122421 Christmas Eve Both Sides Now

The sermon begins at minute

Isaiah (62:6-12); Psalm 96; Titus 3:4-7; Luke 2:8-20

       The other night I tuned in to the Kennedy Center Honorees Gala on TV just as Brittany Howard and Herbie Hancock were singing Joni Mitchell’s “Both Sides Now”. I found myself practically in tears listening to the words and even singing along.

Tears and fears and feeling proud,
To say “I love you” right out loud.
Dreams and schemes and circus crowds,
I’ve looked at life that way.

But now old friends are acting strange,
They shake their heads, they say I’ve changed.
Well, something’s lost, but something’s gained
In living every day

I’ve looked at life from both sides now
From win and lose, from up and down

And still somehow it’s life’s illusions, I recall
I really don’t know life at all

       The next morning I was reading Luke’s Christmas story to prepare this sermon, and I saw “Both Sides Now” going on there too. The shepherds saw both sides: they saw the angel and the glory of the Lord from the heavenly side, and they saw the baby wrapped in bands of cloth and resting among the animals from the earthy side.

       But then I noticed an even more dramatic sense of the two sides of the story. In the first part of, we are introduced first to a decree [that] went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered, and then the birth of Jesus wrapped in bands of cloth in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn. From this side, Jesus’ birth looks like an insignificant event in a small corner of an empire firmly under Roman control – too insignificant to even find a place to happen. The scene opens with an imperial order from Caesar Augustus when Quirinius was governor of Syria. All the world jumps and runs to be enrolled. Caesar can issue an order and throw the world into motion. The Jews were just a subjugated people, subject to the whims and rages of distant Roman rulers and the nearby Roman army. If you were to start reading Luke’s story in chapter 2 you might think Rome dominated everything in the known world.

       But in the second part of the story, the shepherds see angels and hear the words, I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people. We discover that this is Luke’s real story. It begins in chapter 1 – not in Caesar’s palace, but in the Holy of Holies – the quiet, dark, place at the symbolic center of the Jerusalem Temple. It may be a Roman world, but it’s a Jewish universe, no matter what Caesar thinks. And in that universe, angels appear to shepherds on mountaintops. And the glory of the Lord shines around them. Then, the birth of the baby that couldn’t find a place to be born becomes a sign that the Savior of the World has appeared. The angel announces a truth that explodes the Roman view of who’s in charge, and the baby’s birth explodes the view of what’s important.

     This is a Gospel version of “I’ve looked at life from both sides now, from win and lose…from up and down.” They show two ways to look at the birth of Jesus. Together they present us with an unavoidable picture. A child born in the night among beasts. A mother’s exhausted flesh, a father’s face clenched like a fist, the sweet breath and steaming dung of beasts. Nothing can ever be the same again for those who believe in God, or for those who do not believe in God.

       Frederick Buechner wrote that, for those who believe, “once we have seen him in a stable, we can never be sure where he will appear or to what lengths he will go or to what ludicrous depths of self-humiliation he will descend in his wild pursuit of humankind … there is no place where we are safe from God’s power to break in two and recreate the human heart. For those who do not believe, the poetry of the birth—the angels, the star, the three Kings—can be only words written on the sand, not poetry that points beyond itself to the very heart of reality. But like all of life, this is a both/and story. Some people all of the time and all people some of the time both believe and do not believe, cannot believe.”

       Clearly, the major gift of the Christmas story is the cosmic shift that happens in the human heart and in the known and unknown worlds. Christ the Savior is born. God inhabits and proves the worth of human flesh. There never was enmity between God and God’s creation. But Jesus’ birth now proves that to us convincingly. Yet both sides now invites us to receive another gift in the story. Not only does the story tell us that God has inhabited human flesh, confirming once and for all that God’s love for us is complete – never partial; it also offers a way to view our lives and our world that empowers us to grow and be transformed. The twofold reality of the manger and the heavenly angels shows us how to face difficult moments from two perspectives at the same time: we experience the pain in all its fulness, and at the same time look at the moment from outside with a larger perspective. The larger view doesn’t take away the pain or the difficulty, but it does give meaning to it, and that changes everything.

       I am reminded of my first experience of finding this both-sides-now perspective transformative. It happened 13 years ago when I was coming out as a gay man. I am thinking of one particular experience. It was supposed to be a listening session for people to ask questions after I announced my news. But it turned into a time that people I had cared for in big ways attacked my very personhood. It was so painful I wanted to disappear. It is exactly what I had feared for so long. It was part of what had kept me from coming out. But then, in the same moment, I had a sense of myself looking down on the scene from above. I was thinking about all the groups that had experienced the same rejection – women, Muslims, Jews, the disabled, gays, and many others – and I realized that this was my chance to understand their pain at a new level, to be more compassionate with the suffering of others. It gave meaning to what was happening to me in that moment. It didn’t take away an iota of the pain. But it put the pain in perspective.

       I haven’t always been able to do that, but it’s happened multiple times since then. I now see it as a spiritual practice. You can use Joni Mitchell’s term of looking at life from both sides now. Or you can use Luke’s Christmas story, which shows a way of living through difficult moments. What was barely perceived in that stable is that through the seemingly insignificant and painful event of the birth of Jesus, our humanity came to include the divine and the human. Glory in heaven and peace on earth came together in a whole new way. I think it’s what Paul was referring to in the Letter to Titus: “The grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation to all.”

       So let’s receive these gifts of Christmas with joy tonight. Christ the savior is born; our hearts and the cosmos have shifted. And we can look at life from both sides now, and experience pain and perspective together, giving meaning to it all. Thanks be to God!