Isaiah 9:2-7 Psalm 96 Titus 2:11-14 Luke 2:1-20
Little five year old Johnny was working away on his drawing. He had just heard the story about the birth of Jesus. He was struck by the scene and wanted to draw it. He finally finished and held it up for this mother to see. There was Joseph and Mary and the baby Jesus. There were crudely drawn sheep and cows with more than four legs each. Over on the left was a really short fat man. Johnny’s mother admired the drawing and pointed out the characters from the story. When she got to the unidentified man, she asked who he is. Johnny beamed with pride, “That’s round Jon Virgin.”
For unto us a child is born - to us a savior given. And he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace…Can you feel it? The excitement, almost a hum in the air tonight, as all our preparations come to an end and the celebration begins. I don’t think it is just us, either. I think all of creation is humming tonight, when the veil between heaven and earth is so thin you can almost see through it. Tonight is the night we measure all time against. Everything that happened yesterday is before Christ and everything that happens tomorrow is after Christ. Tonight we are living in the eternal now of God’s coming among us. His name is Emmanuel – God with us – who is made like us and who is made like God and who will not let either of us go.
That is the main thing we are waiting for tonight – for that baby’s cry. But that is not the only thing, because most of us are always waiting for more than one thing and they are not the same. Some of us may be waiting to find out what’s inside that large flat box propped against the wall by the Christmas tree. Someone else may be looking forward to waking up in a house in which all the beds are once again full of family, with children and grandchildren who have come home for the holidays. Some of us have a new baby in the house, which means waiting for the first Christmas morning when you can wake up in your own live nativity scene.
I know others who have had a difficult year and Christmas, a time for families and memories, brings back the loss. There may be an empty chair at the table, a stocking that stayed packed away in the box. Christmas is a time for memories, and those memories rise up to meet us. All of our longings for life to be perfect are especially keen at Christmas. We feel the places where love falls short. But we dwell on Christmas as love’s birthday.
Every Christmas Eve seems to transport us back to every other Christmas Eve we’ve experienced. For some of us, for me, it is a reminder of the way life used to be, back when I was on the back row of the church and observing and not running the show. Christmas is the smell of pine, peppermint, cloves, and the taste of roasted turkey and sugary treats everywhere. It’s parents drinking coffee in their bathrobes as the kids play with the new toys.
For others, this night is a reminder of the way life should have been but never was – those visions of Norman Rockwell’s picture of Christmas - pictures that never were. Everyone is supposed to go home for Christmas. That’s what the popular songs tell us and the crowded airports confirm for us. Only where exactly is home? Some of us know and some of us are still trying to find out, but tonight the answer is, right here. This is our home tonight, and we are all inside. This is our Bethlehem, where we have brought the hopes and dreams of all our years to lay them before the Christ child.
No wonder the place is humming! It is full of our Christmas dreams and memories, all our best wishes for others and for ourselves, including what our lives should be like once God has been born into them. However different our Christmases have been, one longing most people have this time of year is the longing for a calmer, purer, more centered life, and the way most people talk about that life usually has lots of encouraging words attached – as in “rising above anxiety,” “keeping our heads above water,” or “lifting our eyes unto the hills,” as if belonging to God were a matter of being transported to God’s presence for as long as possible, to a place like this one where everything is beautiful, delightful, and focused, and right. Just like we see in our Christmas cards.
Even the very best pictures of the baby Jesus and his family, the ones where the artist has really focused in on the softness of the baby’s skin, the warm bodies of the animals standing around heating the air with their breath, bending over the baby Jesus as if they were protecting God himself – even those pictures don’t tell the whole story.
You know the story by heart – how the whole town was jammed with travelers, nobody was there by choice. The emperor wanted them all counted and taxed and he could care less where they slept. Not his problem. Still, you have to wonder what happened to Joseph’s family. If Bethlehem was his hometown, then why didn’t his own people take them in? I don’t know, but they didn’t. Joseph and Mary got a stall instead of a room, which was not so bad, but still not an ideal situation. We are not sure what was in the stable. We know they got a feed trough, because that was where they laid their treasure, and that is when the picture was taken – right then, while the star was still shining brightly overhead and the angels were still singing in the rafters. The perfect moment captured.
But just a few minutes later, what did it look like? The hole in the heavens had closed up and the only music heard was the noisy chatter from the bar next door at the inn. Maybe, one of the cows stepped on a chicken and the resulting racket made the baby cry. As she leaned over to pick him up, Mary started crying too and when Joseph tried to comfort her, she told him she wanted her mother. If she had just married a nice boy from Nazareth, she said, she would be back home where she belonged instead of here with the smelly animals.
Then she said she was sorry and Joseph said not to worry about it. He meant it, too. They both hurt all over and there was nothing to eat and it was cold as could be. But, God was still there, right in the middle of the picture. Peace was there, and joy, and love – not only in the best of times but also and especially in the worst of times – because during those times there could be no mistake about who God is and who is in charge.
It was God-With-Us. Not the God-Up-There somewhere who answers our prayers by lifting us out of our lives, but the God who comes to us in the midst of them – however far from home we are, however less than ideal our circumstances, however much or little our lives reflect the Christmas cards we send. That is where God is born, just there, in any cradle we will offer him, on any pile of straw we provide.
Any of us who have prayed to be transported into God’s presence this Christmas will get our wish – but, perhaps, not in the way we had thought. None of heaven’s escalators are going up tonight. Everybody up there is coming down tonight, right here, right into our own Bethlehem, bringing us the God who has decided to make his home in our hearts.
For unto us a child is born - to us a savior given. And he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. The hum, the hope, the love surround us. The manger reminds us that we are to make God’s will possible in life. In all circumstances in our lives, we are to move from the birth of Jesus to the life of Jesus and allow all of Jesus to pervade, to invade, to encompass all aspects of our lives. We are to open our hearts and minds to the love and hope born in the Christ child. We are to live in the love that God provides. For unto us a child is born – unto us a savior given. Amen.