A Christmas Eve Sermon by Louise Westfall
Fairmount Presbyterian Church
24 December 2010

Text:  Isaiah 9:2-7
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. . .And so Christmas comes.  We have eagerly awaited this night, anticipating the joy of heavenly music shared with gathered family and friends, all bathed in glowing candlelight.  We have expectations and hopes and faith tonight:  count us among the believers.

Not so that first Christmas Eve.  The shepherds were in the fields keeping watch over their flocks on an ordinary night.  They expected nothing beyond the particular tasks at hand.

Kind of like the scene at the crowded West Side Market last Saturday afternoon.  The place was packed with holiday shoppers immersed in the aromas, sounds, and sights of that signature Cleveland landmark.  Their faces reflected routine and a certain weariness as they busied themselves completing their long “to do” lists.  Suddenly, an interruption.  From over the loudspeaker system rose sonorous chords above the din of chatter and marketplace.  And then the whole place was filled with the glorious sounds of a flash mob choir assembled solely by text message summons:  Hallelujah!  Hallelujah!  For the Lord God Omnipotent reigneth!  Hallelujah!    No doubt you’ve seen this same phenomenon on a number of YouTube videos circulating this season.  Being there enabled me to experience the crowd reaction as heads shot up in amazement, vendors clapped sanitary-gloved hands, worry lines morphed into surprised smiles and the glory of the Lord shone around us all.   For a brief time on that gray and wintry afternoon, the world was wrapped in light.

And how much we need that light!  We have nothing on those  people from Isaiah’s time who walked in darkness.  Our world bleeds with the wounds of war, violence and terrorism; despite some economic recovery our City struggles with record unemployment—area food pantries and soup kitchens report higher-than-ever usage.  The year has parted us from some of our beloveds through death and there is no soothing the gut-punch pain of their absence.   Behind even the cheeriest Christmas letter chronicling success and brilliance and parental pride are back stories that include dis-ease, disappointment, self-doubt and more.  Oh, how we need that light! —not to mention a wonderful counselor, wise and loving parents, a best friend, and leaders who seek peace and justice.

And so I wonder about this silent, holy night—worry that it won’t be enough, that when the last candle is extinguished we will lose ourselves in the same darkness as before.  Tonight we sing brave songs about peace on earth, goodwill to all and long for these promised blessings.  This story we tell of light and life—is it true?   Perhaps the answer to that persistent question depends on the source of illumination these candles and carols and choirs represent.

A little boy was excited to get a speaking part in his church’s Christmas pageant.  On the big night, in front of an overflow crowd, he was paralyzed by fright.  His mother was sitting in the front row and tried desperately to prompt him.  She gestured and mouthed the words but to no avail.  Finally she leaned forward and whispered “I am the light of the world.”  The child beamed and with great feeling and a loud clear voice proclaimed, “My mother is the light of the world.”     Well, yes.

And yet, even the most supportive mother cannot give us all the right lines to push back the threatening darkness.  Even our best efforts and resources can’t protect us from the vulnerabilities of human life, the 3 AM wrestling matches with anxiety about life’s meaning and ultimate purpose, and the dread of death.

For that, we need light that represents something greater than our own considerable wit and wiles.  We need more.  We need “other.”  We need God.

And that is what makes this night different from any other.  God has sent us light, revealed God’s very self in a way we can recognize, in a form that captures our attention by its very vulnerability and need.  A baby, so fresh from the heart of the divine.  A child has been born for us who can bear all our hopes and fears; one, in fact, who shatters our expectations for this night and every other.  He is named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.  The Source of life and love has come to wrap the world in light— the light that transforms any darkness.  Really???

Retired Yale professor, physician and author Richard Selzer has written eloquently about the practice of medicine, and the interplay of body and spirit.  In his book Mortal Lessons:  Notes on the Art of Surgery, he recounts a time when all had not gone as planned:

I stand by the bed where a young woman lies, her face postoperative, her mouth twisted in palsy, clownish.  A tiny twig of the facial nerve, the one to the muscles of her mouth, has been severed.  The surgeon had followed with religious fervor the curve of her flesh; I promise you that.  Nevertheless, to remove the tumor in her cheek, I had to cut the little nerve. 

Her young husband is in the room.  He stands on the opposite side of the bed, and together they seem to dwell in the evening lamplight, isolated from me, private.  Who are they, I ask myself, he and this wry-mouth I have made, who gaze at and touch each other so generously, greedily?  The young woman speaks, “Will my mouth always be like this?” “Yes,” I say, “it will.  It’s because the nerve was cut.”  She nods and is silent.  But the young man smiles.  “I like it,” he says, “It’s kind of cute.”

All at once I know who he is.  I understand and I lower my gaze.  One is not bold in an encounter with a god.  Unmindful, he bends to kiss her crooked mouth.  I am so close I can see how he twists his own lips to accommodate hers, and show her that their kiss still works.

Friends, let us bow to worship this baby of Bethlehem.  We know who he is.  At the manger, God has accommodated divine life to our flawed and fallible human one, and helped us know the kiss stills works.  Heaven and earth are joined.   So let us light these little candles and shine them in the darkness, to show the whole world something brighter and far more immense: Emmanuel, God is with us.  And because that’s true, so is this: we become light for the world. Amen.