"A Christmas Surprise"
December 24, 2010: Christmas Eve
And so the familiar cast is assembled once again: minister, congregation, guests, shepherds, angels, magi, Mary, Joseph, and Jesus, asleep in a manger, just as we have been told...over and over and over again. What could be more familiar than Christmas? I know it's beautiful and all—but year after year, it's all the same: the same decorations, the same carols, and the same old story. There's nothing surprising here. All the dramatic wrinkles have been ironed out in the retelling of it.
Oh no! Mary and Joseph must travel to Bethlehem while she is "great with child"? Oh no! There’s no room at the inn? Oh no! Herod doesn't really want to worship the child? We’re no longer surprised, are we? We've heard it all before...many, many times. For all too many of us, it's simply one more holiday decoration—something inherited from our parents, perhaps, like that chipped ceramic Santa—something to be taken down out of the attic, dusted off, and displayed briefly—maybe even for just one night—before being mothballed for another year.
If that's the case, if there's nothing surprising about the Christmas story for you, then we’ve missed something, we’ve lost something; and maybe the church isn't doing its job very well. If somehow we've managed to domesticate the shepherds and angels and wise men, then I'm sorry. I’m sorry for you and I’m sorry for me. Because Christmas should be the most surprising story of all.
Granted, some elements of the story remain painfully familiar some 2,000 years later.
Think about it: Teenage girls still turn up pregnant, and are still subject to public disgrace. Governments still run roughshod over their citizens. The poor are still treated less like persons than cattle. Political leaders still co-opt spiritual authority to shore up their own power. And religious institutions still sell their souls for a piece of the action. Some things don’t change all that much, do they? These parts of the story are too familiar.
But somewhere along the way, maybe, we threw the baby out with the bathwater. In the safety of our certainty, we may have lost sight of the surprise; after all, sweep aside the centuries of holly and ivy that have grown up around Him, and it's still Jesus there at the heart of the story. He is the surprise Christmas present whose delivery is meant to shock us—shock us back to life, shock us with the full extent of the love of God. This squirming, squealing little baby is the living sign that the Lord God Almighty, the power behind the universe, cares enough about you and me and the world and all its problems to show up. This is Jesus, whose prophetic name was Immanuel, “God with us.”
The good news which should be of great joy for all the people is that God doesn't stay high up and far away, like some king surveying the scene of a disaster from the heights of a distant mountain. Instead, in Jesus, God dwells among us, as one of us, flesh of our flesh, bone of our bone. The beating heart of the Gospel is that in Jesus, God shares our joys and concerns, our anxieties and our thanksgivings, because God loves the world—loves us, loves you—so very much.
This Christmas, I invite you to dare to believe that there is more to this story, this faith, than you've been led to believe. Please, by all means, enjoy the familiar sights and sounds of this night. I know I do. But in the weeks ahead, I invite you to set some of your certainties aside and go to God with the shepherds. Just listen to the same inexplicable sounds that they heard, and then wander on down to Bethlehem to see what they saw.
It will take more than a Christmas Eve to do it. Later tonight and tomorrow, you’ll be consumed with the wonderful rites of the season—presents, parties and pumpkin pie and the lights—lights on the tree and in the faces of children.
But maybe, right now, as you’re here, you can make a mental note. Put a bookmark in this moment. Promise yourself to come back to this moment when the whole idea, the reality of Jesus, the Son of God, came over you.
Just think: if this Christmas thing is true, then it changes everything. If God is real, and if Jesus is God in the flesh, if He came on a mission to change the world by changing our lives, then Christmas changes everything.
Ever heard of the story, The Best Christmas Pageant Ever? It’s a fine little book by Barbara Robinson. One Christmas our whole family was with Lynann’s parents and Lynann’s sister’s family, when someone thrust the book in my hands and told me to read it—to read it out loud. Now it’s about 90 pages long and I’d never read it before but I was soon captivated. The story starts,
The Herdmans were absolutely the worst kids in the history of the world. They lied and stole and smoked cigars and talked dirty and hit little kids and cussed their teachers and set fire to Fred Shoemaker’s old broken-down tool house.
The narrator tells us that one of the Herdman kids, Imogene, was in the same grade as her…
As far as anyone could tell, Imogene was just like the rest of the Herdmans. She never learned anything either, except dirty words and secrets about everybody.
Well, the narrator’s mother gets in charge of the annual Christmas pageant. And the Herdman kids show up. They jostled and bossed their way into most of the lead rolls. But unlike all the church kids, they’d never heard the Christmas story before.
Leroy: Who were the shepherds? Where did they come from?
Claude: What was the inn? What’s an inn?
Mother: It’s like a motel where people go to spend the night.
Claude: What people? Jesus?
Alice: Oh, honestly! Jesus wasn’t even born yet! Mary and Joseph went there.
Imogene: What happened first? Begin at the beginning!
And so the mother explains the story. For these kids, it’s all fresh. They interrupt again and again and ask all the questions that surprised people ought to ask. The story goes on…
The night of the pageant there was the usual big mess all over the place—baby angels getting poked in the eye by other baby angels’ wings and grumpy shepherds tripping over their costumes. But everything settled down, and at 7:30, the pageant began…
When we were finished singing "O, Little Town of Bethlehem" Ralph and Imogene were there, only for once they didn’t come through the door pushing each other out of the way. They just stood there for a minute as if they weren’t sure they were in the right place—because of the spotlights I guess and the church being full of people. They looked like the people you see on the six o’clock news—refuges in some strange ugly place, with all their boxes and sacks around them. It suddenly occurred to me that this was just the way it must have been for the real Holy Family, stuck away in a barn by people who didn’t much care what happened to them. They couldn’t have been very neat and tidy either, but more like this Mary and Joseph.
…next came Gladys from behind the angel choir pushing people out to the way and stepping on everyone’s feet. Since Gladys was the only one in the pageant who had anything to say she made the most of it.
Gladys: Hey! Unto you a child is born!
I almost wished for the pageant to go on with the Herdmans in charge to see what else they would do that was different. Maybe the Wise Men would tell Mary about their problems with Herod, and she would tell them to go back and lie their heads off. Or Joseph might go with them and get rid of Herod once and for all. I was so busy planning new ways to save the baby Jesus that I didn’t notice Imogene at first. When I did I almost dropped my hymn book on a baby angel. Imogene Herdman was crying. In the candlelight her face was all shiny with tears and she didn’t even bother to wipe them away. She just sat there—awful old Imogene—in her crookedy veil, crying and crying and crying. I guess Christmas just came over her all at once, like a case of chills and fever. And so she was crying.
…Well. It was the best Christmas Pageant we ever had. Everybody said so, but nobody seemed to know why. When it was over, people stood around the lobby of the church talking about it. There was something special—they couldn’t put their finger on what.
…When we came out of the church that night it was cold and clear, with crunchy snow underfoot and bright, bright stars overhead. And I thought about the Angel of the Lord—Gladys with her skinny legs and her dirty sneakers sticking out from under her robe, yelling at all of us, everywhere:
Gladys: Hey! Unto you a child is born!
Do you know what my prayer is? That Christmas would just come over us all, all at once, like a case of chills and fever. That the amazing story would be amazing to us all again. And that we’d want to shout, “Hey! Unto you a child is born!”
Walk with us from here to Easter, from the cradle to the cross, and beyond, and see if God doesn't surprise you along the way. See if you don't find God’s grace in a new way. Come again to discover the miracle of God’s love and the power of God’s peace. Discover the reason that you are here and what life is about.
Hey—unto you a child is born!