Thursday, December 25, 2014

The Christmas Story: A Sermon for Christmas Eve

 Scripture can be found here.....

A few years ago, a woman was standing in the check-out line at the grocery store a few days before Christmas. She overheard the following conversation, between the customer in front of her and the checkout clerk:

Customer: “Do you have Christmas stamps?”

Clerk: “No. We just have Liberty Bell and some lady holding a baby.”

Customer: “Can I see them? That’s Mary holding Jesus. I’ll take those.”

Clerk: “How did they get a picture of them?”

At this point, the customer looked back at the woman who was listening, to hide her laughter, so the woman chimed in, “I bet it’s someone’s interpretation of what they may have looked like.”

Clerk: “Maybe. ‘Cause I don’t think anyone took pictures back then.”

The woman who overheard all this was a pastor. And she wrote about it on her blog. And, I’m happy to say, she didn’t clutch her pearls in anguish at the clerk’s not knowing who that lady and her baby were. Rather, she delighted in it. She wrote,

For too often, as Christians on this side of the story, we forget how ordinary the whole stable scene was. Mary and Joseph were teenagers. In a barn. To all who journeyed to Bethlehem to pay taxes, they were another young couple…[i]

I would add this: I think maybe we Christians haven’t been entirely successful at sharing the story.

Oh, we’ve done a great job at sharing what you might call “Corporate Christmas,” a.k.a., December’s Mandatory National Holiday. Judging by what’s out there online, and in the media, and in the stores, it’s pretty clear that Christmas is understood as a time for spending lots of money in order to buy presents, and decorate, and entertain, and look our best (and most efficient and successful and in control!). Like it or not, that is the predominant idea as to what Christmas is all about. And you know what? I’m going to go out on a limb and say, that’s not Good News. If Christmas is about is acquisition and achievement, that’s Very Bad News. That bad messaging entirely misses the mark, in terms of what is incredibly and beautifully ordinary in the story of Christmas, and what is earth-shatteringly extraordinary. As a colleague said, the story is real, radical, and raw.[ii]

They were teenagers. And, it’s good for us to remember, they were teenagers from the part of the world known today as the Middle East, so they reflected that ethnicity. They had dark skin, and darker eyes. They weren’t on the road because they wanted to be. They were on the road because they had no choice—they were compelled to travel for the census, the long arm of the Roman Empire exerting its power.

Into this little, wayfaring family comes a child. Born far away from home. Lodged with the animals. An inauspicious beginning, it has to be admitted. A birth that speaks of poverty, and humility, and discomfort. How do we square it, then, with the angelic announcement that seems to be taking place more or less simultaneously, somewhere out in a field?  The announcement of a Savior, a Messiah, the Lord? How can these two disparate pieces possibly fit together?

Smarter folks than I have pointed out that the story of Jesus’ birth is the whole gospel in miniature. All the big themes. All the important ideas. Everything, in fact, we need to know about Jesus—almost—is contained in the beautiful ordinary story of this birth. Here is what it tells us.

~ Jesus comes into a world in which ordinary people are at the mercy of powers far greater than themselves.

~ Jesus comes to remind us that all of us are connected—the small-town craftsman Joseph is connected to the most famous and beloved king in all of scripture. All of us are connected.

~ Jesus makes his way into situations where people are vulnerable, and maybe a little (or a lot) afraid, and not-quite welcome.

~ Jesus’ birth is not announced to the emperor or the king or the mayor or the priests or the merchants, or anyone with any significant amount of power whatsoever. The announcement goes to the utterly powerless—the little people. Shepherds. And that’s not because the power people don’t need a savior—everybody needs a savior—it’s because the power people are often not aware that they need a savior, or if they are aware, they’re pretty sure they can figure out how to save themselves. The announcement goes to the people who really get it: this is Good News.

~ The angel calls Jesus “Messiah.” That’s a Hebrew word, which means the same as “Christ,” the Greek word. They both mean “anointed.” To be anointed is to be set apart for a particular task.

A few chapters from now, Jesus will tell us, using the words of Isaiah, exactly what he has been anointed for:

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
    because he has anointed me
        to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
    and recovery of sight to the blind,
        to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” ~Luke 4:18-19

And it’s all there in the story of his birth. Jesus is anointed to bring Good News to the poor, the powerless, the hurting and the haunted. And the Good News is so simple, and yet so radical and raw: God is here. Right here. As close at hand as someone you might see in line at the grocery store, some lady holding a baby. Or some dark-skinned teenage boy, grabbing a soda. Or some tired cop, picking up dinner as he heads home from his beat. Or some panicked-looking woman who doesn’t quite know how to ask for the help she needs in English. God is here. Right here. Close at hand. This is the sum and substance of the Christmas Story. God does not push over the first domino and then leave us on our own. In the ultimate act of love and solidarity, God chooses to throw in his lot with us—God is with us in all of it.  All of the messiness of human existence. All of the pain. All of the joy.  Every ordinary and extraordinary minute of it.

This is my Christmas prayer for all of us: That we might, for even one second, look around us, maybe in line at the grocery store, and see, and understand: God is here. Right here. God is with us. Thanks be to God. Amen.

[i] Masters, Ashley-Anne. Some Lady Holding a Baby. Retrieved December 22, 2014, from
[ii] Jason Chestnut, Mission Developer, Delaware-Maryland Synod, Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. Captured on Facebook, 12-24-2014.

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