My most vivid memory of Christmas Eve happened five days short of my eighth birthday. My family and I were at the Christmas Eve service at our church; a church and service similar in many ways to what we experienced Thursday evening here at MCC. I grew up in UCC church (Congregational at the time) where we heard that Jesus loves us, that we make mistakes (we don’t sin), and that we should try to do the right thing (we knew what that was), be kind to others and help those less fortunate. I was a very lucky little girl.
On that memorable eve the service was well under way when my fifteen-month old brother interrupted the silent night of waiting by pointing to the chanticleer and shouting, “Light, Daddy, Light! Light Daddy Light!” I was embarrassed, but not mortified. Somehow I knew that this was okay, for like MCC, I was in a church where wiggles and giggles were expected and also like MCC, where parents helped their children learn what behavior was appropriate at different ages. My brother was age appropriate.
This year at MCC we lived Advent; we waited for Jesus to be born before we sang Silent Night and Away in a Manger; we waited to hear of Jesus’ birth in Matthew and Luke.
Excitement builds on Christmas Eve because the waiting is almost over; it is still dark, but with the next light, Jesus will be born. But there was my brother, shouting out the conclusion of the story before it happened, giving away the punch line, as it were. I remember feeling a little let down. Had he spoiled the anticipation by blurting out the ending that we all knew so well, but that we were waiting for once again on Christmas morning? Or maybe it was that he knew something with the clarity and certainty that only an innocent child could know, something that we loose as we grow up. Maybe I was in that in between stage, anticipating Jesus‘ sadness and suffering that would be mine as a grownup, and yet, too young to absorb or assimilate the hope of Easter.
Many of us here this morning, but not all of us, were brought up in what I call a ‘Jesus Loves Me’ church, a church where a little child can shout out and be loved. Remember the song? “Jesus loves me this I know, for the Bible tells me so.” Early on we learned that Jesus/God loves us no matter what happens in our lives, that there is something, someone greater than us, holding us up, giving assurance that we are not alone and that it will be okay regardless of what individuals or society do to us or tell to the contrary.
It just may be, however, that before we learned Jesus loves me, we experienced loving Jesus, and each year at Christmas we renew this love. I think that was what my brother learned that Christmas Eve.
Late Medieval and early Renaissance artists provided myriad paintings of nativity scenes and Madonna and Child portraits, which are I love Jesus scenes. How can we do anything but love a little, innocent baby with mother and father in a humble setting, and with relatives and friends in the guise of shepherds and wise men coming to adore him? Like the children who participated in the Christmas pageant last Sunday, or who came to the Christmas Eve Family Service or the Candlelight Service, we grownups return every Christmas to renew our love for Jesus.
Alas, however, the Christmas season moves along too quickly. At least if feels that way sometimes. After the waiting of Advent, we are given twelve days to wallow in loving Jesus; that is if we remain with Matthew and Luke’s Gospels. John’s Gospel catapults us right into some complicated Trinitarian theology about Jesus being the Word. Mark’s gospel, which we read today from the Narrative Lectionary, completely avoids mentioning Jesus’ birth. Instead, in the first eight verses Mark introduces John the Baptist; then in two verses he describes Jesus’ baptism by John; the next two verses are given over to Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness; and then five to Jesus calling the first disciples ( I say, it is a good thing that we have multiple gospels).
Epiphany, the twelfth day of Christmas, when the wise men visit the baby Jesus, will be here in ten days, so we had better be prepared for what follows; Jesus, a grown man living into his role as the Son of God. Gone are the nativity paintings of the babe in the manger. In this next part of the story, Jesus shows his love for us through his teaching, healing and praying. You may remember in your church a picture of Jesus as a grown man in a brown robe, hands extended in a welcoming position outside somewhere in the desert. This is what I call the Jesus loves me painting. (And then there is his suffering, crucifixion and resurrection, represented by the Jesus saves me paintings, but let us leave that for another season.)
Some of you may be sitting here thinking, “I didn’t grow up in a Jesus loves me church, or I didn’t grow up in any church. I struggle believing, feeling, knowing that God loves me, that anybody really loves me or thinks that I am of worth, or accepts who I really am. For some of us that feeling arises from a personal self-chastisement more than a public flagellation. Others experience daily abuse. At various times in our country’s history it was the slave, black people, women, more recently those in the LGBT communities, and currently immigrants and refugees. People on the margins, even those brought up in a Jesus loves environment, need desperately to know that God loves them so when they turn on the TV or step out of their front doors so they can hold fast to believing that they are worthy.
What I have tried to lay out here is Christ’s commandment to love God and to love your neighbor as yourself, a message that is in all four gospels. Advent and Christmas stories enable us to renew in faith our ability to love. But this isn’t enough to get us through the year, nor is it the only story, or as we say, ‘The story hasn’t ended.’ For over 2000 years Christians have created their own Loving God and Jesus loves me stories. Whenever we ask: Where was God in this situation that just happened? In whom was the Christ present? Was God absent to me? Why? Now that the situation is over, what can I learn from it? How can I see this as an I love Jesus and moment, or a Jesus loves me moment?
With those questions in mind, I end with a story told by Br. Geoffry Tristram, in a sermon at the Society of St. John the Evangelist in Cambridge, MA, November 2011. (He has a marvelous British accent, which I will not attempt to replicate.). It was written for a Thanksgiving sermon, but the lessons are universal. Listen.
Thanksgiving’s got something to do with this story of a woman out shopping on Black Friday. She was in the middle of the packed mall, and felt the need of a coffee break, So she bought herself a little bag of cookies, put them in her shopping bag, and got in line for a coffee. She found a place to sit at one of the crowded tables, took the lid off her coffee, and taking out a magazine she relaxed and began to sip her coffee and read. Across the table from her a man sat reading a newspaper.
After a minute or two she reached out and took a cookie. As she did, the man across the table reached out and took one, too. She was a bit shocked at his rudeness, but didn’t say anything. A few minutes later she took another cookie. Once again, the man did so, too. Now she got upset, but still didn’t like to say anything.
After a couple more sips of coffee she once again took another cookie. So did the man. She was really upset now – especially as there was now only one cookie left. Apparently the man also realized there was only one cookie left. Before she could say anything, he took it, broke it in half, offered half to her, and proceeded to eat the other half himself. Then he smiled at her, and putting the paper under his arm, rose and walked off. She was so angry. How dare he help himself to my cookies! Her coffee break ruined, she folded her magazine and opened her shopping bag, and there… discovered her own unopened bag of cookies!
Whether we take someone’s cookie or share our own; whether we shout, “Light, Daddy, light,” or are the sister of the little boy who does the shouting, God calls us to live I love Jesus moments or Jesus loves me moments, or better still, both.
Advent is passed for another year, Jesus is born, but the story isn’t over. We continue to love God and share God’s love. It is all about the cookies, and The Light.