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December 24: The Power of With Us

Luke 2:1-20

We know the power of the words “with us.” The last two years – and especially in 2020 – we learned the power of "with us" by experiencing the absence of “with us” – we learned the power of being together when the people who we love couldn’t be with us, especially for special moments.

Last Christmas was different – and difficult – for many of us. My family, we usually spend Christmas with our extended family – a few days at home with one set of family, a few days on the road visiting other parts of the family – it's a season for eating together, laughing together, embracing connection, celebrating long-held traditions.

But last year, we didn't do that. Oh, we tried. We had family Zoom calls on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. We considered simultaneously watching Die Hard on Christmas Eve – from our various separate houses – and texting each other during the movie. And, we found ways to embrace joy and laugh together across distance and experience the wonder of Christmas – but, it wasn't the same. There was joy, and we still got to celebrate the birth of Jesus, and I still ate a ton of food – but there was also so much that was missing – fewer people around the table, a fair bit of mourning, grieving over the annual rituals that we had lost.

Which is part of what makes Christmas all-the-more special this year. This year, many of our traditions have been restored. This year, many more of us are able to have the people who we love with us. Sure, it's not exactly like it was before – there are still masks when we travel, masks at church, maybe double-checking on vaccination status and pre-visit at-home test results – but, for many of us, this is a year of returning to old traditions – this is a year of having people "with us" once again.

Christmas feels more like Christmas when we celebrate it together. My children have consistently and repeatedly told me that this year they are most excited to be with family again – to laugh and play games and share stories with people who they love but don't often get to see. Christmas is a season, is a story, that calls out to be celebrated together.

But, of course, not all of us celebrate Christmas together with others. For some of us, Christmas is just another day; a day we usually experience alone. But, here's the thing – the thing we learned last year – the most profound togetherness, the "with us" that truly defines this holiday season, is not the children coming home, it's not your in-laws invading your house – the "with us" that makes Christmas Christmas is the with us we find in this story. It is the God who is born as one of us, born in humble circumstances, born into poverty, born to frightened teenage parents who are surely overwhelmed by all this divine drama. The "with us" that defines Christmas is Emmanuel, a name that the Scriptures give to Jesus, a name that means, "God with us." And what we learned last year, the truth that sustained us in the midst of all that mess, is that this story – the story we tell this night – means that even when we are alone, we are never alone. The story of Christmas is that we have not been abandoned – God has entered into our human mess, has spoken the word of life into our world of death, has said "I see your suffering, I see your struggles, I see your disease and sin and pain, and I have decided to join you in it." God has become one of us, God has chosen to be with us, which means that we are never alone. So, last year, when many of us celebrated a Christmas that was less than we had hoped it would be; and this year, whatever our circumstances; whether our homes are full or empty, we can trust that the manger is always full – we can trust that God has chosen to be with us – now, always, forever.

It's not just family celebrations that got turned upside-down last year. Church was a lot different last Christmas too. Our church, because we worship in a school, could not worship together, inside, last year – because the schools were closed to us, we weren't allowed to rent this space, no outside groups were allowed in. So, last Christmas, we worshipped online – as we did all last year – and we also scheduled a brief outdoor Christmas Eve worship service, because, you know, it's important to light candles and sing "Silent Night" on Christmas Eve. Well, I don't know if you remember, but Christmas Eve was rainy last year. It was nasty. It wasn't prime "do something fun outside" weather. But, we held the outdoor worship service anyway, and, maybe it was serendipity, maybe it was God, I don't know, but for an hour, for 30 minutes on either side of our 6 PM start time, for just that little window, the rain stopped – the rain stopped just about when we arrived to set up for worship, and it started to fall again just as we were all returning to our cars. But, for that little window, we gathered together, we sang some Christmas carols, we read the Christmas story, and we held candles against the darkness, honoring Jesus, the One who is the light of the world.

But, the thing was, the rain had stopped, but the wind from the storm hadn't. Which meant that, as we started lighting candles, the wind kept blowing them out. And so, as we struggled to keep the candles lit while singing "Silent Night," something happened – people started huddling together, mostly in family groups – people started huddling together to protect the light. Turning together, into little circles, to block the wind, and protect the flames of our candles. Standing by ourselves, it was too much, it was too hard, to keep our flames lit – but working together, we were able to sustain the light we had received, we were able to hold onto it, even as the storm began to pick up again.

We were able to protect the light by standing together. We are best able, most able, to protect, to nurture, to preserve the light of God in our lives when we huddle together, when we stand together, when we walk through life together.

This has been a season when the best way to survive has been to huddle together - to stand together - and protect the light. Big storms come in this life - pandemics, scary diagnoses, job loss, grief, isolation, depression, fear, addiction, the everyday challenges of life and much more. Weathering these storms often comes down to who is standing with us, who is willing to huddle together with us and help us nurture our light even as the winds howl and the storm rages all around us.

The story of Christmas is a story that reminds us that when we face those storms, when the winds of life rage, when it feels like all is lost – the story of Christmas tells us that God has joined us, that God is standing with us. The story of Christmas is that God has been born among us, that God is the child huddled in the manger, swaddled for protection from the night’s chill. The story of Christmas is that God has entered into this world to be with us, to walk with us, to give us life – which means that God is one of those people who stands with us in the storms, who helps us protect the light. Those shepherds who heard the angel's chorus – they were poor migrant workers, ignored by society, considered too dirty and ill-mannered for anyone to count, outsiders even among their own people, out in the cold in the middle of the night, with no one noticing them – but God noticed them, and God joined them, and God invited them to join God's party, to celebrate God's Good News. God was with them. Tonight is a night when we remember that the God who chose to be with them also chooses to be with us – the God who entered into their world also enters into ours. God, in Jesus Christ, was born into the storms of this world to sustain us, to save us. God is one of us, huddled against the storm to protect the light.

But not only that – not only is God the one who huddles with us, helping us to protect the light – the story of Christmas is that God, in Jesus Christ, is the light itself. Jesus Christ is the promised savior, bringing hope to a people who have no reason for hope, who have been crushed, oppressed, beaten down, worn out, for far too long. Jesus Christ is the Prince of Peace, who received the world's violence and hate in order to defeat them and liberate us from their power. Jesus Christ is the Light of the World, the One who shines in the midst of the world's darkness, who took the worst that this world has to offer and was not defeated by it, but instead shines all the more, showing us the way of his boundary-breaking, world-transforming, margin-lifting love – a love that shows us the way, a love that is itself the way that leads to life.

We have learned, we have seen, we know – these last few years have taught us – the power, the importance, of being with people who matter. I hope that you will find ways, are finding ways, over the holiday season to be with people, and particularly to invite those who might be lonely to be with you – I hope you will, like Jesus, make room at your table for those who are excluded and alone.

But, however your holiday celebrations look, whether or not you are with anyone, may you remember this truth: in that stable, two thousand years ago, God joined us – God came to be with us. In Jesus Christ, God lived as one of us – laughing, loving, breaking bread, teaching, healing, suffering, dying. God was with us. But that's not where it ends. Having joined us in this world, God refuses to leave us, promises never to abandon us. God is with us.

That's the promise of tonight. Thanks be to God.


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