Dec. 24, 2023

Christmas Eve

Isaiah (2-7

Luke 2:1-20


When I sat down to reread this Luke passage that I’ve read every Christmas for the last 25 years, at first, I heard nothing new.  Honestly, I think I may have been bogged down by the task of coming up with a fresh message to say to you all.  So, instead, I prayed the passage, which to my surprise made something happen.  (By the way, you might give that a try.  Read a passage a few times with breaks in between, talking to God about what stands out and listening to God about why that might be.  You may be surprised by what you hear.)

Suddenly, the way the scripture reading begins mattered more than it had in the past.  Luke says, “In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus.”  It was the words “In those days…” that caught my attention.  They can kind of sound like the familiar introduction, “once upon a time.”  Like: we’re settling in to hear the words of an old old story, a story that may move us less for its relevance or any expression of divine truth than for reasons of nostalgia or sentiment or something like that.  But, this time “in those days” struck me as an expression of profound, actual, material presence.  Like: WITHIN those days.  Within real time, to real people, in a real place, with both real fears and concerns and uncertainties, as well as real hopes and dreams and joys.  Within those days the presence of God, the Christ, the Savior was born.  That little shift turned the scripture from a story about the past to a message about the way God is, less about a birth from historical times than a birth into history and into its unfolding in real time in real places for real people and for all times!

Listen to this from Princeton Theological Seminary professor, Dale Allison Jr.  “I was sixteen.  I was sitting by myself on my parents’ back porch, under the Kansas night sky.  What I was thinking about I fail to remember.  I have not, however, forgotten the magical incident that redirected my life.  In a moment, and seemingly without preparation on my part, the stars were not far away but close to hand.  Having somehow forsaken the firmament, they were all around me.  If not quite animate, they were also not wholly inanimate.  These engulfing lights then announced, by what mechanism I know not, the arrival of an overwhelming, powerful presence.  This presence was forbidding yet benevolent, affectionate yet enigmatic.  It suffused me with a calm ecstasy, a subline elation, a ‘genial holy fear.’

The experience awakened me from what I then deemed, in retrospect, to have been a lifelong slumber.  It electrified awareness and bestowed meaning.  Given my cultural context, a word came straightway to mind for this fantastic Other: God.  When the moment, which lasted maybe twenty seconds, had passed, I believed that I had run into God, or that God had run into me.”[i]

Allison has written a fascinating book called “Encountering Mystery,” which reflects upon experiences such as his own and many others, reported by many other people over a long time.  I share it with you for a few reasons.   First, because I think these kinds of stories are so cool, and because it fits our theme of God breaking into our world, but also because while this kind of a manifestation isn’t the norm for most of us, it’s also, as I’ve indicated, less rare than we might think.  Beyond that, it’s a consistent pattern for those who’ve had them to hold the experience as profoundly formative.  Allison calls his the “existential center of my life, the foundation upon which I have built everything else, and the source of my deep-seated curiosity about all matters religious and countless affiliated topics.”  What happens to pretty much everyone who’s had these experiences is the discovery that the truth of things is so much more than meets the eye, that creation is swimming with the divine, that a holy benevolence covers and holds the material world well beyond our common knowing and awareness.  What happens is the insight that God’s “more” is ever birthed in our world and that we have been made a part of it.

What also happens is that these magical moments dissipate and grow distant.  Allison has had a very small handful of them, which he’s recorded by date on a paper, which he looks at from time to time to remind himself of their impact.  They become signposts for a truth we hold in the less dramatic day to day.  The Good News is that a transcendent God of ineffable beauty, eternal truth, and unending love has broken into the world.  The more difficult news is that our profoundest realizations of this reality tend to be somewhat exceptional.  Instead, God very often has a more subtle MO.  Instead, very often it seems that God comes through the cracks, or after our waiting, or in simple gestures of kindness extended or service offered.  While we sometimes wish for theophanies to put our minds at ease what it seems we’re more apt to get is a word of grace, or an invitation to care, or a silence through which to wade, and as we do we’re invited to trust in a great God given in small packages.

One of my favorite commentators says it this way: “Luke starts his story at the center of the known universe, with a decree from the Emperor. It’s a decree that had to be obeyed and was executed by a local governor. These are major players, the movers and shakers of the day, the ones to whose will all things and people bent. Why does Luke start here? Because the story he tells has global significance. But immediately after painting on the broadest of canvases, his focus narrows dramatically, telescoping down to a young couple, absolute nobodies in every possible way, obeying the will of the Emperor whether they want to or not. What is stunning about this juxtaposition is that Luke confesses it is through the latter – the small, seemingly insignificant, and powerless couple – rather than through the Emperor and his Empire – that God will save the world. It is an unexpected inversion of expectations that continues to reverberate through the ages and sets the pattern for how God acts in the world. Few if any remember much about Augustus or Quirinius, yet close to three billion people will celebrate the birth of the child born to Mary and Joseph this week. When circumstances threaten to overwhelm and people feel like they have little control over their lives, it is important to be reminded that God continues to care for the world through the small, easily overlooked gestures of love and fidelity.”  These, may be the helping hand of a neighbor, a meal offered with love, diapers given to a baby pantry, or the meager words of a preacher. In all these ways, God is at work, still changing, loving, and blessing the world.[ii]

For me, what it comes down to is that the love of an eternal God whose hands we’re all in comes in ways I wish would happen more often, in ways that are common, simple, and profound, in ways to which we’re called to awaken, and in ways that surprise us and assure us that we are seen, and known, and embraced, and invited.

This Christmas, may we discover anew that those days of old that Luke tells us about are very much a part of these days that we’re living now.  May we open anew to the greater truth around and within us.  Or, since I’ve never heard it said better than this, may Jan Richardson’s little poem guide us to where we need to be.  It is called, “How the Light Comes.”


I cannot tell you
how the light comes.

What I know
is that it is more ancient
than imagining.

That it travels
across an astounding expanse
to reach us.

That it loves
searching out
what is hidden,
what is lost,
what is forgotten
or in peril
or in pain.

That it has a fondness
for the body,
for finding its way
toward flesh,
for tracing the edges
of form,
for shining forth
through the eye,
the hand,
the heart.

I cannot tell you
how the light comes,
but that it does.
That it will.
That it works its way
into the deepest dark
that enfolds you,
though it may seem
long ages in coming
or arrive in a shape
you did not foresee.

And so
may we this day
turn ourselves toward it.
May we lift our faces
to let it find us.
May we bend our bodies
to follow the arc it makes.
May we open
and open more
and open still

to the blessed light
that comes.[iii]







[i] Dale C. Allison, Jr., “Encountering Mystery,” pages 1-2.