Just a couple of years before he died, Martin Luther preached one of his last Christmas sermons. In it, he challenged his 16thcentury German congregation to bring the nativity into the present moment – the present reality.
Martin Luther described the squalor and desperation swirling around Mary and Joseph arriving late in Bethlehem and not finding room in the inn, leaving them to give birth to Jesus in a small barn out back. Then, he said:
There are many of you in this congregation who think to yourselves: “If only I had been there! How quick I would have been to help the baby! I would have washed his linen!” … [Well] Why don’t you do it now? You have Christ in your neighbour. You ought to serve them, for what you do to your neighbour in need you do to the Lord Christ himself. That was preached in 1543.
At Christmas 2018, we are not just called to hear the story again, but to be in it, part of it.
Essentially, Martin Luther was getting at the meaning of Christmas for his contemporaries. And for us, today. How can we be inspired by the children, the music, the gifts we bring at Christmas to step out of the nativity ‘play’, and into the real story unfolding around us today?
We share in the communion tonight. In the chaos, noise and crowd, celebrating the sacrament might not fit our idea of a neat-and-tidy, perfect Christmas service. It’s hard to sentimentalize the Eucharist.
But it’s important to offer it tonight. Because the sacrament brings us to the present moment. The meal tells the story of Jesus being in our hearts—not decades ago when things were golden and sweet in our memories, not two thousand years ago, not in the Martin Luther’s day, not lost in words of scripture alone—but right here, right now, in the present day, in our own experience of life in this world.
Receiving the bread and cup doesn’t mean your life is perfect, doesn’t mean you are now ready for Christmas, doesn’t mean y our life is in order and worthy of God.
When you receive the Communion, you are affirming that God is somewhere in the mess and chaos of your life. Our life. Emmanuel–God with us.
Celebrating Christ’s birth does not bring us outof history, it involves us with it—in the present time.The Christmas story gets lived out by our attention and care for the dark shadows in our own hearts, as well as reaching out to vulnerable people in our world.
I heard with dismay on the local radio station last week that the City of Ottawa is putting up 230 families in cheap hotels this Christmas, where they have to live for over a year before social housing spots open up. Talk about conditions of squalor entire families, all of them poor, need to live in at Christmas. And we’re not talking about a handful. Two Hundred and Thirty families, in Ottawa alone.
Have we considered that when we pray for and help in whatever way we can these people, we are serving Christ himself? After all, our Lord was a refugee himself right after his birth, fleeing to Egypt with his parents to get away from Herod’s violent and murderous intent.
Popular TSN Hockey Insider Bob McKenzie just came out with a book this Fall entitled: “Everyday Hockey Heroes: Inspiring Stories on and off the Ice”
In one chapter about an inspiring Ottawa story, Bob McKenzie relays the words of Karina Potvin, a minor hockey coach. She writes: “So much about Canada is welcoming. Well, except maybe our winters, but they’re a small price to pay in order to play hockey …”
As Karina watched on the news refugees being greeted at the airport, she writes: “I knew I wanted to help these new Canadians feel at home. I just wasn’t sure how.
“A few months later I was at practice when I saw one of my fellow coaches … coming towards the bench … [he had a] new idea for Reach Out. Reach Out is a program in our hockey association that helps low income families pay for equipment and registration fees so that their kids can join our league …
“‘You know how my wife and I have been working with some of the Syrian families who have settled here in Ottawa?’ He went on, ‘We took a family to …[a] game last week, and their sons absolutely loved it. They had never heard of hockey before, but they want to play.’
Karina ended up coaching three boys—Mohammed, Ahmad and Ismael—who quickly got the hang of skating. “They’re all over the ice!”
“The three boys breathed hockey all day, every day. As did their parents. By midseason, the parents were typical Canadian hockey moms and dads.
“One Arabic word I learned was hebbak which means “I love you.” Sometimes when we were on the bench, I would turn to Mohammed and say it. He always gave me a strange look.
“’Yeah, I just told you that I love you. Because you’re playing really well tonight and listening to us coaches.’
“He shook his head, ‘Coach Karina, you’re weird.’
“’If you ever make the NHL and they ask you who was your first and favourite coach, you have to say Coach Karina.’
“’Yes, of course.’ He laughed.
“’And if you ever play for the Senators, you have to get me tickets.’ Every time I said this, he would smile and reply, ‘Yes. Yes. Yes.’”
Just imagine: The year before, these kids had been in a refugee camp in Lebanon. Now, they were playing hockey just like so many other kids in Canada.
May the first Christmas story become alive and real for you, as the Christ child is born anew in your hearts thisday.
Here are the words of American writer Madeleine L’Engle in a poem entitled “First Coming”:
He did not wait till the world was ready,
till men and nations were at peace.
He came when the Heavens were unsteady,
and prisoners cried out for release.
He did not wait for the perfect time.
He came when the need was deep and great.
He dined with sinners in all their grime,
turned water into wine.
He did not wait till hearts were pure.
In joy he came to a tarnished world of sin and doubt.
To a world like ours, of anguished shame
he came, and his Light would not go out.
He came to a world which did not mesh,
to heal its tangles, shield its scorn.
In the mystery of the Word made Flesh
the Maker of the stars was born.
We cannot wait till the world is sane
to raise our songs with joyful voice,
for to share our grief, to touch our pain,
He came with Love: Rejoice! Rejoice!
Martin Luther, Christmas Sermon, 1543; Matthew 25:45
Lcfaithinthenight.blogspot.com, 19 Dec 2018, (Lutherans Connect, @LuTConnect).
Gustavo Gutierrez, cited in LutheransConnect, ibid.
With Jim Lang (Toronto: Simon & Schuster, 2018)
The full story in ibid., p.45-56