Lectionary Readings: Psalm 148; Galatians 4:4-7
Over the Christmas break a young schoolboy is tasked with writing a paper on childbirth. But without any knowledge on the subject, he is stumped on where to begin. So he goes into the kitchen and asks his parents, "How was I born?" His mom and dad look nervously at one another before his mom awkwardly answers, "The stork brought you."
The boy still seems a bit confused so he asks, "Well, how were you and Daddy born?" "The stork brought us, too, and Grandpa and Grandma as well" his father confidently replies. The boy leaves the kitchen without asking any more questions. He settles down at his bedroom desk and begins to write the first sentence: "This report will be very difficult to write due to the fact that there hasn't been a natural childbirth in my family for at least three generations."
Well, as you may know, Mary has a childbirth story of her own. And her last month of pregnancy has been frantic and uncomfortable, both for her and for us who relive it with her year-after-year. The labor and the delivery have proven, yet again, to be both endless and instantaneous. Since the bible gives us only scant details, we fill in Jesus nativity with songs and stories that overlook the truth of what childbirth must have been like in a time where there was no room at the inn or no epidural to dull the pain. And that leads us to where we are today.
The first Sunday after Christmas is commonly called “low Sunday” because it is often a time when church attendance is lower than usual, the church staff and volunteers are in need of a recharge, and it seems like the euphoria of Christ’s birth has turned to postpartum exhaustion. But now the baby is asleep at home in his crib. And in the afterglow and wonder of the celebration, we may begin to catch our breath, and reflect on the gift of hope and peace that God has given to us to all. It might be a low energy day, but Paul's letter to the Galatian church might be just what we need to be lifted up high.
The Gospel reading from today's lectionary has the baby Jesus being presented to the Temple. This is an important Jewish rite that was required by law. While it's an interesting story, I believe Paul’s letter might be just the boost we need today. Paul who was very familiar with Jewish law, now removes the chains that have restricted his people from fully comprehending the Spirit of the law. His letter frees us to contemplate a little more theologically about this wondrous story called Christmas that we read about in the Gospels. Did you know that Paul's epistles were written before the four Gospels? In these four short verses, Paul packs a punch.
He describes the doctrinal theology of the birth story, before addressing the law, slavery, freedom, and our divine inheritance that was born on Christmas Day. As a scholar, I'd say this is a densely compacted and highly complicated piece of Pauline theology that injects us with the life giving Spirit of God’s Son. But as your minister, I’d say this this is perfect summation of the hope that Christ and Christmas offer; the very hope that lifts us out of our own cold, dark and dirty manger and places us in the warm, loving arms of God.
If we listen closely, we hear a new, extra heartbeat within us, faintly echoing the cry of a baby’s first words: “Abba, Abba, Abba.” Each heartbeat is a reminder of Jesus’ birth, a reminder that through him we are reborn. Our blood is now mingled with his blood. We are no longer slaves (to the law, to others, or to ourselves). We are no longer second-class strangers to salvation. We are now children, adopted into God’s family and heirs to God through Jesus Christ. If you ask me, this is what redemption and salvation is all about. This is the real hope of the true Christmas story.
Many years ago, my friend and I wrote a screenplay called “Jewish Christmas.” It’s a Christmas story about a young man who discovers he is the last surviving heir of Santa Clause and all the special magic that comes with it. The main character, Chris, lived in a Catholic orphanage from the day of his birth until he was eventually adopted into Jewish family as a young boy. He has spent his entire adulthood struggling with trying to figure out who he is, where he’s from and why he is here. Chris has no real identity of his own. He has no clue that he is special. He only sees himself as a failure, unwanted by both his real and his adopted parents. Everything quickly changes when Chris finds himself caught in a war between Santa and a malicious renegade elf who has set out to create his own toy empire. He wants to capitalize on Chris’ ability to know which toys kids really want. Chris takes the bait. And before he knows it, he is an orphan again; enslaved to a world of corporate greed.
In many ways I sympathized with the movie’s hero. I was lost in the business world struggling to find my true calling. I knew I had a bigger purpose in life, but didn’t know what it was. Have you ever felt that way? Have you ever wondered where you belong in the larger picture of life? I looked in all the wrong places, before I found myself in the arms of God. Both Paul and the Gospel writers tell us that we either belong to God or we don’t. We are either orphans in life or children of God. We are either free or enslaved.
The hope of Christmas is this: through Jesus Christ we are adopted as children of God. Both Jesus and Paul use the endearing Aramaic name “Abba,” for God. We too are directed to see God as the parental figure who redeems and blesses all children, no matter what we have done or where we are in life. God’s gracious and inclusive redemption is the great equalizer. We are no longer slaves but freed children of God. As children, we are heirs to God’s Spirit and power and glory through the Christmas gift of the Son.
Quite unlike the story of prodigal who takes the inheritance of his father and wastes it on himself-Jesus divested himself of his own inheritance to make other’s wealthy, joint heirs with him, in obedience to God’s will. This filial devotion, an act of radical freedom, takes strangers and aliens, orphans and slaves, rich and poor alike, and exalts us to the status of family members. Neither distance nor anger nor rebellion nor death will separate us from our heavenly family. Yet like the prodigal child, we find our assurance that we too are always welcomed home thanks to God’s love and grace. In the days after Christmas, on this "low" Sunday, we are lifted up because God’s hope is for all the world. Wherever we stand, we have standing because God is willing to adopt us. Not merely students, nor even friends, we are reborn as brothers and sisters of Jesus Christ our Lord and Savior.
In my screenplay Chris breaks free of the chains of his past. He gets a new family and a new shot at a new life. He is redeemed and of course Christmas is saved. It’s a perfect Hollywood ending for a fun-filled holiday movie. On the first Sunday after Christmas, as the church looks at the year behind us and the year ahead, we too find a happy ending to whatever story we have written.
But the good news is: We are surrounded by a Parent’s love that will not let us go. God sent his Son into the world, and the Spirit into our hearts, by which we experience the birth and rebirth within us every time we gather. But it’s in our birth and rebirth that I am reminded of the thought-provoking words of Meister Eckhart, the 12th century mystic who said, “We are all meant to be mothers of God, for God always needs to be born.” As you quietly ponder that thought, I hope you hear that the extra heartbeat, faintly echoing the cry of a baby’s first words: “Abba, Abba, Abba.”
Let us pray: Abba, our Divine and gracious parent, we are forever thankful for the gift of the Christ child through whom we have been reborn and redeemed back to you. We cannot think of a better present to open and reopen, year after year, day after day. It is in his name we pray, Amen
An ex-copywriter turned punk rock pastor and peacemaker who dedicates his life to making the world a better place for all humanity.
"that they all might be one" ~John 17:21
“Prius vita quam doctrina.”
~ St. Thomas Aquinas (1225–1274)
* “Life is more important than doctrine.”