“Near to Us”
I am so glad that all of you decided to come to worship this Christmas Eve. I’m happy about it for several reasons.
One is that it feels good to have a pretty full church on Christmas Eve. Your presence adds to the festive spirit of the night, your voices fill out the singing of carols, and your candles will light up this sanctuary with beauty in a few minutes.
I’m also glad you came tonight because many First Church folk worked hard to make this a special night, and your presence makes those efforts worthwhile. They planned and practised the music. They decorated the sanctuary to convey both meaning and beauty. They printed bulletins, and prepared slides, and arranged all the volunteers to read, and greet, and welcome all our members and visitors and new friends.
For those of you who hesitated to come, I’m glad you did, because I expect that the family or friends who invited you tonight are really happy that you’re here. And, if you just came because of the general, open invitation, and you don’t know anyone here yet, let me say that I am glad that you are here.
While I was writing this homily, I was sitting in a local coffee shop with my notebook and a pen. But while I tried to compose a reflection for tonight, I kept being interrupted by my cell phone vibrating. My friends were chatting on Messenger, arranging Christmas and New Year’s get-togethers.
The technology is handy for connecting with friends and family. I use it regularly to touch base with my siblings in Ontario, and our church Youth Group makes use of it to arrange their events and make sure that everyone is “in the loop.”
But the online chat cannot replace the in-person visits and face-to-face meetings with each other. The apps are great when they facilitate our connections. Like last month, when I arranged to meet an old friend from university during a trip to Ontario.
We re-connected on Facebook several years ago, which was nice. But when we actually met again after more than 20 years apart, it was absolutely amazing! We talked and talked, and laughed and reminisced, and hugged and talked some more! And then we promised to connect again soon.
The main message of Christmas is pretty simple, and also pretty amazing. The theological, churchy word for it is “incarnation” – that God became flesh, became human in Jesus, and lived in the world among us human beings. God came from heaven and took on our human form because God loves us.
Many of us are accustomed to thinking of God exactly as loving us from afar – loving us, but not seeming urgently inclined to be bodily near us. Like our relatives or friends far away who send their love in Christmas cards, texts, or even phone calls, but whom we do not actually see very often.
But the Gospel of Luke, in the Christmas story, sketches the choreography of love for us: When you love someone, you want to be near her. You want to be near him.
I remember that longing well… the summer before I got married, I was serving in a student ministry in Ontario. It was about an hour and a half drive north of Toronto, where my fiancé was living at the time. This was before unlimited cell phone plans, but we racked up our minutes anyway. And every chance I got, I hopped in the car and drove down to the city, even just for half a day!
I love the way commentator Lauren Winner describes God’s deep desire to come to us in Jesus Christ: “Thus the incarnation:” she writes, “the God who loves us does not want to loll around on Mount Olympus, far away, loving us but communicating only via occasional theophanies and text messages. The God who loves wants to be near the creatures God loves.”
Human relationships abundantly illustrate that love engenders a desire for nearness – embodied nearness. Think of the person whose hand you want to reach out and touch right now. Think of the people you are looking forward to embracing in a warm hug tonight, or as soon as possible. Even think of the people you are longing to be near to, even though they are far away, even though they have died, even though you are separated for whatever reason.
And that’s the way God felt about us, human creatures. That’s the way God feels about you. That’s what was going on in Jesus’ birth into this human community, into this physical world.
The attendance tonight at this church, and at churches across the city and around the world is atypical. There are more of us gathered together than on a usual Sunday morning. And the reason is that at Christmas, people have travelled to be with family, and they have done so because when you love someone you want to do more than phone that person and say, “Merry Christmas” – you want to be with them in the flesh.
Just as the shepherds in our story tonight travelled to be with the object of their love, so many of you have travelled to be near your beloved family members or friends.
The Good News of Christmas is that God loves us so much that God wanted to come near to us. And in the physical presence of Jesus of Nazareth, God came to be with us – to love us, to teach us, to lead us, and to embrace us as God’s beloved children.
The invitation of Christmas is first of all to receive the gift of God’s coming to us. And second, it is to respond to that gift – to recognize God’s coming, to get up, and go to meet God with joy.
I admit that I almost always choose “Oh come, all ye faithful” for the opening carol on Christmas Eve. It just feels right for this night, and the reason may be that the lyrics are directly responsive to the Gospel message of Luke chapter 2 that we always read this night.
“After establishing, in stanzas 1 & 2, that God ‘abhors not the Virgin’s womb’ and came to earth in the form of a baby, most of the song is actually about the way the people (and angels) respond to God’s arrival: God draws near and, empowered by God’s love, we come to God.
“Thus, in the third stanza, the shepherds, summoned to the cradle of Jesus, leave their flocks and ‘draw nigh to gaze.’ It is not good for the shepherds to stay home and ruminate about the birth of Jesus. The shepherds are supposed to go; and we are supposed to go. ‘We too will thither,’ says the song, which is why you left your cozy homes, and interrupted family dinners, or postponed final wrapping, and ‘thithered’ to church.
I am, indeed, glad that you are here. I pray tonight that you will know and experience the God who loves you so much that God just had to come near to you in Jesus. And I pray that you also will respond to the invitation to draw near to God, not only tonight, but each and every day of your lives.
God has come near, and God is waiting with open arms to welcome you with a warm embrace.