Whether you’re with us in person tonight, or with us online, we are glad. If your sister dragged you to church, or your mom sent you the video or audio of this sermon, welcome may I be the first to say officially, Merry Christmas. We are glad you are here. Holy Communion is a welcoming place, wherever you are on the journey of faith. Christmas, after all, is about the journey.
The Angels and the News
“Look, I bring Good news to you–wonderful joyous news for all people.” As someone with the last name, “Angell” my ears perk up when heavenly messengers appear in Scripture. But this year I was caught by a word that repeats in our translation from the angel: news, joyous news. I bring good news.
Good news, it seems, has been hard to come by in recent days. I don’t know if this is true for you, but I have had to limit my exposure. I’ve mostly stopped listening to NPR (though I did tune in for Lessons and Carols this morning). I’ve reduced the amount of time I spend with the New York Times and Post Dispatch. Especially since Thanksgiving, as story after story was coming out about the omicron variant, hundreds of stories written about the same 3 or 4 data points, I just had to stop. I wasn’t learning anything new.
If I can give you a little pastoral advice, not medical advice, pastoral, it’s this: try and enjoy this Christmas. Please keep your masks on. Take good care. Get vaccinated, boosted if you’re eligible, be careful with contacts, all that, but then, then, try as much as possible to let go of the anxiety. You’re here. Be here. If you check your phone, or turn on the radio, you’re likely to be inundated with stories without much new information, with little you can do. So lean into Christmas instead, lean into the joyful news, let the angels be your primary source.
The News Causes us Stress
It’s not just the stories about COVID that cause stress. The Swiss writer Rolf Dobelli, in a recent article in the Guardian Newspaper, of all places, argues that the so-called news is bad for you. Our days are filled by constant updates. We spend less time consuming in-depth articles, books, or investigative journalism. And, Dobelli says, the news stresses us out. The updates trigger the limbic system, constantly feeding our fight or flight instinct. The quick updates have crowded out our attention to the deeper questions.
So what strikes me is how little of the angel’s message tonight sounds like news, at least as we know it. A child has been born, to an unwed mother, to a couple with no shelter. I wish that were news. I wish that when people’s lives got as vulnerable as Mary and Joseph’s, that it was news. Because it would mean that it was out of the ordinary for folks to be this vulnerable. But it’s not, so the angels have to get the shepherds to move past the headlines, past the bullet points. The angels have to get to the questions of meaning.
Because too many kids are born in edgy circumstances. Too many kids are born housing insecure, food insecure. Too many kids grow up in poverty. Why is this seemingly unremarkable birth so remarkable?
The angels say, here, here, in seemingly the most unlikely of circumstances God has done something new. This child, this un-newsworthy child, in this family, just another set of social outcasts, here the hope of the world has been born.
The Real Story
The real story, the great joy is this: God has changed the deep structure of the world. God has reworked the deep structure of life. The deep structure, we learn, is love.
Out of love for us, God has done the unthinkable, God has come into our world. There was supposed to be a fundamental separation in the universe: God is God. We are not. Out of love for us, God has broken the barrier. God has become human, and has become vulnerable. God has gotten close. The Rev. Dr. Kelly Brown Douglas put it this way, “God comes to love us into loving.” Sadly, our phones don’t buzz with notification: remember to love.
At times we make it so hard to see the deep structure. We wrap life up with such a thick veneer. Like those Christmas presents we work to disguise, box inside of box, we turn a bicycle into a pretty rectangle, with a bow on top.
Too often our principle ways of interacting are economic. We even try to show love that way. How many of us have played the subtle game this Christmas, wondering if we have spent more or less money than a friend or relative on the gifts we’ve exchanged. Those of us who are relatively secure sometimes mistake the exterior for the interior, the wrapping for the structure. Christmas is all about love.
I wonder if that is part of why God chose to show up where God did. Notice tonight’s good news of great joy wasn’t proclaimed to Herod, or to the Emperor Augustus, the messengers don’t go first to brief the powerful. Frankly, they couldn’t have been trusted with this news. Herod, Matthew’s Gospel tells us, will use violence to try and control the narrative. Augustus would probably have dismissed a declaration that a rival king had been born as “fake news” (or whatever was the Latin equivalent). So instead the good news breaks among shepherds, among hungry poor wandering souls.
When you can’t afford to play the games of status, or when you refuse to play the games of power, when you live life a bit more exposed, perhaps you are more free to see the deep structure. Perhaps you are more free to love.
Love is Revolutionary
The writer bell hooks died this month. She worried that we over-sentimentalize love. We make love into a sort of tinsel or garland, a decoration, a wrapping. We don’t understand love and loving at the core. According to hooks, love properly understood, is an act of revolution: “The moment we choose to love we begin to move against domination, against oppression.” She said. “The moment we choose to love we begin to move towards freedom, to act in ways that liberate ourselves and others.” Love can change everything. Love is the only thing that can.
We inherit this good news. It becomes our work to inhabit the meaning. So if you will take a word from a pastor this Christmas, let it be this: set down the news cycle, at least for these next few days. Close the email. Turn off the incessant notifications. For God’s sake, turn off the 24 hour news on tv. Use the paper to start a bonfire. You’re likely already doing all you can about the news. So set it aside.
Instead, take time for the deeper news, the good news, even this year, especially this year. Take the time to let the great joy take root. Find ways to choose love. Choose to be present. Choose to dig past all the wrapping to the deep structure. God, out of love for us, broke all our rules, to spend time with all the wrong people. Imagine the world we could build if we likewise chose to go to the edges, to spend our time with those for whom our society makes no room. Imagine what would be possible if we allowed ourselves to be loved into loving.