What is the first image that comes to your mind when you think of the Christmas story?
Maybe it’s the stable, with Mary, Joseph, then of course Jesus in the manger, with ox and donkey and adoring shepherds beholding this miracle. A rather quiet and peaceful scene.
And many of our favorite Christmas carols reflect this serene scenario: O Little Town of Bethlehem, how still we see thee lie. It Came Upon the Midnight Clear. Away in a Manger. Silent Night, Holy Night.
But have you ever noticed how much action, how much movement there is in the story?
Joseph and Mary have to travel from Nazareth in Galilee to Bethlehem in Judea – that’s about 5 days on the road, one way, and it’s a treacherous journey. The shepherds, keeping watch over their flocks by night, are stirred up by the heavenly messengers, go to Bethlehem with haste, we hear, and then out into the world to share the good news of what they have witnessed.
We have this beautiful sentence at the end of our Christmas gospel, ‘But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her hearts’. But even Mary is not as peaceful and passive as this sentence would have us believe. The original Greek word that we have here and that is translated with ‘pondering’ is ‘symballo’; and ‘symballo’ literally means to throw together, like when armies are thrown together in battle, or engage in battle. There is a lot going on in Mary’s heart, more of a wrestling than a gentle meditation. And this ‘throwing together’, this ‘wrestling’ sounds much more like the Mary whose prophetic cry of the Magnificat we heard just this past week, doesn’t it?
The Christmas story is a story about people on the move, a dynamic story, a story that depends on action – and especially divine action. God comes down into our existence. God stirs us up. God is turning the world around through this miracle of Christ’s birth in Bethlehem. The Christmas story is meant to move us, change our lives, our direction. We are sent on our respective ways, where we called to spread the joy, the hope, the love that enters our world through the child in the manger.
Now we all know that being on the move, that changing our ways is not always easy. I think there is a good reason why most of us, if not all of us, like the image of the quiet and peaceful manger so much – that’s what we long for, the feeling of being sheltered, of having arrived.
But, alas, just like the holy family, we can’t stay in the stable, we can’t dwell in this holy night for too long. Because there is the real world waiting out there, a world that needs hope and joy and love.
After marveling in the ‘Silent Night, Holy Night’, we are sent out to ‘Go tell it on the mountain, over the hills and ev’rywhere, go tell it on the mountain that Jesus Christ is born!’ Being a Christian means following Christ, and following implies to be constantly on the move. And that’s the theme of the entire gospel according to Luke, from which the Christmas story we heard today is taken – it’s people being moved, people being on the move, people being on the way – and not only when Christ is born.
As you know, my and my husband’s journey through life and as pastors will take us to new places, that we feel called to go new and different ways. This is the last sermon I am preaching here as your pastor. And so I have been reflecting quite a bit about my journey with you, but then also in general about my journey of faith.
I remembered that today, December 26th, is my baptism day – yes, I was baptized on the 2nd day of Christmas back in 1969. That day, my family committed me to God’s grace and care. My journey as a child of God began. And my family had no idea that God would call me on this particular journey of faith and ministry, that I would become a Lutheran pastor – for starters, I was baptized in a Catholic church.
But God often works in mysterious – and quite surprising – ways. From my earliest days, I always loved a good story, and the stories of the Bible I learned about in Sunday school fascinated me. And the story of Jesus’ birth always had a special place in my heart – when I was a young child, not even in school yet, I would draw the manger scene over and over, and not only during the Advent and Christmas season, but all year round.
As a teenager, I began to understand how the ancient stories of the Bible relate to our lives in the world here and now. The congregation I belonged to was involved in social justice and care for creation work, and that’s what got me hooked on the Christian faith for good. I got it that we don’t only have faith, but are called to live our faith in all we say and do, and that our faith shows in how we treat our neighbor and God’s good creation.
So one thing led to another, and I found myself in seminary. The journey continued, and I went through a pastoral residency program in Germany, during which both of my children were born. Then God threw me for a big loop – we moved to the San Francisco Bay Area. In 2001, my way led me to St. Matthew’s for the first time, as I was working here as an intern. Our ways parted again, since I received my first call as a pastor to a congregation in the South Bay after my ordination.
But then, in 2014, there was this strong call to serve this congregation again, this time as a pastor. Since then, we’ve been on the way together. We’ve shared in joys and sorrows, in frustration and celebration. I feel blessed and thankful to have been able to journey with you. You’ve been awesome travel companions!
And, believe me, it’s not easy for me to leave you, to leave this community of faith behind. But, as we all know, life is a journey. Faith is a journey. We are on the way, constantly. Like Mary and Joseph. Like the shepherds. Like the magi. Like Christ and his disciples. Like the Apostles. Like countless followers of Christ over the last two millennia.
Our ways part. But our journey as followers of Christ continues.
May God bless you, the people of St. Matthew’s, on the ways God is calling you from this day on. May you find a new pastor whom you can bless with your stories, your joys, your sorrows, your presence, your prayers, your support, your love, as you have blessed me – and may you find this new pastor soon!
May you go forth now from the manger and tell it on the mountain that Jesus Christ is born, every day, in your hearts, and becomes flesh in this world wherever and whenever God’s love is shared.
I would like to send you on your way with a beautiful poem by Ann Weems from her book, “Kneeling in Bethlehem”. It is called ‘Star Giving’.
“What I really want to give you for Christmas is a star…
Brilliance in a package,
Something you could keep in the pocket of your jeans
Or in the pocket of your being.
Something to take out in times of darkness,
Something that would never snuff or tarnish,
Something you could hold in your hand,
Something for wonderment,
Something for pondering.
Something that would remind you of
What Christmas always meant:
God’s Advent Light into the darkness of this world.
But stars are only God’s for giving,
And I must content to give you words and wishes and packages without stars.
But I can wish you life
As radiant as the Star
That announced the Christ Child’s coming,
And as filled with awe as the shepherds who stood beneath its light.
And I can pass on to you the love
That has been given to me,
Ignited countless times by others
Who have knelt in Bethlehem’s light.
Perhaps, if you ask, God will give you a star.”
This post is also available in: German