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Be Ye Doers of the Word and Not Hearers Only

Christmas Eve – Year A

For years I have been collecting a variety of crèche sets for my Melissa. She loves them in all their diversity and I love getting them for her. For the most part, they are all composed of the same figures. There is Mary and Joseph, a few farm animals, a couple of angels and shepherds, three wise men, some sort of a trough that acts like a cradle, and the baby Jesus. Some of them come with a stable and some of them don’t. Some of them have a star and some of them don’t. But each is unique and special and an important part of our family holiday tradition.
When I first started buying these sets I was most attracted to the ones that seemed to have the most intricate detail. They were often porcelain, carefully crafted and expertly painted. I loved the fine, almost Renaissance detail in each of the figures. But then many years ago on my first mission trip to Guatemala I found a crèche set that brought me up short. It wasn’t made out of fine porcelain but rough-hewn wood. It wasn’t expertly painted but colored with shoe polish. It wasn’t carefully made but hand carved on the side of the road by some folks with a pocketknife. I didn’t like it at all at first but I bought it and brought it home because it was the only one I could find. However, over the years that crèche set has grown on me. In fact, whenever I travel now I only buy sets that are of a similar rough and raw quality. I have them from all over. Poorly fired clay figures from Honduras. A rough stone set from Turkey. A tall thin wood and leather one from Kenya.
I think my taste in crèche sets changed as my spiritual understanding of Christmas deepened. Let’s face it, in spite of the hundreds of beautifully intricate works of art that have depicted the nativity in paintings and sculpture over the centuries, the first Christmas was anything but porcelain perfection. To the contrary, the first Christmas was actually a confused mess. Mary was an unmarried frightened young girl far away from home. Joseph was a poor carpenter trying to deal with the fact that his betrothed was carrying a child that was not his own. They had no hospital in which to bring their child into the world, no doctor, not even a midwife. They didn’t even have a room to call their own. No, the first Christmas was quite raw and messy. I imagine Joseph had to clean the dung out of the stable before he could even find a place amongst the straw for his bride to give birth.
But that’s the wonder of Christmas. Who wants porcelain perfection when there is very little that is perfect about our own lives? The wonder of Christmas is that we are shown that the God we worship is not distant and ethereal. Our God is not a God who is cold and indifferent, hurling down rules and regulations from on high, but a God who humbles himself to become one of us – flesh of our flesh – bone of our bone – to share our joys and our pains, to know our laughter and our struggles. No, the wonder and beauty of Christmas rests precisely in its rawness – a babe born in a manger amongst smelly farm animals to an unwed, underage couple a long way from Nazareth.
When I was first ordained I used to worry a great deal about having just the right prayer when I went to visit a parishioner in the hospital. I can remember going to visit someone and then sitting in the car for a long time as I dog-eared various pages in the Prayer Book trying to make sure that I would have the perfect prayer for any situation. For me at that point in my ministry, it was all about having the right words. But what I quickly came to understand is that good pastoral care has very little to do with beautiful words and everything to do with one’s willingness to be truly present with another person. It wasn’t the words of the prayer that mattered most. What mattered was being there. Holding the hand of someone as they passed from this life into the next. Gently laying my fingers on the sweat covered forehead of a parishioner as I sealed them with the sign of the cross. Swabbing parched lips with cool water and holding someone as they wept. A beautiful Elizabethan prayer was nice but it was nothing compared with the importance of really being there.
This Christmas we celebrate the promise that in the birth of Jesus God has promised us that he will really be there. God has come into the midst of our messy, rough hewn, patched together lives. God has come to touch us, to literally be held by us, a small babe wrapped in swaddling clothes. In so doing God hallows our messy families and our imperfect relationships. God shares our ailing bodies and our daily worries. God cares about all of it – the best and the worst of it – he loves all of us. That is the great gift of this night – Immanuel – God with us. Therefore, we are not alone in our struggles, in our grief, in our fears and in our hopes for a better future. God is with us. That’s the whole story of Christmas. Not a God from far away – but a God right here, just like you and me. Not a distant, removed God – but a fleshy God, touchable, seeable, relatable, accessible. That’s the beginning of the Christian faith – a God who loves us enough to become one of us. A God who doesn’t beckon us from afar and expect us to come to some distant place. But a God who meets us exactly where we are. God born with no home so that God’s home might be found in each of us – and most of all so that we can make our homes in God. If you go from here tonight knowing nothing else, know that you don’t have to become something else before God will love you. God loves you now just as you are – messy, rough-hewn, imperfect – but also beautiful and priceless. Amen. Merry Christmas.

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