Making It Known: A Christmas Sermon

A Christmas sermon preached by Christopher L. Webber at the Church of the Incarnation, San Francisco, on Christmas Day, 2013.

St. Luke 2:17 When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child.

Good morning!  I haven’t preached here before so I need to know who I’m talking to – like, how many shepherds are there here?  Or shepherdesses? (equal opportunity)
OK, let me try another approach: how many of you work nights?  Still no hand showing.
So how many watch television in the evening? OK!  So suppose you’re watching the Warriors or antique road show or whatever and you don’t want to be interrupted.  Do you know the feeling?  For example, there are 2.3 seconds left and the Warriors are down 2 and have the ball – so you really don’t want to be interrupted.  That’s the feeling I want you to remember.

I’m trying to get you to see where the shepherds were that night 2000 years ago, with a job to do.  See, the gospel story is a story about shepherds doing their job – a full time job keeping the wolves away and the cattle rustlers and all the stuff that’s out there. Sheep don’t have much sense; they wander off and there are wolves out there and rival shepherds, so you have to keep an eye on those sheep. So the shepherds were doing their job and they got interrupted big time. God had a message for them and God pulled out all the stops: “a multitude of the heavenly host,” angels and archangels and all tshepherdshe company of heaven, and it got their attention.

So the angels tell them what’s up and the shepherds respond: “Let’s go have a look,” and they drop everything and go.  Now, remember this is a full time job and the sheep are in danger if they’re left alone, so the shepherds are taking a risk, risking their investment, risking their property, risking their security. It’s like leaving your car parked on the street unlocked: not smart.  Well, maybe they left a couple of apprentices behind: “Hey, keep an eye on things, guys, we’ll be right back.”   Maybe they did that; we don’t know; but if they hadn’t been needed they wouldn’t have been there. You don’t hire a night watchman if you don’t need one; don’t put two shepherds out there if one will do. So they took a risk to go but they went. When God sends a message, you better go.

That’s the first point: when God sends a message, it doesn’t matter what else you may be doing, what else you have on your plate, you need to respond.  That’s why I was trying to get some sense of what you do that can’t be interrupted, because God has a message for you and me and it’s not getting out. It seems as if we’re staying with the sheep when we ought to be going to Bethlehem and telling people about it.  We seem to be keeping our message down here on 29th when all the people are on Noriega and 19th.

And don’t tell me you haven’t seen the angels; maybe not, but you do know about it.  Why should God send you the whole heavenly host? Who do we think we are anyway to rate the full choir? God has a full time job too; so do the angels; so why should they repeat themselves just for us?  I mean, they sent us the message already and the message is right here in the Bible for us anytime we want it, right there in the book rack in front of you, right here in the gospel this morning: “Glory to God and Peace on earth.”  That’s the message – given once because once is enough.
Once God came into this world in a perfect human life,
once Jesus died for us,
once Jesus rose from the dead.
Just once and that should be enough.
Did your father or mother ever say, “I’m going to tell you this just once”?
If it’s that important and you don’t get it, it won’t help to say it twice.
Once the angels came, and if the shepherds didn’t get it then there wasn’t going to be a repeat performance.
Once the angels came, and you know the message.  Even if you only come for Christmas and Easter, you know the message.  You’ve heard it more than once: “Glory to God and Peace on earth.”
That’s the message.

Now, notice several things about this message:  First of all, notice that it’s not just for you. It wasn’t just for the shepherds and it isn’t just for you. “Glory to God and Peace on earth.”
That’s not just for you and me; no, it’s for the whole world:
“Glory to God and peace on earth.”
Jesus comes for all, died for all, rose for all.
It’s a message for the whole world.
And notice what the shepherds do: they go back and tell others.
The gospel says, “they made known what had been told them about this child.”
They made it known,
they passed it on.
They didn’t just go back to what they were doing.
They came back with a message and they passed it on.
So what are we doing about it?
Are we passing the message on?

I checked out the statistics last week, so I know that there are 7 billion people in the world and one third of them are Christian. So word is getting around.  The shepherds passed it on and the apostles passed it on and the early church passed it on and the people who built this church  – and one third of the population of the world has heard it. So if every Christian told two other people, it’s all over; we did it; everybody knows. Glory to God and peace on earth.  Each one tells two and it’s done, the game’s over, right?

But it’s not that easy, is it?  First of all, how many Christians know the message? Here in America we have three-quarters of the population calling themselves Christian but an awful lot of them don’t get it, didn’t hear what the angels said, didn’t understand it. They thought it was just for them.  A lot of them will tell you, “Yes, I’m a Christian; I’m born again; Jesus is my personal savior.”  Well, OK, but that’s not even half the message. The message is, “Peace to the earth, goodwill to all people,” not “peace just to you.” Peace on earth.
Peace and goodwill to Iraq and peace to Afghanistan.
Peace and goodwill to the Congress.
Peace and goodwill even to the NRA and the Tea Party.
Peace and goodwill to the homeless and hungry.
Peace and goodwill to the people without jobs or opportunity.
I’m glad there are deeply committed people calling themselves Christian but if they think it’s just for them, a personal savior just for them, as a lot of them do, or if they think it doesn’t call on them to make a difference as lots of them do – and maybe some of us – they’ve missed the point.  There’s that last little codicil a lot of us overlook: peace on earth and goodwill . . .  How is it translated in the version we read today?  It’s translated in lots of different ways, you know. Maybe you heard it in the old King James Version that lots of us grew up with: “Peace on earth goodwill toward men.”  That was before we knew about inclusive language and realized that “men” translates the Greek word “Anthropos” – people.  So then it’s “Good will to earth’s people.”  But in today’s latest update, in your Bulletin this morning, it comes out: “on earth peace among those whom God favors.”

Not peace to everybody?  Wait a minute.  I thought God just loves everybody. Maybe not.  Check your Bible again. There’s a lot of stuff in there about Judgment. I mean, we have rules.  We don’t favor people who steal from us, cut us off in traffic, take their assault rifles to the shopping mall. We gave rules.  We favor some more than others.  Is God different?  Does God have no rules?  Did God drop the ten commandments recently?  The verse says:   “Peace to those God favors.”
Does God play favorites?
Well, actually, yes; and Jesus told us exactly who God favors.
Remember the Beatitudes?
It’s everybody’s favorite Bible passage, but think about it: “Blessed are the poor, blessed are those who mourn now, blessed are the peacemakers – peace makers.
So it’s not blessings on everybody.
It’‘s blessings on those in need.
Blessings on those who make a difference.
Blessings on those who need blessings.
If you sit in first class, you probably don’t need any more blessings. But there are those who do and God knows it better than we.
Blessings on those who share God’s priorities.
Blessings on those who give glory to God and make a difference.
Blessings on you when you get the message.
Blessings on you when you share the message.
Blessings on you when you make a difference by being different,
by being people who live differently because you know the message:
that God comes into this world where we least expect it but need it most. God does come – even here, even today, even to us and most especially when we pass the message on and make God’s priorities our own.
I mean, can you imagine what a difference it would make if the members of Congress sought peace on earth as their priority and put the power in their hands to work where Jesus came to work – where the need is greatest: where people are hungry, where children are dying, where people work two jobs and still live in a homeless shelter because they can’t afford to pay rent even for the smallest, cheapest apartment.
Should we raise taxes or lower taxes – let politicians worry about that but let it not become their priority.  First, first of all, worry about human need; make that the priority; ask who needs help and find ways to be helpful. It’s about serving the needs of people and especially the poorest – not, surely not, not the wealthiest. The priority is glory to God and peace on earth and there will be peace on earth when there are decent jobs for all, when there are better schools, available health care less selfishness, less division between rich and poor.  So let’s get people in Congress who can figure it out and get it done or let’s get someone else in there to do it.

And don’t just blame congress; it’s easy to do but let’s be fair.
What about the churches – do the churches reflect Jesus’ priorities?
Do you and I share God’s priorities?
Wwhat are our priorities?
How can it be, the new pope Francis has asked, how can it be that it is not a news item when an elderly homeless person dies of exposure but it is news when the stock market loses two points.
Well, I see his point but I think he’s wrong – popes can be wrong – it does happen – but I think the papers do report the death of a homeless man. Sometimes I think the real point – and I think the pope would agree – is that the dailiness of poverty is not news: the grinding hopeless dailiness of never having enough, not being able to escape into the kind of security that has a decent place to live and food enough for three meals a day, basics like food and shelter that most of us take for granted.
What is our priority?  What is the message?
The message is not “Relax and Feel good,”
not “Have a happy day and a big dinner” but on earth peace, goodwill among people” – peace to those God favors.
OK, there’s a message to get out, a difference to make.

But I’ve been preaching this sermon backwards: before the message, before the response, first of all there’s a gift.  Christmas is first of all a gift.  First you open the present, then you show it off, then you share it.  Even if it’s chocolates, I’m sure you share it.
There’s a gift to be opened.
There’s a gift to be received.
There’s a gift to be shared.
There’s a gift for you and every one of us.
This service is a gift.
The gospel is a gift.
Communion is a gift.
God gives God’s own self to us.
God came to the shepherds, but also God comes to us, and I don’t think you can receive that gift – hear that message and receive that gift – and not make a difference.
We’re here today to receive the gift and be reminded of the message.
So today above all days, give God thanks for the gift of life
and find ways to share that gift
especially with those God favors.
and change the world.

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