Christmas Eve sermon based on Titus 2:11-14.
Word made flesh, life of the world, in your incarnation you embraced our poverty: by your Spirit may we share in your riches. Amen.
This past weekend Melissa, the kids and I treated my in-laws to the Old Sturbridge Village Christmas by Candlelight event. The highlight for Noah and Olivia was a dramatic reading of Dr. Seuss’ classic How the Grinch Stole Christmas. No, a copy of it wouldn’t have been around in the 1830s, the time period that is recreated there, but they get a free pass for holidays. Besides, Dr. Seuss was born in Springfield, Mass and that’s good enough it seems.
So we assembled to listen to a young woman appropriately costumed in her dress and bonnet recite this fabulous work. We laughed along with the others as the Grinch slinked and slithered his way around Whoville. And we waited with great expectation for that moment when the Grinch stands atop Mount Crumpet longing to hear boo-hoos when the Whos discover that their Christmas has been ruined. Instead, as you know, he hears singing. And then he’s flabbergasted beyond belief.
Our host continued, “And the Grinch, with his Grinch-feet ice cold in the snow, stood puzzling and puzzling, how could it be so? It came without ribbons. It came without tags. It came without packages, boxes or bags. And he puzzled and puzzled ’till his puzzler was sore. Then the Grinch thought of something he hadn’t before. What if Christmas, he thought, doesn’t come from a store. What if Christmas, perhaps, means a little bit more.” Transformation comes to that old Grinchy Claus, his heart growing exponentially. With this change of heart, comes a change of mind, and a change in his actions too. So he sleds back down to Whoville, and he, as you know, is the one who carves the roast beast.
The trouble with Christmas Eve is that we know the story cold. The cast is set, the parts memorized. We long to sing familiar hymns and see this gorgeous church lighted by candles. The familiarity certainly has intrinsic sentimental value and warms the heart, but we can lose sight of this night’s deeper truth. While the Grinch expected to hear distraught cries once the children of Whoville realized their gifts had disappeared, we expect to hear about the familiar tale written by St. Luke.
So I want to mix things up a bit tongiht, and turn to one of our other texts. St. Paul in his letter to Titus distills the moment of Christ’s birth down to this: “For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation to all.” We don’t get the flourish of angels and shepherds who are sore afraid. Rather, Paul offers a simple line, “For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation to all.”
In his recently released book called Vanishing Grace, spiritual writer Philip Yancey asks simply what has happened to the proclamation of Good News. In our overly charged political culture, many Christians have increasingly treated nonbelievers as those who are wrong rather than “someone who is on the way but lost.” He writes about spiritual dryness, a longing deep within all humans, including himself. “What are the symptoms [of a spiritual thirst]?” he asks. “A restless search for pleasure, fear of death, boredom, addiction—any of these can betray a longing that is at the root spiritual, the cries and whispers of someone who has lost the way.” This image of losing one’s way isn’t used by Yancey to express a superiority; he shares his own proclivity of taking unintentional detours while out hiking in his native Colorado and the many things he learns in those experiences once he knows he’s safe. Instead, this feeling of a spiritual thirst, of being lost but still traveling the spiritual path point to our need of grace.
And here’s the catch: grace is pure gift. There is nothing we can do to earn it. Often people will comment to me that they want to try to straighten out their lives first before opening themselves up to God. Sometimes we try to give a little more time to a local charity or drop a bit more in the offering plate or be a bit nicer the neighbor’s dog in the hopes of earning God’s grace. But that’s not how it works. It’s simply a gift from God.
While many of us might, if it had been us in that story, grabbed that good for nothing Grinch and called in the authorities and pressed charges, the Whos do the most amazing thing of all. They welcome him in. The recognized that he had just lost his way for a time. His living in isolation with Max didn’t mean they no longer took interest in his journey. They wanted him to change. And when he did, they gave him the place of honor at the banquet table.
Which is exactly what God does with us. “For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation to all.”
It does none of us any good to simply come tonight to hear a familiar story and sing Christmas carols while dressed in our finery if we head out the same way we came in. We don’t get bonus points from the “Big Guy upstairs” simply by showing up because in truth there are no bonus points to be had. Yet in showing up we get another chance to recognize the pure gift of Jesus’ birth. We get the opportunity to realize that in the birth of this tender baby to broke parents in a tiny backwater village a couple thousand years ago our lives can be transformed today. As one theologian put it, “In the birth of the Christ child, we see grace in human form.” And “Grace is something we can never get but only be given.”
God is giving it to you again tonight. Might you hear this wonderful news in a new way? Might you truly believe that God wants nothing more than to offer your thirsty soul a long drink of refreshing water? Could you extend your hands to receive this gift from God and allow transformation to take place in you this Christmas season?
Because that’s what this joyous time of year is truly about. While our culture will quickly turn the page on Christmas with half off sales and shelves being lined with Valentine chocolates, we are truly just embarking on the Twelve Days given to celebrate this life-changing birth. God’s gift of grace is meant to be received and then shared with the world. Breaking down our own deep cynicism and fear. Taking time to be in relationship with others. Working against the injustices in our nation, and seeking ways to promote peace. Sharing our attention and time with the lonely and the sick and the imprisoned and the downtrodden. That’s what can happen when we receive the gift. We get our bearings on this path that we’re on—God pull out the map and shows us again both where we are headed and how to get there. And then we want to help others find their way again too. We want everyone to experience the joy and peace that can be found by peering into a familiar manger scene with fresh eyes.
Jesus, the grace of God, has appeared again this night. And he brings salvation to all. To you and to me and to all the world. May this be the gift we cherish most this year, and may we, like the Grinch, be surprised when our hearts grow bigger and we experience deep joy and delight in finding our way to God. Merry Christmas.