Christmas Eve Sermon 8pm

December 24, 2022
Preacher: The Rev. Eric Stelle

Christmas is really important for us in our society – both in and out of the church. Beyond the busyness, beyond the commercialism, we end each year with Christmas, welcoming the return of its voice of wisdom: “despite everything that’s gone on this year, these are the values we still hold on to: hope and love, generosity and family, peace on earth and good will towards all.” This is the language we use at Christmas, giving voice to our sincere desire for what this world – this life – could be.

And so our symbols and traditions are weighted with value:

  • We wish life were always as cozy and secure as mulled wine shared with friends around a fire.
  • We wish life were always as generous and neighborly as we experience in our Christmas giving.
  • We wish our family and relational difficulties could be overcome like they are in a Hallmark Christmas special. (Or that we’d find a spouse!)
  • We wish wars would cease like at the Christmas armistice in World War I, when German and British soldiers emerged from the trenches to play games and share gifts with each other, before returning to their task of killing.

For this is our sad experience. This vision – this daydream – of what our world could be never seems to grow beyond the temporary symbols and traditions we pull out of boxes each Christmas. And so we cling to them all the more fiercely, because – in the end – the symbols are often all we’ve got. And sometimes (especially as we age, and if we’re honest), Christmas itself can begin to feel a little tinny, a bit hollow. The wonder is gone. The promises, unfulfilled.

Until something breaks through.

It’s like this story I once heard. It was the premier performance of Ravél’s Boléro in Paris in 1928. You know the one: [Humming the tune]. Afterwards, it “was acclaimed by a shouting, stamping, cheering audience in the midst of which a woman was heard screaming: ‘Au fou, au fou!’(‘The madman! The madman!’). When Ravél was told of this, he reportedly replied: ‘That lady… she understood.’”[1]

What she understood, I’m not really sure. But, clearly, for Ravél, there was a deeper reality to his music that she got, beyond what the rest of the crowd perceived.

And sometimes, sometimes, we can experience Christmas like that woman experienced Boléro. Well, not as the work of a madman! But what I mean is – we, along with everyone else, have been holding onto the traditions of Christmas, these symbols of our desire for a better world, but then (!) beyond our ability to control, something breaks through and we know Christmas as a reality that is already true. And it comes with so much more vigor and strength and substance than the symbols themselves can ever carry.

And if I were to give this experience a name, it would be “worship.” Not “attending a worship service,” but real, soul-changing worship. “Adoration,” even: that moment when the curtains part and the substance of God – the reality of God – shines through. And you know it – a Reality that has always been, is now, and will be forever. A reality that is love, that is peace, that – in the midst of everything – IS. God is.

And what Christmas tells us, is that this God is with us, Emmanuel. Not only in some celestial court, not only in the beauty of nature, not only in our most joyful moments, but God is with us in every moment and every circumstance. This God of our adoration is everywhere and always, even in our sufferings and doubts.

I cannot say how to manufacture such awareness, such moments of true adoration. If I knew, I assure you, it’s a drug I’d be taking day! But most of life we must live in faith, in those long gaps between our convictions of God’s presence and reality.

But what I have come to believe is that God has given us the dignity of agency. What we do, matters. Not simply because of the good it can do in this world (which is significant!), but because these are the things of God. So when we give ourselves to them – when we give ourselves to peace and love, to generosity and forgiveness, to self-sacrifice and humility – we are placing our lives in those places where we’re most likely to run into God. We aren’t just “do-gooders,” fighting for justice in a hurting world, which will quickly wear us down, we are stalking God, the source and the substance of the longings of our hearts.

I can only point to a handful of times in my life when the glory of God’s reality has broken through in substantial ways. Interestingly, they’ve often come in the context of music, even though I’m not an especially musical person.

I remember once being at a performance of Handel’s Messiah. I forget which song it was, which moment. But I can remember the sensation of it – this breakthrough, this clarity: It’s all true. You are God. And you are with us. And with it, the absolute conviction that, in this life, there is nothing more needful than knowing God, and adoring God.

A couple weeks ago I was listening to KING FM on the radio. And they played this bazaar arrangement of Ravél’s Boléro interspersed with “The Little Drummer Boy.” And it actually worked, in a strange kind of way.

But it got me to thinking about that story of Boléro’s premier – The madman! The madman! – and this whole idea of a profound reality alive beneath the surface of things. And it got me to thinking about the Little Drummer Boy, and how something in it has always attracted me. And as I thought about it, I realized what it was. It was the spirit of adoration that little drummer boy has before the Christ child, and his impulse to give him the only gift he has to give, and the way Mother Mary so graciously receives it.

It’s cheesy, I know, (and what mother would welcome a drum solo right after giving birth!). But again, it’s the spirit of it all that appeals to me, this spirit of adoration, of worship.

I picture my next-door neighbor. He’s only four-years-old. And whenever he comes over to our house, he comes with that spirit of adoration. But in this case, it’s for my 18-year-old daughter (and to a lesser degree for my wife). You can see it on his face – this brightness, this eagerness to be with them – coupled with his absolute assurance that they will welcome him, that there is a dependable place for him here – not just in our home – but in them.

And it is this that we want – at Christmas, and always: to know God is real; and in that knowledge to unearth a spirit of adoration impelled to give whatever we have to give, because we have found the true object of our heart’s desire; and for that gift (for us) to be received with such welcome and grace and belonging.

And it is this – at Christmas – that we hold on to with hope: that such a God has come to us, and is worthy of our lives.

Amen. And merry Christmas.

[1][1] Quoted in “ The Story of Ravel’s Bolero,” https://www.classicfm.com/composers/ravel/guides/story-maurice-ravels-bolero/