Here we are. “The most wonderful time of the year”, as the song calls it. The time when, even if only for a night, it feels a little bit like the world is a magical place, like time stops, and we feel just a little bit closer to God.
Tradition helps this, of course. Tonight, we’ll end our service singing “Silent Night” by candle light, and then we’ll douse our candles, bring up the lights, and go out on a rousing rendition of “Joy to the World.” I love this as much as the next person, and those are two of my favorites. I can’t think of many Christmas Eves of my life where I haven’t engaged in this exact ritual, regardless of what church in what community I happened to be worshiping in. This tradition, along with our family tradition of lighting the Advent wreath, hearing Luke’s Christmas gospel again, and singing our favorite Christmas hymns – the ones we know by heart – helps contribute to the feeling that, at least for tonight, for these few hours, the Kingdom draws near to us, and we draw near to each other.
It’s important for us to find meaning in our rituals and traditions. After all, that’s what they are for. But they are not why we worship.We worship God because we are people of faith, and as people of faith, we show our thankfulness to God for our salvation through acts of worship and service to others. Worship strengthens our faith and unites us as the body of Christ. We believe that reading, re-telling, and singing the stories of Jesus helps us to see him at work in the world around us and unites us with the church of every time and place. We believe that through the act of receiving communion, our faith is nourished, our sin is forgiven, and we are called to new life.
These are the bones, the structure, the framework. THAT we worship is for God. HOW we worship is for us. The form that our traditions and rituals take – that is how we find meaning in our lives, how we understand God at work in us and in the world around us. And while this is important, it’s equally as important to understand that God is not bound by our traditions. Jesus Christ comes to us this night, and every night, in the midst of the busyness of life, candle light or no. The question is, do we see it, or do we only see Christ’s birth in the midst of our quiet and reflection?Do we need to be disrupted by God?
There is very little quiet or reflective in Luke’s Christmas story. Instead, this is a story about God the Disruptor. Mary was in her third trimester – aching back, swollen feet, probably emotional. Not the time you want to take a trip. But along came Augustus, declaring that there should be a census of the entire Roman Empire. Even Caesar himself would feel the disruption that Jesus would bring, as Jesus refused to bow to the might of Rome.
According to Luke, this particular census required Joseph and Mary to travel back to Bethlehem, Joseph’s ancestral home. We don’t know the route they would have taken for sure, but it would have been approximately 90 miles, or a walk of about four to five days. Think about that. Third trimester of pregnancy, a time already fraught with danger for a woman of that era, and then to have to walk or ride a donkey for almost a week. That would probably not have done much for either Mary or Joseph’s state of mind, to say nothing of the aches and pains that accompany pregnancy. But Jesus came as a disruptor, to shake people out of their routines and help them see God at work around them in a new way.
Once in Bethlehem, we don’t know how long they stayed. But we do know that while they were in Bethlehem, Mary went into labor. We don’t know where they were staying prior to Mary going into labor. Maybe they were newly arrived. Possibly they were staying in an inn that had space for an expectant couple, or in an extra room of a relative. After he was born, Jesus was placed in a manger. Perhaps the innkeeper may not have wanted the hassle or the noise or the mess of a woman in labor or a newborn, or maybe the only secure place to put him was a feeding trough for the animals. But Jesus came as a new baby, and new babies are disruptive to the lives of everyone around them. They cry and coo, and they are demanding of time and attention and selfless love. They help us experience God in a new way.
The shepherds in the fields would have been on the lookout for wolves and other night-time predators. They were tasked with protecting the sheep, which were an important part of the economy. The shepherds themselves would have been younger sons, not well-off financially, the ones doing the job no one else wanted. They were disrupted at their labors: they were keeping an eye out for predators, determined to keep this precious commodity safe, when they were distracted by the glory of the Lord shining around them, perhaps lighting up the night until it was as bright as day. Luke tells us they were terrified – and why wouldn’t they be? Here they were, doing their jobs, when all of a sudden night turned to day and a messenger of God appeared out of nowhere to proclaim the good news! And was joined just as suddenly by a whole chorus singing praises to God! The angels came as disruptors, shaking the shepherds out of the complacency of knowing their place in the scheme of things, perhaps frightening not only the shepherds but the sheep, and in the midst of it all, proclaiming the birth of the Messiah – and not at all as the shepherds would have expected. The messiah the people were expecting would have come as a political force, overthrowing the might of Rome and freeing the people. The Messiah they got came as a disruptor, upending their expectations and appearing not just as a savior for that time and place, but as the Savior for all people in every time and place.
We see foreshadowing of the disruption of Jesus’ ministry in his birth. He disrupted the status quo. The expectation would have been that the announcement of the Messiah would be made to the powerful, to the religious leaders of the time. After all, that’s who kings deal with: they deal with other leaders. But Jesus was not born in a palace, but to an unwed mother. He was not swaddled in silks and placed in a cradle made of precious material, but swaddled in bands of cloth and placed in a manger. The announcement of his birth was not heralded by official dispatches delivered by royal ambassadors, but by angels to shepherds – the second sons, the night shift, the lower rungs of the societal ladder. Throughout his ministry, Jesus healed people and raised them from the dead, overturned expectations about who the Messiah was sent for, and brought about the kingdom of God – not a kingdom of this world, one in which the powerful consolidated their power on the backs of the powerless – but a kingdom in which the playing field is leveled. A kingdom in which all people are holy, beloved by God, righteous. Jesus’ ultimate disruption was defeating death, to be resurrected and to bring with him the promised resurrection of all people. Jesus came as a disruptor, breaking the power that death had over us until it has become only a shell, just a shadow. A temporary condition while we await our resurrection in Christ.
This is what we celebrate tonight. This is what our rituals and traditions point to. They point to the birth of the Messiah and the coming of the disruption. They point to the presence of Christ in the busyness of our lives, in the day-to-day encounters that we have with the world. They point to the inbreaking of the kingdom into our world today.
Jesus calls us to be disruptors, too. Jesus calls us to open the eyes of the blind and unstop the ears of the deaf. Jesus calls us to bring hope to the hopeless like streams in the desert, like an oasis in the burning sand. Jesus promises with the disruption of his birth, life, death, and resurrection, that we will not go astray. Jesus calls us to walk the holy way, to see the disruption in our world that Jesus brings and to share this good news with all people.
Where are you in this story? Are you, with Mary and Joseph, walking a journey of faith, a journey that sometimes seems long and rocky? Are you looking for someplace quiet and out of the way to put this newborn Jesus, or are you embracing the call to selfless love? Are you among those who go through life just doing your work, surprised to learn that the good news is for you? Or do you expect that when it comes, it will come to you?
Are you ready to be disrupted?
As we walk through this magical night, this night when we engage in the tradition and ritual of Christmas Eve and celebrate the birth of Jesus, I invite you to look for the sacred. I invite you to contemplate the mystery of this baby, born to disrupt our journeys, our views of the world, our very lives – even our deaths. I invite you to look for the disruptions in your own lives. How are you disrupted this Christmas Eve? How is the coming of the Messiah overturning your life, changing your circumstances or your view of the world? How will you cling to the good news of this holy disruption after this night is over?