Sermon for December 24th, 2015
1In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. 2This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. 3All went to their own towns to be registered. 4Joseph 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. 5He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. 6While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. 7And 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.
8In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. 9Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. 10But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: 11to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. 12This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.” 13And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying, 14“Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!”
15When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.” 16So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger. 17When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child; 18and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them. 19But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart. 20The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.
A Heavenly Overture: The Not-So-Silent Night
One Christmas, a long time ago, Santa Claus was getting ready for his annual trip; but there were problems...everywhere.
Four of his elves were away sick and the trainee elves did not produce the toys as fast as the regular ones. So, Santa was beginning to feel the pressure of being behind schedule.
Then, Mrs. Claus popped in to tell Santa that her mother was coming to stay for Christmas; which stressed him even more.
After a while, he went to harness the reindeer, he found that three of them were about to give birth and two had jumped the fence and run away, heaven knows where to.
Then, when he began to load the sleigh one of the boards broke and several large toy-bags fell to the ground, scattering their contents all over the place. Needless to say, Santa was not in the best of moods.
Suddenly, the doorbell rang and he went to the door expecting another problem. But when he opened it, there was a little angel with a great big Christmas tree that she had brought especially to cheer him up.
The angel greeted him very cheerfully, "Merry Christmas Santa Claus. Isn't it just a wonderful day? I have a beautiful tree for you. See, isn't it just the loveliest Christmas tree you've ever seen? Where would you like me to put it?"
Thus began the tradition of the little angel on top of the Christmas tree.
Christmas, and especially Christmas Eve, is supposed to be this beautiful, thoughtful, peaceful time, where we are sourrounded by happy, perfectly groomed family, dressed in matching Christmas sweaters, all getting along with each other in perfect harmony, showing up to the Christmas Eve service 15 minutes early...smiling.
But we all know the truth, don't we?
We know too well the stress, the chaos, the raw emotions and the complications that so often accompany our biggest holiday (our biggest holy day) of the year. No matter how hard we try, that "perfect, peaceful Christmas" keeps eluding us year after year.
I think we also tend to project that kind of wishful thinking all the way back to the first Christmas--to the story of Mary, Joseph, and Jesus in the stable at Bethlehem. We sing songs like "Silent Night" and "The Friendly Beasts" and we imagine this perfect, peaceful, idyllic nativity scene where kings, shepherds, angels, cows are all perfectly placed, facing the manger, bowed low, balanced number on each side, equidistant from one another, fixed unmoving, silent...while a tin-foil star shines five inches overhead. Perfect.
None of my three children were born in a stable (although sometimes we do like to ask if they were raised in one). Fortunately for us, there was room in the hospital, and so our birth experiences were all safe, clean, and relatively free from trauma.
But I wouldn't exactly describe them as peaceful. There were doctors and nurses coming and going at all hours of the night, friends and relatives, phone calls and feedings, milestones and a million little things to worry about. With every person who came through the door to our hospital room, Amy and I would put on our best welcoming smiles, try hard to stay fully awake, and pretend not to notice the coughing or sniffling of the person to whom we were handing our precious newborn child. There were beautiful, precious moments, to be sure...but there was also stress and chaos, too.
By now, we've all heard the Christmas story countless times...but I wonder if we really hear the chaos and stress that go into this not-so-silent night? The story begins in Matthew with heartbreak as Joseph learns that Mary is pregnant with a child that is not his. Mary knows the truth, but she can't possibly think that Joseph will believe her crazy story. Angels show up to save the day, but their first words are always "Don't be afraid" which implies that the appearance of an angel isn't exactly something cute and comforting.
Then the government kicks in with typically bad timing--Mary's due date coincides with tax day, and a long journey to an unfamiliar place (remember you're not supposed to travel in the third trimester!).
I have personally epxerienced the sinking feeling of trying hotel after hotel in Fort Stockton at 1:00am during an oil boom, with no luck...fortunately Amy was not pregnant and about to go into labor, then, but it was still stressfull.
When Amy was pregnant, her sense of smell was heightened even beyond its usual sensitivity, and so I can only imagine Mary's reaction to the animal smells of a stable as she was giving birth. If Mary and Joseph were anxious and distressed, there's a good chance the animals sensed that...and jittery animals in turn probably compounded the stress felt by Mary and Joseph.
That's probably right about when the shepherds arrived. Scruffy, curious shepherds not overly concerned with privacy, bringing their noisy, smelly, equally jittery sheep, already spooked by choirs of angels.
In several popular Christmas carols, we are told that the baby Jesus did not cry. The actual scripture story says no such thing, although if he didn't, it's probably because he was overwhelmed, entering into a world overloaded with sights, sounds, and smells.
Let's also not forget the star that night, that in order to be bright enough to guide the wise men from afar, would have had to bathe the stable in perpetual daylight. So much for a silent night.
At least the wise men had the decency to wait a few weeks...although I'm told that if the wise men had been wise women, they would have asked for directions, arrived on time, helped deliver the baby, cleaned the stable, made a casserole, and brought practical gifts.
Admittedly, Luke's version of the Christmas story is over-the-top, with bands of shepherds and choirs of angels, and all sorts of miracles added to the mix. More than any of the other gospel writers, Luke is self-concious about his craft as a writer, a story-teller. He tells us, in the opening verses of his gospel that he's not just interested in re-telling the story as many others already have, but telling it with skill, with method, with style.
For Luke, the greatest story of all time needs an equally fantastic introduction. It needs an overture, with the entire cast taking the stage for the opening number. It needs fireworks and drama in order to capture our attention and keep us reading for more. You see, even Luke feels like he needs for his Christmas to be picture perfect.
But just like our own, I think we can see through the cracks in Luke's story, too. That first Christmas wasn't picture perfect. It had its beauty, but it was messy too. Like the baby at the center of the picture, it may have been divine, but it was also human too.
And I think there is hope for us in this less-than-perfect vision of Christmas, this not-so-silent night. Jesus didn't come into the world to zap us all into instant perfection and conformity. In fact, when baby Jesus grows up, he spends most of his time forgiving people, reminding them that God loves them in spite of their quirks, flaws, and collosal failures.
It all began that first Christmas, in a stable with the birth of a child that didn't turn out like anyone had expected or would have ever planned. I think it still begins, for us, with Christmas.
I'm not saying that we should try harder to spin our wheels in service to Christmas chaos and craziness. Just that we need to forgive ourselves and each other when, inevitably, someone burns the Christmas cookies, spills egg nog on the brand new Christmas sweater, blows up in anger, or says something hastily that is quickly regretted. We need to forgive each other, and love each other...even our crazy relatives who share their political opinions at the Christmas dinner table. Because if we can't love and forgive at Christmas, then when?
Christmas will never be as pretty, peaceful, and perfect as the postcards we send each other would lead one to believe, but there are moments, small pockets of peace and joy that break through the lights and tinsel. Look for those times, and make room for them when they come. For me, one of those times is at the end of this service when we sing (ironically) silent night and raise our candles in the darkness.
You may have been a ball of stress when you were last-minute shopping or cooking earlier today, and it might have been the best you could do to get shoes and socks on everyone and still make it here 15 minutes into the service. But you're here now, and that's good enough.
That first Christmas was anything but a silent night...but I imagine that at some point, maybe after the shepherds had left, maybe before the wise men arrived, maybe when some of the animals had finally gone to sleep... Perhaps there was a moment or two of silence, just a glance from Joseph to Mary, or from both to their little son... Just one fleeting moment where the stress and anxiety and the cares of the world melted away, and only love remained.
May you find and cherish those moments in the days and weeks to come. And in those moments, may you come to know just how much God loves you, and may that love be enough to sustain you though the craziness of the rest of the year.