Sermon for Christmas Eve 2015
Christmas Lutheran Church, Bethlehem
The Rev. Carrie Ballenger Smith
“But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart.”
Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, who is born in Bethlehem on this night. A warm welcome to our honored guests, to our visitors from around the world, and a special thank you to the local congregation of Christmas Lutheran Church for your hospitality. It is an honor and a privilege to be sharing the Christmas message with you tonight. Kul sane wa intou salmeen. Frohe Weihnachten. Merry Christmas!
Years ago, before I had the honor of preaching here in Bethlehem, before I moved to Jerusalem, before I was even a pastor, I worked as a doula, otherwise known as a labor and childbirth assistant. In this role, I helped women and young mothers – women like Mary, the mother of Our Lord – through the miracle of birth. During this time, I remember hearing a story from a colleague, a childbirth educator, about once when she had difficulty finding a room to rent for teaching a birthing class. She looked everywhere, but there was no room in the hospital, or the library, or the community center, much less room in the inn. After looking all over town, the only room available was in a nursing home for the elderly.
It was an unusual location for a birthing class, but nevertheless, on the scheduled day my colleague gathered her small group of pregnant mothers in the community room of the nursing facility. As soon as she started teaching, in walked an elderly resident of the home. This woman, surely in her nineties, sat in the back and listened quietly as the younger women learned about labor and birth and caring for a newborn baby.
Then, slowly, the old woman in the back stood up. She raised her hand and said in a loud voice, “Let me tell you something about having babies.”
And she proceeded to tell the stories of how each of her children were born. She shared these memories from at least seventy years before as if they had happened yesterday.
I think of this story every time I hear the story of our Lord Jesus’ birth. Of course we always remember certain details of that Christmas night – the journey to Bethlehem, the manger, the angel and the shepherds, the star, and later the wise men and their gifts.
But the verse that always catches my attention is this one:
“But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart.”
Like the elderly woman who joined the childbirth class, Mary would never forget the birth of the baby Jesus. Like any mother, she treasured the memories of that miracle – even the difficult memories – and would keep them with her as long as she lived. She treasured them as she watched her son Jesus grow, and teach, and heal, and feed the hungry. She would ponder them in her heart as she stood at the cross of Our Lord, and then again when she stood near the tomb where he was laid.
Mary treasured all these things and pondered them in her heart, not only because every mother remembers the birth of her child, but because of the identity of this particular baby. She treasured the news the angel had announced to the shepherds, which the shepherds then shared with Mary and the others:
“Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.”
The birth of a baby is always a miracle, but this one was miraculous not only for Mary, and not only for Joseph, and not only for the little town of Bethlehem. The birth of this baby changed the world. Through this baby, the Word became flesh and lived among us. Through this baby, the world knows God as Emmanuel, God-with-us. Through this baby, light has shined on a dark and broken world, and the darkness has not overcome it.
Like Mary, we can never forget the miracle of this baby’s birth. We never tire of hearing the Christmas story. We are never too weary to teach it to our children and grandchildren. From the manger to the stable, from the star to the shepherds, from the angel to the three kings, we treasure all these words and ponder them in our hearts.
And indeed, that’s exactly what the message of Christmas is: a treasure. Because God so loved the world, because Mary said “yes”, and because the angels and the shepherds shared the news, we have been a given a treasure. We have heard the Good News of great joy for all the people: To us is born this day in the city of David a Savior. God is with us. This is our joy, our hope, our courage, and our strength. This is our treasure – not only on Christmas, but throughout the whole year.
Dear friends, my sisters and brothers in Christ from throughout the world, we must remember that we possess this treasure when we leave the manger and the stable and the star behind. We must remember that we possess this treasure as we go to our homes which now stand in the shadow of the wall,
when we pass through military checkpoints to return to Jerusalem,
or when we fly back to our home countries and far from the reality of the occupation.
We must remember that we possess this treasure when the powers and principalities of the world seek to terrify and terrorize us,
when despair tells us we possess nothing,
and when false prophets endeavor to convince us that what they offer is more precious than our hope, more valuable than our joy, and more secure than God’s promises.
To all who offer us such fool’s gold, we must stand firm and say, “No, let me tell you something! Let me tell you about the birth of a baby. Let me tell you about this treasure.”
We will say:
To us is born a Savior, who has broken down the dividing wall! This treasure is for a Christian community surrounded by a wall and checkpoints.
To us is born a Savior, who is the mighty fortress! This treasure is for persecuted Christians in Syria, Iraq, and Nigeria.
To us is born a Savior, in whom we abide! This treasure is for the thousands of refugees fleeing their homes, wondering which country will welcome them.
To us is born a Savior, who is the Prince of Peace! This treasure is for a world community held hostage by religious extremists and dangerous ideologies.
To us is born a Savior, who is the light shining in the darkness! This treasure is for a time in history when the dark powers of hatred and fear of the other claim to be more powerful than the light of peace, the light of justice, and the light of love.
Dear sisters and brothers, as we gather on this holy night so near to the manger where Mary laid her newborn baby, you have heard again the Good News. You have been to the manger once again. You have seen how the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.
Therefore, take heart. Do not be afraid. This treasure is yours! Although the darkness of occupation, division, and hatred seems heavy, the night will not last forever. The wall will not stand forever. The empire of injustice and inequality will not rule forever. Violence and death will not govern us—not today, not tomorrow, not any day. “For a child has been born for us, a son given to us; authority rests upon his shoulders; and he is named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.” (Isaiah 9:6)
Above all, if it seems the path to peace with justice has been abandoned,
If the treasure chest of diplomacy and ideas and solutions seems empty –
remember that the manger of Bethlehem is not empty. Our treasure is in the manger. The baby has been born. And therefore our hope for a lasting peace with justice is with us still.
Hear again the Good News of great joy: to us is born this day in the city of David a Savior! The baby has been born! Love has come, a light in the darkness! Treasure these words. Ponder them in your hearts. And when you leave this place, share the treasure of God’s love with the world, that all may know the riches of Christ’s love, grace, and mercy.
Frohe Weihnachten! Kul sane wa intou salmeen! Merry Christmas!