Saturday, December 24, 2005

Christmas Eve (Midnight)

Isaiah 9:2-4, 6-7; Psalm 96:1-4, 11-12; Titus 2:11-14; Luke 2:1-20

It is both humbling and heartening to be reminded every so often that the best sermon material comes not from a three-year seminary education but, rather, from life with a five-year-old little boy.

We were sitting at the dinner table a few nights ago, talking about Christmas, when Little Charlie said, “You know what I like best about Jesus’ birthday?” Now, my husband and I have really tried to give Jesus and Santa Claus at least equal time when it comes to Christmas. But in fact, most of Little Charlie’s Christmas books tell the gospel story we just heard a moment ago. There are a couple of books about Santa Claus, and Charlie loves his toy reindeer, but he also has a toy nativity set, so we thought we were getting the message across.

“You know what I like best about Jesus’ birthday?” I prepared myself for prime sermon material, a theological gem of the sort only children can produce. “You know what I like best about Jesus’ birthday?” he said. “We get all the presents.”

Oh well. To you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah! God-with-us is with us, earth is shot through with heaven, and Charlie gets a Spiderman bike out of the deal. Not a bad deal, I guess, for him. But it was certainly not that gem I was hoping for.

Of course he’s just five, when it’s hard to look past the presents under the tree. Baby Jesus has to compete with cookies and stockings and jingle bells for his attention. Christmas means so many different things in his life – it does in all our lives, right? I'm afraid Baby Jesus still has to compete with cookies and stockings and jingle bells and a thousand other things for my attention. The trick to balancing them seems as delicate as the balance between divinity and DNA wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.

And then it hit me. I know that Little Charlie meant exactly what he said, and why not – there are presents in our house with his name on them, and he knows it’s not his birthday. It’s Jesus’ birthday, and here’s where he might be on to something after all, the little inadvertent theologian. It’s Jesus’ birthday, and we get all the presents.

It’s Jesus’ birthday, and we get the extraordinary gift of God coming to live among us as one of us, in all our ordinariness, so that we can one day come to live with God. It’s not a bad deal at all.

I think that part of what makes it so hard to balance Christmas is that we make the Christmas story into something like a fairy tale, befitting, we imagine, the birth of a Prince of Peace. The holy child lies in a bed of sweet hay as his parents bend over him serenely. Angels populate the skies and burst into song without warning. Shepherds appear in bathrobes, carrying softly bleating lambs in their arms. A silent night in the little town of Bethlehem.

By this time on Christmas Eve – how long is the list of things you’ve accomplished so far this week, and how much is left to do tonight – by this time we need the fairy tale birth, the warm glow of starlight filling the stable, the little Lord Jesus asleep in the hay.

The truth is, of course, the real story was as far from a fairy tale as our own lives are. The occupying government was imposing heavy taxes to pay its army to keep the peace. A baby was born to travel-weary first-time parents, a hundred miles from home. The only available shelter was a stable for pack animals, and the only available crib was their feeding trough. I doubt the smell in that stable could have been described as sweet. Just as the pain and fear of childbirth was subsiding, a group of strangers arrived demanding to see the baby. They weren’t royalty or wise men or even helpful neighbors, but shepherds, bleary-eyed from keeping watch at night, picking bits of grass and leaves from their hair. Shepherds weren’t known for their dependability or their manners, but there they were, claiming that angels had told them, of all people, that this baby was the Savior of all people. This is the real story into which the Wonderful Counselor, the Mighty God, the Everlasting Father, the Prince of Peace was born.

For some people, all of Christmas takes on a sort of fairy tale glow. They have happy memories of family and friends, deeply significant traditions, special meals, and favorite gifts. For others, the experience of Christmas is set more in shadow. There are sad or angry or grief-filled memories of the season, strained relationships, and long stretches of loneliness.

The truth is, we all arrive at the manger with burdens, doubts, anxieties, and disappointments. We are all tired when we get there. We all arrive short one tradition or one friend or one family member. Life simply is not a fairy tale. This is the real story into which the Wonderful Counselor, the Mighty God, the Everlasting Father, the Prince of Peace is born.

Jesus, God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, is born in a noisy, smelly stable. The good news of great joy for all people is announced to a shifty band of shepherds. What an intersection of stories is held in that manger filled with dusty, scratchy hay, filled with the extraordinary Love of God for this ordinary world.

British actor Rowan Atkinson paints a charming picture of that intersection of stories through his on screen character, Mr. Bean. Mr. Bean is the quintessential thirty-five-year-old five-year-old, for whom life is simple, centered on himself, and full of possibilities. In the Christmas episode, Mr. Bean stumbles upon a nativity set in a store window, and he can’t resist bringing it to life. Sounds like a five-year-old five-year-old I know!

The camera narrows in on the nativity set, and we hear Mr. Bean’s delight as we see his hands playing with the figures in the set. It starts out like the fairy tale version. Mary and Joseph lean over Jesus and sing to him. The cow moos, which fetches a gentle “shhh” from Joseph. A shepherd arrives with at first just a few sheep behind him, but Mr. Bean must have found the basket marked “twenty for the price of one”, because suddenly, there are sheep flying in from all directions. He backs a truck up to load the sheep, and as it drives off, a toy dinosaur peers over from behind the stable and Joseph gives a fierce “shhh”. A robot rolls over to see the baby, who is promptly airlifted out of the mayhem by an angel with a magnet attached. This is at least something like the real, ordinary, wild story into which the Wonderful Counselor, the Mighty God, the Everlasting Father, the Prince of Peace is born. All of that, all those wildly diverse characters, all those stories intersecting with the story of Emmanuel, the story of God-with-us.

The good news of great joy is for all people – moms, dads, shepherds, kings, five-year-olds, thirty-five-year-olds, ninety-five-year-olds. We all belong in that nativity scene – in this nativity scene right here – so many real, ordinary, wildly diverse characters, so many wishing-it-were-but-knowing-it’s-not-a-fairy-tale lives intersecting with one another and with God, intersecting because of the gift of Jesus Christ, a baby in whom was both all of who God is and all of who we are.

I don’t know if it says something about Mr. Bean or about Little Charlie that they play with nativity sets the same way. Charlie’s toy nativity came with all the proper figures to tell the sweet fairy tale version of the story. But it wasn’t long before his procession to the manger included, just behind the wise men and their camel, a pair of matchbox cars, a whole herd of plastic dinosaurs, the pilot from a toy airplane, and a little stuffed caterpillar with rainbow stripes and a bell in its tale. Best of all, keeping a silent, respectful, towering watch over the entire scene, was Batman. It’s something like the real story….

….Everything important to Charlie was there – all the things that he loves. That’s what Christmas is about for God. Everything important to God is caught up in a single story – all the things and all the people God loves, all of our stories meet in the person of Jesus Christ. Ours are the real stories into which the Wonderful Counselor, the Mighty God, the Everlasting Father, the Prince of Peace is born. Ours are the stories Jesus walks into, with all our hopes and dreams and anxieties and fears and disappointments, with all our ordinariness. Ours are the stories to which he offers an extraordinary new life. We get all the presents.

I suppose the Baby Jesus might have liked a Spiderman bike if someone had given one to him on his birthday. Can you imagine him peddling around his driveway, like so many of us did when we were five? That’s part of what makes this present we receive on Christmas so special – through Jesus Christ, God knows deeply and personally what it’s like to be us. We’ll keep telling Charlie that that’s the real story of Christmas, it’s not just a fairy tale. And one day we hope he’ll discover that Jesus is indeed present in his ordinary, everyday life. In hugs and kisses at bedtime, in learning his letters at school, in playing with friends on the playground, in riding his new bike tomorrow morning. Because God met us in the manger, these are the sorts of ordinary places we can all meet God each and every ordinary day of our lives.

So I defer to a five-year-old once again. What does God like best about Jesus’ birthday? I think God likes that we get the very best present of all. Amen.