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Christmas Eve 2015

Christmas Eve 2015

Holy Trinity Lutheran Church, Manasquan, NJ

            I was in the parsonage kitchen making white bean chili for our midweek Advent potluck when I heard a yelp from the backyard.  It wasn’t a bark of warning or of excitement; it was the sound of pain.   I was relieved but puzzled when the yelp was quickly followed by insistent barking.  I called to Pastor Mark, who went outside to check up on Bear, the rescue pup we adopted as Kristiane’s Christmas present a year ago.  Within 5 minutes Mark and Bear came back inside.  Mark was holding something and said, “Guess what I found….”  I didn’t have a clue.  I had thought maybe a cat or raccoon was passing through, and that Bear had cornered it and gotten raked by the other critter’s claws. 

            Pastor Mark then held up an electrical plug that had been gnawed; it was connected to wires that had been chewed clean through.  I can smile as I say this because Bear didn’t suffer any lasting ill effects from the electrical shock she got when she bit through the live wires of the Christmas lights on a backyard bush.  I shared that story with a friend who said it made her think of the Griswolds’ cat who blacked out their Christmas tree in that holiday classic starring not Bing Crosby, Alistair Sim, Jimmy Stewart or Donna Reed, but Chevy Chase.  Yup: National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation.

            So -- how in the world did the world get from  “Mary & Joseph, and the baby lying in a manger” in Bethlehem to Clark & Ellen Griswold’s living room??  How did we get from gifts of the angels’ song and the wise men’s gold, frankincense and myrrh to the Breathometer SmartPhone Breathalizer I saw in one store?  (One on-line review offered this observation, “The size makes it easy to take with you to the bar.”)  How did Christ’s birthday become the make-or-break season for our friends and neighbors who work in retail?  How did the Savior’s holy day become a largely secular holiday associated with eggnog and e-commerce?  If we’ve shopped or partied more than we’ve worshiped in preparation for the celebration: what’s wrong with that picture?

            Don’t I sound just like a pastor smiley???   It’s not like everything was so celestial, non-commercial, hunky-dory and Norman Rockwell 2,000 years ago either.   The only one in the story who’s perfect is Jesus, and He’s a newborn!  Walking the neighborhood with Bear, I enjoy the Christmas lights, porch decorations, and lawn Nativities that we pass along the Way.  There’s a pretty crèche scene in one yard that is made up of white silhouettes, two-dimensional figures.  For the story of the first Christmas to touch our hearts and actually make a difference in our lives, though, we need to recognize the “players” as three-dimensional, real, fallible, and fallen as any other human being– in as great a need of a Savior as we are.

·         Why was there no room for them in the inn??  Yes, Bethlehem was bursting at the seams with people obediently lining up to be counted and taxed, and the trip from Nazareth was longer-than-usual with the poor donkey stumbling along under the weight of 9 month pregnant Mary, who must have needed frequent “rest stops” – But if Joseph were really on the top of his game, wouldn’t he have made a reservation??  (That’s what I like to think, anyway, when I haven’t planned far enough ahead.  I at least want to be in good company when I lack foresight!)

·         And the shepherds -- they were total basket cases.  They weren’t neat and clean like the shepherds in the crèche scenes set on these window ledges.  They weren’t herding sweet-smelling Hallmark sheep either.  They lived out of doors and they worked with smelly animals.  They may have been Jewish but they weren’t considered good Jews; their livelihood made it impossible for them to keep the cleanliness laws and much of the rest of the Holiness Code, too.  That’s why it’s so important for St. Luke to report that they, the spiritual low-lives of society, were the ones to whom the angels reported the Savior’s Birth!  Who would have thunk it??

Shouldn’t the high priest have been the first one notified??  Shouldn’t the announcement have gone down the proper religious chain of command??  Not on your life.  Especially in St. Luke’s Gospel, no one’s standing on ceremony.  As we heard last weekend in Mary’s song, the Magnificat, with Jesus’ arrival everything gets turned topsy-turvy.  Have-nots become rich; the worldly-wealthy become poor.  No-accounts become somebodies; the powers-that-be are laid low.

The Christmas story can be so aglow with starlight and candlelight that it can seem more fairy tale than faith story.  It’s usually painted, drawn, portrayed so perfectly that we forget the people involved are 3D human beings, sinners like us, with the exception of Jesus.  That’s why they and we need the Savior.  It’s a very personal message.

To you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.

Speaking of David: point proven about the story being populated with sinners, and even the heroes having clay feet.  Now, there’s a character!  It’s almost shocking that anyone would want to be associated with David, no less claim him as an ancestor.  Yes, David was the little shepherd boy with a lot of chutzpah who got the drop on Goliath with a slingshot and a stone aimed right between the eyes.  Yes, David was the musician whose playing helped to lift King Saul out of depression, the poet and composer who wrote the psalms we still sing today.  But David was also the king who abused his power by calling Bathsheba to himself and then having her husband killed.  Adultery and murder were on David’s rap sheet.  But regardless he was “a man after God’s own heart”  (1 Samuel 13:14).  Jesus’ ancestor Rahab was a prostitute; dear Ruth, Naomi’s daughter-in-law who became Boaz’s wife, faithful Ruth who said, “Wherever you go, I will go” (Ruth 1:16) was a Moabite, a pagan; and Jesus’ own mother, Mary, certainly came under fire by the gossips in town for becoming pregnant before her wedding. 

God the Father sent our Lord Jesus to an imperfect world filled with imperfect people like us.  So if you’re thinking this “church stuff” isn’t geared for or relevant to someone like you, let the Holy Spirit whisper something into your ear:

To you is born this day… a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.

Maybe you laugh hysterically when you watch Christmas Vacation or Home Alone.  Or maybe you think they’re garbage.  Maybe you consider a manger scene populated by Star Wars characters to be the coolest – or maybe your tastes run more traditional.  Maybe you’re among the many who have clocked more time in the mall than you can calculate and less time in worship than you’d like to admit.  It doesn’t matter.  The miraculous bottom line stays the same:

To you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.

            Whatever you need to be saved from, He’s there for you.  Whether you’re the one who makes travel reservations 6 months in advance or you’re the other guy who ends up in the stable, so to speak, because you decided to wing it and there’s no room left in the inn, you have a Savior who loves you.  Our God doesn’t make distinctions between those who smell of livestock like the shepherds and those who are fragrant with Chanel.

            In St. Matthew’s Gospel, where we find Jesus’ genealogy, we hear how the angel told:

“Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit.  She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.”  (Matt. 1:20-21)

That’s us!  Imperfect, sinful, present and accounted for!  Mercifully forgiven!

            At its heart, the joy of Christmas is this: Christ came for us all.  The Father so loved the world, the whole cotton-pickin’ world, with all of us colorful characters in it, that He sent the Son.

To you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.

To you, Clark & Ellen Griswold!  To you, Chevy Chase, who makes us laugh.  To you, anyone who has ever made us cry.  To you, who are only here tonight because someone dragged you!  To you, whoever you are, who rescued our Bear from a high kill shelter, drove her in a puppymobile from Georgia to NJ, and fostered her till she came home to us.  To you, dear friends, who are painfully aware of your need for a Savior, and to you, dear friends, who don’t really see the need.  To all of us, to whom the angels also announce:

To you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.

He is the Light that shines in the darkness, the Light that darkness cannot overcome, the Light that no one and nothing can ever short out.  Amen.

Pastor Mary Virginia Farnham