For Unto Us Is Given
A sermon Preached by the Rev’d Jered Weber-Johnson
Christmas Eve 2019 at 4pm and 10pm
Saint John the Evangelist Episcopal Church
Saint Paul, MN
A few days ago, in a sermon, I shared at our early Sunday service the news that has changed my family for the better. We got an early Christmas present this year, adopted, that is, a beautiful three year old Great Pyrenes-Golden Retriever named Chester. He is magnificent, and gentle, and charming, and we are thoroughly in love with him and he with us. In fact he is so in love with us, that he will follow us from room to room, never wanting to be too far away from the action. He’ll curl up on our small kitchen floor, like a giant lion rug, making cooking an adventure, trying to dice onions and saute without tripping on the dog. Its very Christmas-y with him around – like Emmanuel, Dog with us!
And, probably, owing in part to the fact that he’s been moved around a lot in his life, Chester still doesn’t like it when we leave him at home alone. So, to ease his nerves and to assure him he has nothing to fear, we’ve invested in a kind of doggy monitor, a little camera that helps us to see Chester and even talk to him. The kind of thing that my parent’s might regard as overpriced foolishness. I thought it was great until a few mornings ago, when I awoke, and in my early-morning groggy fuzzy-headedness, I was startled when from the corner of the room a disembodied voice spoke my name. “Jered Weber-Johnson!” There was nothing there. My skin began to crawl until I noticed and my brain finally registered the small white and black box with the circular lens on the front. I could hear my wife laughing maniacally downstairs as I recovered from my near heart attack. Later our eldest son would offer the sobering proclamation that this might have been the most expensive practical joke ever done.
And, somewhere in this personal story is an inkling of the Christmas tale – which is to say it has equal parts terror and the promise of the Divine presence, well, ok, doggy presence. But, I contend that if God had not settled on us to be made in God’s image, dog’s were undoubtedly the backup plan. Terror and God with us. Fear and love incarnate. In a way, the story of Christmas is the story of complete vulnerability.
To start with there is the vulnerability of the shepherds. Before they even enter the scene, Luke, the evangelist, is quick to set the stage. This takes place when Augustus was Emperor of Rome and Quirinius the governor of Rome’s puppet state in Syria. The shepherds are already afraid – or they should be, for their lives are small in comparison to the power afoot in their world in their day. They exist here, next to their flocks huddled in a field, in the middle of a census, a census meant to exact the power of Rome to tax all citizens, to assess whatever livestock and livelihood can be squeezed for a little more coin. This is no bucolic countryside painting of rustic peasants relaxing on a cool Mediterranean hillside. This is a circle of powerless migrants, likely frustrated by the Empire, and grumbling about it. And, even if their conversation remained free of complaint against the empire, these were the kind of vulnerable people who, on a moments notice could be rounded up and disappeared, separated from their families, and never heard from again. A bright and unearthly light breaks into their midst, and a voice like the thunder shakes them, and their background persistent fear amplifies to terror. As liberationist theologian Justo Gonzalez notes:
“So, the shepherds are terrified, not just because they do not understand what is going on, but also because in their circumstances any such occurrence might well have dire consequences. One of the ways in which the “little people” manage to survive under oppressive regimes is not to call attention to themselves. They seek to go on with their lives unnoticed by the powerful, who could easily crush them. Now these shepherds are literally in the limelight, and an obviously powerful personage confronts them.”
Then they hear the promise – God’s presence is come to them, to all whom God favors.
Here again is Christmas: Terror and the promise of divine presence. Complete and total vulnerability.
And then there is the vulnerability of Mary. And I do not refer here to the tropes that are often preached about Mary, about her gentleness, about her receptivity to God’s will, about her supposed obedience. I speak here of the vulnerability of parenting, of motherhood, of which I can only know by proximity and degrees. But, which must have been terrifying nonetheless. For Mary too is alive at this space and time, in this political reality, with all the horrors that were visited upon women in her day, that are still visited upon women in ours, the fear of bringing a child into a world as an unwed teen. And, there were and still are the painful deprivations and physical stretching, almost to the breaking point, that she had to endure as a mother. It strikes me as amazing that despite Mary’s mighty proclamation, despite her courage and audacity, her “yes” in the face of such terror, that even today we still ignore and relegate the stories of women and diminish the leadership of women in our world and especially in our churches. There is a poem making the rounds this winter by Kaitlin Hardy Shetler that captures this lived vulnerability in the nativity story and in our churches. She writes:
Sometimes I wonder
if Mary breastfed Jesus.
if she cried out when he bit her
or if she sobbed when he would not latch.
and sometimes I wonder
if this is all too vulgar
to ask in a church
full of men
without milk stains on their shirts
or coconut oil on their breasts
preaching from pulpits off limits to the Mother of God.
but then i think of feeding Jesus,
the expulsion of blood
and smell of sweat,
the salt of a mother’s tears
onto the soft head of the Salt of the Earth,
and I think,
if the vulgarity of birth is not
by men who carry power but not burden,
who carry privilege but not labor,
who carry authority but not submission,
then it should not be preached at all.
because the real scandal of the Birth of God
lies in the cracked nipples of a
14 year old
and not in the sermons of ministers
who say women
are too delicate
This is the Christmas story carried in the bodies of women and spoken first to migrants, entrusted first to the vulnerable of the earth. As the great Frederick Buechner once wrote,
“The Word become flesh. Ultimate Mystery born with a skull you could crush one-handed. Incarnation. It is not tame. It is not touching. It is not beautiful. It is uninhabitable terror. It is unthinkable darkness riven with unbearable light.”
Tonight we celebrate the greatest mystery ever, that in order to be near to us, (in order to be near to each and every one of you) in order to fulfill the promise to always be with us, God became one of us, the most vulnerable among us, a baby, born to peasants, at the farthest backwater of the world’s most powerful empire. And God comes to us still, is born in our midst even now. Wherever the vulnerable are, there Christ’s incarnation is breaking into the world, there, Jesus is being made known. For those suffering under debilitating debt, struggling with depression or addiction, those who have lost a loved one and are reeling with grief, for those who are estranged or lonely, for those who are afraid and those who feel lost, the story of Christmas is yours most of all, for unto you is given a Messiah, God with us.
Love is known to all of us in the flesh, in the vulnerable and the tired. For, unto you this night is born a savior, Christ the Lord. Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on Earth peace to those whom he favors!