Sermon for Christmas Eve, December 24, 2016
Text: Luke 2:1-20
Preached at Amherst Presbyterian Church, Amherst, VA
The 54,000 residents of Augsburg, in the German region of Bavaria, will have something of an unexpected Christmas surprise this year. Just yesterday, after so many folks had already come home for the holiday, the city announced that it would have to evacuate every resident for the weekend due to the finding of an unexploded 1.8 ton bomb dropped by the British during the Second World War. Germany apparently finds these ordinances every once in a while — proof that war casts a longer shadow than we ever care to remember — but this is to date the largest one on record, and in order to safely defuse it they have to evacuate everyone within a certain perimeter, which will be 54,000 residents plus whoever came home for Christmas. Rescue workers, police, and firefighters will spend Christmas Day working on the site, and if everybody’s lucky, they’ll get to come back tomorrow afternoon, maybe in time to pull the duck out of the fridge and throw it in the oven. Or maybe not.
Again, this happens with some frequency, and there’s never been any trouble with the disarming. But the timing seems really unfortunate. They want to do the defusing before businesses start back up on Monday, and they want to do it as soon as possible, but it just seems rude to force folks out of their houses on Christmas weekend. It seems like this weekend should be precisely the time when everybody should be allowed to be home. Going home for the holidays is long, time-honored tradition. The airports clog up. The highways jam. But eventually as many of us as possible end up sitting around living rooms with far-flung families, wrapped up in ugly Christmas sweaters and drinking egg nog and playing some silly board game or, you know, whatever your family does. That seems like a right. It seems like there’s no place like home for the holidays, and it’s been a long year, and we deserve this, and so my heart aches for those who have gathered in Augsburg only to find themselves temporary Christmas refugees.
Even the original Christmas story that we tell, this story of Joseph and Mary being called to Bethlehem, is in some ways a story about going home for the holidays. It’s the census, of course — this command that everyone should go to the city of their birth to be counted and so off go Joseph and Mary to Bethlehem, the city of the legendary King David, Joseph’s own distant ancestor. Our story begins with everybody going home — the airports clog up, the highways jam — but of course it’s not like Joseph really has any family there waiting for him. We don’t know the details of his family system, but there’s no indication that Bethlehem is home for him in anything but name only. It’s not like there’s a living room and a fireplace and a Christmas sweater waiting for him when he gets there — if there were, presumably he and Mary wouldn’t be staying in the stable. So it’s a homecoming story, yes. But make no mistake. Joseph is going home to a place he’s never been before. He’s going home to a strange place. He’s going home to a strange land. He’s going home and I don’t think it really feels like home at all.
Of course, I think we know this one too. Sometimes going home for the holidays isn’t all sweaters and egg nog and board games. Sometimes home is complicated, sometimes home is hard, sometimes home is conversations you don’t want to have or conversations you have to have, sometimes home is people you don’t want to see or people you really need to see. Sometimes home is full of people you’d love to avoid and sometimes home is a little too empty of people who should still be there. And one of my favorite parts of this service every year is that it is a homecoming service, and we get families together in this church on Christmas Eve that spend the rest of the year at opposite ends of the country, and we get the chance for sons and daughters of this congregation to see each other for a moment on the calendar, and it’s a beautiful thing. Homecoming can be a beautiful thing. But sometimes. I think eventually this is true for everybody, even if it’s not true for you tonight. Sometimes. Sometimes home doesn’t feel so festive. Sometimes home doesn’t feel so comfortable. Sometimes home doesn’t feel like home at all. Sometimes home just feels like the place your family comes from and it’s not really about you. Joseph and Mary understand that perfectly well. Sometimes home is just a place you have to go. Sometimes you have to go home to be counted.
This is, of course, the obligation in which Joseph and Mary find themselves. They have to go home, and even when they get there, there’s no room. This is a literal problem, of course: there’s no room in the inn, and so the family takes up its residence in the stable out back, but I don’t think we’d be wrong to interpret it symbolically as well. Just because this city was home to Joseph’s ancestors doesn’t make it the right place for him; in fact I think Luke wants to insist that just because this new child is born in the city of the great Kings of Jerusalem does not mean that he will therefore wear a crown of gold and jewels on his head. Quite to the contrary: yes, the story tonight begins by going home. But then, in the city of David, in the city that was once of David, in the backyard of an overbooked hotel, in the messiness of the stable, surrounded by farm animals and beat-up tractors and leftover Halloween decorations, there in the manger, a new home comes into being. A new home comes into being around this infant, this mysterious child, this child of God, and now the travelers come to him, to this place they’ve never been before. The shepherds. The angels. The magi. All the characters you know so well. They come to seek this child. They come to praise this child. They come to make a new home, here by the light of this Christ candle.
It is remarkable how many characters can fit into a stable in a town that has no hotel rooms left to give. But I think this is precisely the point. There are two homecomings in this text and they could hardly be more different. The first is about obligation and scarcity: Joseph and Mary have to go, and when they get there, there’s no room. The powers and principalities that force them onto the road to Bethlehem can hardly provide even for their most basic needs arrive. On the other hand. The shepherds find their way to this manger. The angels find their way to this manger. You and I find our way to this manger, not because Caesar Augustus makes us go, but because this child beckons us to come. And what they find. What the shepherds find, and what the angels find, and what all those farm animals in all the creche sets in the land find, what we find is that when we get there there is more than enough room for all of us. Joseph goes to Bethlehem because he is the child of Jacob who is the child of Matthan who is the child of Eleazar and those names might not mean anything to us but they lead back to David which means they mean something to a lot of people. But you and I. We don’t go to Bethlehem because of who our parents are. We come to this manger because we are children of God. Because God beckons us home. And because God meets us where we are.
There’s a Christmas Eve homecoming scene in the last book in the Harry Potter series, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. For six and a half books we have been hearing about the small town where Harry was born, a little hamlet up in the English countryside called Godric’s Hollow. It doesn’t sound like the sort of town where much happens, except on that one fateful night, when Harry was just an infant, when the evil Lord Voldemort came and killed his parents and marked him with the scar that would haunt him for the rest of his days. But it’s not until the seventh book that Harry and his friends ever return as young adults to the scene of the crime, under dangerous circumstances, with their own lives very much in the balance. They have to go. Everybody knows they have to go. Major elements of the plot compel them to go. And so because they have to go, and because they will be very much in danger, Harry and his friends decide to use something called Polyjuice Potion, which transforms the appearance of whoever takes it for a brief time. It makes you look like somebody else, so they can sneak in and do their business and remain unnoticed. It does make difficult homecomings easier if you can just pretend to be somebody else.
In the movie, though. I think the movie gets this better. In the movie, they don’t bother with the disguise. When they get to Godric’s Hollow, Hermione looks around, terrified of the danger, and says “we should have used polyjuice potion,” but Harry refuses. “This is where I was born,” he says. “I’m not returning as somebody else.” Now, I suspect there are some marketing reasons involved here — we want to see our stars’ faces on the screen, after all. But I think there’s something else, too. Home is the place they have to go, yes. But real home is the place where, when you get there, you are welcome as you are. Your face, just as it is. Your needs, just as they are. Your hopes and your dreams and your questions and your fears, just as they are. You, just as you are. Real home is the place that meets us where we are. Robert Frost says that home is the place where when you have to go there, they have to take you in. And surely this is the home that meets us in the pages of this familiar story. Surely this is the home that seeks each of us on this sacred Christmas night. A homes that seeks us as we are. A home that seeks us where we are. A home that opens its arms to welcome each of us as sacred and beloved children of God.
Of course my hope for each of you is that you will find yourselves welcome here, at Amherst Presbyterian Church, on this sacred Christmas night, as we celebrate this mystery and this majesty together. There is not to my knowledge any unexploded World War II ordinance sitting in the basement of the church, so we can stay as long as we want, whether it feels like home or not, and you, just as you are, you are welcome to stay, too. But the good news of this night is bigger than one building and it’s bigger than one worship service. The good news of this night is bigger even than one night and it’s bigger than one season and it’s bigger than we can imagine. The good news of this night is not just that you are welcome here but rather that we are all welcome, just as we are, our faces, just as they are, in the household of God, as the children of God. So if you find yourself homeward bound but with no room in the inn. If you find yourself homeward bound but with no room for you when you get there. If the journey has been long. If the road has been dangerous. If you are tired. If you are weak. If you are carrying heavy burdens. Go around back and check the stable. Look for the angels. Listen for the shepherds. Seek for this child who seeks for you. And be at peace.