Christmas Eve, 2013
A friend tells the story of a chauffeur who had driven a chemistry professor to dozens of speaking engagements. He’d heard the same canned speech scores of times. On the way to yet another engagement he said, "Professor, I believe I could give your speech myself; I’ve heard it so often." The professor said, "I’ll bet you $50 you can’t." "You’re on," said the chauffeur.
He stopped the car and the two exchanged clothes. They arrived at the banquet, the chauffeur dressed in a tuxedo. Sitting at the head of the table, he stood up and gave the speech verbatim. There was a standing ovation when he was finished.
The emcee got up and said, "You know, we are so fortunate to have such a fine resource with us tonight, since we have a little extra time, let’s have some questions and answers.” The first question was asked and the chauffeur stood there dumbfounded, clearing his throat in nervousness. Finally he said, "That’s just about the dumbest question I ever heard. In fact it is so dumb I bet even my chauffeur could answer that question."
The gospel we have just read is a story that most of us have probably heard scores of times as well. We even hear it in secular circles, - even Linus in the Charlie Brown’s Christmas movie tells this story of the Nativity. These days, it is often repeated not as a story of faith, but as a sweet sentimental tale incorporated into the myths of many peoples. And so, I wonder what is there that I can say to you tonight that would be any different from what you’ve already heard? After all, many of you have probably told this Nativity tale yourselves many times before. It’s probably pretty safe to say that any of you could probably swap places with me up here and tell this story of the Birth of the Christ Child. Well, I won’t ask you to do that, but I wonder if you’ll help me tell the story – just fill in the blanks, if you will.
The story takes place in (Bethlehem). There was a man named (Joseph) who had traveled there with his betrothed, (Mary) who was great with child.
We know “great with child” means that Mary was really, really pregnant! As luck would have it, with no room in the inn, tired and hungry as they were, the couple accepted the only place offered to them, where they might rest. Instead of a nice, comfy, clean room in a house or inn in downtown Bethlehem, Joseph and Mary ended up staying in a (stable). And as the timing of any birth tends to be unpredictable, often coming at the very worst, or least convenient of times, as Mary and Joseph are staying there in the stable, the baby (Jesus) is born, wrapped in strips of cloth, and laid in a (manger).
Before long, the new family had company. From the fields came the (shepherds), who had been nearly blinded by the brightness of the glory of an (angel) who had appeared to them in the field. This angel of the Lord announced to them the wonder of the birth of this special child, the Savior, the Messiah. So off went to visit the baby, (Jesus) in the (manger) at (Bethlehem).
I appreciate all the help you’ve given me in the telling of the story. But I wonder, in the telling of it, if we don’t sometimes gloss over the blemishes in the scene. I wonder if we don’t romanticize the details, to make it into what we want it to look like; to make it into what we want it to be. It’s not our fault, really; the story has inspired thousands of drawings, paintings, and sculptures. The scene has been depicted in cards, movies, cartoons, and books. It has been written of in hymns and Christmas carols, sacred and secular songs. Take our crèche here for instance. It’s beautiful! Like most nativity scenes, the characters are clean, neatly dressed, and really quite lovely, sweet and serene. The images imprinted on our minds about this story are probably pretty consistent with the characters as they appear here.
Not long ago, I was shopping in a gift shop, looking for some last minute Christmas gifts, and I came upon the selection of nativity sets for sale. They came in all shapes and sizes. Some were very traditional, others quite contemporary; the nativity sets were from various cultures, and some showed characters with dark, even very black skin. Most, of course, like the ones we find in the majority of stores and catalogs in the Western world, revealed fair skinned characters, and one even displayed a curly blonde-haired blue-eyed baby Jesus.
The truth of the matter is that we love the story of the birth of Jesus, and we tend to make this story, and God, into an image that is comfortable, an image that is like us, when we are at our best, or what we imagine our best to be. We tell the sweet story of the journey this teenage girl, Mary, and her betrothed, Joseph, make into Bethlehem. We’re tempted to ignore their weariness and exhaustion after such a long trip, a trip made mandatory by the oppressive occupying government of their region, and their discouragement when they found “no vacancy” on the tongues of every innkeeper in town.
We overlook the terror that must have seized this innocent young girl, with the first pangs of the labor that would bring her babe into the world; realizing that she would have to birth this child not in the presence and with the help and skill of a midwife or even of the women of her village, with wisdom and knowledge they would share with her, but alone, in this unlikely place, among strangers, with only Joseph to tend her.
We ignore the reality that this child, the Son of God, was born in a mixture of fear and hope, not into a sweet smelling manger of our imaginings, surrounded by the docile, cuddly, freshly scrubbed cattle and sheep of our nativity scenes, but in the dim interior light of a dusty, dank, rustic barn where real animals lived!
And while Mary lay recovering from this birth, preparing to travel again with a newborn infant in tow, the shepherds come a-calling. Shepherds, men who lived in the fields with their sheep, who were themselves considered pretty lowly characters – are their first visitors.
Now, I’m not trying to steal your Christmas magic. We should cherish Christmas! And I’m not saying that it’s wrong to embrace the story, to pull out those nativities and decorations, even if they include the hopelessly idealistic crèche scenes like the one I have in my own home.
Come as we have tonight, to this Christmas Eve, it’s our tendency to air-brush the blemishes of this story, freshen the air with sweet lullabies and carry on with our holiday.
But let’s not miss the real good news for us this night; the good news that God breaks through the fairy-tale nativity, and gives us Jesus. God breaks through the sin and the grime of the real world and presents us with a miracle - the incarnation of God-with-us, Jesus Christ. God bursts into our fear and sadness, our pain, our failures, our defeat, and the regret that makes us yearn for the fairy-tale and redeems us through the real deal – the birth of our Savior.
The real miracle of Christmas – is that God has chosen to dwell not with the rich or powerful, not with the air-brushed or perfect, and not with the high or mighty. God has chosen to dwell with the lowly, the unexpected, and the broken. God lifts up those who are powerless, and those who find themselves in over their heads and aren’t quite sure how their story will end. God has chosen to enter into the very real, dirty, sinful, scared, confused, chaotic, diverse, and sometimes – let’s face it – often, messy world. And here, amid the weakness and vulnerability of human birth, God makes God's intentions for humanity fully known. God is love, love made manifest, as God takes human form.
God works in and through a young, innocent woman and grubby shepherds; God also works in and through us. God takes the weak and voiceless and places them right smack dab in the middle of the story of our salvation; God takes the despised of the world and raiss them up for God’s own good purpose. God doesn’t just break into the world, God transforms it, from a place of darkness and despair to a place of healing and hope. God doesn’t erase our blemishes, God uses them. The same God who created the world and everything in it, who loves the whole creation, who blesses and fills the earth, is the same God who overcomes death and the grave through the life, death, and resurrection of the Christ.
So tonight, let us sing our sweet Christmas carols. May our “Glorias” fill the air. May we gaze upon this crèche and know deep in our hearts the story it portrays is our story too. May we remember that as God lifted up the lowly and made their own songs glad with the wonders God wrought for them, God lifts us up through the gift in the manger, transforming us through God’s abundant love that makes everything new.
May you know the love made manifest in the Christ Child. Let us sing, then, of God’s redeeming love until all know that “unto you is born this day the Savior, Jesus Christ the Lord!”
Blessed, Merry Christmas!