[Note: I preached a version of this sermon on Christmas Day, 2018, at Messiah Lutheran Church in Wauconda, Illinois]
Sisters and brothers, grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
I remember the moment Christmas changed for me. I grew up with festive family Christmases. It was about the presents, of course, but also about decorating the tree, noisy family gatherings, big meals and special foods that we only had at Christmas. That’s what Christmas was: family, togetherness, customs and traditions.
Then I went to school to be a pastor. And during my first year, I stayed in Chicago to help out at my church, Luther Memorial in Lincoln Square. It may have been the first Christmas Eve I was away from my family. My roommates and I hadn’t gotten around to putting up a tree, and we didn’t have any big festive meals. I remember feeling the slightest bit lonely.
But then the church was lit up for Christmas Eve, with the polished wood and the old stone seeming to just glow in the light of the candles and the lamps. I think our late service was at 9 or 10 p.m., and the songs and the candlelight and the presence of all these Christians around me filled me with a strange consolation for missing my family.
After church I drove over to Central Avenue (I don’t remember whose car I was borrowing) to meet Kerry for a very late meal at the Golden Nugget. She’d been at her church in Belmont-Cragin until late, too. Now I love me some Golden Nugget, but diner food wasn’t what I had in mind for Christmas dinner. But in the end, it didn’t matter: we were there, together, in the city’s unblinking midnight eye. The eggs and bacon and potatoes were perfect. Christmas happened. Christmas finds you wherever you are.
Then in the morning, Christmas Day, I drove up early to Madison and went to church before I saw my family. The pastor was complaining about having to preach on the Gospel of John instead of the story from Luke with the shepherds and the manger, and I thought “hey buddy, you’re off base.” So I really was on my way to being a pastor.
Today we hear the astonishing words of the opening to John’s Gospel:
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.
And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.
This is the meaning of Christmas. This is the central statement of our whole faith. It’s never been all that hard to believe in God, to believe in the divine Word that holds all existence together, to believe in a heavenly and eternal source of Light. But today we hear once again that the God we worship became flesh and lived among us. The Word was God, and the Word became flesh. God immortal, invisible, eternal, transcending all things in heaven and on earth, becomes a human body: mortal, visible, touchable, present. God from God, light from light.
God becomes a human being so that human beings can become like God.
And this happens to us anywhere and at any time. Whether you are surrounded with loved ones, or stranded away from home, or simply without close family or friends. Whether you have a stocking full of old family traditions or whether you didn’t even grow up with a tree. Whether you know the songs or not. Whether you’re at a festive gathering or whether you’re at an all-night diner, with only those other people who have nowhere else to go.
Last night we hear about the shepherds and the manger and Mary and Jesus, there for the people favored to see him and touch him at the very start of his life. Today we hear about Christ for all of us. Today we hear about Christ present in all humanity, and in all creation. The Word became flesh—our flesh—and lived among us.
That’s the presence that Christmas is about. God in Christ present to you and to me. Not distant, not a memory, not in the past, not in the perfect Christmas we may or may not ever have experienced, but close at hand, now, today, in the midst of whatever struggles or sorrows we are going through.
Our word for the holiday even acknowledges this. Christmas comes from “Christ Mass,” the celebration of the Sacrament on the day of Jesus’s birth. He comes among us again, the Word becoming flesh here on the altar amid our sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving. He comes to us as he did in the manger and on the cross, God made human to make humans one with God.
May Christ come to you, and to all the world, wherever you are, and whatever you lack, and wherever he finds you, today and always. Amen.