It happens around Thanksgiving every year. I see it coming, and I dread it. I dread the thought of climbing up into the attic and pulling down the boxes of Christmas decorations. Not that I don’t like Christmas, because I do. But it just seems like so much work, so much dust, so much headache for so short a season. And then you get all the boxes down and you start going through all the stuff again. Is this the garland that goes over the front door? Which Nativity scene does this baby Jesus go with? Do we really have to put up all the ornaments on the tree? Even the tacky ones?
The same thing happens at the church. Where did we store the Nativity scene? Did you get all the little candles for singing Silent Night? And for me, I read the story of Jesus’ birth, and I ask myself all over again - what is this about?
Really, what is this all about? Why in the world do we come to church, at night, in the middle of December? Why on earth would we celebrate some baby who was born two thousand years ago, to parents who were ethnic minorities, forced to travel for three days to pay an unjust tax to a foreign government? What is going on?
The world has plenty of answers for these questions. Christmas, they say, is a time for family meals. Christmas, they say, is a time for shopping, and gifts, and sending a card to your college roommate that you haven’t seen in years. Christmas, they say, is a time for sappy music and nostalgia.
Now, I don’t have the energy to rail against the commercialism of Christmas. The sentimentality of this night is often rooted in love and fond memories. And there is nothing evil in that. But here’s what I do have to say - in the midst of all that, do not be fooled. For tonight is not even about a manger, or shepherds, or an inn with no room. What is tonight all about? It is about the cross. Make no mistake - what starts here tonight at the manger is the precursor to what will happen at the cross. Think about it - baby Jesus is wrapped in swaddling clothes, held by his mother, and laid in a cave that was a barn. This is precise foreshadowing of Jesus’ death. He will be taken down from the cross, wrapped in a burial shroud, placed in the arms of his grieving mother, and laid in a cave that was his tomb. His birth sets the stage for his death. Tonight, this holy night, I ask you to peel back all those layers of sentimentality, to open the boxes that you have long hidden in the attic of your soul, to see what Christmas is really about. It is about a God who loves us so dearly that God is willing to be born as one of us yes, and to die as one of us.
This may not be the kind of Christmas Eve sermon you are used to hearing. Be that as it may. We’ve all heard the quaint sermons about little baby Jesus in a crib. We’ve heard the cute reflections on the cattle and the sheep. But in this volatile, uncertain, and chaotic world, we have no more time for half truths and superficial nonsense. No, in 2017 - with all the horror and worry and anxiety that we have been through this year - we need something real. We need something that will save us. We need the cross.
See, the manger will not help us overcome an epidemic of addiction to pain pills. The swaddling clothes alone do not have the power to give hope in the face of flooded homes. The lowing cattle and the bleating sheep will not save you from worrying about whether you can make it to the next paycheck, or whether we’ll plunge into nuclear war. The shepherds will not set you free. We need more than the manger, we need the cross.
And tonight, tonight is about power. Again, the birth of Jesus sets the stage for his death. Jesus was powerless at the manger as an infant; Jesus was powerless on the cross as our Lord. Both the manger and the cross are a warning to the rulers of this world who flaunt their power. It might seem that they are stronger than a baby. It might seem that they are stronger than someone who was executed on a cross. But actually God is the one who has the power, precisely because God is the one who is willing to let go of everything. It’s in letting go that true power is found. Tonight is a warning - if you seek power in this life, you will end up empty handed. If your god is the dollar, you will end up broke. If all you want to do is climb the ladder for the ladder’s sake, you will find that the ladder leads to nowhere. Tonight is a warning.
But if you empty yourself as Jesus emptied himself at the manger and at the cross, only then you will know the power of love. Tonight is a gift. When you need to remember that God loves you, empty yourself to the cross. When you want to rejoice because God has done something great in your life, cling to the cross. When you need the courage to face your daily life - to drive your spouse to chemotherapy, to pick up your kid from the principal’s office, or just to face your own inner worries - look to the cross. The cross is the surest sign that God loves you no matter what, even through death.
In a few days you will pack up your Christmas decorations again. The tacky elves, the sparkly lights, the stockings, will go back into the boxes to collect dust in your attic for the next year. At church, we’ll celebrate Christmas for the next twelve days, but even we will move out the poinsettias and pack up the nativity scene. This manger will go back into our attic. But the cross, the cross isn’t going anywhere. It’s bolted to the wall. God loves for you will never, never change.
Tonight, of all nights, enjoy the music, the carols, the sheep, the donkeys, the manger and all that. But in the next couple of days, it will feel as if Christmas is over. Do not be fooled. Do not think that Christmas is the end of a journey. No, tonight is the beginning of a journey, of our journey to the cross. Tonight is the beginning of the journey to know the full power of God’s love.