So here we are again. We gather on this night each year, ready to revel in our traditions. We come to visit with old friends, we come to be with our family for the holiday, we come together to sing the songs and hear the stories of the season.
For those of us who have been at Memorial Congregational Church for any length of time (well, at least more than a year), Christmas is a great opportunity to remember all of the great times we’ve had at the church. And it gives us a chance to remember everyone with whom we’ve celebrated. We sing the hymns and carols of our past and we hear the echoes of Susie and Ilene and Marge and Elizabeth and Barbara so many others singing along with us.
Our traditions are comforting. The help us to feel like we’re home and they keep us connected to a safe place in a turbulent world. We know that we can always come back to church – even if it’s only once a year – and we can feel welcomed and warm and wonderful.
Outside of church, we’ve been hearing about Christmas for some time now. Since Thanksgiving or maybe even since Halloween, stores have bombarded us with trees and ornaments and lights and Santa. But, in the confusion and chaos of the Santa displays and the snowmen and the reindeer, the story of Christmas is lost. Even though we see Christmas everywhere, we hardly hear the story of Christ anywhere.
So we come to church. We come here to hear the story: The story of a poor couple far away from home struggling to find their way; the story of a message from God that their little family will change the world; the story of the child born in a horse stall – a child whose story will still be told more than two-thousand years later.
We come back year after year, welcomed back home to hear that story.
It is a great tale. And, just like the carols and the hymns that we sing, it brings us back to special times in our life, reminds us of loved ones and bring us comfort. But, sometimes, for some of us, it may seem repetitive, it may seem like we’re just saying the same thing over and over again, it may seem like just the same old story.
As with any tradition, the Christmas story can sometimes become too familiar. When we hear the same thing over and over again or just find ourselves going through the motions, our customs lose their meaning and simply become part of the background noise.
So every once in a while, especially with something as familiar as this “same old” Christmas story, we need to take the time to intentionally step back and look at our traditions with fresh, clear eyes.
Even though it is so recognizable to us today, the story of Jesus’ birth was meant to be anything but commonplace. Even though it brings us comfort, it was meant to shake things up. The Christmas story is a radical story of hope – hope that things will get better, hope that we can change ourselves, hope that we can change the world.
Mary and Joseph and the writers of the Gospels and even Jesus himself had traditions of their own. The traditions of the Torah; the stories of Moses and the Israelites; the customs of their ancestors who helped develop an understanding of God; the teachings of the Prophets showing them how to worship God by serving humanity – these were the traditions of Jesus and his family, these were the traditions of God’s people, our ancestors of faith. But when God saw that the people had become complacent in their traditions and that the old ways no longer worked, when God recognized that that humanity struggled to hear and understand the words of scripture, God shook things up.
God came up with a radical new plan. The people hoped for a great warrior who would do the dirty work for them. Instead, we received a poor infant who would have to struggle to be heard and understood. We hoped for someone to do it all for us but instead we received a teacher telling us that we have to get our hands dirty too.
In Jesus, God is revealed as a light and a guide; as a rabble rouser fighting to change the oppressive system of inequality; as a teacher sent to show us that we need to change our hearts away from selfishness and towards selflessness.
Jesus’ story is a revolutionary story – a story so radical that it is meant to cause us to transform our lives so that we begin to see the need to put ourselves last and put others first. It’s a story about our need to change who we are… but it’s also an assurance that we can do just that.
This story of God’s call to a poor family in the middle of nowhere shows us that we are called to spread the word of God will spread no matter the obstacles. The radical message that we are all called to give good news to the poor, liberate the oppressed and set the captives free is a message that is so powerful that it has survived the years and the miles and the resistance and has become the “same old story” that we hear every year.
That story has changed the world, it has changed the people who have listened to it for hundreds of years. How will it change us tonight?
The Christmas story is not about how Christ came and saved the world for us, it’s about Jesus coming to tell us that we are the ones called to save the world – for God and for each other. That baby grew into a man who told us about the kingdom of God – the peaceful world that is just beyond our fingertips. He showed us that we can reach out and grasp the world that God intends for us if only we try hard enough… by living like Christ, following in Jesus’ footsteps, by constantly changing and growing. Christ’s story shows us that God loves us just the way we are but it also tells us that God loves us too much to let us stay that way.
Let the powerful traditions of your past comfort you tonight and every Christmas, enjoy the time with family in friends, fondly remember those who have passed – and also take this opportunity to look at these familiar songs and stories with new eyes so that we can continue to cherish them and be moved by them.
How will the Christmas story change us this year? What will we do differently in our lives after hearing the news in church that Christ is born? This Christmas and throughout this coming year, open up your heart and mind to hear God’s call, to follow Christ’s teaching and to be lifted up by the Holy Spirit. It may be the “same old story” year after year but every time we hear it, we should be transformed— so that we are no longer the same old us.