By Margot Kassmann
[This sermon delivered on December 24, 2003 in a Hanover church is translated from the German on the World Wide Web, http://www.ekd.de
. Margot Kassmann is a Lutheran bishop in Hanover, Germany. Her sermon “Believing Without Seeing” is available at www.mbtranslations.com.]
We did not have an easy time with the Christmas preparation this year. Absurdities piled on top of absurdities. On one side, we heard mercilessly on the radio from the middle of November how much the Xmas jingles get on people’s nerves. The idiotic hunting for booze according to the motto “Cheap Night, Holy Night,” did not have even a tinge of comedy. As a Christmas card, a Prime Minister (not the German prime minister) sent a photo of himself before a Christmas tree with an Easter rabbit in his arm. What a sham representation of progressiveness! A television station lists children’s films under the title “Jesus, Pippi and Co. knock at your door.” When I read that only 57 percent of Germans know the Christmas story and a quarter think it comes from the brothers Grimm, I almost gave up. Don’t bother with Christmas if it only makes people dull, moronic fools with ludicrous humor.
Like generations before us, this church protects us on Christmas Eve. We do not remain alone at home but come together and hear the ancient words. (Yes, the story comes from the evangelist Luke). We sing hymns composed centuries ago and join a community across the ages. Traditions and rituals are very important in such a short-winded time. Think of how many hopes and worries, how many love stories and prayers this church knows! Think of what the Christian faith has experienced in heights and depths, in wrong tracks and confusion by others! Still every generation hears the message anew: God came; God is present in the middle of the world.
We celebrate this message. We have done our shopping and prepared our meals. The tree is decorated. Perhaps the children have come to visit. This church now proclaims: Welcome on Christmas Eve. It is good that you are here. Despite all this tumult, all the mad frenzy, Christmas has something to do with God. We celebrate the birth of the Son of God. God comes in the world. Luke describes this unforgettably in his narrative. To the whole world, he gives a picture of what it means that God becomes a person. God is born like every person and does not come with thunder and lightning.
A letter provides the sermon text this evening, not Luke. We do not know the author. It is one of the shortest letters of the New Testament. Titus chapter 2 says: “For the grace of God has appeared for the salvation of all people, training us to renounce irreligion, worldly passions and to live sober, upright and godly lives in this world, awaiting our blessed hope, the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ.”
I admit this is somewhat abstract compared to Luke. There is no pregnant Mary, no Joseph, no shepherds, no stall and yet a rather precise summary of the Christmas message. Let us look closely and try to approach three terms that sound terribly antiquated but perhaps can be rediscovered.
First of all, there is grace. The grace of God appeared on Christmas. Perhaps some now say: grace is an old-fashioned term! We already knew this. Once upon a time, Mr. Schill was called “Judge Merciless” meaning not yielding, being hard as nails, law before grace and maximum sentences. Who wants to beg for grace? Grace means a love and affection that does not calculate, that looks at a person and understands what he needs, that gives, supports and holds in freedom and does not only insist on entitled rights. There is the woman who endures her husband’s violation because she knows he could be different. There is the employer who sees the mistake and does not swing the termination hammer. There is my awareness for the gift that I live in abundance only because I was born in the right land. Grace is undeserved. That is important.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer referred to cheap grace. This means God’s love and affection should not be accepted too simply according to the motto “Jesus loves me this I know because the Bible tells me so.” God’s grace says: “I turn to you unconditionally. You may trust me with your fears and questions. I hope this changes you.
Secondly, God’s grace will discipline us according to Luther’s translation. The Greek term means “educate.” Perhaps all the young persons in the church will now groan: now God will also educate us. Parents, schools, retraining sites and universities already do this. However educating in the positive sense means showing a direction and giving but not forcing orientation. In other words, God’s grace is not simply present but changes us. We are the goal of God’s grace. You and I are meant; the grace of God appeared for us. On one hand, God preserves, comforts and holds us in hard times. On the other hand, God makes demands on us. It is too cheap to speak of the dear God, to make him into a merry Santa Claus, the leit-motif of a winter feel-good festival so to speak. No, God actually wants something that goes beyond the balance sheets of retail trade.
Dear community, I am convinced God wants nothing less of us than our changing the world. This frightens some, I know! Utopians are always laughed at. But if God gives us orientation, this means overcoming hatred and violence, converting the vision of justice into reality. Even on Christmas, we cannot close our eyes that so many things are thrown out of joint in our world. We have fear of terror. The 1.4 million women and men in the US armed forces were named collectively personality of the year by Time magazine. However their deployment all over the world did not bring peace this year. Rather even more hatred seems to have been sown. While globalization is praised, people go hungry in many countries, see no perspective and flee in little refugee boats that sink in the Mediterranean Sea. Among us there is anxiety around the pensions, health care, jobs and children who become a poverty risk.
The birth of God’s child is like a star in the sky, a light over this world that says: do not give up, be not discouraged. Keep alive the vision that something can be changed. God will wipe away all tears one day. That there may not be perfect peace on earth must not keep us from championing peace and justice. The misery of the world, hunger and poverty, may not be simply swept from the agenda of the rich countries because this is inconvenient. We have a responsibility before God and the coming generations. I know you and I cannot solve the world problems tonight. However we cannot close our eyes. Looking the other way is not a solution. If everyone says nothing can be changed, nothing changes. God wants to activate us.
Now we come to the third old-fashioned term. The Letter of Titus urges: we should lead sober, upright and godly lives. Oh, I already hear the first sighs: the bishop as a moral apostle now declares we cannot do everything. The biblical message is not so downright moral. I know the term “pious” is not in fashion. Close your eyes and imagine a pious woman. Think of heavy knit socks, hair pulled together tightly, a woman who does not seem to know how hip-hop is written. When a pious man appears on a talk show, he probably wears a pullover sweater over a long-sleeved shirt and says people are beloved but sex is reprehensible. Dear community, these are clichés!
Pious lives may not smell of mothballs or moral faultfinding. Rather being pious is a marvelous attitude to life. It implies a twofold relation. I know myself held and supported by God. Therefore I go openly to others and together develop God’s world. Pious existence is an inner freedom from all pressures and judgments of the world. Even if advertising constantly drums the opposite into our heads, the Bible says: whether I have the super-job, earn much money, drive a crazy car and have a fantastic figure is not the most important thing in life. Christians know a countervailing program. Your meaning in life is in God’s promise: Fear not, I am there. Make the best of your life. Whoever lives this way is truly a free person.
Then I can be more relaxed and even get rid of this terrible anxiety of having to be strong and prove myself and perhaps stop always seeking something better elsewhere – in another country with another woman at another job. To order our life in all the confusion and chaos, God gives orientation. First things first. Here I am on Christmas Eve and stand before God. What is really important? Dear community, what is crucial is a lifestyle that frees me from the notion we can find meaning by shopping. Yes, I buy beautiful things. But that is secondary. We need courage to behold and see the good surrounding us and bear the burdens we cannot evade. Living a pious life means trusting God and at the same time accepting responsibility, promise and claim, grace and challenge.
The sermon text says one thing above all: Whoever believes in Jesus Christ has hope. He is the Savior. That is meant in a very positive sense. Our lives can be whole when we expand our view. We have a compass for life, so to speak, in all the chaos. God is in the world so we can find courage and orientation for peace – for ourselves and for the world.
Dear community, Christmas Eve is not holy because it is so quiet and still. No, we call it holy because God’s salvation comes to the earth. Isn’t that comforting? God becomes a person. We need not become divine and perfect. God meets us half way and extends his hand. Yes, there are anxieties and questions in life. Yes, you may rejoice and be happy in life. But in all this you are not alone when people disappoint you. God turns to you. God is born and becomes a person in Jesus. Therefore we can live in responsibility out of a hope that goes far beyond this time and world. Holy Night – we trust that the future is in God’s hands, not only the past and present. We can let ourselves fall in God’s grace, thankfully celebrate God’s love and affection and know this will bring us on the way to take small and great steps so the world is changed under this love and affection.
Blessed Christmas! Amen.