“WHEN EVERYTHING CHANGED”
a message by Rev. Dr. Bruce Havens
Coral Isles Church, U.C.C.
December 24, 2023
Luke 2:1-20 NRSV
1In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. 2This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. 3 All went to their own towns to be registered. 4 Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. 5 He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. 6 While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. 7 And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.
8 In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. 9 Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. 10 But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: 11 to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. 12 This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.” 13 And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying, 14 “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!” 15 When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.” 16 So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger.
17 When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child; 18 and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them. 19 But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart. 20 The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.
I wonder if you can look back in your life and identify a moment or even a day or a night that changed your life forever? We might say it was the moment we proposed or the wedding itself. Maybe the moment a child was born. Perhaps a new job or acceptance into college. There are certainly some more difficult moments we may remember that changed our lives forever too: the loss of a loved one or a job; that diagnosis by the doctor. Some life-changing moments are wonderful. Some can seem catastrophic.
Tonight is about a moment – a night that changed everything. What changed it was a gift, a gift of love. Christmas Eve is about a night and a gift – a gift that God has given to change the world, to change everything – starting with our lives. We keep celebrating Christmas to remind ourselves and others that God wants to give us something, something that we cannot buy for ourselves or get at the mall or from Amazon or even at the all-night Zippy Mart after the Christmas Eve service. It reminds us that God has given a gift that changed everything.
A great theologian named C.S. Lewis once wrote to a friend about an experience his wife Joy had with this business of giving and getting. He wrote, “Joy tells me that once, years ago, she was haunted one morning by a feeling that God wanted something of her, a persistent pressure like the nag of a neglected duty. And till mid-morning she kept on wondering what it was. But the moment she stopped worrying, the answer came through as plain as a spoken voice. It was ‘I don't want you to do anything; I want to give you something.’ And immediately in her heart she felt peace and delight.”
I think we often forget that the center of Christian faith is the gift that God wants to give us. I think we often get confused about where the focus of our faith should be. We think the key is what we believe and what we have faith in. Christmas reminds us that faith is about who God is and about God’s gift of love. We make it as if faith and belief were measurable qualities and quantities. It is as if we think that unless one has the right beliefs or enough faith then one isn’t a Christian. The reality is we will never have entirely correct beliefs or have entirely enough faith. We are, after all, limited by our experience and our intellect, our humanity, our very finiteness. But that doesn’t limit God’s love for us. That’s the message of Christmas.
Maybe the most important miracle of Christmas is that God has enough faith and love to overcome our lack of faith and love. In fact, God had enough faith and love to come to us in a person – Jesus. He was born in very common circumstances. He came to allow us to love him as best we could. God has not asked us to qualify for his love, he has told us we qualify. He has not asked us to prove our love, instead he has proven his love for us. God hasn’t demanded that we believe in a certain set of creeds before he will love us, he just announces that he loves us. He loves those of us who think we are good and those of us who think we are bad. God loves those of us who believe and those who don’t believe what we think we ought to believe. I think God especially loves those who some people don’t think God can love.
Sometimes we think of God only as a judge, waiting to condemn our failures. But the Scriptures remind us that God is much more compassionate. In Hebrews 14:14-16 the writer reminds us that in Jesus, God has given us a “Great High Priest,” who is “not unable to sympathize with our weakness, but we have one who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin. Let us therefore approach the throne of grace with boldness, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.”
The good news of Christmas is that even when we aren’t ready to approach God, God comes to us. Sometimes it can be hard to believe God can love us so much and so we resist coming to God. But God only wants us to open our hearts to this love. When we do it really will be a moment that changes everything.
Tommy had been the first of his parents three children and he was, as many first children are, their “golden child.” He was loved beyond measure and they brought him up right, taught him, and disciplined him. They loved him, really loved him. But somehow that love never seemed to connect for Tommy. He never felt like he could measure up. He never could say what he was feeling and his life, by any measure, ended up a mess. Tommy got caught up in drugs and the crimes that came with it. He moved from place to place and never seemed to hold a job. He lived with a feeling that he was nothing but the biggest disappointment his parents could ever imagine. How could they love him? What was worse was they always seemed so outwardly eager to let him know they did love him. He never felt like he could really accept it though. His rejection of their love was the heartbreak of his parents’ lives.
Tommy got word that his parents wanted to see him that Christmas. Of all times, Tommy hated Christmas the most. Everything about Christmas seemed made up and hokey. He hated going home because it always seemed so difficult to deal with his parents and this “family holiday.” He hadn’t seen them in a couple of years, had hardly talked to them even on the phone. It seemed too painful because they always seemed so interested in his life but his life was just inexplicable to himself let alone to them. But they made it clear that a phone call wasn’t enough. So Tommy made that dreaded trip home to see the folks. When he got there his folks both met him at the door. His mouth dropped open despite himself when he saw his father. He was obviously very ill. The lines on his face, the beautiful head of hair Tommy had remembered him always having was nothing but a few strands of pale, wispy hair. His stooped body and painful movements belied the big smile on his father’s face.
They went inside and the world seemed to stop turning as they sat at the kitchen table and his father and mother told him that his dad didn’t have much time left. They had stopped treatments and there weren’t any others to start. Then Tommy’s father asked Tommy to look into his eyes. He said, “I need to see that you hear what I am saying.” Tommy finally looked up, dreading it. He hadn’t really looked his father in the eyes since he was maybe 8 years old. He said to Tommy, “Tommy, I know you think somehow you have failed us - that we can’t really love you - and I know it’s because you can’t really love yourself. I want you to know before I can’t say it to you myself that I love you because you are mine. You are my son. You can never fail my love. You don’t have to wait to earn or deserve my love. If I can finally get that through your heart, through your head, into your soul somehow, then I think I can die in peace.”
Something broke in Tommy’s heart in that moment. Or maybe, something came together. All that time he had waited to earn or deserve or live up to his parent’s love seemed to melt away or change. Tears streamed from his eyes and although his heart felt like it was breaking, knowing that his father was dying, at the same time it finally felt like his heart was whole. Somehow love and Christmas and his life all came together in a sacred moment that he knew would change everything for him. He could stop running from the love of his father and know it was simply a gift to accept, and celebrate, and, well, live for. He was loved and nothing could change that. He would always remember that night as the night that changed everything for him.
Who of us has not longed to really know this kind of love in our deepest heart of hearts? God still speaks that word of love today. God still loves unconditionally as when he sent his son Jesus for the first time. God’s love is unconditional, life-changing, and an eternal commitment. God’s love goes beyond feelings or the whims and desires of the moment. God has professed eternal love for us again and again and finally in sending Jesus to proclaim it in a moment in history that is both human and holy.
Christmas Eve is the night that changed everything. It is a gift that is unlike any other. It is one that can heal hearts, mend lives, save souls, and bring new life and light. The only question is if each one of us will accept this gift. God’s hope is that when enough of us do, then that will be the moment that changes the world. AMEN.