Sermon for December 17, 2015

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Luke 2:1-7

1 In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. 2 This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. 3 All went to their own towns to be registered. 4 Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. 5 He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. 6 While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. 7 And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.

I'll Be Home for Christmas

I'd like to thank Sergeant Major Thompson and Chaplain ___?___ for inviting me today, and for giving me the opportunity to spend some time today with people who spend their time protecting others--our country, its people, our values. Your service is truly a gift, and this Christmas, it's one I am truly thankful for.

Today I want to talk to you about Christmas, about going home for the holidays (or NOT going home for the holidays) and about our final, heavenly home. But first a story, one about family and coming home:

One day up in heaven, Saint Peter saw Jesus walking by and caught his attention. "Hey Jesus, could you watch the Pearly Gates while I go run an errand?”

“Sure,” replied Jesus. “What do I have to do?”

“Just talk to the people who arrive. Ask about their background, their family, and their lives. Then decide if they deserve to be let into Heaven.” So Jesus waited at the gates while St. Peter went off on his errand.

The first person to approach the gates was a kind looking, wrinkled old man with white hair and a long white beard. Jesus stopped him at the entrance to the gates, greeted him, and asked, “So...what was it you did for a living?”

The old man replied, “I was a carpenter.” Jesus remembered his own life on earth, and he leaned forward just a little.

“Did you have any family?” Jesus asked.

“Yes, I had a son, but I lost him.”

Jesus leaned forward some more. “You lost your son? Can you tell me more about him?”

“Well, he had holes in his hands and feet.”

Jesus leaned forward even more and whispered, “Father?”

The old man leaned forward and whispered, “Pinocchio?”

Going home for the holidays: I spent the very first Christmas of my life in Huntstville, Alabama. The next Christmas I was in Mississippi, the next two were in Maryland. Then there were three Christmases in Savannah Georgia, one in El Paso, Texas, two overseas in Belgium, one more in Maryland, and then the next three back in El Paso. All of that before I was 15 years old.

If you haven't already figured it out, I grew up as a military brat. When other kids would ask me where I was from, I used to say "the Army." My mother was an Army nurse, and she was a military brat, too, the daughter of an infantry Colonel. All of this is to say that for my family, the idea of "going home for the holidays" was, well...complicated.

Despite that, I've always loved the old Bing Crosby song, "I'll Be Home for Christmas." (I think we're going to sing it a little later on). The song became popular during World War II, especially among soldiers far away from their families and loved ones.

For some soldiers, I imagine the song was (and still is) an expression of hope and confidence: "I'll be home for can plan on me!"

For others, the magic is in the reminder of traditions and nostalgia: "Please have snow, and mistletoe, and presents under the tree."

And of course, for some, the beauty is the bittersweet sadness that comes at the end: "I'll be home for Christmas...if only in my dreams."

If we're honest, the Holidays combine all of these powerful emotions to some extent (hope, joy, sadness, memory, tradition) and wrap them up tightly in small packages. Where you spend the holidays, and who you spend them with, can make a lot of difference when the unwrapping begins.

And so I think it's helpful for us to look back at the first Christmas--not my first Christmas, not yours, not even the Sergeant Majors' (although that one might be close) but the very first Christmas back in Bethlehem during the first century.

Mary and Joseph didn't exactly go home for the holidays. Sure, the scriptures tell us that they went to Bethlehem, Joseph's ancestral "home." But that would be kind of like me going to Scotland; It's the home of my ancestors, but I've never been there, and don't know anyone there. Imagine if I showed up in the city of Edinburgh, started knocking on random doors and saying "My Brothers! I'm Scotch-American, can I crash with you?"

Before Jesus is born, Mary and Joseph live in Nazareth. After he's born, they live in Egypt. And so the first Christmas comes to pass in Bethlehem, this temporary, transitional place that is not where they're from, and not where they're going. Actually, Mary and Joseph had no idea where they were going until the Angel showed up late one night, and said "Pack your stuff, you're leaving the country tomorrow morning at 0400 hours." Can anyone relate? Are you picturing Sergeant Major in a white robe with wings and a harp?

The first Christmas was a family gathering--obviously there's Mary, Joseph, and baby Jesus. But there were others there too--not relatives or even friends, just people brought together by a shared experience: Local shepherds, wise men from far away, and of course, all the livestock. All were strangers to each other, and yet I imagine there was among them a sense of something greater than their different cultures, different skills and vocations and social status. I imagine that their long journey to Bethlehem to find the Messiah gave them all a common sense of purpose, a common mission and a common hope. Again, sound familiar?

The first Christmas also didn't take place in a warm living room around a well-decorated tree with a yule log crackling in the fireplace. It took place in a humble, lowly stable. And while there's great comfort and joy in our Christmas traditions, there's something beautiful in stripping away all the flashing lights, all the tin foil and all the price tags to celebrate the values we hold dear in simplicity and honesty, with gratitude for shelter, safety, and a place to lay our heads.

If you had been alive back in the first century, and had come to that stable in Bethlehem just a few months after the birth of Jesus, you probably would have found it to be quiet, and empty--hardly any trace or evidence of the monumental, world-changing event that had taken place there. Mary, Joseph, Jesus, as well as the shepherds, the wise men, the angels--they were all just passing through. The stable was not their home. And in a larger sense, that's what we're doing, not just this Christmas, but in all of our Christmases, here, at home, or far away. We're just passing through. This world is not our true, eternal home.

I think Jesus--the adult Jesus, many years after that first Christmas--understood what it meant to be just passing through this world. In Matthew 8:20, he tells his disciples that "foxes have dens and birds have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head."

Even in his death, Hebrews 13:12 tells us that Jesus "suffered outside the city gate in order to sanctify the people by his own blood." But then in verse 13, the author of Hebrews makes an interesting move. He turns the story to his audience, to us--to you and me--and he says, "Let us then go to him outside the camp and bear the abuse he endured. For here we have no lasting city, but we are looking for the city that is to come. Through him, then, let us continually offer a sacrifice of praise to God, that is, the fruit of lips that confess his name. Do not neglect to do good and to share what you have, for such sacrifices are pleasing to God."

I have no doubt that you who are here today know what it is to sacrifice, to do good, and to share what you have. Those are core values that transcend all faiths, that make our military, our country strong.

And I think those three things--to sacrifice, to do good, and to share what you have--are also at the heart of who Jesus was, and therefore they are at the heart of what Christmas means.

Doing those things is the most honest, authentic, simple way to celebrate the birth of Jesus, and the best way to celebrate the Holidays, whatever your faith. Sacrifice, do good, and share what you have. If you can make these things your focus this holiday season, then wherever you are, whoever you are with, you'll be home for Christmas, not just in your dreams, not just in this world we're all passing through, but for all eternity.

Ok, one more Christmas "going home" story, then I'm done:

There were three brothers--a sailor, a soldier, and a marine. They were also very competitive, and so as Christmas approached, they tried to outdo one another in their generosity to their mother, who was beginning to show signs of advanced age.

They were all three skyping with each other in the lead-up to the holidays, and the brother from the Navy boasted that for Christmas this year, he had bought their mother a new boat for her house by the lake. It was a 2015 Bayliner with 150HP outboard engine. Needless to say, the sailor was pretty proud of himself, as he pictured his mother speeding over the waves, wind blowing in her hair.

The brother from the Army said, "That's nothing. I bought Mom a new truck. It's a 2016 Chevy Silverado, 6.2 liter V-8 engine, with a crew cab and extended bed. It's built like a tank--she'll be the safest thing on the road. She's gonna love it!"

At this, the third brother, the Marine, smiled and said, "I've got both of you beat: You know how more than anything else in the world, our mother loves to read the Bible, but with her eyesight going, she can't see too well anymore? Well, I traveled halfway around the world--all the way to the shores of Tripoli--to buy for her an expensive and rare kind of exotic parrot that has memorized the entire Bible. It took the bird's trainers over thirty years to teach it, but now all you have to do is say the chapter and verse, and the parrot will begin to quote the Bible for you. It cost me over a year's pay, but I'm convinced our mother will absolutely love it."

Well, Christmas that year came and went. None of the brothers were able to make it home, but they all made sure their respective gifts were delivered to their mother. A few months later, when they were finally able to make it home, they gathered around their mother's dinner table, and asked her what she thought of all her gifts.

She told her Navy son, "The boat is very nice, and it sure looks great parked there in the dock outside...but really, I don't like to go fast, and so I don't use it that often.

Her Army son said, "That's right, Mom, who needs a boat? But you do need to get around town--how do you like the truck I bought you?" His mother replied, "It is certainly a nice truck...but it's so big, and really, with my eyesight going bad I just ask the neighbor to take me into town whenever I need to go."

Seeing how hard their mother was to please, the Marine son got a little nervous (especially since he hadn't seen or heard the parrot anywhere around the house). But remembering the minor fortune he had paid to please his mother, he timidly asked her, "And how did you like MY gift, Mom?"

Then his mother got a really big smile on her face and she said, "You always were my most practical son, and you always do know just what I like. The chicken was delicious."

Merry Christmas, everyone. May your hearts be filled with joy and kindness; may your homes be filled with love wherever you make them; and may your chicken always be delicious.