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Christmas Eve Sermon 2014

FIRST READING Isaiah 9:2–7

2 The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness — on them light has shined. 3 You have multiplied the nation, you have increased its joy; they rejoice before you as with joy at the harvest, as people exult when dividing plunder. 4 For the yoke of their burden, and the bar across their shoulders, the rod of their oppressor, you have broken as on the day of Midian. 5 For all the boots of the tramping warriors and all the garments rolled in blood shall be burned as fuel for the fire. 6 For a child has been born for us, a son given to us; authority rests upon his shoulders; and he is named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. 7 His authority shall grow continually, and there shall be endless peace for the throne of David and his kingdom. He will establish and uphold it with justice and with righteousness from this time onward and forevermore. The zeal of the LORD of hosts will do this.


PSALM Psalm 96

1Sing to the LORD a new song; sing to the LORD, all the earth. 2Sing to the LORD, bless the name of the LORD; proclaim God’s salvation from day to day. 3Declare God’s glory among the nations and God’s wonders among all peoples. 4For great is the LORD and greatly to be praised, more to be feared than all gods. 5As for all the gods of the nations, they are but idols; but you, O LORD, have made the heavens. 6Majesty and magnificence are in your presence; power and splendor are in your sanctuary. 7Ascribe to the LORD, you families of the peoples, ascribe to the LORD honor and power. 8Ascribe to the LORD the honor due the holy name; bring offerings and enter the courts of the LORD. 9Worship the LORD in the beau| ty of holiness; tremble before the LORD, all the earth. 10Tell it out among the nations: “The LORD is king! The one who made the world so firm that it cannot be moved will judge the peoples with equity.” 11Let the heavens rejoice, and let the earth be glad; let the sea thunder and all that is in it; let the field be joyful and all that is therein. 12Then shall all the trees of the wood shout for joy at your coming, O LORD, for you come to judge the earth. 13You will judge the world with righteousness and the peoples with your truth.


SECOND READING Titus 2:11–14

11 For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation to all, 12 training us to renounce impiety and worldly passions, and in the present age to live lives that are self-controlled, upright, and godly, 13 while we wait for the blessed hope and the manifestation of the glory of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ. 14 He it is who gave himself for us that he might redeem us from all iniquity and purify for himself a people of his own who are zealous for good deeds.
GOSPEL Luke 2:1–20

In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. 2 This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. 3 All went to their own towns to be registered. 4 Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. 5 He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. 6 While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. 7 And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn. 8 In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. 9 Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. 10 But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for see — I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: 11 to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. 12 This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.” 13 And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying, 14 “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!” 15 When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.” 16 So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger. 17 When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child; 18 and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them. 19 But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart. 20 The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.

I was pondering our gospel reading the other day and I wanted to share some of the questions I found myself asking; I wonder what we would have heard had we been there some two thousand years ago. Would we have heard the choirs of angels singing or simply the sounds of barnyard animals shifting around? Would we have seen the star in the sky, or simply two poor and very frightened parents? Would we have understood the hushed silence of the divine presence, or simply the chill of a cold east wind? Would we have understood the message of Emmanuel, God with us, or would the cosmic implications of that evening have passed us by? Ponder these questions, if you will, for a few minutes and we’ll come back to them.
It was close to Christmas and an elementary teacher and her class were studying Christmas customs from around the world. As she explained, it was an ideal opportunity, to share the Christmas story. She shared with her class how Mary and Joseph had gone to Bethlehem to pay taxes. It was time for the baby Jesus to be born and they needed somewhere to spend the night. She told her students that when Mary and Joseph went to the inn, there were no empty rooms. She compared the inn to a modern-day hotel or motel. She was leading up to the stable when she asked, “What do you suppose they had behind the inn?”
One little guy, who had been listening intently, began to frantically wave his hand. “A swimming pool,” he responded. Well, no, there was no swimming pool at that particular motel. But, in back, there was a lowly stable. It was a shed, perhaps, or even a cave, where cattle and sheep were kept. It was at best an unsanitary place; certainly not a place for the King of kings to be born. But it was all that was offered, for there was no room for them in the inn.
In his book Seven Stories of Christmas Love the author Leo Buscaglia writes about how he arrived in Bali on the day before Christmas. For those unfamiliar with the Indonesian island of Bali, the primary religion of the Balinese people is Hindu. He spent the day in the village of Ubud. The natives of that village welcomed him with open arms and invited him to join in their feasts and celebrations. At one point Leo mentions to his hosts how happy he was to be with them at Christmas.
The natives of Ubud ask, “What is Christmas?” This was of course years ago, before all the hotels and mass tourism, so Leo tells them the Christmas story. The villagers were entranced by the beauty of the story, but one point confused them. Why did no one invite Mary and Joseph into their home? Why didn’t anyone make room at the inn for the pregnant mother about to give birth? You see, in the Balinese culture, room would always be made for visitors. Leo left a few days later with them still puzzling over why no one would make room for Mary. It’s a question many of us have asked ourselves, why didn’t anyone make room?
Even before He was born, Jesus was rejected by this cruel world. I thought about this because of a story I read recently, a really sad story about Christmas. It’s a true story about a woman named Carolyn Jones. Carolyn was born in rural Georgia in 1946. She was eleven when her mother died and her father abandoned her. She supported herself by working at local farms, cleaning houses, and babysitting the neighbors’ children.
Carolyn recalls one Christmas that has forever shaped her life. She was but a child when her mother died, and her father abandoned her. Little Carolyn felt alone, and she hadn’t eaten a good meal in a while. On Christmas Day, the feeling of loneliness overwhelmed her. So Carolyn decided to visit her best friend, whom she simply calls “the preacher’s daughter.”
In her story she tells how the preacher’s house was warm and dry, in marked contrast to the conditions at Carolyn’s cold, damp cabin. The table was covered in platters of food. For a moment, Carolyn thought she would get to celebrate a real Christmas at her friend’s house. But then the preacher did something that devastated little Carolyn. He asked her if she would come back some other day, so that the family could spend time together at Christmas.
As a pastor, I can understand that the Georgia preacher wanted to spend time with his family, but I think all of us can agree his actions were inexcusable. Here’s what Carolyn Jones wrote many decades later about that event, “I haven’t been strong enough to find forgiveness . . . for what he did.” She goes on to mention others who have sought to hurt her, but, she says, “I don’t hate them the way I hate that preacher, because they never professed to be loving and gentle and kind and then turn around and turn someone away who just wanted something to eat.” I think all of us can agree that’s a painful experience. And for the moment I want to set the story aside as well; the good news is that the story does have a happy ending. But for a moment or two I want to focus on what it means to say that there was no room in the inn. This is no accidental part of the Christmas story.
The sad reality is, that we live in a world in which many people find no room. We don’t like to think about that on this night when we await dreams of fairies and sugarplums dancing in our children’s heads, but it’s true. There are people all over this world who find no room at the inn. They’re shut out; rejected. Maybe some of them are living on the streets, victims of mental illness or a horrible home environment, or maybe it’s because they’re simply from the wrong side of the tracks.
The Rev. Andrew Fiddler, an Episcopal priest, tells a hilarious true story that could have come from the Griswald family’s Christmas Vacation. It’s about a couple of strangers who appeared at his Christmas Eve service years ago. They were as huge as football linemen, he says. They both had shaggy, dark beards, and were wearing identical denim jackets with cut off sleeves. Their big, hairy arms were decorated with tattoos. And there they were kneeling at the altar of this sophisticated Episcopal Church.
As he came up to them to serve them the Lord’s Supper he couldn’t help thinking that these two men resembled grizzly bears, if only grizzly bears smelled like tequila. He served them the communion bread; behind him, the chalice bearer served them the wine. However, the two huge men continued kneeling at the rail long after the other communicants had gone back to their seats. The other chalice bearer at the far end of the communion rail, thinking they had been missed, unwittingly served them wine again which they received and drank deeply. They then returned to their pews.
When the service was over, Rev. Fiddler gathered up his wife and his mother-in-law who was visiting from Pennsylvania, and they walked to the car. It had started to snow. Fiddler’s wife got in the front seat, and her mother got in the back. And just as they were about to drive away, the two large men reappeared by the car. They had only their sleeveless denim jackets, and their hair and arms were wet with snow. They said that they were visiting from out of town, that the friend who had driven them to church hadn’t returned to pick them up, and they couldn’t remember how to get back to his house.
Looking at their cold plight, and feeling an irresistible wave of Christmas spirit, Rev. Fiddler said, “That’s right on our way. Just climb in the back.” And so one got in the back seat on one side and the other got in the back seat on the other side with Fiddler’s poor uncomfortable mother in law squeezed in between them. He says he thinks his mother-in-law held her breath the entire journey.
When Rev. Fiddler let them out at their friend’s house, these two huge men thanked him politely, wished him a Merry Christmas, and stood there for a moment under a street light. It was only then that Fiddler saw, for the first time, that on the back of their jackets was lettering. It said, “Hell’s Angels New York.” He says his mother in law said nothing during the remaining two block ride to their house. Probably she was unable to speak. When they went inside she said, “I’ve never been so terrified in my entire life, so please open that bottle that I brought you. I need a very large drink!”
Since I know the majority of you here tonight, I doubt there are any secret members of the Hell’s Angels motorcycle gang. I would hope, however, that if any of them were to show up, we would welcome them just as quickly as we would welcome any of God’s children. There are many people in this world who feel that there is no room for them. Some live on the streets; some are from the wrong sides of the tracks. Some live in desperate parts of the world. There are refugees, millions of them in Africa, in the Middle East who have been displaced by war and famine. As such, these people, living on the margins of society, can relate to the story of the first Christmas. “She wrapped Him in bands of cloth and placed Him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn.” For those of us from “polite society”, we like to think that the Christmas story is meant solely for us. However, the story of Christ’s lowly birth is for the least and lowest as well.
Earlier I said that the fact that there was no room in the inn is no accidental part of the Christmas story. Indeed, it’s the heart of the Christmas story. This babe, born in a stable because there was no room in the inn, identified Himself with the least and lowest on earth even from the moment of His birth. He too was left out, rejected. That’s how He was born and that’s how He died. And those in this world who are also rejected are the very ones He came to seek and to save, whether they be refugee children in Africa, or members of a Hell’s Angels motorcycle gang, or a poor, hungry eleven-year-old girl in Georgia named Carolyn Jones whose mother had died and whose father abandoned her and whose only wish on a Christmas Eve, was a meal with her best friend, the preacher’s daughter. To such belongs the Kingdom of heaven. By the way, I’m happy to say that I can give you a report on Carolyn Jones.
Today, Ms. Jones is a successful business woman who owns and runs C&S Paving in Atlanta. One consequence of that long-ago rejection is that every year she cooks enough food at Christmastime to feed dozens of people. If anyone were to drop by at Christmas and need a meal, she wants to be ready to welcome them.
Earlier I asked, what you would have seen or heard that night. I’m convinced that had two people been there that night in Bethlehem it’s quite possible that they could have heard and seen two entirely different scenes. I believe this because all of life is this way. God never presents Himself in revelation in a manner in which we’re forced to believe. We’re always left with an option; that’s God’s way. Thus, one person can say “It’s a miracle, while another says “It’s coincidence.”
Certainly very few people in Palestine saw and heard and understood what took place that night. The choirs of angels singing were drowned out by the haggling and trading going on in the Jerusalem bazaar. There was a bright star in the sky but the only ones apparently to pay any attention to it, were pagan astrologers from the East. If anyone did see Mary and Joseph on streets that most fateful night, they apparently were to preoccupied with their own problems to offer any assistance.
In one of the All in the Family episodes, that aired some years ago, Edith and Archie are attending Edith’s high school class reunion. Edith encounters an old classmate by the name of Buck who, unlike his earlier days, had now become excessively obese. Edith and Buck have a delightful conversation about old times and the things that they did together, but remarkably Edith doesn’t seem to notice how extremely heavy Buck has become. Later, when Edith and Archie and talking, she says in her whiny voices “Archie, ain’t Buck a beautiful person.” Archie looks at her with a disgusted expression and says: “Your a pip, Edith. You know that. You and I look at the same guy and you see a beautiful person and I see a blimp. Edith gets a puzzled expression on her face and says something unknowingly profound, “Yeah, ain’t it too bad.” You see, what we see and what we hear in life, depends not upon the events, but rather it depends on who we are as people. It’s not what’s out there, but what’s inside of us.
For many of you, it’s an annual tradition to see Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol.” There’s one particular scene in the movie that has always fascinated me. Christmas Past has just paid a very discomforting visit to Ebenezer Scrooge. Clearly the old miser is shaken by the entire ordeal. But when he awakes from his sleep, he fails to take the message to heart. Instead he simply dismisses it by saying: “Bah, humbug! It wasn’t real. Just a bit of last night’s undigested beef.” Was it a vision to be taken to heart or something to be dismissed as simple indigestion? You tell me?
Earlier I asked a series of questions I’ve been pondering. If I were to ask these questions again, I bet all of us would say, if I had been there at Bethlehem that night I would have seen. I would have understood. But the really tough question is would we? Here’s one way of knowing: Ask yourself what you saw this Christmas Season. When you watched the 6:00 news, did you see chaos and strife, or did you see sheep without a Shepherd? When you went out to do your shopping, did you see only hordes of people in the stores or did you notice the worried expressions on some of their faces? Worried because they’re facing this Christmas without employment and they don’t know how they’re going to make ends meet. Two, ask yourself what you heard this Christmas?
Did you hear only the blasts of music and carols, or did you hear the silent sighs of the lonely and the bereaved who may be dreading Christmas because it accentuates their loneliness? And in the midst of the sounds of honking horns and people arguing over parking spaces, did you hear the feint sound of laughter that will be coming from downtown because you furnished toys for poor children?
You see, so often what we see and what we hear isn’t dependent upon the event but upon ourselves. If you did in fact hear the cry from the lonely, the laughter of poor children, if you saw the sheep without a shepherd, then you just might have seen the events that took place in Bethlehem that night. If you lacked that spiritual seeing and hearing, then you probably would have been with the 99% who were present, but who saw or heard nothing out of the ordinary.
No room in the inn. The people of Bali were surprised that anyone would turn away Mary and Joseph under those conditions. But how about you? How about me? Would we have turned them away? We need to make room in our hearts for all those who are troubled this night and lonely and forgotten. These too are the ones who need to hear the good news of the Christmas story. When we make room for them, we make room for Christ.

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