First Sunday of Christmas

First Sunday of Christmas

Wicker Park Lutheran Church

Vicar Taylor Walker

December 31, 2023

For months we have been hearing Christmas music in stores. For months
we have been buying presents and booking flights and scheduling holiday
parties and looking forward to seeing loved ones. For months we have
been thinking, planning, stressing, hoping.

And now… it’s over. Our savior was born right on schedule, on December
, and now the world is moving on. Actually, it only took two days for my
mother to bring up boxes from the basement so we could put all the
Christmas ornaments away. If you look up and down the street this week,
you’ll see people unwinding their lights, putting away their decorations,
tucking dying trees at the curb. For the world, Christmas is over.

But for the church, we are right in the middle of it.

We are gathered today right in the middle of the season of Christmas. We
still have the candles, the manger, the incense. We are still celebrating.

But it’s harder now – harder than it was last week. Last week there was a
thousand candles and champagne and a huge crowd to celebrate with, and
this week… no champagne, no crowd. People are tired, and many are still
far from home. This is a tender time. Indeed, on this day of the liturgical
year, on this day in our congregational life, “the cost of gift giving has been
more than some [people] can bear.” Pastor Shelley Copeland wrote, “Some
families entered the sacred season with great expectations only to discover

it was not what they thought it was.” Therefore the season of Christmas “is
the time beyond means and beyond expectations.”

What is true for us now was true for Mary and Joseph back then. Luke tells
us that the holy family has been very busy – at the beginning of Mary’s
pregnancy they journeyed from where they lived in Nazareth to Jerusalem
to meet Elizabeth, then they went to Bethlehem where Jesus was born,
then they carried their newborn baby back to Nazareth where they stayed
at home so Mary could heal.

I think it’s safe to say that Mary and Joseph were physically and
emotionally exhausted. Yeah, sure, they had that really cute manger scene
with the shepherds and stuff, but then they had to go back home, and they
were alone. New parents, looking down at their baby who was named by
an angel and called the anointed one of God, and yet he looked like any
other baby. He was tiny and fragile and he got sick and hungry and cried. I
wonder how many nights he screamed with colic. I wonder if anyone
brought them food. I wonder if Mary worried that he would die young, as
many babies did in those days.

In our story today, the baby Jesus is forty days old. He’s still a newborn –
he’s tiny. He can’t hold his head up yet, or focus his eyes. But, officially, it’s
the time to go. So they left home yet again to take Jesus to the Temple in
Jerusalem and present him to God, according to the laws of Moses.

Luke tells us that Mary and Joseph brought with them a sacrificial offering,
to be presented to a priest at the temple of the Lord. The law of Moses that
they were following is from Leviticus, chapter 12. The law says that when a
baby is presented, the parents are to offer a young lamb and a dove to a
priest who will then sacrifice it on their behalf to God. But Mary and Joseph
could not afford a lamb and a dove. Luke says they brought along two
pigeons. This was the sacrifice that was appointed to people were living in
destitute poverty.

God’s only son, the king of the world, born to human parents who couldn’t
afford to fulfill the social and financial expectation of their religion. Mary and
Joseph faced a painful reality that many poor people of faith face today –
this reality that full participation in temple life, full participation in church life,
requires an expenditure of resources of money and time and energy that
you don’t always have to spare.

Somehow, they made the journey. Somehow they found a few copper
coins to buy pigeons to be sacrificed. But something strange happened
when they finally arrive at the temple.

Simeon, a devout man of God who spent much time in the temple, had
been told that he would not die until he saw with his own eyes the messiah.
And when he saw these two young parents walk in, holding their baby,
holding two pigeons in a cage, he would have known that they were
parents coming to present their baby, and that they were extremely poor.
Yet Simeon can hardly wait until Mary and Joseph have crossed the
threshold of the temple – he interrupts them, keeps them from walking by and finding a priest to do the ceremony snatches the newborn Jesus out of
Mary’s arms and says, “My God, with my own eyes I have seen your
salvation, that you have prepared in the presence of all the people.” Our
English translation says that Mary and Joseph were “amazed” by what he
said, but actually the Greek word means something more like bewildered.

Then the prophet Anna comes over and does the same thing, cooing over
the baby, telling everyone around them that this child right here, this is the
messiah! This is the one who will redeem Israel!

You can imagine the worry that must have come over Mary and Joseph as
suddenly everyone in the temple was watching them. Suddenly everyone
was watching these teenage parents from Nazareth, this baby, who
Simeon said was “destined for the falling and rising of many.” What will
happen next?

There’s something so profound about this moment. Because God could
have come to earth as a fully formed man. God could have just shown up,
riding a warhorse like a warrior, or maybe dressed in jewels and wearing a
crown like a king.

But instead, the first time that God Almighty came to Jerusalem was as a
newborn baby, forty days old, in fulfillment of the law, identified as the
messiah, but not the one they were waiting for. Not the one who was going
to crush the Romans or sweep in with his army. God arrived powerless,
utterly powerless, in his mother’s arms.

You know the way that we talk to babies – that sort of sing-songy voice, the
soft tone, the careful body language? Studies have shown that people from
all cultures do this, this phenomenon exists across all known languages.
This is a physiological reaction, it is hardwired into who we are – humans
instinctively treat infants with tenderness and affection and love. As a
biologist by training I can tell you that this is not a given in the animal world.
Yet we humans – when a baby is born into our families, when a baby is
brought into our church, we wonder how we can help, how we can be part
of their experience in the world, how we might change our postures and our
voices and our expressions and our words in order to keep this precious
little being safe, comfortable and content.

It is human nature for us to assume a posture of gentleness around infants.
And what a wonderous way for God to reveal God’s self to the people.

Dear people, this season of Christmas is for dwelling in the joy of God’s
presence and the hope of God’s salvation. That doesn’t mean that you
can’t be sad or afraid or empty. But… just for now… set your worries on the
ground without holding them for awhile. Just for now, set them down and
set your heart on the infant Jesus instead. Because this is the time for soft
words, for gentleness, for tenderness, and for hope.

Please pray with me. These words are from Jan Richardson.2
So may we know the hope
that is not just for someday
but for this day—

here, now,
in this moment that opens to us:
hope not made
of wishes
but of substance,
hope made of sinew
and muscle
and bone,
hope that has breath
and a beating heart,
hope that will not
keep quiet
and be polite,
hope that knows
how to holler
when it is called for,
hope that knows
how to sing
when there seems
little cause,
hope that raises us
from the dead—
not someday
but this day,
every day,
again and
again and