God is with us: changing the world

Christmas Eve 2013

I’ll admit it: at Christmas I love to put on a CD called ‘Crooners Christmas,’ a collection of old-timey holiday favorites by the likes of Bing Crosby and Rosemary Clooney. It’s my one CD version of all the records my parents had that we listened to every year. I have to play it in secret, because my husband thinks it’s too schmaltzy. And he’s right, of course – it is schmaltzy. It’s the songs of the Christmas that has been blurred around the edges, the image in soft focus. It’s music I wouldn’t tolerate the rest of the year, but at this time, I want it for nostalgia’s sake. It makes for a Christmas that is comforting and sweet, a time of year that makes the rest of our hard lives seem a little nicer. It’s the Christmas of eggnog and Christmas cards and shows on the Hallmark channel, and it’s one many, many people, secretly or not so secretly, love.

It may be the Christmas that the majority of people love. A recent poll showed that fully 86% of Americans say they will be gathering with family and friends for Christmas this year and exchanging gifts, more or less the same as they did when they were kids. That part still seems to mean something to people, even though a third of them think Christmas has gotten too commercial and materialistic. But other things are changing, of course, as our culture has become less religious. Only about half of Americans say they’ll mark Christmas as a religious holiday and attend a Christmas Eve service this year, but among those under 30, only 39% say they celebrate Christmas as a religious holiday…although 46% of them will attend a Christmas service anyway. Which means that you might be here simply because it’s tradition or because it’s what your family does – even if you don’t usually come to church or really believe in any of it. Well, whatever the reason you’re here, welcome. It is an honor you chose to celebrate part of this holiday with us here tonight.

But even though there’s a whole lot of tradition and sweetness to this season, I want to make it clear tonight: the message of Christmas is more than tradition. It’s about more than softening the edges. It’s about changing the world.

That’s language we’re used to hearing, of course. Silicon Valley says it’s changing the world too. All around us in this valley there are people using their creative ingenuity to do things differently and better. People are working to design a better set of ways for us to connect and communicate. Rethinking and redesigning clunky public infrastructure. Working on ways to take care of tasks for busy people, and to help people design their lives in a way that makes them happy.

Or anyway that’s the rhetoric. Because there’s another side. The IPO feeding frenzy that turns out to be really just about a few people getting very rich. The addiction to stimuli that fuels our attraction to smartphones and apps (speaking of which, is your phone really off right now, or is it just in silent mode?). Leaving behind people too poor or badly educated to have or make use of computers. The piles of toxic waste. The work that is done for those companies – the cleaning, the cooking, the security – done at minimum wage, ensuring that the already wealthy people continue to earn all the riches Silicon Valley generates.

And what was that about making people happy? I think we can all call that into some question.

So how about we drop the rhetoric about Silicon Valley changing the world. Because in fact, it’s giving us more of the same, and the more that it’s giving us is turning out not to be the stuff that we really deeply wanted to happen. More of the greed. More of the frantic pace of life.  More selfishness and distraction. More radical inequality in income and education. Less human relationship and connection; less meaning for our lives. Some things might be easier for some people than they were a decade ago, but lots of other things are harder. Our world is not changed.

So back to that soft-focus Christmas story: of course we want this season to make us feel better. We hear that familiar story from Luke’s nativity and all seems ok for a moment. But when you really look at it, the nativity story isn’t told in soft focus. A baby is born in shame and poverty, in a stable and homeless and under circumstances that would strain any couple’s relationship. The animals and the shepherds too are stinky, and the shepherds are rough and unpleasant and not the kind of people you want to be around. All of it happens in an area occupied by enemy soldiers who demand taxes for the hated emperor. It’s really a pretty grim story, when you stop to think about it. And that grim scene, Luke tells us, is where God shows up.

Incarnation, God coming to be one of us, happens at the margins of the acceptable – not in the midst of the conventional good life. It’s told that way on purpose. God is not interested in our idea of the good life. God is not here to find someone to do our errands for us, or to make sure we earn more money than other people. God wants to upend the way things are. Not to soften the edges of our life as it is but to change it completely.

That’s a scary idea, of course, because we’re invested in our lives as they are. We have trained ourselves to believe that rhetoric about changing the world. We want to believe that our lives are better because we can text instead of take the time to talk, but then we wonder why we feel so lonely. We want to believe that life is better because we’re making more money. Except we don’t really know what happened to those last several years, when we worked 80 hour weeks and missed our kids growing up. We want to think life is better because someone else is doing all the stuff we don’t want to do – except some part of us feels guilty at the horrible low wages they’re earning to do it. But we like it all this way. Don’t we?

The thing is, deep down we really do want the world to be changed. We don’t just want our own lives to be easier. We don’t just want the edges to be softened. Deep down we are longing, we are starving, to love and to be loved. We are longing desperately for someone really to know us, we are longing to know and understand more deeply what is really true. We are longing for a change to come in this world, to bring real peace, to bring joyful loving relationships with other people, to bring a right order and justice to our world. That kind of longing is at the basis of all our other desires, all of what makes us chase after these lesser things. That kind of longing is a longing for God. Whether you call it that or not tonight, God is what you are looking for.

So if you want to find something to change your world, don’t look for it in the pursuit of wealth and comfort. Don’t just look for it in the soft-focus picture of lights on the tree and the nativity scene. Look for it in your deepest longing and desire. Look for it in what brought rough, smelly outcasts into a stable to gaze at a little baby born to a poor family. Look for it on the edges of our culture, calling into question all the conventions of our good life. Look for it in what will truly change the world, the deep love of God. Love that will satisfy your heart and change the work you do and compel you out to care for the least and the lost. That is where God is. That is where you will find what you need. That is the message of Christmas: God is with us. Merry Christmas.