A Christmas Homily for Covenant
Covenant Baptist Church, San Antonio
December 30, 2012
Kyndall Rae Renfro
(To listen to the audio, click “play” button above. To download audio, click here.)
I saw a facebook status of a friend this week whose son said to her, “Mom, the best gifts are things you can’t buy in stores.” She smiled down at him, full of pride, until he continued, “Like my Amazon kindle. You ordered it online, right?” Isaiah prophesied about “rejoicing as with joy at the harvest, as people exult when dividing plunder,” and in my childhood experience of Christmas, the prophecy was fulfilled in this way: the “harvesting” of a great many gifts from under the tree. My sisters and I started off every Christmas by “dividing the plunder”—picking up packages, reading the tags, and distributing accordingly.
It was the “harvesting” and “dividing” of presents that defined Christmas for me as a child, but as I’ve grown older, things have lost at least some of their significance. As so often happens, your dreams and hopes for your life and for the world transform in conjunction with the pain you’ve seen and known. You experience some of life’s harshness, and you begin to yearn for that which can’t be bought with money, like health, family, hope, healing, reconciliation, justice, mercy, love. Your wish list for Santa pales in comparison to the deep prayers of your heart, your longing for wholeness in the face of brokenness.
This is where the gift-giving of Christmas Day starts to feel at odds with the biblical promise. As a child, you wait and wait and wait anxiously for gifts, and if your requests were reasonable, then come Christmas morning, all the waiting pays off in a single hour. But as you age, you begin to wish for things that can’t be neatly packaged and that seldom arrive on time. You endure waiting periods that last for months or years, and even if you’re nice instead of naughty you don’t always get what you want.
Gifts aside, even at church, Christmas worship can seem at odds with life. By observing Advent, we make waiting a deliberate part of our liturgy for we know that waiting is significant portion of the faith experience. We pray and yearn and anticipate and hold onto hope as best we can. And then, like clockwork, Christmas comes. The baby arrives, angels rejoice, and God’s people sing. But you may have found that real life doesn’t unfold as neatly as the calendar. Advent doesn’t shift sweetly into Christmas tide without a hitch in our actual living. Prayers remain unanswered. Hopes unfulfilled. Dreams unrealized. Sorrows drag on.
But the point of Christmas worship isn’t to superimpose an experience of Christ over and against our encounters with ongoing darkness, brokenness, and need. The point of Christmas/Christian worship is to re-enact the ancient story of Christ coming once to instill the hope that Christ will come again. And by re-telling the ancient story, we remind ourselves that the first time Christ came, the coming was nearly imperceptible: a quiet birth in a forgotten stable, acknowledged by a handful of lowly shepherds while the rest of the world slept on, unaware. The birth of Christ made a very little splash that first night, and this was the way Light was born.
Isaiah the prophet had a magnificent announcement! “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light,” he promised. Peace in the land will be far-reaching and lasting: “For the yoke of their burden and the bar across their shoulders, the rod of their oppressor will be broken . . . For all the boots of the tramping warriors and all the garments rolled in blood shall be burned . . . For a child has been born for us.” All that grand deliverance began with the birth of a baby.
Every Sunday of Advent, we have been praying the same prayer together to begin our worship. In unison we’ve been singing the fourth verse of O Little Town of Bethlehem:
“O holy Child of Bethlehem, descend to us, we pray; Cast out our sin and enter in, be born in us today. We hear the Christmas angels, the great glad tidings tell, o come to us, abide with us, our Lord Emmanuel.”
How odd that in the midst of so much darkness, pain, and brokenness in the world, the thing we ask for is the birth of a baby. “Be born in us today,” we sing. No matter how many carols you sing, the Christmas mysterious of the newborn Savior is too mind-boggling to grasp. But if you’ve ever witnessed the birth of a baby or held a newborn in your arms, then perhaps you understand on some small scale, the power of birth.
When Jesus was born, babies were being born all around the world, that same day, that same hour. Parents and grandparents throughout the earth gathered in quiet, long-forgotten homes standing in awe at the miracle before their eyes. And then, in a stable of all places, surrounded by livestock, one particular birth was somehow more miraculous than them all. This newborn seemed somehow even smaller than most, for it was not only a human life contained in a measly 8 pounds or so, it was God who weighed so little. Tiny fingers, tiny toes and a teensy rounded nose contained the Divine. Fingernails the size of a speck, belonged to the hands of God. When the world’s gone black as a never-ending night, who would think to ask for this? A God you could carry in one arm?
The great arrival of God happened this way: in the forgotten corner of a barn, like a mustard seed that will grow into a shade tree or a measly ounce of faith that will build into a kingdom of hope. This is the way God begins when God transforms the world. This is how light dawns—beginning ever so small, expanding ever so slowly. So imperceptible was God’s entrance that no one but a few lonely shepherds knew to pay it heed. As the song says,
How silently, how silently the wondrous gift is given! So God imparts to human hearts the blessings of His heaven. No ear may hear His coming, But in this world of sin, where meek souls will receive Him still the dear Christ enters in.
When we think of the angels proclaiming, “Glory to God in the highest, on earth, peace, good will to men,” we imagine a great shining display in the heaven. But really, it was but a few insignificant shepherds alone who saw and heard and responded. And when they found the baby and began to share all they had heard from the angels, the baby’s mother pondered these things quietly, in her heart. Peace on earth had begun with her child, but she must have suspected that peace would grow slow and that peace would be costly, and so she tried to take it all in with reverent awe and silent contemplation. I love the contrast: great rejoicing and silent mediation, angel choir and a quiet nursing mother—both responses were quite right, quite appropriate. Whether hope comes to you this Christmastide in loud, exuberant melodies or whether it comes quietly and softly like a gentle whisper in your soul, either way I hope this is what Christmas is for you: the reminder that Christ has come and Christ will come again. The promise that no matter how dark, light will dawn. The assurance that one day, waiting will turn to singing. One day, if not today, one day: Light and Peace and Goodwill on Earth. Glory to God. Let us sing:
For Christ is born of Mary, and gathered all above, while mortals sleep, the angels keep their watch of wond’ring love. O morning stars, together proclaim the holy birth! And praises sing to God the King, and peace to men on earth.
O little town of Bethlehem, how still we see thee lie! Above thy deep and dreamless sleep the silent stars go by. Yet in the dark streets shineth the everlasting Light; the hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight.