The shepherds were in the fields, tending their sheep, when to their amazement angels appeared bringing to them “good news of great joy,” because a child is born, a savior, Christ the Lord. That is the story we’ve come to receive. It is the story that has inspired us down through the centuries.
Perhaps you come tonight ready to share in the joy of the moment. This is the moment you’ve been waiting for these past weeks of preparation. But, perhaps you come tonight weary from the incessant noise of those seeking to entice us to empty our bank accounts to fill their coffers. Or may be you’re coming tonight with a heavy heart, filled with grief or despair. You come hoping to find a sense of peace and good will in the company of others and in the presence of God.
For some gathered here tonight, the words of this Christine Rossetti carol may represent your sense of being at this moment:
In the bleak midwinter, frosty wind made moan,
earth stood hard as iron, water like a stone;
snow had fallen, snow on snow, snow on snow,
in the bleak midwinter, long ago.
Many of our most beloved Christmas stories speak of hearts that are saddened or hardened. In the end, these hearts that seem cold and weary are transformed through an encounter with the spirit of Christmas. Sometimes these stories seem somewhat sentimental, and yet we return to them year after year, finding in them hope that there is more to this season, this day, this life, than getting a Red Ryder BB gun or maybe the latest techno gadget.
George Bailey discovered what life would be like if he had never lived. Scrooge learned that relationships are more important than gold. The Grinch learned the same lesson after he steals every last sign of Christmas from the town of Whoville. But, despite everything he did to keep Christmas from coming, he couldn’t stop all the Whos in Whoville from joining in a song of praise and thanksgiving. As for Charlie Brown, he discovered that his little tree wasn’t so bad after all.
As for the bleak midwinter:
Our God, heaven cannot hold him, nor earth sustain;
heaven and earth shall flee away when he comes to reign.
In the bleak midwinter a stable place sufficed
the Lord God Almighty, Jesus Christ.
The carol ends with this message. Poor though one might be, “yet what I can I give him: give my heart.”
In the reading from the prophet Habakkuk, we hear this word. Even if everything seems to be going wrong, we can still “rejoice in the Lord,” because “God, the Lord, is my strength.”
The word of the prophet is this: as long as we keep trying to control everything around us, we won’t find joy. But, if we let go of that need to control everything, and trust our lives to God, then even if things seem to go wrong, there will be joy, because God is our strength.
This is also the message that Paul shares with us in Philippians 4. It’s believed that Paul wrote this letter from jail. He tells the Philippian church to “rejoice in the Lord always,” and then he tells them not to “worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.”
I know that this sounds easy, but we know that this road we’re on is not always easy going. When we hear the admonition to just go to God in prayer and then everything will be ok, it may sound like that famous song of yesteryear – “Don’t worry, be happy.” Of course, we know it’s not that simple.
Still, Paul commends us to take this to heart: “the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” Because Paul has taken this word to heart, he is able to be content in all things. Therefore, he writes: “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me” (Phil. 4:13). Like Paul, we too can put our confidence in the one whom Matthew calls Emmanuel, “God is with us.” Part of the Christmas story however is summed up in this final word from Paul to us: “In any case, it was kind of you to share my distress” (vs. 14). Paul derives his strength from God, but he also understands that God ministers to us through the people around us.
This is the Christmas message: We meet the Incarnate one in our neighbors. When we experience distress we strengthen one another. And in this, no matter the situation, we can find joy, because “God, the Lord, is my strength.”
As it is said in the closing words of A Christmas Carol concerning Mr. Scrooge:
It was always said of him, that he knew how to keep Christmas well, if any man alive possessed the knowledge. May that be truly said of us, and all of us! And so, as Tiny Tim observed, God bless Us, Every One!
Dr. Robert D. Cornwall, Pastor
Central Woodward Christian Church (Disicples of Christ)
December 24, 2013
Note on scripture texts: I am using an alternative lectionary prepared by David Ackerman, a UCC pastor. This version goes by the title Beyond the Lectionary.