Preached at St. Columba's Anglican Church, Waterloo, Ontario, Sunday, Dec 29, 2013
Readings for the First Sunday of Christmas, Year A: Isaiah 63:7-9, Psalm 148, Hebrews 2:10-18, Matthew 2:13-23
I will recount the gracious deeds of the Lord, the praiseworthy acts of the Lord, because of all that the Lord has done for us, and the great favor to the house of Israel that he has shown them according to his mercy, according to the abundance of his steadfast love. (Isaiah 62:7)
At this time of year, between Christmas and New Year’s Eve, I think there are several emotions that tug us in different directions.
One emotion, born out of weariness, is a sense of gratitude that Christmas, with all of its obligations and business, is done with. Finally we can say goodbye to all the preparing and baking, all the visiting and special occasions. We are free to breathe a sigh of relief, and get back to normal.
But at the same time, we don’t want things to be normal. For that second emotion that tugs at us, isn’t it a kind of sadness? Do we not, in our hearts, regret that Christmas is done with for another year? Christmas is peace, joy, warmth, and a sense that the world is somehow specially blessed. As we prepare to box up the Nativity scene and creche for another year, we can’t help but feel that the world would be a better place if we could only hold on to the Christmas spirit.
We want normal if normal is less busy and less frantic, but we don’t want normal if normal is the world as we know it. Normal is worrying about how we are going to provide for our families, wondering how long we can put up with the boss at work, or despairing about all those resumes we send out into the silence. Normal is the absence of a loved one taken from us, a grief that never quite loses its edge. Normal is the news that never seems to get better -- another car bombing, another refugee camp, another drunk driver leaving a trail of carnage. If these things are what passes for normal, who would ever want or need normal?
If we allow ourselves to buy into Christmas as our culture understands the holiday, then it can only ever be, at the most, a brief break from the dreariness and sadness of normal. Once the guests leave, once the obligations are fulfilled, once the food is eaten and gone, it’s back to normal. Once the presents lose their novelty, it’s back to normal. Once the decorations are put away, it’s back to normal. Christmas, if we think of it as parties and presents and food and drink, has no power to change the normal of the world.
Fortunately, this empty holiday is not the Christmas we have celebrated. The church’s Christmas is about God delivering on the promises he has made to his people. Christmas is about God being true to his word. Christmas is about God telling us, “I have been with you, I am with you, and I’m not finished with you”.
In our first reading, we heard the prophet Isaiah speak about all that God has done for his people because of God’s great love and mercy. “I will recount the gracious deeds of the Lord, the praiseworthy acts of the Lord, because of all that the Lord has done for us, and the great favor to the house of Israel that he has shown them according to his mercy, according to the abundance of his steadfast love” (Isaiah 62:7).
When Isaiah wrote this prophecy, normal didn’t look that great to the people of Israel. Normal was Temple in ruins, Jerusalem conquered, the people made slaves in Babylon. Normal looked hopeless, and here was Isaiah reminding the people of the God hadn’t abandoned them. God was faithful to the promises he had made long ago to Abraham.
God had led them out of Egypt, God have given them Moses who led them to the promised land. God would send a Messiah to save his people.
In our second lesson we heard more about the faithfulness of God. We heard about how God has kept his promises to his people, “the descendants of Abraham”. The author of Hebrews reminds us who exactly that baby in the manger is. He is one like us, our brother and sister because he shares our humanity, but he is unlike us because he is perfect, so that he can save us. This child is the one who gathers us to him, who stands before the throne of God, and says “Here am I and the children whom God has given me”.
These lessons remind us of what is normal. God’s faithfulness to his people is normal. God’s mercy is normal. God’s love for his people is normal. God’s determination to save his people is normal. God’s promise to be with us in the form of his son, Emmanuel, is normal. The son’s power to save us from sin and death is normal.
In the days and weeks after Christmas, we go back into the world, to things we know too well. There will be tyrants and warlords who bomb their own people, just as Herod unleashed death and violence on his people. Mothers will mourn and weep, just as Rachel did. Innocent people will flee their homes and become refugees, just as the Holy Family did. These things have happened before, they happen now, and they will happen again, but they are not normal. This is not the how God designed the world. This is not what God wishes for his creation.
We, the church, are called to be God’s new normal for the world. We are called to live in the promises of God, and in the presence of his Son and of his Holy Spirit. We are called to show the love of Jesus to the world. We are called to love, to forgive, to welcome, and to live in the name of Jesus. We are called to live in the promise of Christmas as God’s promise to save and renew his creation.
So let’s go forth into the new year trusting in these things. Let’s not regret the passing of Christmas as something fragile and all too brief. Let’s not mistake the presence of sin and death in the world as normal. Instead, let’s rejoice that Christmas is a sign, a first installment, of God’s love and power, God’s new normal for the word. Amen.