Christmas Eve Dec 24, 2019/ Richard E. Holmer
First Reading Isaiah 9:2-7 / Second Reading Titus 2:11-14 / Gospel Luke 2: 1-20
The Dawn of Redeeming Grace
Earlier this month I was driving home from the grocery store when something came on the radio that captured my attention. I was so intrigued that I sat and continued to listen after I arrived home. I was listening to the Moth Radio Hour on NPR. This is a show where ordinary individuals share stories of their own life experience. This particular story was told by a woman named Auburn Sandstrom. She related how she had come from a wealthy and privileged background and graduated from a top college. However, after college she became passionately concerned about issues of injustice, racism, inequality and poverty. She became radicalized in her political views and activities. She met a man who shared her convictions and she was moved to renounce her upper-class status and all that went with it. She married the man and they had a son. Then a friend of her husband introduced them to a potent drug to which they both became addicted. Things went downhill from there. Their addiction became the main focus of their lives. Supporting their habitat become job one – even when it got them arrested. Her husband could be abusive at times, and she feared it was only a matter of time before their lifestyle would cost her custody of their son.
Auburn had not spoken to her parents for years, yet she kept in her purse a scrap of paper that her mother had given her years before. On it was the phone number of a Christian counselor her mother had urged her to contact. One night back in 1992, Auburn’s life bottomed out. Later at night she was lying on the floor of her filthy apartment, writhing in withdrawal pains. She was in despair – at a breaking point. She found that scrap of paper from her mom and at 2 AM she dialed the number. It rang and a man answered. “Can you talk to me?” she asked. “I got this number from my mother.”
There was a pause, and the man said” “Well, Ok, what’s going on?”
For the first time, Auburn told her sad story. “I haven’t told the truth to anyone for a long time,” she said, “not even to myself.” She described her downward spiral – her drug problem, her abusive husband, her neglect of her young son, her fear about where her life was headed. The man didn’t judge – he just listened and empathized. Auburn felt comforted and encouraged by his warmth and kindness. She poured out her heart, and the conversation continued until the sun came up. Her panic had eased, and she was calmer – almost stable.
In gratitude she said: “Hey, I really appreciate what you’ve done for me tonight. Aren’t you supposed to be telling me to read some bible verses or something? Because that’s cool – I’ll do it, you know. It’s Ok.”
He laughed and said: “Well, I’m glad this was helpful to you.”
“No, really,” she continued, “You’re very good at this. You’ve helped me a lot. How long have you been a Christian counselor?”
There was a long pause before the man said: “Auburn, please don’t hang up. I’ve been trying not to bring this up.”
“What?!?” she asked.
“I’m so afraid to tell you this. But the number you called . . .” he paused again. “Well, you’ve got the wrong number.”
+ + + +
Auburn didn’t hang up. They talked a bit longer. She never got his name or called him back. Things didn’t change all at once – but Auburn turned a corner. Bit by bit her life improved. Today she’s a successful writer and teacher. Her son ended up graduating from Princeton with honors. Auburn concluded her story of that night as follows: “…The next day I felt this kind of joy, like I was shining. I’ve heard they call it ‘the peace that passes all understanding.’ I had gotten to see that there is this completely random love in the universe. That it could be unconditional. And that some of it was for me.” Summing it all up, she says, “This is what I know: in the deepest, blackest night of despair and anxiety, it takes only a pinhole of light – and all of the grace can come in.”
+ + + +
I am quite taken with that powerful image: “a pinhole of light where all of the grace can come in.”
It’s not the dazzling, overwhelming brilliance of the Christmas Star – it’s but a pinhole of light – a glimmer of light, shining in a darkened world. Like the light that shines into the night when you open your back door just a crack. Or the light from a single match in a deep, dark cave.
Tonight we sang about this holy and saving light:
Silent night, holy night!
Son of God, love’s pure light.
Radiant beams from your holy face,
with the dawn of redeeming grace,
Jesus, Lord at your birth…..
Those familiar words point us to the essence of the story: Beyond all the angels and shepherds, the lowing cattle and the hay in the manger, beyond all our sentimental Christmas card visions of the little town of Bethlehem, the essential message Luke has to tell is about God’s grace dawning on our world.
The grace embodied in that little, newborn baby boy is enough to redeem the whole world. This is the miracle the angels joyfully proclaim: “Good news of great joy for all the people.” “to you is born a Savior.” Saving grace, redeeming grace, has arrived in this world in a most unlikely and unexpected way.
To this very day, God’s grace continues to show up in small and surprising ways. It’s grace that’s truly meant for all of us. The angels say so: “good news for all the people.” The prophet Isaiah says so: “to us a child is born.” “to us a son is given.” St. Paul says so: “the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation to all people.”
Tonight I want to remind you: God’s grace is great and bright and beautiful – and it’s always there. Yet at times we can’t see it or feel it because of the thick overcast of gloom and worry and despair. Dark clouds of sin and dread and unbelief can obscure any sign of grace. Even if you haven’t been in as deep a hole as Auburn found herself the night she made that phone call, you know about the darkness of grief and fear and desperation. Most of us have been there – or will be. Which is why we need the light of Christmas – why we need Christ, our Savior. The true light that enlightens everyone has come into this world – and the darkness has not overcome it.
But there is still deep darkness, still some long, dark nights of the soul. All is not sweetness and light – not yet. So we believe and trust in this light of Christ, even when it looks like all is dark. We don’t need a supernova – or even a blazing sunset. Just a pinhole of light is enough for all of God’s grace to come in. A sliver of light makes way for grace that is pure and powerful – able to redeem even the saddest and sorriest lives, even yours and mine.
And there’s more good news: Faith that’s no bigger than a mustard seed is faith enough to embrace God’s grace – and to cling to it, even when darkness is all you can see.
Realizing that grace is for real and trusting that it’s for you changes things for good. Perhaps that is what Mary was pondering that wondrous night in Bethlehem. You can be sure that those shepherds never forgot what they experienced that night. The dawn of redeeming grace transformed their lives for good.
Auburn Sandstrom still recalls the grace that altered the course of her life 27 years ago. That same grace has dawned for you and for me. This is our hope and our joy.
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I want to remind you of what a single pinpoint of light looks like. I want the ushers to turn off the lights. Despite the present darkness of our world, the light of Christ’s grace still shines. God’s unconditional love shines on each of you. And it also shines through you. A short while ago you passed the light from one candle to another, so in some way can you shine the grace of God on others: in small and simple acts of kindness, forgiveness, generosity and mercy. You can be that pinhole through w