Sermon: Wednesday, December 24, 2014: Nativity of Our Lord — Christmas Eve

Texts: Isaiah 9:2-7  +  Psalm 96  +  Titus 2:11-14  +  Luke 2:1-20

During seminary and for a short while after I moved to Chicago from Atlanta, I used to work the overnight shift at the Children’s Hospital to help make ends meet. It wasn’t the first time I’d worked overnights. I’d spent a few years after college working 2nd and 3rd shift at group homes and emergency shelters, so I was used to the strange mixture of quiet and crazy that comes in the middle of the night.

hospital-hallwayHospital wards are more quiet by night than during the day. The lights are dimmed so that families can rest, though you still see screens glowing softly in patients’ rooms or from computers at the nurses’ stations. Down in the cafeteria however, or in the labs, the lights are turned up and you can hear the hum of the fluorescent bulbs overhead and the motors of the waxing machines being pushed over the linoleum tiled hallways as custodians use the peace of the night shift to clean and prepare for the coming day.

These are the people I think of when I hear the gospel of Luke’s account of the birth of Jesus. “In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night.” (Luke 2:8) Living in the fields. The shepherds lived where they worked. I’ve known a lot of people like that, people who worked two or even three jobs, leaving their own children at home alone, overnight, to clean offices or to do laundry or to take blood pressure readings. People who spent more time at work than at home. I’ve known just as many folk with only one job that gets just as many hours, first one in and last to leave, burning the midnight oil, or both ends of the candle. For each one of these late night workers there’s often another laborer at home making meals, cleaning rooms, resolving disputes, wiping tears. Living where they work.

I suspect we all know something about these shepherds, keeping watch over their flocks by night.

An on-call chaplain’s work is kind of all or nothing. If things are going alright, nobody really wants to talk at two in the morning. So, when your pager goes off it’s almost always because something is really wrong. An ambulance is about to arrive, or a heart has stopped beating. I suspect it’s the same for shepherds. If the sheep are quiet in the night, it’s because they’re sleeping. If they’re restless, you worry about wolves. Not angels.

“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.” (Luke 2:10-12)

Shepherds watching flocks by night, mat05403_thumb[2]Setting aside for a moment the fact that it is an angel delivering this message, I’m struck by what an underwhelming sign the shepherds are offered. A child wrapped in bands of cloth is like a baby in a diaper. It’s what you do with a newborn child, you swaddle it. You wrap it up tightly so that it can get accustomed to the wide open world outside the familiar warmth of the womb. As for “lying in a manger,” maybe that would have been odd, but maybe not. These were, after all, shepherds. People who lived where they worked, among animals. I guess I wouldn’t be surprised to find out that lots of people lay their babies in mangers, or anywhere else they could keep them warm and off the ground. We’re not talking about rich people here, not people with baby shower registries. We’re talking about shepherds, overnight workers, very practical people.

And then remember the messenger. This is the good news celebrated by an angelic host, that God’s long awaited messiah has finally arrived, and the proof is that a baby is wearing a diaper and sleeping with some animals.

When I worked at the overnight shelter we would get the strangest phone calls after midnight. They’d always start out really normal, and then they got really weird really quickly. The angels’ appearance to the shepherds feels like that. First, a lone voice in the middle of the night saying, “do not be afraid.” Then a total non-sequitur. Then a chorus of voices. Strange enough to make you wonder if you’d dozed off and imagined the whole thing.

I’ve asked myself if I would do as the shepherds did. If I would go with haste to see this ordinary miracle, the arrival of the messiah. I’ve asked myself what in that strange message and strange messenger might rouse me out of my late night routine and make me want to see this infant Lord.

DSC04779I think it’s the manger. At least, if I’m the shepherd, I think it’s the manger. It’s so ordinary. It’s some old wood where you keep the animals’ food. It’s the reference to animals made to people who made their living taking care of animals. If I’m the shepherd, keeping watch over my flocks by night, and the angel comes to me and says, “the anointed one of God, the Messiah, the long-awaited Savior, is coming into the world tonight — and look! He’s not so different from you! He’s just a baby in a diaper, lying with the animals” then I’m intrigued, because I didn’t think that’s how salvation would look. Like a shepherd, or a night chaplain, or the charge nurse, or the overnight cleaning crew, or the young lab tech, or the security guard at the admitting desk, or the EMT climbing off the ambulance, or the young parent holding her child, or the worried father trying to be helpful. That’s not what I was expecting at all.

And isn’t that what they saw, when they got to Bethlehem, a family like theirs trying to get through the first night after a hard birth. This was the sign God offered to people walking in the dark of night. God has entered human experience the same way each one of us did, cold and small, fragile and dependent. God has not picked some other, better, life to inhabit. God has chosen your life.

I don’t know what you came here tonight hoping to see. I don’t know if these old words and old songs remind you of the heavenly chorus or of your own fond memories of Christmases past. I don’t know if you arrived with a heart full of wonder or heavy with grief. All I know for certain on this silent, holy night is that “God has appeared, bringing salvation to all” (Titus 2:11) by entering the most familiar, the most ordinary, the most beautiful, the most precious life of all.




Sermon: Tuesday, December 24, 2013: Nativity of Our Lord I — Christmas Eve

Texts: Isaiah 9:2-7  +  Psalm 96  +  Titus 2:11-14  +  Luke 2:1-20

I love traditions, and the holidays are full of them, but they come with a down-side.  They are, by their very nature, predictable.  We love traditions because they happen in a certain way, at a certain time, lending order to a chaotic world.

"National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation," Warner Bros., 1989.

“National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation,” Warner Bros., 1989.

This is also why traditions become such a rich source of humor — think “National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation,” “A Christmas Story,” or “Home for the Holidays.” We all know, on some level, that the illusory order promised by our most beloved traditions can never hold up to the chaos of the world around us.

Take, for example, one of my favorite Christmas carols, “Silent Night,” which we’ll be singing at the close of worship tonight.

Silent Night, Holy Night / All is calm, all is bright / round yon virgin mother and child, / Holy Infant, so tender and mild, / sleep in heavenly peace…

That’s lovely, but how could it possibly be true?  “Away in a Manger” perhaps gets a little closer to the truth with “the cattle are lowing, the baby awakes,” but it then goes on to imagine that “little Lord Jesus, no crying he makes.” In fact, the story told by scripture is filled with noise.

Finding no place in the inn, the Holy Family gives birth to their first-born child in a barn. Miles away, a group of working-class shepherds encounter an angel of the Lord accompanied by a multitude of the heavenly host who cannot contain themselves as they break into songs of praise, saying “glory to God in the highest heaven and on earth peace among those whom God favors!” The shepherds immediately depart for Bethlehem, where they find Jesus and his family in a stable.

Why do you suppose we insist on imagining that Jesus and his family were so different from the rest of us, especially when the story goes to such great lengths to show us that in Jesus, God enters the stories of ordinary people, just as they are, to show God’s extraordinary love.

For instance, the shepherds whom God chose to be the first to hear the good news of Jesus’ birth. Not only were they out working the third shift, keeping watch over their flocks by night; they were not welcome most anywhere else. Shepherds’ work was not highly favored, and the people who did such work were looked on with suspicion not only by the secular authorities who worried they were troublemakers, but by the religious authorities as well, since they were too busy working to come to worship and were ritually unclean, so unwelcome in the Temple. In other words, that first Christmas Night, the shepherds — unlike us — weren’t at church, and that’s who God chose to break the news.

Once they arrived at the barn in Bethlehem, I imagine they found a royal mess. Mary had just given birth in a barn. That can’t have been easy, or quiet. Joseph was a new father who hadn’t had the luxury of a waiting room, but had been Mary’s only companion (other than whatever other animals made their home in the barn) during her labor.

Tired, alone, afraid. The first guests to arrive as Jesus enters the world are a group of disreputable, untrustworthy shepherds with a story so strange it would have been unbelievable if Mary and Joseph hadn’t already had their own share of strange encounters with God’s messengers. As Mary listened to their story, committing their words to memory and treasuring them, pondering them, I wonder if she recalled her own reaction to the Lord’s angel, which had prompted her to sing, “God has lifted up the lowly, filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.”

No, we don’t generally sing Christmas carols like that on Christmas Eve do we? Ones that remind us how common and ordinary and poor Jesus and Mary and Joseph were. We sing songs that impose order on a messy story, that tidy up the image of those first heralds of the newborn king, turning them into kindly night watchmen instead of the unlikely, uninvited houseguests they really were.

And thank God for that, because as much as we may crave the familiar and the predictable especially during the holiday season when we gather together with friends and family, our world desperately needs something unlikely, uninvited, and unpredictable to happen. It needs to be saved.

And if the God whose praises the angels sang that first Christmas night in Bethlehem is only interested in saving the folks who manage to make it to church on Christmas Eve, then God is too small to deserve such praise.

But in Jesus “the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation to all” (Titus 2:11) which means even the people who weren’t looking for salvation, who weren’t welcome in church, who couldn’t make it in the front door of the hotel so had to squat in the garage. The grace of God has appeared to noisy babies and disappointed relatives and ungrateful children. The grace of God has appeared to tired parents, and third-shift workers, and messengers of every kind.

The grace of God isn’t predictable. It doesn’t impose order on our chaos or whip us into shape. It enters into lives like ours, and lives nothing at all like ours, and blesses them with the greatest gift we never imagined: new life, surprising love, and a lasting peace.

So I just don’t believe, not for a minute, that it was a silent night. I don’t think the infant Jesus was a quiet, well-behaved baby, because God knows he didn’t grow up to be a quiet, well-behaved man. I choose to believe he came into the world kicking and screaming and making some noise, just to put Bethlehem, and Israel and all of creation on notice that something totally uncomfortable and totally necessary was coming their way.

But eventually, once the shepherds had left and Joseph took his turn holding the baby, and Mary had a moment of quiet — in that moment of silence — she could look at the great treasure that had entered her life and ponder the gift of the unlikely community already coming into being around him. In that moment of silence I suspect she realized that the holiness of this baby’s birth had nothing to do with tradition, or order, or silence.

Maybe there will be a moment, if not tonight then some night soon, amidst all the noise and chaos of this season when you will find a moment of silence; and maybe you, like Mary, who are bearing God into the world, can ponder what it means for you that God comes to us just as we are, keeping watch over our respective and various flocks by night, and that each time that happens the world is saved and made new.

Merry Christmas and Amen.