This is the Christmas Eve sermon, given during the Service of Lessons and Carols, at First Presbyterian Church in Medford, Oregon, on December 24, 2013.
What is the true meaning of Christmas? I put that on in some online communities and got some interesting answers. Some talked about the coming of the Prince of Peace, some talked about God’s gift to us in the form of a child. Some talked about family and how important that was. Some talked about a time of good will and harmony.
Many of my Alaska friends talked about the season, and the coming of the light after the Solstice. One person said, “Snow, family, traffic, sparkly things.”
I think the meaning of Christmas is found in the child. It is found in the fact that God came to us as a child.
Imagine you are shepherd, around 5 BC. That is when we think Jesus was really born. It is a clear night, and the stars are shining brightly down on you and your companions. In Bethlehem, a small town, there is one main field where most of the shepherds keep their flocks. There would five, maybe ten other flocks in that one field. The field has caves surrounding it, where the shepherds put up their sheep for the night.
When the sheep are safely secured, the shepherds sit around a fire, and they talk. Some will sneak off to sleep a bit, while others keep an eye on the caves where the sheep are asleep.
Suddenly there is in the sky above, more light than they have ever seen in their lives. It is like the flame from a thousand torches, only brighter, much brighter. From the light you can barely see figures, heavenly figures, frightening figures,
From the middle of the multitude comes … is it one voice or many voices? It is hard to tell, but you know you have never heard anything so beautiful or so terrifying ever in your life. You can barely make out the words at first, but they become clearer as the angels sing.
Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people.
For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord.
And this shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger.
Suddenly you know that was just one voice, as the many voices join in a song that melts your heart, a song that made you want to laugh and cry at the same time, a song of great hope, and yet a song that made you painfully aware of how far we are from God: Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward all.
And as quick as they appeared, they are gone. You are left rubbing your eyes, wondering just what you have experienced. One of your companions says, “What are we waiting for?” and with hardly a thought for your sheep, you make your way into town, where you are able to quickly learn the location of the pregnant woman who just came to town with her husband. “That poor woman,” says the first person you ask, “her husband said he was from here, but he had no family, and they ended up staying in that stable right over there. Why, I would not be surprised if she gave birth tonight!”
You and your companions make your way to the stable, and enter to find a man and his wife, who is holding a newborn child.
And here you run into the true meaning of Christmas. It is the baby—the infant Jesus.
It is just a baby. My guess is that were you to wander by the stable that night, you could not tell that baby was any different from any other baby who might be born that night. I know the paintings have the baby glowing, and a halo around his mother, but I don’t think it was really like that. Sure, it was kind of different, being born in a stable, but other than that, this probably looked like any other newborn.
But here is the miracle of Christmas, Emmanuel, God with us. Here is the work of God. Here is the new thing that God is doing.
Well, here is the beginning of it.
You see, Christmas is really just a beginning. This is the start of the life of Jesus.
Christmas, in many ways, represents a new beginning. In theological terms, this is the beginning of the life of God incarnate. It is the beginning of the life of Jesus, which is the beginning of the New Covenant of God’s love poured out for us. It is the beginning of the fulfillment of the promises of God to all humanity.
Christmas is a new beginning in other ways. It is close to New Year’s day, and we are starting to think about the year ahead of us. Saturday was the Solstice, and the days are now growing longer. The Christian calendar begins at Advent, and so we are the beginning of the Liturgical new year.
Christmas represents a new beginning for us. It is kind of like a Spiritual New Year, if you will. On New Year’s day, people make resolutions; the resolve to do things that will change their lives for the better. The resolutions may be significant things, but they start small. If you want to lose 40 pounds in 2014, you start by cutting out desert on New Year’s eve. If you want to quit smoking, you don’t have a cigarette, starting tonight. Little steps. Beginning steps. Baby steps.
Christmas is God’s baby steps to us.
On Christmas we see the beginning of God’s resolve to change humanity for the better, and it starts with the baby. This baby will grow up, and will say and do tremendous things, but on Christmas, it starts with the baby.
I think most of us would like to receive God’s handiwork in a more complete form. We pray for something, and we want it now. We need a job, and we pray hoping that someone will call us up and offer us the perfect position. We want a relationship, and hope that the perfect person will just walk up to us in a coffee shop and say, “I’m available.”
We want the full grown miracle, but most often God starts with the baby. The shepherds came to the stable expecting perhaps a full grown miracle, but what they got was the baby. And it would be almost 30 years before the baby started saying and doing all those things that showed us he was really Jesus, that showed us he was Emmanuel, God with us. Thirty years. They got the baby, but then they had to wait.
It is often that way when God acts. We get the baby. We get the start. But it has to grow. Of course, we have to grow too. We start small, we make small changes, we work a little on this, and a little on that, and after a while we do begin to see some big changes. But they come in small increments.
I distrust quick, overnight changes. I don’t think they are very deep changes. You can grow a mushroom in a night, but an oak takes a while. And I think the real meaning of Christmas takes a while to grow in us.
At my second church we had a Christmas that looked a lot like this one (except that it was not as pretty). We did, however collect presents for a transitional housing program, where I served on the board.
The Phoenix House put homeless men through a yearlong program, and they had to sign a contract promising to do a host of things. For example, they all had to remain clean and sober. If the men had children, they were supposed to reconnect, if they could, with their children.
The presents I brought were all generic presents, and the boxes just said things like “Gloves, large,” or “Sweater, medium.” On Christmas night I took them over the Phoenix House, the transitional program, and handed them out to the guys.
One Christmas the guys were opening their boxes and one guy started crying when he opened his. I figured he was just a little overwhelmed by our kindness. But I learned different.
This man had been alienated from his kids since they were born. Part of his contract was to use his own money to buy presents for his kids. He had never done that before. Well, it was a cold winter in North Carolina that year, and it was a particularly cold Christmas season. This man worked outside and he really needed a coat. But he only had enough money for the presents for his children.
While he was shopping he saw a coat he really wanted. But he only had enough money for the presents. He looked and looked at the coat, but finally he went and did the right thing—one of the few times he could say that he did the right thing. He bought the presents, and made sure his kids got them.
That night, when he was opening his presents from our church, the box he had contained the same coat he was eyeing at the mall. That’s why he was crying. Christ came him that night, in the form of a coat.
He graduated from the program, and last I heard he was still doing well. He stayed clean and sober, he reconnected with his kids, and kept his job. He turned his life around, and that was miracle, considering where he came from.
I like to think that when he was sorely tempted to use or to drink, when he was tempted to go to his old, dysfunctional ways, he took out the Christmas coat, and remembered that somebody cared for him—that God cared for him. God cared enough to get him that coat. And I like to that is part of what helped him achieve his miraculous success.
Christmas comes to us in many ways. The Christmas baby, who is not yet fully developed, takes many forms in our lives, mostly in small ways.
Christmas can be a time when we remember those small ways that God loves us. It is a time to think upon new things, the small new things that God is doing in our lives, in our families, in our church. We think back on those baby steps, and that helps us move toward the future that God has in store for us.
The gift of the Christ child is there for all us, but it comes to us in many different ways. But each time it comes, it brings a light, that helps us see ahead, a light that can take us through the dark times, a light that moves us into a new future.
Merry Christmas! May the Christ child dwell in your hearts tonight.