A Christmas Meditation by the Rev. Dr. Scott Herr, Senior Pastor
The American Church in Paris, December 24, 2015

Editor's Note: In the light of the November terror attacks that shocked and traumatized the people of Paris, Beirut, Baghdad, and the world—and as the first anniversary of the Charlie Hebdo attacks in Paris approaches—Scott Herr shares his Christmas message of grace, hope, and peace based on Luke 2:1-20 and Titus 2:11-14.

"To All?"

Because this year has been in some ways so shocking and sad for us here in Paris, I thought we all needed a different take on the proverbial reason for the season. And so I invite you to reflect with me on Paul’s Christmas story in these amazing words to Titus: “For the grace of God appeared, bringing salvation to all.” This is the good news of Christmas, a kind of Titus Twitter Tweet that sums up the message of the incarnation and why we celebrate this night!

The grace of God appeared in a most surprising way. I used to live in a house that had a basement, and my brother and cousins and I used to enjoy playing down there. Sometimes we would get a little rowdy, and occasionally make one another cry. My father would yell down the stairs, “Don’t make me come down there!” I imagine that with the Imperial Army of Rome occupying first century Palestine, there would have been occasions for God to yell at his fighting and fractious children, “Don’t make me come down there!”[1] Strangely, God did come down there, as an infant, born to a poor Nazarene couple who couldn’t even find a proper room to stay that night… That God would deliver the Savior through this couple in the form of a baby is incredible. Surprisingly, the grace of God appeared in a manger…completely dependent. Defenseless. Vulnerable. Innocent and pure….

The grace that appeared came in a way that nobody expected. Perhaps we need to remember the obvious fact that God’s ways are not our ways. Grace comes in ways that will not only surprise, but subvert us. Sometimes it takes time to recognize. This grace, this gift, took about 30 years to grow into a man whose name, Jesus, means God saves. Given the political oppression of the Roman occupation, the threat of violence was always there. Random acts of cruelty were common and there was hatred that ran deep along racial and ethnic lines. The Savior everyone expected was to be a warrior. But Jesus said things like, “Turn the other cheek.” “Pray for your enemies.” He said what nobody else had ever said, “Love your enemies.” He said “those who live by the sword will die by the sword.” When he was threatened, he gave himself up as a victim rather than call down the powerful armies of heaven to vanquish his enemies… Paul’s Christmas message of the grace appearing in the incarnation is followed by the message of the cross, that Jesus “gave himself for us that he might redeem us” (Titus 2:14).

Perhaps that’s what we need to remember first this Christmas eve. God does not approach us with threats and violence, but with love and tender mercy. God loves us and has given himself for us to show us the depth of his love. We are all here tonight for different reasons. But I hope that you will hear the Christmas message that “Grace appeared, bringing salvation to all.”

It’s that “all” part that is tricky, isn’t it? Even we Christians can’t get our heads around that radical inclusion of the gospel. We will quickly put up limits on who this “all” includes and make it a very small few that, coincidentally, start to look a lot like us. But Paul said “all” here. The angels declared to the shepherds the same astonishing news: “Do not be afraid; for see – I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people!” That means you and me! That means the person who is struggling through hard times, loss, depression, or a painful divorce. The person who has failed to make the cut at work. The person who is of a different faith or race, or gender, or who thinks and votes differently than you. The person who is failing to do what is right. The person who even is doing outright evil...

The incredibly good news of the Christmas message is that in Christ there is a new divine reality that has moved into our world, full of grace and truth; a light that pierces the darkness, a sacrifice that makes atonement for the sins of the world, and a forgiveness that truly sets us free to live a new life. Though the reality has yet to be completed, obviously, and though “we wait for the blessed hope and the manifestation of the glory” (Titus 2:13), this One whom we call the Light of the World brings a love that we are told not even death can take away from us… This grace, this salvation through Jesus Christ, is gloriously beautiful and amazingly universal. His light yet shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it. The good news is that his grace, his salvation will redeem all of creation. It is a mystery and defies all of our religious reservations, restrictions and consternations…

But this Christmas comfort comes with Christmas challenge. Paul goes on to say that because we have received this amazing grace, we are to live lives that share God’s grace, lives that are self-controlled, upright and godly… We are to be “zealous for good deeds.” Good Biblical interpretation involves getting the right emphasis on the right syllable. This is not simple moralism, but rather more of an exhortation to resist the ethics of the empire, and to pursue the ways of the Kingdom of God. As Anne Lammot once said, "I do not at all understand the mystery of grace--only that it meets us where we are but does not leave us where it found us." A clue to how we are to relate to one another is given in how God meets us. The approach makes all the difference! God came as a child, meek and lowly.

I guess what I would like you to consider on this beautiful silent night as we savor the gift of God’s grace and salvation, is that there is much work left to be done in our weary world, and we need fewer people zealous against immigrants and refugees, calling for more weapons and violence. We need more people who are zealous for the loving approach of grace and peace, willing to be peace-makers. Here in Paris and many places around the world people are struggling with the hopes and fears of all the years, and they must be met with those who know the One who has shown the way of self-giving love and forgiveness.  

One final thought. When Luke writes, “there was no place for them in the inn,” we just think that all the hotels were full. But there’s another deeper sense of this text. One of the most beautiful things on that terrible night of November 13th in the 11th arrondissement was the Open Door texts that were flying around, inviting people who needed shelter from the violence to just come in to peoples’ homes.[2] Is there room for Christ in your life? What have you filled your life with that could possibly be more meaningful, more satisfying, more significant than opening your life to the King of Kings, the Lord of Lords, the Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace? And if you have made room for him, how then shall you make way for his Kingdom in our world? He calls us to be ambassadors of this new Kingdom of God which means being engaged in the ministry of reconciliation. He calls all who receive his grace to share it, to “do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with our God,” to love the stranger, the foreigner, the immigrant, the refugee, even our enemy.

Christ came for them all

Friends, God is calling to you from above but silently, ever so peacefully, lovingly. The good news is for you. Christ comes again each time we lift our eyes to the wonders of heaven, whenever we listen to the song of the angels and open our hearts to the Christ child born for us.  “For the grace of God appeared, bringing salvation to all.”  Believe this good news; open your heart to receive God’s grace, be zealous to do good deeds, and may we all have a very Merry Christmas! 

In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

[1] Thanks to Will Dixon, former Visiting Pastor of the ACP, for reminding me of this!