the effects of poison and inoculate us against future damage.
But where, where are those signs of God’s love and God’s promise today? I see them in many places that I visit or read about. There is the Lancaster Food Company in Pennsylvania, a local business that makes organic bread and maple syrup and that only hires people who have difficulty finding jobs—people with language barriers and disabilities, mostly formerly incarcerated people looking to build lives of worth and goodness. And the company pays a living wage. And why? Because as people of faith and Christians, they wanted to live the way of Jesus and address poverty in their community.
Then there is the story circulating last month about a young Christian woman eating in a diner in Alton, Texas outside of Dallas who overhead a family at a neighboring table express their disgust and shame over their nephew who had come out as liberal and gay. In an effort to “act like the Jesus I grew up learning about,” the young woman went to the register, paid for the family’s meal, and wrote them this note: “'Happy holidays from the very gay, very liberal table sitting next to you. Jesus made me this way. P.S. be accepting of your family."
And remember the Cubs won the World Series(if that isn’t a sign of divine will unfolding, I don’t know what is).
Or if you are looking for God’s Good News in the birth of Jesus Christ a little closer to home, consider just 24 hours in the life of this congregation this past week. Last Tuesday night, the last night before the longest night of the year, in the sanctuary here a group of 20 actors of all different types and stripes gathered in a circle in front of the altar area to rehearse a wonderful play by our former office manager, Daniel, a charming and beautiful semi-autobiographical allegorical comedy about a multiracial, gay arctic bird and his misfit animal friends—including a hilarious Dream Girls-belting polar bear diva--who find a time and space for their God-given sexuality and God-given love and God-given life and God-envisioned happiness putting on a grand play at the North Pole on the winter solstice.
And while Daniel’s play rehearsal was going on in here, upstairs in the small theater, Julie, a member of our congregation, pre-launched her first book of published poems in a poetry slam that included honest and beautiful and thoughtful verses about a young woman loving another woman. Because God loves Julie and inspires her to love and write as God intends for Julie to love and write.
And not 10 hours later, on Wednesday morning, a dozen volunteers gathered in the church kitchen and our community ministry room to get ready for our Wednesday homeless drop-in and the special Christmas party we were throwing not just for but with the homeless friends we have gotten to know since we started our drop-in in March of this year. While some were cooking bacon and pancakes in the kitchen, others were getting the shower ready and sorting the clothes and 40 pairs of shoes our friends from Ascension Lutheran Church in LA dropped off the day before. And some of us sat and talked with our homeless friends, checked in to see what challenges the week had brought, what hopes we could offer, or just to share conversation about movies or news or memories of time lived in Nigeria and other places. For the first time, this week we invited our Wednesday guests to come into this sanctuary, and our wonderful Cathy played Christmas music, and Melanie and Erin led us all in Christmas carols (“Have yourself a merry little Christmas sounds very different when sung by people living on the streets). And I led everyone in prayer---inviting our guests to call out their prayer requests---for people living on the streets, for family members—for those we are still in touch with, for those from whom we are estranged, and our Wednesday guests prayed in thanksgiving for YOU and for this church—for being God’s promise to them a few hours a week. And then we feasted on a meal that three of the homeless guests had come and cooked the day before. And we gave everyone a modest Christmas gift—made possible by your generosity, and wished everyone a Merry Christmas. Then, about an hour later, a group of us put on Santa hats and took caroling books and went to visit some of our nursing-home-bound members and sang from Frosty the Snow Man to Silent Night, and shared communion together with Denny Garrels around his hospital bed, bringing the body and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ into a simple triple nursing home room that longed for God’s love and light. And those of us who caroled, drove together and talked about life and laughed and shared God’s love with one another in Christian friendship. And if that wasn’t enough for one day, after that, singers gathered in this sanctuary to practice singing the songs of God’s love and promise in Jesus Christ that we enjoy tonight.
Perhaps these stories and actions seem small to you, but as Jim Wallis, the leader of the evangelical social justice movement Sojourners reminded recently: “In unjust times, justice often starts in small places and personal decisions.” This Christmas, let us commit to being God’s promises of peace and love in every small way. Jesus started small that first Christmas, a baby born in a stable, in a Palestinian desert village, praised by impoverished and frightened shepherds. Jesus started small, but HIS way of love and peace is great and SHALL BE now and forever.
So….Have yourself a merry little Christmas, / Let your heart be light. / From now on, our troubles will be out of sight.….have yourself a merry little Christmas now!