In the name of Emmanuel, God with us. Amen.
One of the most important words in the Christian faith, I believe, is the word “therefore.”
It’s not a word we use much in casual conversation these days, but it’s one of the most frequently used words in the Christian scriptures. It’s used almost 1000 times in the New Testament, which makes sense. The New Testament is basically a long “therefore.” It’s a record of people looking at the life Jesus of Nazareth – his teaching and healing, his birth, death, and resurrection – and asking the question of what it means. Jesus is born, therefore…Therefore what, what does it all mean?
So that is my question for all of us this evening: Jesus is born, therefore…what? What does the birth of Christ mean to you, to you right now, in your day to day life? What difference does it make? What is your therefore?
Because if Christmas means anything, it has to mean something after tonight. It has to mean something after the tree comes down and the leftovers are eaten and the wrapping paper is recycled. If Christmas means anything, it has to be lived out in our day to day lives. It has to have implications for what we believe, how we treat our neighbors. It has to spill over into our work, our families, our relationships. There has to be a therefore.
Perhaps the question of what Jesus’ birth means for us has a particular intensity this year. This is our second covid Christmas, and we’re a bit more jaded and tired and sad this time around – or at least I am. There’s not the same energy and hope, the same sense that we’re close to the end and if we stick together we can make it across the finish line.
For me, at least, this Christmas has a pared-down quality. Many of the usual traditions and gatherings have been stripped away again, for yet another year. Once again, we are worrying about whether or not to see our families – so much of what we love about the season is gone.
But the grace in this pandemic Christmas is that with everything stripped away, we are left with the time and space to consider the bare bones of the Christmas story, the reality at the center of all of this.
And the story of Jesus’ birth, even divested of its usual decoration, shines with a new urgency and intensity this year. Perhaps we are aware in a new way of the brokenness of the world around us, of how far we are from the way things should be. Perhaps, because everything is changing around us, we are more aware of our need for a center that can hold; more aware of the mysterious importance of this story we tell again and again in good times and in bad.
So, as we gaze at this story, perhaps with fewer distractions, perhaps with more intensity and urgency, we are invited to ask – what does it mean in our lives, in our day-to-day walking around lives, that Jesus was born?
It’s hard sometimes to push past the easy answers to that question, the churchy answers: Jesus is born, therefore I should be nicer; Jesus is born, therefore I should feel guilty about this or that. The story of Jesus’ birth invites us to push past that stuff and try to get to our souls, to what we really believe, the deep convictions of our hearts. Jesus is born, therefore…what exactly? What does it mean for you, for you right now? What is your therefore?
I do this for a living, and sometimes I still find it strangely hard to articulate exactly what the birth of Christ means, exactly what we are celebrating. But I find some comfort in knowing that we stand in a long line of people going back 2000 years who wrestled with that same question.
When the Angel Gabriel told Mary that she would give birth to the Son of God, she had her own therefore: Mary said that with the birth of this child, “God has brought down the powerful from their thrones and lifted up the lowly; God has filled the hungry with good things and sent the rich away empty.” Jesus is born, therefore the poor are lifted up. Jesus is born, therefore the values of the world are turned upside down.
In the Gospel of Matthew, an angel of the Lord tells a very confused and upset Joseph that Jesus has come to save the people from their sins. That is a wonderful therefore. Jesus is born, therefore we are rescued from the messes we get ourselves into, from the injustices we commit and participate in passively. Jesus is born, therefore we are forgiven and accepted for who we truly are.
Angels told the shepherds that the birth of Jesus meant that they had a savior who would bring peace to the earth. Jesus is born, therefore we are saved from whatever threatens us. Jesus is born, therefore we are brought from the cold night into the very presence of God.
The writer of the Gospel of John puts it this way: Christ is born, therefore “the light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it.”
One of my favorite therefores comes from the thought of the Early Church in the east. For them, God came to share in human life so that we can become a part of the life of God. Once humanity and divinity came together in Jesus of Nazareth, they could never be separated. Jesus is born, therefore Jesus is within me forever. I cannot be separated from God, no matter what, even by death. St. Paul calls this the great mystery – Christ within me, the hope of glory. Quite a therefore.
Jesus is born…therefore our hope lies not in political leaders; not in congress or state legislators or presidents, but in the work of God through human beings.
Jesus is born…therefore we should always be ready for the divine to interrupt human life.
Jesus is born…therefore I am never alone.
Jesus is born…therefore God is ruler of the earth, not the powers of this world.
Jesus is born…therefore God is seeking us just as passionately as we are seeking God.
Jesus is born…therefore love wins over hate; Jesus is born, therefore our lives have purpose and meaning. Jesus is born, therefore…therefore…therefore…
So what is YOUR therefore this Christmas? What does the birth of Jesus mean to you?
I invite you to take a moment. Not to get too California about it, but close your eyes or take a couple of deep breaths if it helps you to concentrate. And take yourself to Bethlehem. Put yourself in the stable, with the sheep and the shepherds, the animals and the angels, Mary and Joseph. Orient the whole of yourself toward that manger, and ask yourself, what does the birth of Jesus mean to me? How will the story of Christmas impact my life in the days to come?
Go past the easy answers. Take a moment to listen, to get to that deep place in your heart. Keep your eyes on Jesus for as long as you can. Jesus is born. What will that mean for you?
I’ve just joined this parish as Interim Rector, so of course I wanted to impress everyone and have something new and brilliant to say, some fantastic new insight into the Christmas story that no one has ever thought of.
But of course, when push comes to shove, there is nothing new to say. The only thing worth saying is something very old. Very old and deep and truer than anything else we know.
And it’s this: “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.”
That story is old, and pure, and true.
There is only one new thing about that story: new every Christmas, new every morning – and that is your response. Your therefore.
To live well is to live every day as a therefore, as a response to the love for us God showed in Bethlehem 2000 years ago. Jesus is born! Therefore…