There's No Place Like Shalom for the Holidays, December 20

No Place Like Shalom for the Holidays

Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11; Luke 1:46b-56; Luke 1:26-38

Rev. Catherine E. Schuyler

Catskill, Palenville, Quarryville UMCs, online; December 20, 2020



Oh, there’s no place like home for the holidays, ….

The Treble Choraliers sang (There’s No Place Like) Home for the Holidays at their Christmas concert last year, right here in this sanctuary.  The song was originally recorded by Perry Como in 1954, and from 1954 through 2019, it spoke to listeners about nostalgia, traveling home to Mom’s pumpkin pie and family who know and love you, no matter how far from home you have wandered during the year.  This year that same song speaks to us differently.  Most of us are not traveling anywhere for Christmas.  We’re not even traveling to church, snow or no snow.  We’re staying home this holiday.  The same home, the same four walls we’ve inhabited for most of the last nine months.  We are definitely home for the holidays this year, stuck at home, safe at home, lonely at home, comfortable at home – maybe all of these, almost all at the same time.  And truthfully, if we’re blessed to have a roof over our head and food in the pantry, there is no place like home for the holidays. 


The church celebrates the incarnation at Christmas, God becoming one of us, the Word became flesh and lived among us, took up residence, abiding with us, not in some far-off realm of heaven away from us, but here, with us.  For early Christian thinkers, this was the reason to celebrate the birth of the Christ child, to name, to articulate, and to focus on the importance of the presence of God with us in the human life of Jesus.  Of the four gospels, only two, Luke and Matthew, decide to focus on that truth through the story of the baby’s birth, and they tell that story quite differently.  The pageant we’ll share on Christmas Eve (you won’t want to miss it!), like most pageants and most nativity scenes, conflates the two stories into one.  Shepherds and angels and magi and a star all surround the holy family when the baby is born in our common telling of the tale.  I’m not suggesting we remedy this discrepancy by reconstructing our creches, but it is good to remember that even as the stories were written down, Christmas didn’t look the same to everyone in the church.  My own life history of Christmas celebrations has only a few constants.  I have one ornament on my tree that I received in my stocking when I was 8, and it’s been on my tree ever since.  Christmas Eve services have included Silent Night almost every year of my life.  Other than that, there are differences year to year.  Things have been different, especially, as I’ve celebrated with new churches through my ministry.


Since about the middle of the fourth century, the church has celebrated the incarnation of Jesus at the end of December and the beginning of January.  And the one constant about that celebration across the centuries, wherever it has been celebrated, has been the recognition that the coming of God in Jesus Christ changes the world.  God comes to fulfill divine promises through the words of the prophets, promises that speak of justice for the poor and food for the hungry, the absence of war and violence and the presence of hope and joy, the welcoming of the stranger.  We heard those promises from Isaiah this morning, in the words of the one who is to come:  61The spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me; he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners; 2to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor, and the day of vengeance of our God; to comfort all who mourn; 3to provide for those who mourn in Zion— to give them a garland instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit.  Jesus quotes these words of Isaiah in his own declaration of purpose, his first sermon in the gospel of Luke, to his hometown synagogue.  He refers to this verse when he tells John’s disciples to report to John the Baptist what they hear: Jesus preaches good news to the poor.  If we want to celebrate Jesus’ coming into the world, then our celebration should involve good news for the poor and be a witness to the year of the Lord’s favor. 


Mary, also, speaks of the difference her baby will make in the world.  She sings praise to God because she perceives that God is doing something brand new through the child she carries.  The angel Gabriel makes the claim that this child of Mary’s will establish God’s kingdom, a kingdom that will stand forever.  Mary knows her scripture.  She has heard the proclamations of the prophets, that the coming kingdom of God will be a reign of justice for the poor, of peace for the people, of hope for the oppressed, those who have been forgotten.  Mary’s song about the world that Jesus will bring forth speaks of the mighty brought low and the lowly lifted up, the hungry filled with good things and the rich sent away empty.  Yes, Mary knew; she sang clearly about the upside-down world that this child, the incarnation of God in the world, would make manifest. 


Celebrations of Christmas, whether spent together or apart, with evergreen trees and snow or with poinsettia trees and lanterns and late-night dancing, whether we eat turkey or spaghetti or peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, -- they are only truly authentic, then, if they include caring for the poor.  Shalom is the Hebrew word the prophets use to name that peace that comes with justice for all and freedom; shalom is the term the prophets use to speak of that time when everyone will be able to relax, celebrating, under their own vine and fig tree, everyone with a roof over their head.  There’s no place like Shalom for the holidays; throughout the history of Christmas, throughout the promises of the prophets, from the beginning of the word of God to the present day, there’s no place like Shalom for the holidays. It’s the unifying feature of Christmas celebrations over the ages – remembering the poor, acknowledging that we cannot celebrate the coming of Jesus without living out his words of hope. 


We cannot rejoice that God fulfills the promise of Messiah in our world without addressing the terms of that promise –liberty to the captives and freedom to the oppressed, welcome to the stranger and to those set aside or left behind, filling the hungry with good things, working for shalom in this real world in which we live, in which we enjoy Christmas with feasts and lights.  Lights in the darkness are wonderful symbols of hope for our weary souls, but food in the blessing boxes and donations to organizations that are changing the world into God’s kingdom – like Methodist Federation for Social Action, or the Board of Church and Society, or UMCOR or whichever organization you love that is bringing God’s kingdom into reality – are an even better witness to the coming of Jesus.   


We love our Christmas celebrations at home, exchanging gifts with loved ones, watching grandkids play with their new trucks and tops (I always give tops.  I really like tops.) even if we can only watch over Facetime. But Christmas celebrates Jesus’ coming, Emmanuel, God with us, best when it turns the world upside down, when it offers a glimpse of the new world Jesus comes to bring into being.  Christmas is Christmas best when it is good news for the poor and food for the hungry, when it points to the shalom that God envisions for all of us.  There is truly no place like Shalom for the holidays.  Amen.







Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11

61The spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me; he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners; 2to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor, and the day of vengeance of our God; to comfort all who mourn; 3to provide for those who mourn in Zion— to give them a garland instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit. They will be called oaks of righteousness, the planting of the Lord, to display his glory.

4They shall build up the ancient ruins, they shall raise up the former devastations; they shall repair the ruined cities, the devastations of many generations….


8For I the Lord love justice, I hate robbery and wrongdoing; I will faithfully give them their recompense, and I will make an everlasting covenant with them. 9Their descendants shall be known among the nations, and their offspring among the peoples; all who see them shall acknowledge that they are a people whom the Lord has blessed.

10I will greatly rejoice in the Lord, my whole being shall exult in my God; for he has clothed me with the garments of salvation, he has covered me with the robe of righteousness, as a bridegroom decks himself with a garland, and as a bride adorns herself with her jewels. 11For as the earth brings forth its shoots, and as a garden causes what is sown in it to spring up, so the Lord God will cause righteousness and praise to spring up before all the nations.


Luke 1:46b-56  

“My soul magnifies the Lord,47

and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
48for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.
Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
49for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name.
50His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation.
51He has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts.
52He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
  and lifted up the lowly;
53he has filled the hungry with good things,
  and sent the rich away empty.
54He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy,
55according to the promise he made to our ancestors,

    to Abraham and to his descendants forever.”





Luke 1:26-38

26In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, 27to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. 28And he came to her and said, “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.” 29But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. 30The angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. 31And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. 32He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. 33He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.” 34Mary said to the angel, “How can this be, since I am a virgin?” 35The angel said to her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God. 36And now, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month for her who was said to be barren. 37For nothing will be impossible with God.” 38Then Mary said, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” Then the angel departed from her.


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