Several years ago, just a few days before Christmas, my friend Beth posted a sentence on Facebook that any pastor in the world could have written: “Facing down the horror and joy of the Christmas Eve sermon.”
Perhaps you understand.
Everybody in the church knows that Christmas Eve is the night when hope breaks free from its shackles.
It’s the night large enough to hold the “hopes and fears of all the years.”
It’s the night when expectation beats in every heart, when even the most cynical among us imagine that hearing again the familiar story of Jesus’ birth will somehow make a difference in our lives.
Luke seems to get that. And he writes his Christmas story with all of our hopes and fears in mind, choosing his words carefully, taking the time to consider how they will sound to our waiting hearts. And he seems to know that his words ring true and deep within us, and that his story is one of “good news of great joy for all the people.”
I think that’s why he chose to make his story lovely.
But I failed to notice that loveliness until my friend’s Facebook post.
Remember how my friend Beth announced that she was “facing down the horror and joy of the Christmas Eve sermon”? Well that started an interesting discussion.
Somebody offered something very sweet, writing something like “I’m sure your sermon will be lovely, and I wish I could be there to hear it.”
But that prompted a fairly quick and terse response from somebody else: “Don’t be lovely. The church doesn’t need lovely,” and then she went on to describe what she thought the church needed.
I think she was wrong. I think lovely is exactly what the church needs. And the world with it.
Oh, I know there’s something behind what she was arguing.
She was trying to say that there are so many things that are messed up in our world today, and that just spouting some pretty words isn’t enough. She comes from the John the Baptist school of thought. She’s hoping for a messiah who shows up with power to set things right, a messiah who holds an axe to the root of the tree and is ready to hack down anything which defies God’s righteousness and love.
I get it. I really do. There’s so much happening around us and within us today that is out of step with God’s hopes for our world. I want all of that to end too.
And yet, in a world where the voices around us grow more strident by the moment, where bitterness and despair and anger surround us on all sides, is there not some wisdom in their opposite?
Rather than add one more strident voice to the mix–rather than battle our way through life–dare we embrace the way of the one who comes among us with such vulnerability that we often miss the power of his loveliness?
You see, if the church doesn’t need lovely, then we have no use for Luke’s story of Jesus’ birth. And we have no need for choirs to offer beautiful anthems or instruments to ring with joy or soloists to lift up their heads or children to gaze in wonder as they hold their candles in defiance of the darkness. All of it–every bit–lovely beyond words.
And if the church doesn’t need lovely, then we don’t need the Savior God sent us, the one who came as a helpless child to make God known, the one whose life is marked by grace and truth.
That’s why I believe that commenter was wrong.
The church does need lovely.
Only we don’t need the kind of lovely that ignores the real issues we face as part of our shared humanity. No, we need the lovely born into the world on that first Christmas night–a loveliness that was deep enough to endure the loneliness of the manger; a loveliness that surrounds you even when walking through the darkest valley; a loveliness that wades into the messiness of life and rolls up its sleeves to make all things new.
That is the lovely we meet at Christmas. And it’s the lovely that can change the world.