Monday, December 26, 2016

The Spirit of Christmas

Luke 2:1-20
December 24, 2016, Christmas Eve
First Presbyterian Church, Sterling, IL
Christina Berry

These past four weeks, we’ve been contemplating the story of Scrooge alongside the story of Christmas – the gifts of peace, hope, love and joy. Both of these stories are familiar, and both have much to teach us. So tonight we will consider the tale of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, and we will hear again the story of the birth of Jesus.

Let’s start with the fictional character – Ebenezer Scrooge. He was “a squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous old sinner!” And one night he was visited by four ghosts – his old partner Marley, and the ghosts of Christmas past, present and future. Each one of these spirits has something important to show Scrooge. And because of what he sees, Scrooge is transformed. He goes from “Bah! Humbug!” to “God bless us everyone!”

We know Scrooge – we’ve all met a Scrooge or two. Maybe we wondered how he was so successful, maybe wondered if she ever smiled or had a compassionate moment. Maybe you had business dealings with him, and wondered how he could be so cruel. Maybe you yourself have been that sort of person. But Scrooge, as you know, did not stay as he was.

The Ghost of Christmas past appeared first to Scrooge. Taken by the spirit to see once again exactly how his life had been, Scrooge had his heart broken again and again as he saw the visions of his past. When he saw himself as a boy, “a solitary child, neglected by his friends,”
Scrooge wept.

The second spirit to appear to Scrooge was the Ghost of Christmas Present. The spirit showed Scrooge the sadness of the world around him, especially the poverty and ignorance of so many people. Scrooge realized how difficult life was for his clerk, Bob Cratchit, and regretted that he himself had made that life more difficult. He saw Cratchit’s sweet son, Tiny Tim, and again wept.

The final spirit, the ghost of Christmas yet to come, showed Scrooge a future of grief and death – of Scrooge himself, and of Tiny Tim. It was all too much for Ebenezer Scrooge. He begged the spirit – “Is there time? Can I change this future?” Of course, you know the story – on Christmas day, Scrooge awoke a changed man – determined to be a better man, filled with hope, and peace, and love and joy.

The ghosts that Scrooge encountered in A Christmas Carol challenged his view of the world, of himself, and of time. No longer did he see the world as hostile; no longer did he live in fear, and no longer did he believe that his past determined his future.

That is a fictional story, a faint shadow of the true story, the true Christmas carol of the angels who sang at Jesus’ birth. The coming of Jesus, Immanuel – God with us transforms the world, the soul, and time.

No longer is the world a chaotic and hostile place;
no longer is the soul a lonely competitor, scrambling to gain a foothold;
no longer is time an enemy, stealing our lives away.

Now the world is not so cold;
now the soul can sing for joy,
now God’s creative inbreaking
has simultaneously collapsed and expanded all time into eternity.

This is the miracle of Christmas.
In Jesus Christ, past, present and future come together as one.
In Christ, the God who was and is and is to come becomes real to us.

We experience this powerfully at the communion table, where we meet Christ in the present and the past and future. In our remembrance, we transcend the chronology of past, present and future.

As we gather here tonight, we too may sense around us the spirits of Christmases past – and we remember. Our remembering is a sacred and moving thing. It is a profound element of our faith. The Israelites were commanded to remember –
how God had made a covenant with them,
how God had delivered them from slavery,
how God had been faithful to them, even in their darkest hours.

Jesus commanded his disciples: “Do this in remembrance of me.”
So we come to this table as a people of memory. We light our candles in hope and remembrance. God’s love reignites the flame, and our small flickering candles are remembrances shining in the dark night.

The light of the past shines not only in memory, but here and now and into the days that are still to come. For our faith is based on more than simply a recounting of past stories. Our faith takes place in the here and now, in our own stories. Jesus came for us, for the littlest, the last, the least. In Jesus, we learn what love means, and how to put that love into action. Jesus calls each one of us to now, today, lead with love, to live with love.

What Jesus teaches us, and then asks of us -- is sustained love, continued mercy, persistent care. What Jesus teaches us, and then asks of us, is “to live dangerously, honestly, freely – to step out in the name of love.”[1]

In the birth of Jesus, Immanuel, God with us, the past of the entire world is changed as powerfully as the present. And because of that birth, the future is changed forever.

Now, there is hope.
Now there can be peace.
Now we can love.
Now we know true joy.

The words of the story are the same every year; it is our response, the change it evokes in us, that make Christmas a time of transformation.

The story itself does not changes, but it changes us.
We relive the present; we change the past; we remember the future.

At the end of the visit of the third spirit, Scrooge promises: “I will honour Christmas in my heart, and try to keep it all the year. I will live in the Past, the Present, and the Future. The Spirits of all Three shall strive within me.”

Friends, tonight the Spirit of Christmas visits us, but it is not just tonight.
Perhaps we will feel it most powerfully tonight,
as we receive communion,
as we sing the Christmas carols that our hearts know so well,
as we watch the flickering light of candles fill the darkened sanctuary.

But it need not stay here; it need not end here.
The spirit of Christmas is the abiding presence of the living Christ.
And that spirit is always with us, even to the end of time.

As we listen once again to the Christmas story,
as we hear the angels sing that first Christmas Carol,
as we come to Christ’s table
and as we light the candles,
may the spirit of God shine brightly in your heart.
May you know Christ’s transforming presence,
and may you feel his hope, peace, love and joy not only in this moment,
but in every moment of every day of your life.

And may God bless us, every one.


Luke 2

In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. All went to their own towns to be registered.

Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.

In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified.

But the angel said to them, ‘Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, who is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.’

And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host,* praising God and saying,  ‘Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favours!’*

When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, ‘Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.’

So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger.When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child; and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them.

But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart. The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.

[1] Cornel West

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