December 24, 2016
William G. Carter
Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.”
Here is a slice of human experience that you may have seen. It’s the family gathering. Cookies and sweets are on the table. The fireplace is blazing. Three young children are on the floor, ripping open wrapping paper and squealing as they discover each new gift.
Standing off to the side, almost in the shadows, is Uncle John. He smiles broadly as he watches the kids. He takes another sip from his beverage and chats with his brother-in-law. As the party winds up, everybody begins to put on their coats and say goodbye. The children are tired. One of them is loaded down with gifts. Everybody has something from the gift exchange.
“Oh, John,” somebody says, “I just realized you didn’t receive any gifts. I’m so sorry. How could that happen?” John says, “Oh, it’s nothing.”
Another says, “What? John, you can’t leave empty-handed. Here, I got two scarves. Why don’t you take one?” John says, “No, that’s fine. I enjoyed watching everybody else, especially the kids. That’s all I needed tonight.”
“But John, you were so generous with everybody else. Can’t we send something home with you? Here’s some kielbasa and some unopened cheese.” “Thanks,” says John, “but Christmas is for all of you. That’s what gives me joy.”
At this, his niece grabs him by the waist and declares emphatically, “But Uncle John, Christmas is for you too.”
In spite of all our happy songs and good wishes, there are some people who may feel left out tonight. They watch with a distant smile, taking some small pleasure in the joy of others. But there’s something missing. Maybe they feel like they’ve been missed.
It happens more than the slim majority realizes. The far-off soldier hasn’t had any mail for a while. The woman who was hired as “seasonal help” is given her notice and not much else. The daughter who hasn’t spoken with her father for twenty years wonders if this is the year. The freshly-divorced man opens a small package from his young children. It’s a set of salt and pepper shakers from the Dollar Store, and the kid who always blurts things out says, “Mom thought you should get something.”
So my sermon tonight is not for the person who has everything, but for the one who finds something missing. Is there anything here tonight for them, too?
The question resonates with the stories from childhood, especially the stories of holiday cartoons and stop-action specials. Charlie Brown gets the wrong Christmas tree, and then fears a big red ornament has killed it. Or on The Island of Misfit Toys, Charlie-in-the-Box and the spotted elephant wonder if this is the year that Santa will come to retrieve them. The Grinch up on his icy mountain listens to the celebration in Whoville and feels left out. Is there anything on Christmas for them?
The story at the heart of it all is the story of the shepherds, from the Gospel of Luke. We glorify them in pageants and carols, but they were rascals and scallywags. As someone has said, “The shepherds in the first century were the cowboys in American fiction; they were the heroes of all the stories, but you wouldn’t want your daughter to marry one.”
Did you know the Jerusalem establishment banned the shepherds from the Jewish temple? They were considered thieves. They let their flocks graze on land that didn’t belong to them and refused to keep their sheep from eating impure food. The prevailing religious notion was, “There’s nothing here for the shepherds.”
But then Luke says Christmas comes. Specifically it goes to them. The angel says, “To you is born a Savior.” Christmas is for you, for all of you. That’s the announcement. That’s the news. And the shepherds have to get moving to see what this means.
It means, first of all, that they have been found, that they have been noticed, that Heaven sees them and comes close to them. It means they have not been cast off or forgotten as those who don’t count. It means that there is a goodness and a power at work in the world that is a whole lot better than what they’ve seen recently. It means that the dreariness of their routines has been interrupted by a song. There’s something more, and it’s for them.
We hear these stories, and wonder if it could be true. Like a few days ago, in a restaurant in Phoenix, a waitress named Sarah was wiping tables. She’s nine months pregnant and had to work. A customer comes by to pick up a takeout order. Sarah rings her out, she leaves, and then Sarah realizes she was given a nine-hundred dollar tip. The customer wrote on the receipt, “This is God’s money — He gave it to us so we could give it to you. God bless.” What if that is the actual truth? Not merely the money, but the goodness behind it?
What if God really does come? What if God has already slipped in beside us?
For that’s the most astonishing thing of all: that the Savior does not descend like a superhero, but that he is found as a peasant child, just like the rest of us. That he is wrapped in bands of cloth, the peasant’s way of protecting an infant’s body. That he lies in the straw of a feeding trough, not high and mighty above everybody else, but lowly and common among us.
That’s the miracle. The goodness of God finds us. It hides among us as a child, waiting to be found, until it can transform us.
Tomorrow will be another day. Mary will start nursing, and against his will Joseph will change diapers. The shepherds will be back watching their flocks. You and I will continue our holiday rounds, welcome family, or collapse in exhaustion. There will be meals to prepare, laundry to wash, and chores to do. In the middle of all our daily tasks, it’s easy to get caught up in what must be done. It’s easy to think this is all there is.
But tonight, for a moment, let the darkness be punctured by light. Let the residue of a good song stay with you. Let the ancient story prepare you for the possibility of seeing an angel’s wing flutter behind the cypress tree. Let the good news come that there is no place you can go that is beyond the embracing, forgiving, cleansing love of God.
This is my prayer for you – that the love, peace, and joy that everybody else is singing about will also be for you. Right in the middle of our messy, unfinished lives, God comes and God stays. Believe it, if you can.
Christmas is for you.
(c) William G. Carter. All rights reserved.