What happens now? Although according to the Christian calendar Christmas continues for another week, for the commercial world and many of us, Christmas celebrating ended on the afternoon of December 25th. The New Year is upon us. One of the spiritual giants of the twentieth century was Howard Thurman. Born in 1900 of parents who had been slaves, Thurman was Dean of Chapel at Boston University in the middle decades of the twentieth century. When I arrived there for graduate study, Thurman had just retired. He died in 1983, but his eloquence and spiritual insight continues through his writings. He wrote these words for the moments after Christmas:
“When the song of the angels is stilled,
when the star in the sky is gone,
when the wise men and shepherds have found their way home,
[that's when] the work of Christmas is begun.” (1)
What is the “work of Christmas?” After their visit to the stable where the Christ child had been born, the shepherds returned to their sheep on the hillsides "glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen." Now everything they did had new meaning, even the daily routine of caring for the sheep on lonely hillsides. They would never really be lonely again.
One wonders about the innkeeper who was perhaps too preoccupied with making a living to extend much hospitality to Mary and Joseph. Maybe we shouldn’t be too hard on him; maybe he gave what he had—a place in the stable. I wonder if he had any idea of what went on in that shed that night. Like many other busy people before him, he might have lived the rest of his life having missed the opportunity of a lifetime only a few feet away.
The Magi, who had read the signs, followed the star, and found their way to Bethlehem, offered their gifts and worshiped the Christ child. Their first "work of Christmas" was to go home "by another road." They had been warned in a dream to stay away from Herod. One suspects that it was not just the danger of Herod, but that all who find their way to the Christ child cannot but go home "by another way." These educated scholars could never be the same after the visit to Bethlehem. Would that it would be so for us after our visits to Bethlehem.
And, then, there was Herod. The "work of Christmas" for Herod was to find the Christ child, not to worship him but to destroy him. And just as he had murdered members of his own family because of his jealousy for power, so he didn't hesitate to order the murder of all the boy babies of Judea to get to the Christ child. Ironically, soon after the birth of Jesus Herod would be taken from the throne not by a rival but by death, a rival he couldn't kill. There are still those who are willing to trample on others in order to protect their positions and status.
What of Mary and Joseph: what was the "work of Christmas" for them? They had to go into hiding and become illegal aliens in a foreign country in order to protect the Christ child.
But what is the "work of Christmas" for us? The two Christmas stories in Matthew and Luke are like great paintings. We look at the paintings and see different things. We look at the paintings from different angles and in different light and see new things. As the writer of the Gospel of John struggled to find words to express the heart of the Christmas story he wrote, "And the Word became flesh and lived among us…" In some way that words can never express, God risked all the vulnerabilities of being human so that we could hear the message of love. God did not have to take this risk, but did because this God loves us. And because God loves us, we can love others.
This is not some kind of sappy sentimental love; it is love that takes risks; it is love that can give with no thought of receiving; it is love that can act on behalf of others even when it is not in our self-interest. If the expression of this love was God's work at Christmas, is not our "work of Christmas" -- now that the song of the angels is stilled, the star in the sky has gone, the kings and the shepherds have found their way home -- to tell the story of this great love, especially by modeling it in the way we relate to other people?
Modeling this kind of love is a challenge, isn't it? You can probably think of a hundred places where this love is needed. I hope you will also think about our nation after five years of war. The human toll these wars—both among families of soldiers here in this country and among the peoples of Iraq and Afghanistan—is immeasurable. How do we model real love in the face of these realities? And then there is the presidential primary season that is upon us? How do we model real love in the face of this reality?
For people of good will who want to be good citizens and trust the political process, the question has been raised anew, "Is it possible for a person to act apart from his or her own self-interest?" Take care how you answer the question. If your answer is "No," then the promise of Christmas is a lie and we have no hope of modeling the love that God has shown us. If the answer is "Yes," then I think we know what the "work of Christmas" is.
In 1932 a theologian by the name of Reinhold Niebuhr wrote a book titled, Moral Man and Immoral Society Niebuhr taught at Union Theological Seminary in New York City, but he was not an "ivory tower" theologian. For thirteen years, he was pastor of a church in downtown Detroit where he ministered to all kinds of people and also learned about economic and political realities in a large city. Like many others of his time, Niebuhr was frustrated by developments in Europe after World War I. The "war to end all wars" not only didn't end war, but Niebuhr could see Europe and the rest of the world moving toward the catastrophe that would be Holocaust and World War II.
In his book, Niebuhr argued his thesis that while individuals have the capacity to act morally, organizations do not. What Niebuhr meant by "moral" was the capacity to act beyond and even contrary to one's own self-interest. "Society," he argued, did not have that capability: organizations always act in their own self-interest, whether nations, political parties, or churches. That does not mean that they always act badly. For Niebuhr, though, it meant they could not act contrary to their self-interest. Only individuals have that capability, he argued.
Do not conclude that Niebuhr was an "idealist." He was not called a "realist theologian" for nothing. He was very critical of the liberalism of his day and the optimism of the pre-depression years that things were just going to get better and better. He wasn't an idealist when it came to the individual, either. He was fond of saying that "the doctrine of sin was the one Christian doctrine which could be empirically verified." An individual, he argued, has the capability to act morally, which is to act beyond and even contrary to one's own self interest.
Niebuhr died in 1971 at the climax of the Vietnam War. It should not surprise you to know that Niebuhr was vilified both by the political right and the left. He was unsparing in his criticism of the war, but he was equally critical of the "peace movement." Those who felt the sting of his criticism tended to dismiss him as old and tired. In retrospect, it seems clear that he simply understood the situation. No other theologian has had the impact on the social sciences that Reinhold Niebuhr had. You may not have known Niebuhr's name before today, but you probably knew these words of his, known as the "Serenity Prayer:"
"God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to distinguish the one from the other." 
We began today with Howard Thurman's lines about the "work of Christmas. In the conclusion of his poem, he describes that "work:"
“to find the lost and lonely one to heal the broken soul with love,to feed the hungry children with warmth and good food,
to free the prisoner from all chains, to make the powerful care,
to rebuild the nations with strength of good will,
to bring hope to every task you do,
to dance at a baby's new birth to make music in an old person's heart,
and, to sing to the colors of the earth!”
Niebuhr reminds us that we can and should expect more of our political leaders and judges, that we can and should expect more of our pastors and church leaders, that we can and should expect more of ourselves; and that we should not expect more of others than we expect of ourselves. God has given us the capability to love, not just to love in safe ways, but to take risks and even to transcend our own self-interests in order to do what is right. When you do that, whether the matter is great or small, you will be doing the "work of Christmas."
 Howard Thurman, "The Mood of Christmas," adapted by Jim Strathdee into a song titled, "I Am the Light of the World," © 1969 Jim Strathdee, Desert Flower Music, Ridgecrest, California, 93555.
 Reinhold Niebuhr, Moral Man and Immoral Society: A Study in Ethics and Politics (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1932).
 "The Serenity Prayer," The United Methodist Hymnal, 1989, # 459.