Christmas Eve Sermon (2013)

Christmas Eve
Texts: Luke 2:1-20;
Isaiah 9:2-9


[Note: in the chancel in front of the altar is a table with a basin of water and a realistic baby doll sitting in it. Next to the basin are some bath salts.]

Grace, mercy, and peace be to you on this marvelous Christmas night! One of the joyful elements of Christmas is that it involves the birth of a baby, one of the most wonderful times in anyone’s life. Whether it’s as parents, grandparents, aunts & uncles, we remember those moments of welcoming a new child into the world. Good news of great joy!

We have several Christmas-time birthdays in our household. Josh’s birthday was just on Sunday. And I always spend time pondering and cherishing those memories. It’s amazing how much I can remember. Ellen isn’t always pleased that I can also remember that when they had her rest for a while, it coincided with the Lions game being on. So I remember that the Lions beat the Buffalo Bills to finish their best season in the last fifty years, the only one with a playoff victory. Alas! As I remembered this on Sunday, I found myself apologizing to Josh for raising him as a Lions fan, as they crashed and burned for another disappointing season. Honestly, though, I do remember much more from Josh’s birth than the Lions game, including that miraculous moment of birth.

Tonight I’d like for us to remember one aspect of the birthing process that we might often forget. Babies are born needing their first baths. It’s not the first thing that happens, because the fluid that we are born with gives some protection and even has pheromones to help jump start the bonding. Amazing, isn’t it? But sometime in that first 24 hours a baby receives its first bath.

Throughout Advent the sermons focused on an object or image under the theme of the Word from God we see. Tonight I offer the image of a baby needing a bath. God’s word made flesh in the baby Jesus came into this world in need of a bath like all other babies. What did they have in an animal shelter for that first washing? Did they need to use water from the animal troughs? Part of the miracle of Christmas is that God’s Word of Love comes into this world in such vulnerable conditions — not just being human itself, but also being human on the edges of human power. He was not born in a palace to be washed in ample water and covered with warm clothes, but in a barn among the animals, washed in their water, and wrapped in bands of cloth.

But Luke is also insistent on giving us the big picture of what this birth means for the world. He gives us the political setting: Augustus Caesar was in power, hailed as the son of a God lording over the Roman Empire. Quirinius was the local governor. The angel declares not only a message of good news of great joy for all people, but it is also a subversive message, using titles reserved for Caesar in that culture: “Savior” and “the Lord.” Proclaiming someone else other than Caesar as “the Lord” in that culture, was like calling someone else the Führer in Nazi Germany.

So I’d like this image of the baby bath to also convey the big picture of what Christmas means. God in Jesus the Messiah, the Lord, comes to save us from our sinful culture.

Numerous times this fall I’ve used this metal bowl as a metaphor for our human culture and talked about the sinful aspect of culture as a crack in the container. Tonight I’d like to add the element of water as part of that metaphor for the culture that contains us. And I’d especially like to call to mind that well-known piece of wisdom: “Don’t throw the baby out with the bath water.” Wikipedia explains that this phrase is “used to suggest an avoidable error in which something good is eliminated when trying to get rid of something bad, or in other words, rejecting the essential along with the inessential.” Fairly standard, right? But here’s what I found really interesting. Wikipedia goes on to say:

A slightly different explanation suggests that this flexible catchphrase has to do with discarding the essential while retaining the superfluous because of excessive zeal. In other words, the idiom is applicable not only when it’s a matter of throwing out the baby with the bath water, but also when someone might throw out the baby and keep the bath water.

Throw out the baby and keep the bath water. This is what I’d like to suggest is the way of human culture. Kingdom after kingdom, nation after nation, has proceeded through history as a throwing out of the baby and a keeping of the bath water. What I mean is that human culture has been based on identifying someone as evil and throwing them out. The bath water of our cultures has been based on throwing people out. The culture of expulsion remains in empire after empire; it’s the people who are expendable.

The Roman Empire was a good example, based on keeping peace by killing all opposition. Jesus’ own people had the same culture in reverse, desiring to expel their oppressors. They dreamed of peace by having a Messiah to throw out the Romans. So we might say that the baby Jesus grew up with the mission of exposing our dirty bath water precisely by letting himself be thrown out. He let himself be labeled a blasphemer by his own people and thrown to their enemies the Romans. He let himself be declared an opponent of Caesar, the Lord, by the Romans and duly executed on the cross, that instrument of torture created especially for Rome’s opponents.

Is our bath water today any cleaner? Perhaps in some ways. But how much are our politics based on being against an opponent, the person we see as not like us? Or how much are our economics based on dividing between the inequality of rich and poor with the latter excluded from the bounty? Pope Francis, in his new encyclical titled The Joy of the Gospel, has sparked some controversy by being critical of our Western economics, which he calls an “economy of exclusion.” I received my copy yesterday, and here’s a brief excerpt:

How can it be that it is not a news item when an elderly homeless person dies of exposure, but it is news when the stock market loses two points? This is a case of exclusion. Can we continue to stand by when food is thrown away while people are starving? This is a case of inequality. Today everything comes under the laws of competition and the survival of the fittest, where the powerful feed upon the powerless. As a consequence, masses of people find themselves excluded and marginalized: without work, without possibilities, without any means of escape. Human beings are themselves considered consumer goods to be used and then discarded. We have created a “throw away” culture which is now spreading. (#53, pp. 27-28)

As Christians, we don’t have to agree all the details of the diagnosis, and we might have some differences in the treatment. But the Good News of great joy for all the people that comes at Christmas does compel us to take seriously the sin that dirties the bath water of our human cultures, the elements within them that lead to inequality and exclusion. We live in a bath water that tends to make throw away people.

But here’s the really good news of Christmas: even when we take the risk of recognizing the sinfulness of our very cultures, our politics and economics, God in Jesus the Messiah didn’t come to throw out either the baby or the bath water. God’s way of salvation is based on transformation, not expulsion. God’s way of salvation is based on a love and forgiveness which is meant to heal us, not punish or reject us. And the same is true of our cultures. Jesus came to clean us up and sweeten the water once again. And he calls us to be disciples, followers, of this way of peace and salvation. We are called not to a revolution to overthrow anyone or any system. We are called to be light and salt. We are called to reflect the light of God’s love and forgiveness. We are called to be bath salts, if you will, to sweeten the water once again. [Sprinkling some salts into the water.]

In the days of President Barack Obama, when Rick Snyder is governor of Michigan, you and I are called to let Jesus the Messiah be born in our lives. You and I are called to be bath salts to sweeten the water of our politics and economics. That, my friends, is the “Joy of the Gospel” that we celebrate tonight. Amen

Paul J. Nuechterlein
Delivered at Prince of Peace Lutheran,
Portage, MI, December 24, 2013

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