A Sermon on Luke 2:1-20 (with Titus 2:11-14) for the Birth of Our Lord: Christmas Eve, preached at the Christmas Eve Festival Service (9 pm) on December 24, 2014, by the Rev. Matthew Emery, Senior Minister
‘Twas the night before Christmas,—the ol’ poem goes—when all thro’ the house
not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse.
The stockings—we are told—were hung by the chimney with care,
in hopes that St. Nicholas soon would be there;
the children—of course—were nestled all snug in their beds,
while visions of sugar plums danc’d in their heads,
—and let me just say, I still don’t really know what a sugar plum is, and certainly have never had one… Anyway—
Mama in her ‘kerchief, and I in my cap, had just settled our brains for a long winter’s nap.
So opens the beloved Christmas poem by Clement Clarke Moore, arguably some of the best-known verses ever written by an American, nearly 200 years old at this point. The story is such an entrenched holiday classic that I can’t even remember when I first heard it, some television special probably. Moore’s poem is largely responsible for our modern American conceptions of Santa Claus. It was even an important part of the revival among American Protestants of celebrating Christmas at all, suspicious as they were of religious feast days and anything else deemed “too Catholic”.
Anyway, perhaps this is more a reflection of what life has felt like this fall, but it strikes me today just what a Type-A person’s fantasy land the whole scene is. “Not a creature was stirring”, and “the stockings hung by the chimney with care”, and all the children “nestled snug in their beds”, and even the parents calm, collected, and cozy… if this weren’t a two-centuries-old holiday fixture, I bet we’d accuse Moore of being a little too Martha Stewart about it all. [And I know Pastor Nancy over there and Trisha up in the musician’s gallery are probably giggling a little bit, since I do, in fact, have a tendency toward those Type-A, planned out and primped up ways… indeed, the charming and pristine scene in the story is pretty attractive. But it’s not very realistic, is it?]
I mean, come on… if you have kids at home, or you remember back either to when you did, or when you yourself were a child, how many of you had idyllic, all-put-together scenes like this for the holidays? Where’s the mad dashing about to finish the Christmas shopping, or the clippings of gift wrap and little bits of tape all over the floor where you’d been wrapping presents, or the children who don’t want to go to bed because rather than dreaming about sugar plums, they’d already eaten a few too of them—or cookies, or whatever…? Where are the fights with your sister or, probably for more of you than I might realize, the fighting between your parents? How about the ruined sauce for the dinner or the sauced-up uncle ruining the decorum?
Now, I haven’t had these issues to deal with myself this year… we’re not in charge of any major family gatherings, and we don’t have any kids of our own—although our 9-month-old beagle puppy is quite the good un-primper and decorum-destroyer. But still, I’ve felt a little less-than-prepared for celebrating Christmas this year—and not just because the puppy led us to decide against putting up a Christmas tree this year. Hectic schedules, distracting details, a litany of people I know facing significant challenges to health or wholeness or happiness… it makes for a rather contrasting background to set tonight’s refrains of joy and gladness against. Amidst the pain and the pressures, have we had the time to focus our spirits, and lift up our hearts, and open our minds once again to the mystery and majesty and gift we celebrate tonight? Have we been able, as churchy-types sometimes like to say, to “prepare our hearts to receive the Christ Child this season”… whatever on earth that pious pleasantry means…?
This year in particular, though, I don’t think it’s merely the personal, individual stuff that risks any of us feeling unprepared for Christmas—although I know for a lot of us, the personal stuff weighs heavy this year. But so too the news headlines and Twitter feeds that tell us of the world that surrounds us. They have been anything but calm and bright recently, with shootings and terrorist attacks and celebrities in sexual abuse scandals and more. Moreover, though, we gather tonight to celebrate the birth of one who was called the Prince of Peace, one who’s mission was defined by the prophet’s old words of “bring[ing] good news to the poor … [and] proclaim[ing] release to the captives … [and] let[ting] the oppressed go free”, and yet our world today seems so unprepared for any of that. The injustice of the systems our society that we saw especially at work this fall in Ferguson and on Staten Island… and the backlash we’ve seen against the movements and protests these events have catalyzed… and the quick jump to discredit a whole movement because of the tragic actions of one mentally-ill person against two police officers this past weekend… all of these have felt like signs of neon blazing in the night, brightly displaying for all to see the reality that our society is not prepared for the true reign of justice the Christ Child comes to bring about.
Caught in the net of news headlines, bogged down in a mass of mourning and melancholy in our own lives and the lives of those around us, drowning in details, in debt, in disappointments and disillusionment… it’s no wonder any of us might feel unprepared for Christmas this year.
But you know what…? I don’t imagine those shepherds—the ones “living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night,”—I don’t suspect the shepherds were prepared either. Try, if you will, to really inhabit this scene… imagine, perhaps, the janitors at a high-end shopping mall—West Farms or Natick, maybe—working the night shift so that by morning all can be sparkly, and they can be out-of-sight, lest the Nordstrom’s or Apple Store shoppers see their faces. And there, in the middle of the night, vacuum cleaners humming, side conversations chatting away in Spanish or Polish or Vietnamese or Arabic, then suddenly appears an angel of the Lord.
Honestly, I don’t even know what I might imagine an angel of the Lord looking like, with or without the glory of the Lord shining around. Would I know what I was looking at, even? Would I be amazed, astonished, awestruck? Confused, suspicious, afraid? The gospel writer says those shepherds were “terrified”. Would our night-shift janitors be terrified? Would they be worried for their jobs, or perhaps even their lives?
Terrified or astonished, awestruck or confused, what I’m quite confident of is that there is no way on earth that those shepherds were “prepared” for what was happening. Near the bottom of the social strata, disregarded laborers among a disillusioned people in a distant occupied sector of the empire, there was no reason anyone or anything of importance should be paying attention to them. Much less coming to them, to them, with news for all people—and good news of great joy, no less. Why wouldn’t you go to Augustus, the emperor, or someone like Quirinius, a governor? I mean, if there was news to be spread, they were the ones prepared to do it… they could organize a census of “all the world,” after all.
Indeed, folks like Augustus and Quirinius had made preparations, many of them—for a census, for military might, for civic rule and the ways of the empire. But for all of their preparations, they weren’t prepared either. In this gospel that tells us of the birth and the shepherds and the angels, by the end of it the powers and principalities of empire and the world will be shown truly unprepared for what the Christ Child brings… like the little dog Toto peaking behind the screen and revealing that ol’ Wizard of Oz for the sad little man that he is, Jesus’ cross and his resurrection reveal the injustice and the impotence of the judges and the potentates of the world. And the powers that be, they weren’t prepared for that when the Christ Child came. They’re still not prepared for it now, as God is still the one able to make a way where there is no way, as the Spirit still infects the world with new life, as the Word still comes among us, full of grace and truth.
The powers-that-be were obviously not prepared for all that the Christ Child’s coming would mean, but neither were the shepherds. I’m not sure anyone could be truly prepared for what the shepherds experienced, the angelic messenger, the glory shining, the choirs singing praise to God, and moreover, the trek into Bethlehem to see the child Jesus himself. For that matter, I’m not sure any of us can be truly prepared for God coming to us and among us… for the grace of God that itself begins to train us how to live in right relationship to ourselves and others and God, for the forgiveness and new life God offers that transforms us into Christ’s people.
But you see, my friends, the shepherds may not have been prepared… but they didn’t need to be. The angel of the Lord appeared to them anyway. The glory of the Lord shone about them anyway. The messengers sent them onwards to Bethlehem anyway. The good news of Christmas is that God comes into this world, and comes to us, even and especially when we are not prepared. God does not wait until we have our stockings hung by the chimney with care, and more importantly, does not wait for us to have our life’s baggage unpacked, ironed out, and put away to look respectable. God does not wait until we can get the checklist finished or the checkbook balance refilled. God does not even wait for our asking, but interrupts an ordinary dark night in the work field with glory and good news.
We may feel unprepared for Christmas… more importantly, we may be unprepared for all that Christ’s coming into the world means. But the good news is that it is not ours to prepare, it is not ours to be prepared… that’s God’s job. “For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation to all,” the writer of our first reading proclaimed. And indeed, as we look this night at the manger holding the Christ Child… this communion table holding the Christ-presence… this church holding the Christ-body… this world… loved by Christ’s heart, we find that God has prepared—for you, for me, for us all—“abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine.”
Will you pray with me?
Thank you, scandalous God,
for giving yourself to the world,
not in the powerful and extraordinary
but in weakness and the familiar:
in a baby; in bread and wine.
for offering, at journey’s end, a new beginning;
for setting, in the poverty of a stable,
the richest jewel of your love;
for revealing, in a particular place,
your light for all nations…
for bringing us to Bethlehem, House of Bread,
where the empty are filled
and the filled are emptied;
where the poor find riches,
and the rich recognize their poverty;
where all who kneel and hold out their hands
are unstintingly fed.
 Clement Clarke Moore, “A Visit from St. Nicholas (‘Twas the Night Before Christmas)”; cited in “A Visit from St. Nicholas”, Wikipedia, accessed 24 December 2014 at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/A_Visit_from_St._Nicholas .
 Luke 4:18, NRSV; here Jesus quotes (somewhat inexactly) Isaiah 61:1.
 Ephesians 3:20, NRSV.
 Prayer by Kate Compton, in Janet Morely, ed., Bread of Tomorrow: Prayers for the Church Year (Orbis Books, 1992).