Year C Christmas Eve Late Service, 24 December 2021
St. James the Less Episcopal, Ashland, VA
Collect: O God, you have caused this holy night to shine with the brightness of the true Light: Grant that we, who have known the mystery of that Light on earth, may also enjoy him perfectly in heaven; where with you and the Holy Spirit he lives and reigns, one God, in glory everlasting. Amen.
In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. All went to their own towns to be registered. Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.
In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, “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 in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.” And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying,
“Glory to God in the highest heaven,
and on earth peace among those whom he favors!”
When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.” So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger. When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child; and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them. But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart. The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.
When you get invited to something, it is appreciated when we respond. The host has hopes and expectations, and responding, yes or no is the least we can do. The very least.
Many of you know of my dear friend, the Rev. Canon Malcolm Rogers. When I was visiting with him in Liverpool a few years ago, he received a delivered package with no return address. It looked important, even official from the outside, and sure enough, it was actually from the Queen. THE QUEEN of ENGLAND. We always say we wish we were a fly on the wall, I was humbled and honored that for this occasion I was there. And I got to see the formality, the pomp that exuded even second-hand. I was blown away and so happy for him.
He was being invited to Buckingham Palace, along with two guests, to receive the honor of becoming a Member of the British Empire. He actually has the letters M.B.E. added to his name. This is not something you apply for, or even know that it is a possibility. For service to the country, and after years to show that it is not a flash in the pan, Mal+ was recognized for his work to make a difference in racial reconciliation and healing in his community after a horrible racial murder which happened just down the block from his vicarage. A young teen of Jamaican descent was murdered by white teens. His work to calm the situation and then hold public events to promote racial healing and unity continue to this day. And for that he was honored.
He took his mum, and she was so proud. Here is a picture if you are curious. But I remember the formal invitation, the seal of her Majesty, signatures of Elizabeth R. at the top, Philip, Grand Master at the bottom, and the lettering and everything was just so perfect. I was blown away for him, and just proud to know him, much less to be there when the invitation showed up.
He said yes. His humility had him wrestling with the thought of going, truly. But I reminded him, “Do it for your mum. This is not an invitation to ignore, or turn down.” I was so glad he responded, Yes.
So he went to the Palace in London, and received his honor of becoming the Rev. Canon Malcolm Rogers, MBE. He would be Sir Mal, but clerics (clergy that is) cannot receive the military honor of becoming a knight. But as a bud, I cannot help but call him that.
Rarely in life do we ever get such invitations.
As I talked about in my sermon from Advent 4, there are many in this world for whom the idea of God welcoming them, or anyone welcoming them without a scam involved, is beyond their comprehension. Agnes of Honolulu was just last week’s example.
But Scripture is filled with the bungled and the botched, the Charlie Browns of this world. The Zaccheuses. The thousands of Hebrew children enslaved in Egypt. The woman at the well. Ruth, a foreigner looking after her mother-in-law. The Gerasene demoniac. And the shepherds, filthy from their work, and unclean in liturgical ways as well. The outcast. The loser. The refugee. The you. The me.
The invitation of the child born this night is one of meeting us where we are, as we are. A child has no preconceived notions. That is something adults slap on each other, along with the divisions and judgments that go along with it. Children accept us as we are. Curious. Patient. Guileless. They know no different. They see things without the stigma of societal pressures, without the prejudging (the root of the word prejudice) that we tend to teach our young ones.
The mayor of Bethlehem was not invited. The head of the synagogue was not invited. The rich of the town were not invited. The ones working all night, out in the cold, covered in mud and filth were the ones God made sure knew that a new day had dawned, a Prince of a Kingdom not of this world, a Prince of God’s way of Abiding was born this day.
So often when I hear the name of Jesus invoked today in public settings, too often, I find that the projections of what I hear Jesus would say or do in our time is so far removed from the humble carpenter who is the Prince of Peace that is beyond belief or comprehension, at least to me. It drives me to Scripture to remind what this child we honor and celebrate and worship will become, and how he threatened the world then as much as he threatens the world we find ourselves in today.
He is a threat to our prejudices.
He is a threat to our pettiness.
He is a threat to our pride.
He is a threat because he invites us to a different way of living.
In The Brother Karamazov by Dostoevsky, there is a poem quoted by one of the brothers, Ivan, about Jesus coming back during the time of the Spanish Inquisition. In the poem, the Grand Inquisitor rejects the real Jesus standing before him for the power that the church promotes.
Why have you come to get in our way? For you have come to get in our way, and
you yourself know it. But do you know what will happen tomorrow? I do not know who you are, and I do not want to know: you may be He or you may be only His likeness, but tomorrow I shall find you guilty and burn you at the stake as the most wicked of heretics, and those same people who today kissed your feet will tomorrow at one wave of my hand rush to rake up the embers on your bonfire, do you know that? Yes, I dare say you do," he added in heartfelt reflection, not for one moment removing his gaze from his Captive.
This is not a stretch. Jesus even quoted Psalm 118:22-23 as a prophecy about himself:
Have you not read this scripture:
‘The stone that the builders rejected
has become the cornerstone;
11 this was the Lord’s doing,
and it is amazing in our eyes’?” [Mark 12:10-11]
Jesus’ invitation is to come away from the rule of this world on our lives and transition into the Kingdom of God, the Kingdom of Heaven if you prefer.
He invites us to let go of the fear and worry that cling so closely to us, to the sins that hinder, to the worries about today or tomorrow, to the life where we have to look out for number one. We are invited to be at peace.
“Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life? And why do you worry about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these.” [Matthew 6:25-29]
He invites us to not seek revenge.
“You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also.” [Matthew 5:38-39]
He invites us to even do the impossible and love our enemies.
“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, ‘Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.’” [Matthew 5:43-44]
Jesus invites us to a lot. And tonight is all about the celebration that this life in God’s Kingdom entails. As we sing in that beloved hymn of the season O Holy Night,
“Long lay the world in sin and error pining
Till he appear'd and the soul felt its worth.
A thrill of hope the weary soul rejoices
For yonder breaks a new and glorious morn!”
Better than Mal+’s invitation to the Palace, better than the best invite you have ever received, better than your wildest dreams, out of nowhere, unexpected, full of Grace, you have been invited to live a godly life, the life that your Creator dreamed for you to live. You have been invited. But just like with all the best invitations, there is an R.S.V.P.
R.S.V.P., from the French expression, “répondez s'il vous plaît.” Please respond.
Every day of my life I have to think to myself, “Choose you this day whom you will serve.” Will I follow Christ or will I go my own way. Will I accept the invitation to a full, devout, and holy life, or not. This invitation is not about getting a barcode that St. Peter can zap that will let you in the heavenly gates. It is about a daily devotion that proclaims what we believe through our actions. “Preach at all times, when necessary use words.” as has been attributed to St. Francis.
As we pray over the newly baptized,
“...bestow upon these your servants the forgiveness of sin, and raise them to the new life of grace. Sustain them, O Lord, in your Holy Spirit. Give them an inquiring mind and a discerning heart, the courage to will and to persevere, a spirit to know and to love you, and the gift of joy and wonder in all your works.”
That’s a lot more than a barcode. It is an invitation that I cannot say no to, because in this invitation of the Child born this night “My soul felt its worth.”
The shepherds heard the invite, and did not take the time to clean up. They ran to see this for themselves. They were not left out in the cold. They were invited in by the one throwing the party himself. And so am I. And so are you. Celebrating the invitation is not enough. So many of the distractions of this time of year are celebrations of the invitation. Jesus wants more than that. Jesus deserves more than that. Accepting it and heading into the Kingdom is the fulfillment that the invite represents. May none of us forget to R.S.V.P.
Scripture promises that when we accept the invitation, all the angels rejoice, just like that night 2,000 years ago when the shepherds got their glorious invitation. Merry Christmas, dear friends. I hope we see each other at the party. Amen.