God’s Gifts at Christmas: 4. A Vision of Church

December 20, 2020

It’s hard to believe that we are in the last week of Advent; equally hard to believe that we are celebrating without carols, candles, communion, and fellowship with our friends and families.  

I really miss doing all those ‘Christmas things’ we have always done.  

This year has been and continues to be a year like no other. The world is in a complete state of civil unrest  compounded by the fear of rampant virus, overlayed with unemployment and financial ruin for so many. 

There is no ‘joy to the world,’ just a very silent night; much like that first Christmas so long ago.  That year was also a year of darkness. That year the world was also in the midst of chaos.  But in the midst of it all – there is an unexpected gift – a vision of what would one day be called church!

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I know, I know, we are used to celebrating the birthday of the church on Pentecost and indeed we should! But I believe that first Christmas, on that silent night so long ago, in a stable on the outskirts of the little town of Bethlehem, God gathered up an unlikely congregation to celebrate His Son’s birth and they worshipped Him together!

For so long, the hopeless and shunned of the world had needed a place to be – somewhere that they would feel loved and accepted. They needed Someone Who would not see them as unworthy and turn them out into the cold of night, but rather welcome them into the light of amazing Love.  That love – that acceptance – that radiance of God’s holy Light was present in the stable that night and God had church!

Think of it:

I imagine that Mary, the unwed mother, and Joseph, the apparent cuckold, were not sure they would ever be fully accepted by their synagogue community again but would instead spend years feeling ‘less than.’ 

Yet, God chose each of them and drew them into the Christ life of worship and service. They weren’t passive observers in their worship either, but rather active participants in the divine life of Christ and in lived-out service for the glory of God. 

What about the blue collar workers of the day – the shepherds?  They were considered essential workers at the time.  In fact, some believe that those particular men were the shepherds who tended the temple sheep – the lambs for the sacrifice.  As an English major, I love the symbolism, but I have no idea if that belief is true.  Regardless, thought those men were essential workers, their lifestyle excluded them from any respectable ‘A list’ of social invites and they weren’t ‘big givers’ at synagogue worthy of congregational respect.  I’m not sure anyone would even want to share a pew with them for oh, so many reasons, not least of which was their apparent lack of proper hygiene! 

But these shepherds were the very ones God called to come and worship Jesus FIRST!  God didn’t ask them to bring anything either, but, on their own, they brought what was most precious to God: their open hearts.  There was also no required dress code just ‘come as you are’ and be clothed with the light of the Holy Child’s glory!

So it was that, in Bethlehem that first Christmas, Mary, Joseph, and the shepherds gathered to worship. They were a worshipping Body basking in the Light of Christ’s presence – filled with wonder; overwhelmed by joy. Does a church service get any better than this?

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As I consider the scene and this ‘first church,’ a thought strikes me: which of those ‘congregants’ am I most like?  Mary?  Joseph? The Shepherds?   

Am I among those finally able to worship unafraid and unjudged, able to receive unconditional love and acceptance which, up until then, has always been beyond my grasp?  

Am I finally able to be valued for who I am as a person not just ‘what I bring to the table?’ 

If I mess up, will I be judged or treated with compassionate love and forgiveness?

All of us have these sorts of questions at one time or another, I imagine; I know I sure have.

Maybe that is why sometimes we avoid church.  Entering the church building for the first time can be scary if I don’t know anyone and don’t know what to expect or what is expected of me. 

But, here’s the thing, we know God, at least as much as we are able – and we know the Lord’s expectation is only that  we run with haste to worship our king and be the church together!  

Church is all of us – no matter who we are!  The One Who loves each of us beyond all human understanding seeks each of us out and calls us home – because home is pretty much what church is supposed to be – a place where all are valued and belong as sons and daughters of God; a place where all are invited into the presence of the Lord.

So, I invite you to sit with this vision a while. Even as we long for ‘church at Christmas as it has always been’ – church is more than a building, more than candles, poinsettas, and carols.

Church is its purest form is like that first Christmas – as we worship unafraid, resting in God’s love and the love of others, basking in the Christmas light together – even if only by ZOOM!  If that doesn’t make your heart sing “Joy to the World!” I don’t know what will!  

And to God be the glory!  AMEN

Published by Pastor Catharine

Retired ordained elder in the United Methodist Church. I have a Master's of Divinity and Doctor of Ministry (with an emphasis on Spiritual Transformation of Community) from Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington, D.C.

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