To You, With Love
Readings from Luke 1-2
Rev. Dr. Donna Giver-Johnston
It’s Christmas Eve--all of our shopping is done. Yes?
We have looked high and low, in stores and online, but our quest to find the perfect gift is over.
We have made lists and checked them twice and even ten times, but they are all checked off.
And even if we did not get everything done we wanted to do, it is enough.
Now we get to sit back and enjoy the gift and the gifts of Christmas.
And we are never too old or skeptical for the joy we feel when someone gives us a gift with our name on it.
But in this season, we are looking for more…more than a sweater or scarf, more than a necktie or nut roll, more than boots or beer, even more than the latest Apple or Alexa device.
We are looking for hope and peace in the midst of the world’s despair and division.
We are looking for joy and love in the midst of our own grief and fear.
We are looking for light in the midst of the darkness.
We are looking for something maybe we cannot even name…And so we come to church.
And we hear the familiar story of a couple who had a baby in Bethlehem long long ago.
It is so familiar that we know it by heart.
It is so familiar we may wonder if there is anything in it that just might be what we are looking for.
We hear the words: Gabriel and Galilee, Mary and Elizabeth, throne and virgin, and Holy Spirit.
We hear Emperor Augustus and Quirinius, Joseph and Judea, angels and shepherds, manger and Messiah.
Theologians use big words to describe these stories: annunciation, incarnation, and emmanuel.
But as I read the stories again, what jumped off the page for me was not the names or the places or the titles or the theological terms….what I noticed were two little often overlooked words: to and with.
An angel came to Mary and said “the Lord is with you” and “nothing is impossible with God.”
An angel came to the shepherds and said, “I bring good news for all people--to you is born a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.”
To and with--two small words, but together they carry the weight of the Christmas story.
God comes to each one us. And God is with us all.
One of my favorite Christmas traditions is decorating our Christmas tree. We pull out the boxes of ornaments and take out each one and remember the stories--the rocking horse is from Rebecca’s first Christmas. The snowmen is from the year Christian was born and we became a family of four. The dog bone is from our first dog Miley. The seashell is from Belmar, NJ, and the guitar from Nashville, TN. So many good memories now fill our tree. We save the angel for last. And every year, for 27 years, she has graced the top of our tree, looking down on us from on high throughout the Christmas season. But, this year because of allergies, we switched to an artificial tree. But the tree was too tall, and the angel would not fit. We put a star on top. But, what about the angel? I hated to pack her away in the box. I decided to put her on our buffet in the dining room as a decoration. But I soon realized she was more than that. During dinner as we were having conversations and laughing together, during time of doing homework and grad school applications and emails and writing sermons, during times of writing Christmas cards and wrapping presents, during times of eating a quick breakfast and rushing out the door, I noticed she was close to us. She was not perched up high looking down. She had come down to us and for me, has served as a simple reminder of how God is with us.
In The Nazareth Manifesto, Samuel Wells argues that everything boils down to that little word with: “With is the most important word in theology. With is the most fundamental thing about God.” God came down to earth in Jesus, whose name is Emmanuel, meaning God with us.
Truth is, God is with us…
In good times and in bad. In joy and in sorrow. In sickness and in health. In life and in death.
God is with us always.
And God calls us to be with others, especially those who the world has turned its back on. Wells says “what grieves the world most is loneliness, exclusion, isolation, and neglect.” And these things can only be addressed by truly being with a person. One of the greatest challenges for us is to learn to be really present with another person even and especially when nothing we can say or do will result in their total transformation.” The call to be with asks us to be humble learners who begin to grasp, as Wells puts it, that “it is simply being there and not closing our eyes that matters most.” (Heidi Husted Armstrong, Pastor, Seattle.)
This is not easy to do. It is not easy to just be with someone. Without agendas or answers. Without distraction or dismissal. But, especially in the Christmas season, it is hard to take the time to just be with someone or just be with ourselves or harder still, just be with God.
When did it happen to you? Did you have a moment in the hustle and bustle of the season when your worries turned to wonder? When your anxiety turned to awe? When your hectic pace turned to holy stillness? When you could just be in the moment with the magic of the season, when you finally found what you were looking for? It happened to me during the church Children’s Pageant on the third Sunday of Advent.
Grayson, a quiet 2 year old boy, was anxious and sat on his mother’s lap eating cheerios. He was willing to put on the headpiece of fluffy ears to be a sheep, but not willing to go with the other kids to be in the pageant. But, as soon as Mary and Joseph made their way to the stable and put the baby Jesus in the manger, Grayson left his mother’s lap immediately, put down his snack, and made a beeline for the manger. Before any of the other kids in animal or angel costumes, Grayson was there. He just couldn’t wait. He had to see it for himself. He had to be with Jesus. And he was. He sat down by the manger and he proceeded to touch the face of the baby doll Jesus. He touched his cheeks and patted his tummy. He could not take his eyes off of this baby Jesus. He wouldn’t leave. He just sat there with Jesus with wide-eyed wonder. And he looked out at us as if to ask, “What are you waiting for? Come and see. He’s right here with us.”
No matter why you came tonight or what you are looking for, I am here to give you good news:
God is giving you the best Christmas gift money cannot buy.
To you is born this day a Savior who is called Emmanuel, meaning God with us.
God comes down to each one of you and promises to be with all of us in the days ahead, and forever more.
In this gift is the hope and peace and joy and love you are looking for.
In this gift is the light of the world, a light no darkness can overcome.
There will be a time to share this gift in the days ahead through acts of love and mercy, of being with others. But for now, in this moment, we only have to do one thing:
All you have to do is to open your eyes and see, open your heart and receive the gift that comes to you
on this silent holy night, from God, with a tag that reads: To you, with love.
Thanks be to God. Amen.