The Dawning Rays of Son-Shine

A sermon based on Luke 2:1-7
given at Mount Vernon, Ohio on December 9, 2018
by Rev. Scott Elliott

Thanksgiving has come and gone. Advent began a week ago. Our Christmas greens are up. Holiday music is playing in stores and on the radio. In fact it is almost impossible to go out without encountering signs of Christmas with all the decorations and lights and sounds of the season. Few have trouble with all of that happening now, but every year I do hear or read concerns about signs of Christmas showing up too early – which usually means before Thanksgiving.

The early arrival of Christmas in stores and ads seems to cause a number of people dismay. But it does not bother me. I mean no offense–and no one has to agree with me, but I am rather thankful for it. See, when the first hints of the season arrive in the summer at hobby and crafts stores I am mindful – and hopeful– f the solid grasp that Christmas has on our culture and how much I want to see and hear and sense and feel that Christmas Spirit again. For me early signs of Christmas are like the first rays of a sunrise with the promises of a new day. In the darkness of life I find so much hope in Christmas, even in the first hint of the dawning of the arrival of the Holidays.

We call this season Advent in reference to the coming of Christ, of Christmas Day and all the hope that the promise of the advent of the birth of Jesus offers. The promise and hope is a world where love reigns, where the ultimate message and goal is “peace on earth good will to all.” We hope for peace and good will toward all, AND I am all for that as many days of the year as possible. So while summer is waning I am good with a quick reminder that humans can, and soon will, amp up efforts for peace on earth good will to all, where love reigns for a few weeks.

I see positive things in the heavy emphasis on Christmas by commercial businesses. I like to think of the Christmas Spirit as hitchhiking its way to the culture on the back of business trucks and in the consumer goods they peddle, whispering quiet words of peace during the ride . . . giving hope. Words of peace that slowly but surely crescendo from those first whispers of Christmas getting louder and louder all Advent long reaching a joyful shout so loud it cannot be ignored by Christmas Day.

Those early arrivals are the first scratch of the itch of anticipation for me, I hear them as a heralding out-there of the Good News. To my way of thinking, if God chose a stable floor of an unknowing innkeeper as the vehicle for delivery of Christ, why couldn’t corporations’ chasing a buck be chosen to bring in the Christmas message as early as possible today? After all that message is impervious to greed and to commercialism. For years this Sacred season has been commercialized to a point that would surely be death to any other idea, yet every year the Spirit of Christmas is so lively it overwhelms the din and clutter of marketing ploys, spreading good cheer, compassion, warmth and love.

Even if folks do not share my pleasure at late summer whispers of Christmas in stores, I am certainly not alone now in feeling the Spirit of Christmas – of God– shining more at this time of year than any other, even in the face of the ever growing commercialism of the season and the unrelenting ungodly acts of violence, greed, oppression and hate in the world. The heart of the season, love, as a primary focus all seasons of the year, would suit most of us fine.

Singing and hearing words about peace and hope and joy and love and goodness and God is something we try to do as church all year long– and act on them. But at Christmas there is a culture-wide ethos that matches it. The resulting increased generosity and kindness would be wonderful if it lasted all year long. Wouldn’t it be grand if folks could smile and wish happy thoughts to each other from Winter to Spring to Summer to Fall like they do this time of year? Think of how wonderful it would be if the closeness to family we long for and try to achieve at Christmas lasted twelve months! Or if the magnified generosity of the better-off towards the less-well-to-do were a year long happening?

The culture senses an obligation to tend to the well being of everyone at Advent. Loving God and your neighbor and yourself at this time of year are truly heightened daily happenings. And WE feel ten times greater than we do the rest of the year because of it. What a concept: Loving God and your neighbor and yourself. Eleven months of the year these are not primary objectives of the culture. They even seem like painful orders from Jesus. After December 25th much of the culture seems to sigh “Awww, do we have to, Jesus?” How ironic that from January to Thanksgiving most of us look forward to, and can hardly wait to feel and do, those very things to bring about that Christmas feeling.

Despite our culture’s resistence to such acts the rest of the year I look at this time of year and I see proof that we can perform cultural wide acts of love towards God and each other. And that the results of those concerted and widespread effort make all of our lives and our communities so much more fulfilling. Good will toward all is good for us! No wonder we yearn for the Christmas Spirit.
Some may think that Spirit is resurrected each year by our acts of love and charity and good will, but, I do not see it that way. I am convinced that Spirit is not something that returns each year, but is always around like the Sun waiting to rise at dawn by the actions of creation.

We discussed in a recent Adult Forum how many individuals are nice and caring all year long. But at this time of year it becomes systemic. The way I see it, the Spirit of Christmas is hidden by the storms and darkness of humanity’s lack of effort in the off-season to love God, ourselves and each other with the same intensity and willingness “we” do at Advent and Christmas.

By “we” I do not just mean church going people, but all of us – the “we” of our community. In the Holiday Season we all take time to honor Love which is God. Our actions as creatures are more loving. In other words, we practice as a culture the core Biblical teachings to love God, ourselves and each other. That’s’ the difference! It literally becomes a primary Spirit of the culture. That’s the definition of ethos. And I am all for the notion that we start our way of being in that Spirit as soon in the year as possible.

The Christmas story is about God’s incarnation on earth in the most beautiful and perfect of living beings: a child. Wrapped in no more than the warmth of the love of parents and of God and strangers, Jesus arrives as God’s gift to all of humanity. This gift arrives with no strings attached through humble parents who honor God. That bundled up baby of a gift is greeted by song and adoration. And though he is far from home, he is also welcomed by the love of total strangers, heaven sings, shepherds come in from the fields to honor him, and Magi come from afar bearing gifts. Even the oft maligned innkeeper has to be credited with scrambling when he was full up to find at least some place for Mary and Joseph, and Jesus.

The Spirt of God, the Spirit of Christmas soaks the Matthew and Luke Nativity stories. To revive them the events of the first Christmas are reenacted this time of year through lights and Nativity scenes; through honoring children; through the giving of gifts; through kindness to strangers; through songs; and through the retelling of the Christmas story. In these ways we symbolically re-live the peace, hope, and joy the first Christmas offers.

In the re-living we are transformed into reflections of Christ this time of year by really truly acting like we believe in love and then really, truly loving in response to that belief. The adult Jesus’ unwavering message to love God and self and others is at the heart of our Christmas acts toward each other. We try to gather together to feast on the warmth of love from our family and friends. We lovingly collect money, food, clothes and gifts for those less fortunate. Santa honors children And despite the stories about “naughty and nice,” Santa’s gifts by and large are always given through grace, and with love – no strings attached. Santa embodies the Christmas Spirit in a fantastical way. The Christmas tree, a symbol of evergreen, pointing to heaven is decorated with happy symbols of peace and joy and hope and then lit up with a star or angel on top and gifts below. Secret gifts to each other are lovingly placed beneath it and opened in honor of the first Christmas. We sing and hear songs of peace and joy and hope and love– OUTSIDE THE CHURCH!

In other words, the acts and time-honored traditions of Christmas at heart and uplift and honor God; and this is so, whether the participants consciously intend it or not . . . Love hitchhikes in on everyone who participates. With this uplifting and honoring, God shines through the dark clouds of commercialism and world unrest with the result rays of love, joy and good cheer emanate all over the place. Everywhere.

When humankind turns towards God look at the results. They are mind boggling. They are miraculous. We can sense the undercurrent of goodness in the greetings of our friends and in the Christmas cards that come from near and far. People even look at each other on the streets and in the stores and smile and wish each other happiness. And children, those great young people whom our culture most of the year seems to want put on a back burner until they can contribute to the economy; those children are treated to fantastic stories and images and made to feel loved and important -like they should be all year round.

Two thousand years later the birth of a baby in a dark, dank and smelly stable brings out the best in us every Christmas season. How miraculous! God is incarnate throughout the culture. It is utterly wonderful!

I dream that some day the miracle will last all year, Jesus’ hope and teachings, his Way fully played out. Until then, I am happy to see Christmas being heralded in the hurly burly of early fall advertising, regardless of material motives by the messengers.

In the reading today we hear that a poor couple expecting a child is forced to head out on foot on a hundred mile journey to pay a dreaded tax in Bethlehem. It sounds like a less than pleasant experience and it only gets worse. There’s no good place to rest for the couple and what has to be a very tired and pregnant woman. So they end up in a stable. This is about as low as you can get, the only place to cradle your newborn is a livestock food box. It’s from that low place that God begins to work through Jesus on earth. If God can bring us Christ out of an animal manger, God can bring Christ out of anything. You, me, our neighbors . . . . even corporate Christmas displays in the summer or any other time of the year.

I can never get enough of the peace and hope and joy and love of the Christmas Spirit. I would even be all for a new tradition that follows the Christmas stories and begins our anticipation and response to the news that Jesus will be arriving nine months earlier to April– the distance in months from Christmas to the when the angel first appeared to Mary and Joseph. I know . . . that’s a long shot, but my hope and prayer is that this season of love that brings more “peace on earth and good will to all” will influence us, and become a cultural ethos, for as many days as possible!


* Based in part on a sermon I first wrote in 2008