I love being here at St. Paul’s on Christmas Eve. And I am happy to be in the pulpit giving a Christmas message.
I am asked sometimes if it is hard to preach on Christmas Eve? And the answer is yes and no.
Yes, it is hard to find the right words, but preaching the Good News to lots of people is always a thrill!
Yes, it is hard to prepare words that will communicate the Gospel in a way that will invite people to come closer. I certainly wouldn’t want to drive anyone away.
My prayer is that people would want to come closer to God and to his Church. The Church is a gift of the Holy Spirit. Yes, the Church has had failures, but I believe the Church at her best nurtures and trains people for a life of service and discipleship. The Church has rescued wretches and brought sanctity to sinners.
Now, something has been put on my heart this year about how the Church (and the ministers therein) effectively proclaim the Gospel.
We must never be deceptive – [even in our efforts to put our best foot forward , and I can’t think of more beautiful introduction to the Church than St. Paul’s Church in Troy on Christmas Eve. Speaking of putting one’s best foot forward! St. Paul’s is indeed a ‘well turned ankle.’] We must never be deceptive. The preacher may try not to be needlessly offensive, but he must not be deceptive.
Just before the Eucharist we held a short service of Lessons and Carols. It is modeled on the one at King’s College, England, which was first presented in 1918. King’s College uses nine lessons – we have three. I hope you enjoyed the Lessons and Carols, and the reading of “The night before Christmas.”
It was brought to my attention that the King’s College lesson from Genesis, chapter 3 – drops verse 16 out of the reading. The verse is simply skipped over as though it were not there.
“16 To the woman he said, “I will greatly multiply your pain in childbearing; in pain you shall bring forth children, yet your desire shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you.”” Genesis 3:16, RSV.
We included the verse in the Lessons & Carols tonight.
Now, the discerning (or picky) bulletin reader will no doubt notice that in the second lesson from the Eucharistic readings from Isaiah, chapter 9, the 5th verse has been dropped. Here is the distinction: Verse 5 in Chapter 9 of Isaiah says essentially the same thing verse 4 says – only more indelicately. I think it is all right on Christmas Eve to do that.
Verse 16 of Genesis 3 is another matter entirely. I do not want to needlessly offend any of you, but it is very important that I don’t try to trick you. And that is why we left the verse in the reading tonight.
There are many things in the Bible I do not understand – may God enlighten me – but Genesis 3:16 is not that hard.
In the beginning the man and the woman were made in the image of God. They were both given responsibility for the earth and to populate it. The destruction of the complementary relationship between the man and the woman can be described as a consequence of the Fall from Grace. The eyes of faith have seen this as a curse from God, just as our own children think being grounded is unfair punishment, even when it is a reasonable consequence of their behavior.
I think we can make the case that God intended (before sin entered human hearts) that men and women would have a relationship of shared responsibility. It is only after the Fall that men “rule over” women and that these relationships will be characterized by conflict. I don’t read this verse as suggesting this is God’s intention for human relationships.
I take the time to go over this to say that the Church commits a mistake when we make no intellectual demands on visitors or our own members. Or, if we give the impression that the biblical text says something it doesn’t say, or does not say something it does say.
The birth narratives about Jesus in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke are stories I love to hear every year. They are important to the celebration of Christmas. We make a mistake if we try to debunk them as only mythologies. And we make another mistake if we overreact and try to defend every detail as historically accurate.
Please remember, the people who wrote the Gospels were close to the Apostles. And after the death and resurrection of Jesus they had time to reflect on what happened. That in order for these things to take place, God must have sent Jesus. And that God must have planned all this ahead of time. Part of the point of the nativity story is that Jesus didn’t just one day wake up and latch on to a really cool idea. No, all along, even before Jesus was born in Bethlehem, there was a plan in place.
Jesus was sent into the world to rescue us. To give us back our ability to be, once again, the fulfillment of God’s original plan for creation. We had lost that capacity. Some say that if we all try hard enough we can do it on our own.
No, I think the men will still try to rule.
I get choked up thinking God loves us so much that, instead of starting over with something else – or sending someone down to force us to behave, or hitting the worst of us with lightening bolts to scare the rest of us – God came up with this plan.
No, God loves us so much he came down to be with us – to have a personal relationship. It is a revolution in the relationship between the creator and the creation. The first time, God said, “You are great, now be good.” and Adam said, “Right,” and went out and did wrong. And things went downhill from there.
We have been given the greatest gift in Jesus.
Jesus is right here with us tonight, and he wants a relationship with you.
“2 The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness, on them has light shined. 6 For to us a child is born, to us a son is given.(Isaiah 9:2,6, RSV)
Merry Christmas, and Amen.