Christmas Eve (A,B,C) – 2005

December 24, 2005

(RCL) Isaiah 9:2-7; Psalm 96; Titus 2:11-14; Luke 2:1-14 (15-20)

The birth of the Messiah in a lowly stable is current news. Just a year ago Newsweek devoted a December issue to the topic. It was quite good! It talked about how modern scholarship attempts to unravel what happened or didn’t some 2,000 years ago. It leaves the reader with a lot of unanswered questions, and a feeling that the investigations into the historical background for the birth narratives of Jesus might just be a blind alley.

There has always been resistance to accepting the story of Mary, Joseph, the shepherds, and the babe in the manger. In fact, resistance has a lot to do with how anyone comes to terms with the Nativity. But did you ever wonder how it is that God’s way of working in the world is designed to minimize resistance? Had the announcement of the birth of Jesus been broadcast widely, the Roman Empire would have done everything possible to suppress the event. In fact Herod typifies the resistance. Though a Jew, he is so threatened by what he hears from the wise men, who are only asking for information about finding Jesus, that he sets out to destroy every male two years of age or less, just to be sure no usurper comes along to challenge his reign—as if God were interested in doing that.

In the science fiction stories about the Starship Voyageur, the Borg are creatures depicted assimilating every life form with which they come in contact. “Resistance is futile,” is their mantra. But in one episode one of the starship crew becomes part of the Borg and discovers that by not resisting actual liberation from them is possible. This is precisely what God chose to do.

We are all resistant to change, new ideas, even new ways of keeping house! “My mother always did it that way; don’t change it!” “This new plan by management will never work!” “We’ve never done it that way before!” Somehow we think resistance will win out over change. Sometimes it does, but rarely. At best it can delay things, even in Congress!

That is because in spite of our natural inclination to resist there is also a drive to move ahead, to open new frontiers and see things in a new light. God seems to work this way. Our God is not a God of tradition and unchanging revelation. Our God does new things.

The Birth of the Messiah had been “in the works” for a long time. In fact, the whole of Scripture up to the New Testament can be read as God’s preparation for this event, the birth of Jesus. And there was resistance. The people led by Moses were unruly, complaining, and disobedient. They preferred Egypt’s slavery to wandering in the desert. Many of the ancient kings of Israel turned against the ways of the Lord. The 8th Century BCE prophets were repudiated, even the greats like Amos and Hosea.

But the plan prevailed, and now comes the birth event itself. Yes, on this Holy Night we are all but there, “standing on the tiptoe of expectation,” as one Gospel writer puts it. But that’s because we know the story. The actual birth of Jesus was a quiet, unheralded event except for a few motley shepherds, the Holy Family and some seers from the East.

And that’s the point. God chose a path to be born into humanity that would encounter little resistance because God wanted to join the resistance, not provoke it. The author, Rick Maurer, in his book entitled Beyond the Wall of Resistance: Unconventional Strategies that Build Support for Change, writes about the phenomenon of resistance and how one overcomes it by actually joining it. Well, God knew about this before Mr. Maurer did! God joined the resistance, if you will, by choosing to be born into it, lowly and quietly in a backwater region of the Roman Empire through the biological birth process of a young girl, probably 14 or so.

It is this method of God’s, taking the path of joining the resistance, that makes the Christmas story believable. If Luke had chosen to depict Jesus’ birth in terms of cosmic, earth-shaking conquests, if Luke had portrayed dominions and powers being toppled, it would never have worked. Few people approach the Messiah as conquering king. Most of us come to the crib, gaze into it and wonder, wonder if the light of the Christ Child is really strong enough to overcome the great resistance of the darkness.

And so far, it seems, that is exactly what happens. Slowly, deliberately, and with apparent failures and setbacks, the plan of salvation unfolds. It’s not a smoothly rising road, but a journey with rocks and deserts in the way for most of us. But this crib is the starting place, and it teaches us all something profound about God’s nature. God does not choose to use power to overwhelm us; rather God uses the most compelling possible strategy, being born as a human being, to lead us back to our loving creator. Nothing else would have or could have worked. The writers of the Gospel saw that, and used the birth narrative to illustrate this truth. True, they each wrote about it from different perspectives, but the account of Joseph, Mary, the shepherds and the wise men is more than a charming story.

How do you measure resistance to God? America is still a church-going nation, but if you came from another planet and read newspapers or watched the six o’clock news you would never know it. The resistance is in full swing every day. Good news is hard to find. It always has been. It doesn’t make good copy.

Luke is not interested in any of this. As a writer, as a believer, he wants one thing to be clear: God came and was born among us, quietly but with every intention of joining the resistance and conquering it, one soul at a time. That is the miracle, the Good News prevailing. This is the night when we can shed our resistance anew, and find that simple things like a birth in a manger matter more than anything.

This is the night when heaven and earth are joined in a glorious way, with human beings at the center of the joint. This is the night when “the hopes and fears of all the years” are resolved by a stable and a star. This is the night when we can truly sleep in heavenly peace, because we know that God has entered our world to reclaim it forever.

— The Rev. Ben Helmer is staff officer for congregational development, rural and small church communities, at the Episcopal Church Center.

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