CHRISTMAS EVE SERVICE
December 24, 2009
Over the past few weeks, at least three people have said to me, “I don’t know, I just don’t feel the Christmas Spirit this year. Maybe it’s because we can’t afford a lot of presents. We’re really pinching pennies right now. Who knows, I may not get anything at all.”
To me, these people are poor indeed. However, their poverty does not come from the fact that they will not receive any Christmas presents this year. No, their poverty stems from their perception that they need presents – this world presents – in order to be happy. Their poverty is the result of an inability to experience the greatest gift of all. A gift that is theirs this Christmas and always – not a gift wrapped in a shiny box or a supersize TV with a big red bow around it – but rather, the gift of life, love, and peace. The gift of God made man - God incarnate. The gift of Jesus Christ, our light and our Savior.
As I was preparing to write this sermon, I gave serious thought to these people who seem to need material gifts in order to experience joy. I found myself wishing that some of them might be here with us tonight as we, who are blessed with the knowledge of Christ, experience the power of his birth in this 2009 Christmas Eve Eucharist service.
I also prayed that I could summon the creative juices that might in some small way bring life to this awesome event, and bring honor to Mary’s glorious words recorded in the Magnificat, “My soul doth magnify the Lord, and my spirit hath rejoiced in God my Savior.”
In the end, I decided that I needed all of you in the pews to help me out. The awesome task of honoring Christ’s birth needs to be a community event – a real celebration. So, as we review the birth story in tonight’s Gospel reading, I am going to ask you to speak up on cue from your handout. No singing is needed, although these short quotes are verses from hymns that you will recognize.
No, no singing is needed. What is needed though is a thoughtful reading of each verse when I give the sign. Remember, you are helping me tell the story of this wondrous event.
“While they were there, the time came for her to deliver a child. 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.” (Luke 2:6-7)
People: Hymn #101; verse 1
Away in a manger, no crib for his bed
the little Lord Jesus laid down his sweet head.
The stars in the bright sky looked down where he lay,
the little Lord Jesus asleep in the hay.
Mary and Joseph had travelled from Nazareth to Galilee to register for a census. The purpose of the census was to insure that everyone was accounted for and taxed appropriately. This was a long journey – about 90 miles each way. Whether on foot or by donkey, it must have been a very difficult and unpleasant journey for Mary who was pregnant.
On the way home, exhausted and knowing that Mary might be about to deliver her child, the couple stopped at an inn seeking lodging. All the rooms were filled. Mary and Joseph were offered an alternative place to stay – the manger, a space normally reserved as a shelter for animals. It was in this very humble space that the birth of Christ took place.
Jesus Christ, Son of God, God incarnate, our Savior and our Redeemer was not born in the comfort of a fancy palace or temple. His parents were given no special consideration. The innkeeper did not move an existing guest and give them a real room instead of a dirty animal shed. No grand and glorious welcome befitting a king here. No, Christ was born in the most humble of settings among the poor, the needy, and the vulnerable – among those whom he would serve, teach, and encourage to become his followers, his disciples. Ordinary people, just like you and me.
In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flocks by night. Then the angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. (Luke 2:8-9)
People: Hymn #94, verses 1 & 2
While shepherds watched their flocks by night all seated on the ground,
the angel of the Lord came down, and glory shone around.
“Fear not,” said he, for mighty dread has seized their troubled mind;
“Glad tidings of great joy I bring to you and all mankind.”
Shepherds were not rich. Shepherds were not sophisticated. Shepherds were not educated. Shepherds had little, if any, social standing. Yet, God chose them to be the first to learn of Christ’s birth. God revealed himself and the birth of His Son to the most ordinary of men – not to kings or emperors.
Imagine these tired and dirty men out in a dark field, perhaps cold and hungry, minding their own business and tending their sheep when all of a sudden an angel appears before them – an angel in a cloud of glory! They were terrified!
But the angel said, “Fear not.” And then, miraculously, “The glory of the Lord shone around them.”
Somehow the shepherds understood the grace that had befallen them. They heard God. They listened intently and in awe as the angel said, “This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.”
“When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us now go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.” So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger. (Luke 2:15-16)
People: Hymn #83, verse 1
O come all ye faithful, joyful and triumphant,
O come ye, O come ye to Bethlehem;
Come and behold him, born the King of Angels;
O come let us adore him, O come let us adore him,
O come let us adore him, Christ the Lord.
The sheep were forgotten. The shepherds knew in their hearts that they had to see for themselves this miraculous “Thing that had taken place.” They dropped everything, including their livelihood – the sheep – and hurried off to Bethlehem.
These shepherds foreshadowed all those men and women who in the coming years would lay down their worldly goods and gifts to follow Christ – the fishermen, the tax collector, and all the saints who have given their lives to proclaim the Good News of Christ.
As Jesus said to the man who was asking what he must do to inherit eternal life, “You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” (Mark 10:21)
Once we have seen the glory of the Lord, there is no hesitation, no concern for what others may think or what the consequences of our commitment to Christ might be - no hesitation at all - we simply love, or adore, him with all our hearts, and all our minds, and all our souls.
When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child; and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them. But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart. The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.” (Luke2:17-20)
Hymn #88, verse 1
Sing, o sing, this blessed morn, unto us a child is born,
unto us a son is given, God himself comes down from heaven.
Sing, O sing, the blessed morn, Jesus Christ today is born.
The shepherds were amazed at what they had been told, and what they had seen when they finally arrived at the manger scene in Bethlehem. These very ordinary people served as witnesses to the Incarnation, just as other very ordinary people would later become witnesses to the resurrection.
Other than the angels, the shepherds were the first to proclaim the Good News of Jesus’ birth. Not CNN or Fox News, not the New York Times, not Newsweek or Time Magazine – just ordinary folks like you and me, singing praises from door-to-door.
Tonight, it is very ordinary people like you and me who, once again, are witnessing the birth of Christ. It is very ordinary people like you and me who will follow this Christ-child through the brief but world changing 33 years of his life. It is ordinary people like you and me who will journey with him to his death on the cross, his resurrection, and beyond as we, ordinary people, just like the shepherds, proclaim the Good News of Christ’s birth in ordinary places, over and over again.
As we consider in awe, just as the shepherds did over 2000 years ago, the profundity of this miracle of Christmas Eve, let us open our hearts to the wondrous gift of God made man. Let us pray that we may grow in His likeness until we find eternal love and salvation in His presence, now and ever after.
I hope that you will all receive wonderful gifts in bright shiny boxes whether tonight or tomorrow morning – whenever is your custom to share Christmas presents. But, more than shiny gifts, I hope that right now you will open your heart to discover the greatest gift of all – Jesus Christ.
Be near me, Lord Jesus, I ask thee to stay
close by me forever, and love me I pray.
Bless all the dear children in thy tender care,
and fit us for heaven to live with thee there.