Tuesday, December 30, 2008

A little late: My Christmas Eve Sermon

I don't normally post my sermons on my bl0g, since I have a separate website where I keep my archives. But I've been thinking about starting to post them here, and tag them to be easily searchable. So...here's my Christmas Eve sermon:


Sing We Now of Christmas: What Child is This?
(Luke 2:1-20, 12/24/08)

What Child is This? It’s my very favorite Christmas carol, and has been since I was a child. There’s something about the melody that’s so moving. The melody is much older than they lyrics, actually – it’s a traditional English melody called Greensleeves. But the text and the melody together make the complete package for me. The text was written in 1865 by William Dix. Dix was an insurance agent living and working in Glasgow, Scotland. When he was in his late twenties, he fell extremely ill and struggled with depression because he was bedridden for months. But he was a man of faith, and it is believed that he wrote many hymns during this time, including this, his most famous, What Child is This? Dix was writing in a time when public celebrations of Christmas by Christians were actually frowned upon. Actually, big, extravagant Christmas festivities for Christians are only a century or so old. Non-Christians, pagans, would celebrate Christmas decadently. But those who were faithful celebrated in a more subdued way, mostly associating Christmas with times of worship. When Dix penned this hymn, he was writing at a time when Christians celebrating Christmas was just starting to expand and adopt more secular practices.

And so, into such a cultural climate, and out of such a personal experience of illness and depression as Dix was experiencing, what more perfect question could he raise than this: What child is this? What child is this that we’re making such fuss about, singing about, celebrating, getting together with family for, exchanging gifts in the name of? Who is this baby? Dix answers in his text, originally written in a poem form, with different refrains for each verse, instead of repeating the first refrain as we usually do:

What child is this, who, laid to rest

On Mary's lap, is sleeping?

Whom angels greet with anthems sweet,

While shepherds watch are keeping?

This, this is Christ the King,

Whom shepherds guard and angels sing:

Haste, haste to bring him laud,

The Babe, the Son of Mary!

Why lies He in such mean estate
Where ox and ass are feeding?
Good Christians, fear; for sinners, here
The silent Word is pleading.

Nails, spear shall pierce Him through!
The Cross be borne for me for you.
Hail! Hail, the Word made flesh;
The Babe, the son of Mary.

So bring Him incense, gold, and myrrh,

Come peasant king to own Him,

The King of kings, salvation brings,

Let loving hearts enthrone Him.

Raise, raise the song on high,

The Virgin sings her lullaby:

Joy, joy, for Christ is born,

The Babe, the Son of Mary!

What child is this indeed? What do we think about this Jesus, the one who is at the center of all of our celebrations tonight? What is it about this child that draws us here? What child is this? I think maybe as we start asking ourselves this question, we can relate to the climate in which Dix wrote this carol, when we start to wonder if the way the world celebrates Christmas is only taking us farther away from figuring out what child this is we’re here for, rather than closer to understanding. Do we need this Christ-child? Do we need Christ to celebrate Christmas? It seems like a ridiculous questions for people of faith, but for many, the answer is actually no. A survey of United Methodists about why the come to church on Christmas Eve had the following results:

1. Family — this is what my family does (tradition) and I want to be with family (30%)

2. Music — I love the Christmas music and want to sing the familiar and favorite songs (22%)

3. Experience — I love the songs, the candles, the story, the feeling (16%)

4. Focus — Christmas has gotten so crazy; I like the clear focus on the reason for the season (12%)

5. Habit — we do this every year (11%)

6. Faith — this is the most special and important event in my faith; I wait all year for this (5%)

7. Other — friends asked me, I got an invitation in the mail, I just decided to, etc. (4%)

But perhaps even more of a concern to me is the follow up question: How important is attending worship on Christmas Eve to you? About half said it was pretty important, but the other half of respondents said, “it wouldn’t be so bad” to miss, or they “wouldn’t really miss it much at all,” or, “I wouldn’t miss it at all – I basically attend for other people.” (1) And this survey, let me remind you, wasn’t for the general public – it was a survey of United Methodists – those who are members of the denomination already! What child is this we’re talking about tonight? Who is this baby at the center of our worship here? Do we need Christ to celebrate Christmas? What makes Christmas Christmas?

I can’t help but thinking of the famous Dr. Seuss story, How the Grinch Stole Christmas. I’m sure you’re all familiar with the story. The Grinch, a grump in every way, lives on the outskirts of Whoville, and resents everything about them. He sets out to steal away their joy by stealing Christmas. He’s sure this will ruin their constantly cheery outlook on everything. And so he sneaks into their homes on Christmas Eve and takes it all: Trees, decorations, presents, toys, food – everything. But Christmas comes anyway – and he finds that the Whos are still celebrating, still singing, still full of joy – even without all the stuff. And the Grinch finds his heart growing with love in spite of himself. As Dr. Seuss writes, “And the Grinch, with his Grinch-feet ice cold in the snow, stood puzzling and puzzling, how could it be so? It came without ribbons. It came without tags. It came without packages, boxes or bags. And he puzzled and puzzled ’till his puzzler was sore. Then the Grinch thought of something he hadn’t before. What if Christmas, he thought, doesn’t come from a store? What if Christmas, perhaps, means a little bit more?”

That’s the question for us tonight. What if Christmas means more than we have made of it? What child is this Jesus? Is it Christmas without him? If we had to decide, could we do it all without the baby Jesus? Or would we rather choose to do it all without the presents and the decorations and the lights and the food? What part of Christmas is really Christmas for us? On the first Christmas, there were lights: the light of a star that was guiding Magi from the East to the Christ-child. There were presents that would come eventually when they arrived. The decorations? A shelter for animals, a trough for their food, serving as a place to lay a baby. Music indeed: music from the heavens. But that first Christmas was really about one thing only: The child Jesus. God becoming one of us just to be closer to us, so that we might better understand, more fully understand, how much God loves us. The child Jesus, to save us from ourselves and the mess we make of things when we don’t see how close God is.

Who is this Christ-child? Who is this Jesus? It’s a question that we’ve been trying to answer for more than two-thousand years. It’s a question that Jesus’ neighbors had as he began his ministry, a question that the scribes and Pharisees had, as they questioned his authority, a question that his disciples had, as they tried to follow him. But ultimately, Jesus turned the question back to us: “And who do you say that I am?” What child is this? Well, that’s the question that we spend our lives trying to answer as people of faith. What child is this? You tell me! Who is he to you?

What child is this, who, laid to rest

On Mary's lap, is sleeping?

Whom angels greet with anthems sweet,

While shepherds watch are keeping?

This, this is Christ the King,

Whom shepherds guard and angels sing:

Haste, haste to bring him laud,

The Babe, the Son of Mary!

Amen.

(1) From Dan Dick, GBOD, http://blogs.gbod.org/research/2008/12/18/the-meaning-of-christmas/

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