This past Saturday in the Billings Gazette newspaper, I read a wonderful sermon by Paul Hanson, an ELCA pastor who is now retired. Pastor Hansen preached this sermon on 1993 when he was the pastor of King of Glory Lutheran Church in Billings.
I don’t know how many of you saw his sermon or read it in Saturday’s paper, but to me it was one of the very best Christmas Eve messages I have ever seen. So even if you did happen to see it and read it through, I’m sure that you won’t mind hearing it (yes, hearing it!) again anew. And so, with acknowledgment and appreciation to Pastor Hansen, I bring you his message – and I hope that you will enjoy it as much as I have…
It’s the night before Christmas, and here we all are,
Gathered together from near and from far.
Church members, visitors, family and friends
Have chosen to come here tonight to attend
A service of worship called Christmas – “Christ’s mass.”
And what is this Christmas? Someone may well ask.
Or perhaps no one will. Perhaps it’s all clear.
Perhaps we are well aware why we are here.
It’s not a surprise; we’ll admit that up front;
We’ve know it’s been coming for weeks or for months.
The signs of the season abound everywhere:
The lights in the windows, the songs in the air,
The scents from the oven, the programs, the ads,
The trips to the mall by the moms and the dads,
The cards and the greetings, the weather that’s brisk,
And (for those with good taste) there’s, of course, Lutefisk.
Yes, it’s no surprise that Christmas is here,
It always takes place around this time of year.
But what is it really, this Christmas we cite,
This event that has brought us together tonight?
Just because we’ve been planning and cooking and shopping
And writing and wrapping, almost without stopping –
That we’re busy with Christmas no one can deny.
Tonight may we pause for a bit and ask “Why?”
Some people would say, with some justification,
That much of our frantic advance preparation,
Rather than helping us grasp its true meaning,
Instead can become so much Christmas machining.
We have to do this, or we have to go there,
If we don’t buy them lots, then they’ll think we don’t care.
Is the house clean enough? Do we have enough food?
Is there someone whose name we forgot to include?
Though it leave us exhausted, of mean disposition,
We have to do all this stuff – it’s a tradition!
“No! No!” some would say (or they might even shout),
“This is not at all what Christmas should be about!
The tinsel, the holly, the reindeer and sleigh,
And Santa and Rudolph – just get in the way!
With these cultural trappings our world has devised,
Christmas soon will be totally secularized!”
Could that really happen? Could this great holy day
Be so secularized that it would all pass away?
It is possible Christmas might meet its demise?
It depends on what we mean by “secularize.”
The word, “secular,” as we use it today
Means living as though God were far, far away;
No, it’s actually even more negativist –
It means living as though God just doesn’t exist.
That’s what it means now; and I’d have to admit
That the Church should be rightly concerned about it.
But the word “secular” had a different intent
If we go back to what it originally meant.
“Secular” means, in its root derivation,
“The world,” this earth that is our habitation.
So let me suggest on this most Holy Night
That this meaning of “secular” possibly might
Be a path not to godlessness, unfaith or doubt,
But be a clue to what Christmas is really about.
This baby, this Jesus, whose birthday we note,
The one about whom Luke and Matthew both wrote,
Was not simply any old baby or birth,
But rather was God come to “secular” earth.
It was the divine who shaped all of creation,
The one who was part of the cosmic formation,
The galaxies, billions of planets and stars,
Yes, that same God who from farther than far,
Became, through a marvelous miracle birth
A part of that “Saecula,” part of that earth.
We cannot imagine, we cannot conceive
How a God who is Spirit could possibly leave
Cosmic, eternal and measureless space,
And join with us humans in our time and place.
And not just time and place, but God joined us in life,
To be willingly part of our joy and our strife,
Being vulnerable to all that life brings,
The highs and the lows, the pleasures, the stings.
To know what it’s like to draw that first breath,
But also to go through our suffering and death.
Why would God do this? I wouldn’t. Would you?
If I were God I’ll tell you what I would do.
I’d ask a few people, or take a survey,
Or just rent a video – find out that way.
But that’s not how it happened, not how it was…
For God didn’t need to find out about us.
It’s rather the opposite – though it seem odd –
Christ came so that we could find out about God.
We humans see God as far out, high above;
Christ came to show us that God’s with us, in love.
We tend to think God doesn’t care, doesn’t feel;
Jesus came the compassion of God to reveal.
In the face of God’s power we might we be distraught;
Christ came with the message that we need “fear not!”
We see God as judge of our human behavior;
Christmas tells us that Jesus was born as our Savior.
We think God’s against us – just like Adam and Eve;
God says, “I am for you; won’t you just believe??
Won’t you just trust me, trust in my love?
What do I need to do? Come from above,
Take on human nature, be born there and live,
And even be subject all life can give?
And tell you directly? Must I go all out,
So you’ll know what life in the world is about?
This great plan that I have for the world, for you,
This life in the Spirit I’m inviting you to…
I know you are earthly – I made you that way,
But I never intended that there you would stay.
When I made you as humans, I did not intend
That you’d live and you’d die, and then that be the end.
What I have for you – you can’t even conceive,
You cannot imagine – won’t you just believe?
I want to gift you with my love and my being,
Beyond all your knowing and touching and seeing;
You’re already part of my eternal plan;
I just hope you’ll trust me – as much as you can!
Oh, how can I tell you??” (God seemed to despair),
How can I get you this message down there,
In ways that you won’t disregard or forestall,
Or simply ignore – that’s the cruelest of all!
Must I take on your nature, get your point of view?
Must I give up my God(hood), become one of you?
If I put my divinity up on a shelf
And go through human life just to see for myself,
Will that do it for you? Will you then comprehend
The greatness, the joy and the love I intend?”
Is it possible, friends, that this Christmas event
Was an awesome expression of Godly intent
To join us on earth, in time and in space,
To live with us, love us, assuming our place?
A great Godly idea, divine masterstroke,
So we need not be simply a “secular” folk,
Thinking that all that we hear and we see
Is all that there is, and ever will be.
God offers instead a great cosmos above,
Where there’s infinite, incomprehensible love.
We can’t see it all, God knows, try as we might,
But Christ came long ago on that first Christmas night,
To reach out to us all, to me and to you,
To say that God’s real, that eternity’s true.
Christmas, you see, was God’s great cosmic reach,
Into time from eternity, asking us each,
If I join you below, will you join me above?
If I love you first, will you pass on that love?
If I take on life’s hurts and life’s hates, like you do,
Will you trust that I’ll be there when they afflict you?
If I show you a life of forgiveness and care,
Will it help you to love, to forgive and to share?
If I show that my love’s even stronger than death,
Will that comfort you when you draw your last breath?
In a word, will you trust me, not doubt or despise,
If I come, see it all, through your “secular” eyes?”
May God bless you with a very Merry Christmas, everyone! Amen!
George R. Karres,
Pella Lutheran Church
418 W. Main Street
Sidney, MT 59270