Sermon preached on Christmas Eve December 24, 2009
Scripture Readings: Micah 5:1-5a; Isaiah 9:2-9; Luke 2:1-20
It is good to be together on Christmas Eve. I hope you are having a wonderful or have had a wonderful day and I hope it continues throughout the day tomorrow.
Christmas is a special time, and we love to hear stories that makes us smile or laugh or bring tears of joy – stories of sweetness and goodness and light. Often the stories are about children. We love to hear about how they miss certain elements of the story. There was the little girl, who, in explaining the Christmas story to her mother said that the angels came to share the news about the birth of Jesus while shepherds washed their socks at night. A family returning home from a Christmas pageant began to talk about what they had seen. The father thought it might be good to make sure the children got the main message so he asked, “Who was that baby in the manger?” His four year old daughter said, “Wayne!” “Wayne?!?” “Weren’t you listening Dad, it said so in that song – a wayne in a manger. (Dick Van Dyke, Faith Hope and Hilarity, p. 70, 71). That’s why choir directors always tell you to enunciate! Not long ago a pastor friend of mine shared with me about the Christmas pageant at his church where the young boy who played the innkeeper learned his part very well, but when crunch time came he couldn’t bring himself to say “no” to Mary and Joseph as they stood before him. So when they asked if there was any room at the inn, his compassion took over and he said, “Sure, come on in.”
A few times this fall and early winter I have heard stories about gold coins dropped in Salvation Army kettles: November 27 a gold South African krugerrand worth about $1,000 in a kettle in Southeast Pennsylvania, December 4-5 three gold coins worth about $1,000 each dropped into various kettles in the Denver area, December 17 a Canadian gold coin worth hundreds of dollars in a kettle in Ohio.
When I think back on Christmas I remember Christmas Eve at my Grandmother’s house, 212 ½ E. Fifth Street. Our family would gather – aunts and uncles and cousins. Parking was always interesting because she lived in an alley. We ate around this long, heavy, wood dinning room table drinking from green glass ware. There was food and laughter and cards, and after a time we opened presents from our grandparents – presents my grandma often bought at Daugherty Hardware. We stayed late, coming home well after midnight, and by that time all the street lights were flashing. Little Joe on KDAL was playing Christmas music and it seemed like magic. Even the street lights were different.
Stories of sweetness and goodness and light – those are the stories we like to hear at Christmas, and it is how we read the Christmas story itself. Mary and Joseph always seem idyllic and at peace. The innkeeper turns them away, but always with a gentle, sorrowful voice, never a harsh tone. You never get the sense that they panicked a little when they had no place to stay, didn’t complain once about having to sleep with animals, nor did they mutter if they stepped in what the animals might leave behind. In fact, we read a fairly disinfected story – the animals really don’t do that kind of thing here. We imagine that the night is a little cool, but we don’t usually picture those bone-chilling, teeth-chattering winter winds we know about. It is night, but we picture a beautifully clear and starry night – maybe with a few snowflakes gently falling. How it is both clear and snowy, I don’t know.
The Christmas story as a story of sweetness and goodness and light, that’s how we like it. And that’s o.k. Among my favorite Christmas stories are O. Henry’s “The Gift of the Magi,” – a sweet story about a young married couple each secretly selling their prized possession to buy a Christmas gift for the other; It’s a Wonderful Life – where Jimmy Stewart/George Bailey avoids jail and Clarence gets his wings; A Charlie Brown Christmas – where Charlie discovers the true meaning of Christmas by rescuing a scraggly tree; and The Homecoming: a Christmas Story – where father gets home through a storm and John Boy gets the paper and pencil he wants to nurture his writing talent. Stories of sweetness and goodness and light.
But if all we hear are these stories, if the Christmas story itself is nothing more than sweetness and light, I am concerned that it might become disconnected from our more complicated lives. The day I began to work on Christmas Eve services, December 9, was a bitterly cold, blustery day. The wind was whipping across the parking lot as I looked out of the window in my office. Can Christmas connect to lives where such bitter winds sometimes blow? I worry that we make Christmas breakable, fragile as a crystal angel hanging from a tree or fragile as a snow flake. We treat fragile ornaments with great care, taking them out only once a year and packing them tightly away when the holiday is over. Fragile snow flakes melt quickly. Will we let the Christmas story disappear as well when the calendar turns into a new year? Is it too sweet and good and light to carry us through darker days and tougher times, for we will have such times?
When you read the story again it is not all sweetness and light. The Christmas story is about angels and shepherds. It is also about an unplanned pregnancy. It is a story about a people under imperial rule. Mary and Joseph are made to travel from Nazareth to Bethlehem by order of the Roman Empire and there seems something just a little bit cruel in making a pregnant woman travel a distance for purposes of taxation and a census. It is a story about a young family with no place to stay. It is about a birth outside – amidst the hay and mess and smell of animals. This story connects to the whole of our lives – the sweetness and light, the harder days, the chill winds. The story speaks good news, a word of hope, not just as icing on the cake when all is well. It speaks good news and a word of hope amidst the harsh realities of life. In the words of Isaiah, “the people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness – on them light has shined.” The Christmas story acknowledges the difficulty of the world, and the light of hope that comes into a sometimes harsh world.
Irish author and Noble prize winner Samuel Beckett captures something of this feeling of living in a challenging, difficult world in his plays and novels and perhaps no better than in the ending of his novel The Unnamable the entirety of which seems to be some kind of interior dialogue – a conversation of a person with himself or herself. It ends this way: you must go on, I can’t go on, I’ll go on. Something inside of us, a spirit, a life urge, something I believe put there by God, moves us toward life in all its fullness. But there are days when putting one foot in front of another is about all we can muster, days when discouragements pile up, when we know grief and sorrow, when we fail, when we fail ourselves. I know, not the kind of Christmas story you came to hear, but that’s the point. The depth of the Christmas story is that it acknowledges the tough times, the difficult days, the “I can’t go on” feelings, and tries to open us again to life so that we go on – and more than just go on, truly live. Christmas is sweetness and light, but not simply sweetness and light. It is sturdy and not fragile.
Joan Chittister says this beautifully in her book Gospel Days. Christmas reminds us that God gives us one chance after another in life to become new again, to let things grow in us, to birth in ourselves fresh and different ways to God. (December 9) One chance after another, light, hope, fresh starts – that’s what Christmas is about. That’s what Christmas is about when everything is sweetness and light, that’s what Christmas is about when things are difficult – a God of new life who finds ways into our lives and our world.
When our son David was ten, we were living in Dallas, Texas and I was a youth minister at a Ridgewood Park United Methodist Church. On a December Sunday, returning home from the children’s Christmas program, David tripped while entering our apartment. We were coming in through the patio area, through a sliding glass door. David tripped and fell toward the door, and reflexively put his hand out to break his fall. What broke was the glass in the door. He was cut, badly. Julie said we needed to go to the hospital, and of course, I asked if she was sure. Dumb question. We rushed David to the emergency room, where doctors examined his lacerated wrist – tendons appeared to be torn along the top of his wrist. I remember all of this pretty well, but what I had not remembered until last Sunday when David shared this during Soul Kitchen was that as doctors were cleaning his wound and picking out shards of glass I asked him if he wanted to hear a Christmas story. “Yes.” So while the doctors worked on him, I told him the story “The Gift of the Magi” – that story about a young married couple at Christmas. Jim’s most valuable possession was a pocket watch, which he kept in his pocket on a string. Della’s most valuable possession was her beautiful hair. Della sells her hair to buy Jim a lovely watch chain, and Jim pawns his watch to buy Della a beautiful set of combs for her hair. The author, O. Henry, compares the wisdom of their gifts, given in love, to the wisdom of the Magi, the wise men. It is a tender, touching Christmas story full of sweetness and light, but the story fit a more difficult circumstance – just like the Christmas story itself.
Into this world that is beautiful and bleeding, wonderful and wounded, comes a God who gives us one chance after another to become new again, to let things grow in us. That’s the Christmas story in all its toughness and tenderness.
As I wrap up, let me share with you a brief poem written by the late Brazilian Catholic Archbishop Dom Helder Camara.
It’s Midnight Lord
The Spirit is breathing.
All those with eyes to see,
women and men with ears for hearing
detect a coming dawn;
a reason to go on.
They seem small, these signs of dawn
All those with eyes to see,
Women and men with ears for hearing
uncover in the night
a certain gleam of light;
they see the reason to go on.
Christmas is about the Spirit breathing. It is about small, perhaps ridiculous signs of dawn in a midnight world. It is about one chance after another, when it may seem like every last chance has come and gone. It is about new beginnings even when endings seem the only thing in sight. It is about new birth, even amidst the deaths in life that we experience. It is about glimmers of light, even if they need to find their way through the smallest cracks under the door. It is about hope and courage to go on, to add your light to the world, the light God gave you to shine. Christmas is a story about joy and light and goodness meant for even the toughest times because it is about the God of life who comes near in every time. Amen.