PRAYER: Shine your light on us, O God, that we may fully know your love that is born this night. Shine your light in us, O God, that we may be inspired to seek deeper relationship with you. Shine your light through us that we may be inspired to go out into the world as disciples of Emmanuel, God with us. Embolden us, give us courage therefore, to be that which you inspire us to be, that we may forever declare your praises and live faithfully in your light. May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all of our hearts be acceptable to you, O God, my rock and my redeemer.
When I was about 19, I entered a talent show at the school I was attending. I was going to sing “New York, New York”… You know the song: start spreading the news… Sinatra had first sung the song about 5 years earlier, and it was enormously popular. And here’s the thing – about a year earlier, I had heard someone sing this song and did such an amazing job, I just figured I’d do what he did.
So you might be sitting there thinking that I probably rehearsed a lot to make sure I did a good job. You might be thinking that I listened to lots of recordings of the song to help prepare me and make sure I had the words down cold… no. I did not do those things. In fact, I got up on that stage fully impressed with my own ability to absolutely outshine the Chairman of the Board. It wasn’t pretty. In fact, it was downright awful. It was, hands down, the single worst performance of New York, New York in the history of music. Bottom line was that far from perfect, I just wasn’t prepared.
“Prepare” is the theme of our Advent – and now Christmas worship series. In the first week of Advent, we were told to ‘stay awake’ as we wait for God’s inbreaking. Staying awake, you may remember, is an act of hope in the midst of cynicism and fear. The second week, we were reminded that to get ready – to be prepared includes adopting a spirit of repentance – seeking repentance from the harm we do towards others and in focusing on how we turn ourselves towards God’s calling in our lives.
During the third week of Advent, we learned about the importance of testifying to our faith. We were encouraged to share stories of our faith while – and this is equally important – hearing the stories of others. We recognized that there is a great vulnerability in sharing our stories and in expressing our faith that paradoxically demonstrates great courage.
And that’s important because last week in the fourth week of Advent, we talked about being courageous. Our faithfulness leads to courage in a world that would have us fragmented and can give us courage to face the uncertainties that we will inevitably face. Mary faced the unknown. She did so with grace and courage – “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” With faith and courage, we are prepared for whatever future awaits us. We are prepared for the Messiah – Emmanuel, God with us – to be present.
We all have ideas and visions about what Christmas (and our lives) will be like. We spend time preparing. Mary and Joseph have been preparing for Jesus’ arrival for months. But there comes a time when we must stop preparing and just go and do, not knowing if it will turn out in the way we’ve been preparing for. The purpose of doing the work to “prepare” is not to guarantee that things will work out “perfectly.” Through this series we’ve learned about preparation as a way of life that allows us to go wherever we must and deal with whatever comes when we do.
One lesson we all learn at some point in our lives is that no matter what we prepare ourselves for, no matter how many precautions we may take, circumstances will interrupt and interfere with those perfect plans we’ve imagined. Maybe it’s an accident or injury, maybe it’s a disease or loss of employment, there are always things lurking in the background that could derail us at any moment. But being spiritually prepared… that’s different. Being spiritually prepared enables us, strengthens us to withstand those challenges that we face.
Our reading this afternoon is the traditional Christmas Eve reading. It’s not unheard of, but very rare to have a Christmas Eve service in which this passage is not read. In my family growing up, every Christmas Eve, we read this passage from the giant family Bible. There’s a lot going on in this story. Mary and Joseph are traveling to Bethlehem to be registered. The angel and heavenly host suddenly appear. Jesus arrives. The shepherds go “with haste” to Mary and Joseph, and then they go home “glorifying and praising God!” There’s a lot going on.
It’s interesting to consider why Mary and Joseph arrive in Bethlehem compared to the shepherds. Mary and Joseph are following the orders of a worldly power, the Emperor. There was an edict; they had no choice. The shepherds, on the other hand are responding to the exciting announcement from an angel that the Savior has been born.
Both parties had to “go” with courage. Mary and Joseph were not planning on giving birth to their child in the middle of a census, especially given the drama around Mary’s pregnancy and what that meant for both of them. They may not have been prepared for that curve ball, but their faith kept them “awake”, spiritually prepared to be able to go where and when they had to. The shepherds had to be courageous too. Shepherds had a reputation for being dirty and smelly and were rejected by people around them. They knew people didn’t want to be around them and probably knew people would not believe their message about the Messiah’s birth and they went anyway.
We go (sometimes literally, sometimes metaphorically) because we know that whatever happens, God is going with us. God loves us and wants to be with us. That is why Jesus, Emmanuel, came to be God with us. Mary and Joseph went because they had to, but God carried them and showed up for them in all sorts of ways, some unlikely. While there was no room in the inn, God provided a space for Jesus’ birth. God showed up, not just for Mary and Joseph but for the world. Their “going” and God’s “doing” are co-mingled.
For all of us, it should be noted that it took a long time – years – after this all took place for people to understand how or even ‘that’ God was in this story. This can give us heart when what we have to go through doesn’t make sense to us in the moment. After my failed rendition of one of Sinatra’s classics, I never doubted that God still had purpose for my voice. My kids may have disagreed, but that’s another matter altogether. God has shown up for us and for all of humanity in a whole new way in the birth of Jesus and God is still moving in the world today. We are able to go where we must and where we are led, knowing that God is with us and has empowered us to go, even amidst uncertainty.
As a congregation, we need to reflect, both individually and communally, on where God is calling us to go right now. Let me be very frank: we can get lost in lamenting about low attendance on Sunday mornings, and we can wish for those days from long ago when attendance was the last thing local churches had to worry about. But that doesn’t change the circumstance of where we are today. The fact is that we are called by God to be the church of Jesus Christ today. God has prepared us for this time, and God goes with us in this sacred journey. Emmanuel, God, is with us.
This Christmas season, I want to invite you to go into deeper relationship with God. I want to challenge you to prayerfully consider where God is calling us to go as a faith community. How has your faith prepared you to go deeper in your relationship with God than you ever expected you would? God is here now! As a church where is God asking us to go? How are we prepared for this? Is there anything further we need to do to sharpen our preparation?
Tonight, we celebrate the birth of Christ, the presence of God – Emmanuel – in us all. Our faith prepares us for this moment, to go deeper in our relationship with God and with one another. And as our faith prepares us to go forward, our fear will melt away… our tiny church blues, are melting away. We are invited to make a brand-new start of it, thanks be to God! And if you can trust in God, your faith can help you through all of life trials… For Christ is born, my friends, let’s go!
To God be the glory