Preaching the Good News of Christmas

December 25, 2001
See Also: 

Year A
Year B
Year C

See also:
Advent Liturgy
John Cobb on Incarnation
Daniel Day Williams on incarnation

By Various

Contributed by a collection of process pastors and theologians

Christmas is the season during which the whole church celebrates the theme that is most central to process theology: God's incarnation. That God is present in us and in the world, working for our healing and growth, our direction and our comfort, our reconciliation and our redemption, is our message. The church historically has been somewhat ambivalent about how fully to affirm God's presence in the world, sometimes limiting it to Jesus or to the church. It is to Jesus and the church, and the understanding of God that these gave us, that we owe our awareness of God's immanence. Also in Jesus we see a distinctive,
perhaps even unique, working of that presence. But the God we know through Jesus is always with us and in us whether we recognize that presence or not. We discern it and celebrate it in all people, indeed, in all living things. The awareness of God's immanence, aided by the church's teaching of incarnation, enables us to respond to God's call more fully. Our faith enables God's enlivening presence to work more strongly within us. Our understanding of incarnation strengthens our respect for all creatures, and especially for all people. The story of Jesus' birth in a stable checks any tendency to think that God's presence in the world supports the structures of authority and prestige than humans construct. God is present in the CEOs of great corporations. But we are called to attend in particular to God's presence in beggars and prostitutes and lepers. ~ John B. Cobb, Jr.

Luke 2:1-20
One of the things that has always struck me about the Christmas story is the way it is a mass of contrasts: there is squalor, and there is splendor. There is the stinkiness of the stable, and the aurora of angels. There is the violence of the Roman imperial overlords, and the peace proclaimed to God’s people on earth. There is the exclusion of the “socially unacceptable” shepherds, and the utter and ultimate inclusivity of God’s justice. There is the way Mary and Joseph are pushed off to the sidelines of things in the stable, and the way the birth of Jesus makes that stable the very center of the world. The Christmas story Luke tells us is a mass of contrasts. And I think that is why the story has such power for us; that’s why we keep coming back to it year after year after year: because our stories are masses of contrasts, too; and Luke’s story tells us that it is precisely into those contrasts that God’s embodied love always comes. God’s love isn’t just for the pious and the perfect, God’s grace doesn’t come only in moments of quiet contemplation, when everything else is all wrapped up and all settled down and all put to bed—but God’s love breaks in on us precisely when everything else is going on, precisely when everything else is chaos and commotion, precisely in those days when it is the last time and place we would expect God’s love to be: in the emergency room, in the homeless shelter; where people’s hearts are breaking, where people are struggling for justice; in the choice between war and peace, in the decision between generosity and greed; in the moment of love when everything seems loveless, in the flash of hope when everything seems hopeless, in the sudden joy that breaks through even the deepest sorrow. It is precisely into these contrasts that God’s love comes, it is precisely these contrasts God’s love holds together, just as it did in a stable in Bethlehem; and suddenly the world is hushed, and the chaos pauses for a moment, and the angel appears, and the heavenly chorus sings, and the Savior is there, and new life begins. That is the story of God’s Incarnation; those are the days in which God’s love is embodied for us. ~ Paul S. Nancarrow

The best thing I ever did was to take the newest baby in the congregation on Christmas Eve [could be any Sunday near Christmas], when no one is interested in the sermon, frankly, but the STORY says something to us . . . in some deep way. So you say, "if our story says to us that God comes to us in the form of a baby, then what does this baby say about God . . . and our relationship with God?" And they get it. You get answers like: tender . . . need to take care of each other . . . not almighty but compelling, etc. Once I did this, I did it every year.  It really makes a lovely and deeply moving—and brief!—reflection. ~ Mary Ellen Kilsby

John 1:5: “The light shines in the darkness and the darkness did not overcome it.”  
This year, we will be spending Christmas day in the oncology ward with our recently married 27 year old son Matt and wife Ingrid. While other families will be unwrapping presents on Christmas morning, our son will be in the middle of what we hope will be the fourth and final cycle of five day-long chemotherapy treatments. We realize that we are not alone in facing illness and tragedy this Christmas season. Like many other parents, whether in Darfur, Iraq, Israel and Palestine, or the cancer ward, we will be experiencing the interplay of hope and fear, and light and darkness. Perhaps, our experience reflects one of the deeper truths of Christmas. Christmas embraces and transforms both light and darkness. God is present in the most unexpected places, where despair threatens to defeat hope. While we might hope for a supernatural miracle for our son, perhaps the Christmas miracle we pray for is of a different order - the miraculous truth that God is with us, sharing our lives and giving us the courage, energy, and hope to face what lies ahead. What happens to our son and our family matters, just like what happens to the child at Darfur matters, not just to loving parents, but to God, whose love embraces “the hopes and fears of all the years.” This year, we will give thanks and light candles of hope because God is truly with us, not just on Christmas but in every moment of light and darkness. ~ Bruce G. Epperly 

It’s a familiar image: mother and child. I’m looking at one now on my computer. She is looking down to the sleeping child cradled in her arms. It is the image we contemplate at Christmas. So far away, yet so close. It’s the look on Mary’s face, and Sarah’s, and many other women in the Bible. The look on the mother’s face reveals little; it’s a private moment. We are left to imagine deep connections being made in the gaze of the mother. After all those months of waiting, gestating, slowly growing in secret, anxiety mixed with anticipation, something new emerges from darkness into light. It reminds me of the story Jesus used to explain how God’s power works in the world: “The kingdom of God is as if a man should scatter seed upon the ground, and should sleep and rise night and day, and the seed should sprout and grow, he knows not how.” (Mark 4:26 & 27) We’re told that God works in dark places like tombs and wombs: that’s where new life comes out of death, a result of the quiet transforming power of God. We gaze upon the child and remind ourselves of how God creates new life so quietly, secretly, surprisingly. We sleep, we rise, we all gaze at something that grows, we know not how. The image of mother and child becomes an expression of the mystery of hope. It is an icon of faith. But this Christmas is different for me, because the image on my computer is the first picture of my daughter looking into the face of her daughter born day before yesterday. So far away, yet so close. All I can do is gaze upon the mother gazing upon the child who is sleeping in the arms of the mystery of God’s creating, transforming power. I am reduced to a state of silent wonder . . . again. ~ Rick Marshall

This very week, a week that included lighting the first Advent candle, I learned of two friends who received diagnoses of metastatic cancer. One was told by her doctor to “go home, sell your house and travel.” The other, who had been assured that her cancer was one that had a high “cure” rate, was told that there was no internal organ that had not been affected by the cancer and that there was very little more that could be done. My friends lit advent candles this week, as well. Sometimes our exegesis and exposition sounds so lofty and airy. Other times it can come off as predictable—clichéd, even. And I am as participant in that irrelevancy as anyone else. But for me the power of the season, as well as the power of process thought rests not in our words, or even our deeds, for that matter, but in our experience. The season asks us to get inside of our experience, not just talk about it or interpret it—which alters it, but simply be inside our experience. To be inside our experience is to understand that merely repeating the stories of our spiritual ancestors, or rehearsing rituals in their honor, or clinging to our own traditions, how ever precious they might be, is not the same as living our experience. For me, this year, my living experience will be enlarged by two friends who are pressing through the bleak mid-winter of dire news to light advent candles trusting that their vulnerabilities and God’s meet in the birth of the infant Jesus. Rejoice! ~ Tari Lennon

Luke 2:8: "And in that region there were shepherds out in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night."  
Sometimes we know the most about God, when we know the least about God. Imagine you are a shepherd, alone on a dark and starlit night, keeping watch over your sheep. All is calm and all is bright. You feel small but included in a larger whole that you can never grasp but always trust. This larger whole is not a star among the stars; and yet all the stars are enveloped in its sky-like embrace. Suddenly an angel appears and says that the something beautiful has been revealed in a small child, wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger. You make your way to Bethlehem to see this child, and when you look into his eyes, you see your own reflection. You realize that you were present in the baby even before you arrived, and he in you, too. You suspect that when the baby grows up, he may feel called to help people understand this, to understand just how connected we all are. Eventually you make your way back home. You are standing again in the field, keeping watch over your flock. The night is calm and bright. A friend walks up to you and ask where you've been. You say: "I was in Bethlehem.” He asks: "What did you see?” You say: "I saw the world's best hope.” He asked what it looked like. You say: "It looks like you and me.” ~ Jay McDaniel

What we find in the message of the Christmas story is the idea that the Sacred, the Spirit of Love, is incarnate in the world; incarnate in that most profound symbol of new life, of possibilities, of hope—in a child. This was not a once and only event. The incarnation of Love was the very creation of the beginning of time—it happened before the birth of Jesus, it happened then, and is happening now. It is present and active in all things and all people—at all times and everywhere. Wherever hope abides amidst despair; wherever joy abides amidst sorrow; wherever love abides amidst hate; wherever peace is spoken amidst war; Love is happening there. This is a compelling truth of the story. This is what the child announces to us. In this time and this place, for us and for all beings—a love at once particular and universal draws us to a life peace and hope. We gather with friends and family at Christmas to be inspired by the possibility that in a time of rampant war-making the idea of peace on earth and good will toward all may become more than a slogan, may somehow take hold. For this is the time of the year that we most dare dream of renewal and peace, most dare to hope boldly. Let us know that Love whispers to us all, in every breath calling us to remember that each night is holy and all life is sacred. ~ Beth Johnson

Hebrews 1:1-4
This passage from Hebrews, stressing Christ’s unique status, sets the stage for the claim—so central to this writing—that the revelation we have in Jesus is in fact the final revelation. Near the end of Hebrews, however, this sense of fulfillment is balanced by an emphasis upon hope in the midst of unfulfillment, as the author lays out a “pilgrim theology” encapsulated in 13:14: “For here we have no lasting city, but we are looking for the city that is to come.” The Christmas season—and this is especially so for process thinkers—combines the themes of present fulfillment and hope for the future in a powerful way. The birth of the Christ-child signals God’s unconditional presence with us and participation in both our joy and our suffering in the present; but the Christ-child is also a symbol of hope for the world—hope that God’s shalom, or ultimate peace and well-being, will at last be realized on earth. Some years ago, a Roman Catholic nun who has worked for peace and justice in Latin America for many decades spoke at my college. The picture she painted of that region was a bleak one indeed, and so I asked her how she was able to keep hope alive in the midst of the overwhelming problems she had lifted up. Her answer was this: “We need to learn to work for realities that we will not see realized in our lifetime.” That message speaks to me even more powerfully than it did when I first heard it. A native of the deep South born in the late nineteen-thirties, I have lived through times when hope was very much alive. I have seen systems of apartheid dismantled both in this country and in South Africa; I have seen a generation of young people bring an insane war to an end; and I have celebrated as I observed persons of all ages become aware of the injustice of our economic system and the dangers facing our environment. But I must also say that at present hope is harder to come by than at any point in my life, as I watch our government acting more and more like an empire and less and less an avenue for providing for the common good. It would be easy enough to fall into despair. To be a Christian, however, is to be a person of hope. We can work for realities that we may never see realized because we believe that far beyond our own lifetimes, the Christ-child still comes into the world as a sign that God is truly with us, sowing the seeds of ultimate shalom. ~ Russ Pregeant

Isaiah 9: 2-7: Light in the Midst of Darkness 
During the Christmas season, we are inspired and enlivened with phrases from the prophet Isaiah. Among them: “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light. . . . For a child has been born to us . . . and he is named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God . . .  Prince of Peace.” Within Christian circles, these words are traditionally assumed to prophesy the birth of Jesus centuries later. However, recognizing their historical locus, we may consider them more broadly as an empirical awareness of the powerful presence of redemptive grace even during times of seeming gloom and doom. Sixty years ago just following the long struggle against the destructive fury of fascism, Bernard E. Meland, process theologian, released a small book, Seeds of Redemption. In this text, he called us to assume a mood of repentance given the horrors of that time, preparing us thereby for renewed commitment to the source of all goodness with all that such a commitment entails for the reshaping of the world community. The present time is not unlike that period with its widespread violence, deep poverty, ecological degradation, ethnic bigotry, gender discrimination. Where, at this moment, can we discern signs of hope, sources of light, forces of peace? Are we prepared to follow in that pathway? ~ Douglas Sturm

This Christmas I am drawn to two verses in Psalm 96, the eleventh (designated as the antiphon) and the twelfth. In this psalm we are called to praise God, and (here’s what catches me) all creation is to get in the act. “Let the heavens be glad, and let the earth rejoice; let the sea roar, and all that fills it; let the field exult, and everything in it. Then shall all the trees of the forest sing for joy  . . . ” Once again, biblical insight anticipates the process ecological corrective necessitated by human anthropocentrism. Yet the long first sentence is directed, presumably, to us human creatures (cf. v. 7: “O families of the peoples”.). The imperative’s direction is appropriate, for the “creation groaning in labor pains” (Ro. 8:22) gets to play the victim in the planet’s drama to the wide ranging forms of human sin Paul recounts in his epistle. This is a long-standing crime, more fully empowered by humankind’s technological instrumentation for greed’s song. This Advent season we know that it is late, but it may not be too late. Holmes Rolston, III, proposes that evolution has now reached a stage where a kenotic imperative is newly empowered. He writes (The Work of Love: Creation as Kenosis, ed. John Polkinghorne, 64) of the possibility that “self-interested humans impose limits on human welfare on behalf of the other species.” That could get us to verse 12’s wonderful indicative, fields exulting, trees singing for joy. Christmas sings of “peace on earth” and calls us to live to bring “peace to the earth.” That will be praise indeed for the Creator who fills heaven and earth (Jer. 23:24). ~ Paul Sponheim

Isaiah  52:7-10
This great oracle of hope was first proclaimed by a nameless prophet whom we call Second Isaiah. Spoken first to Jews living in exile in Babylon around 540 B.C.E., it declared that God would return to Jerusalem, a city that remained devastated from the war fifty years prior, and would redeem and restore it. Probably within fifteen years of this oracle’s proclamation Jews returned to rebuild the city. Over the years the oracle became a message of a hopeful future for Jews, declaring that God would work yet again a new wonder and bring a new and more glorious age. We Christians have inherited this oracle and connect it to the first coming of Jesus, God in the flesh, which we now celebrate at Christmas. But we also see that it can speak of any future coming of God to help people spiritually and physically. The oracle has moved through an evolutionary process from the sixth century B.C.E. to our modern age, as it speaks again and again of God coming to redeem and restore a helpless humanity. As Jesus is the incarnation of God into the human process of existence, in a similar way this oracle of hope is the incarnation of God’s promise into the flow of human history in the form of a spoken promise, a proclamation of hope. God has been speaking to humanity with this oracle for over two thousand years now. It commands us to break into song (Christmas carol or otherwise), for our God will act dramatically to save us. Rejoice, for yet again God will return, God will reign, God will comfort those who have faith to see the divine presence in the world about them. ~ Robert Gnuse

Luke 2
Experience is the basic reality for process theologians and experience is that which they seek in scripture. Here we have the father, mother, newborn child, shepherds, angel, a multitude of angels, and flocks of sheep. One may wish to add the cow and donkey sharing their home with the family. Many Christmas messages have been created by entering the experiences of those gathered. Yet this nativity scene was probably a metaphor, an event which never happened but a story which expresses a powerful truth, created by a first century Christian community. We may then seek the historical experiences of the authors, pondering, praying, and seeking inspiration and illumination. They creatively struggle to proclaim from their worldview the new reality initiated by Jesus. They found: God graces the least of the least, the lowest of the low, the shepherds! ~ Adrienne & Robert Brizee