Christmas Eve Sermon
December 24, 2017
A great joy for me this season has been that my daughter Grace, at the mature age of 27 months, is old enough to start to understand parts of the Christmas story. Even though she refused to wear a sheep costume for the pageant (instead opting for a mismatched “outfit” that only a 2-year-old could love), she has had no lack of fascination with the Christmas story itself. After reading her stories, singing songs, and acquiring a cloth nativity set for her to play with, Grace has become quite enamored with the story, always keeping an eye out for what could be Baby Jesus and his family, and pointing him out when she does. Like so many throughout the generations, she is fascinated by the incredible story about a baby who was God being born to peasants in a stable, among animals and angels, with shepherds and kings among his first visitors.
Grace loves her little nativity set. But I believe we owned it for all of two days before… we lost baby Jesus. And at church, of all places! We brought it one Sunday for the kids to play with quietly during worship, but when it came time to leave, though we looked high and low, we could not find Jesus. For two days afterward, Grace would occasionally ask, arms spread wide, “Where’d Baby Jesus go?” I couldn’t tell her. We had lost him.
Really, it’s not hard to do during this season of hustle and bustle, is it – to lose sight of Jesus. Cookies and decorations and parties and gift-giving and -getting crowd out that part of the celebration – you know, the main part. I think a lot of us are so busy preparing a lovely Christmas for everyone else, not to mention making sure all the beloved traditions happen, that it can be difficult to prepare the way for Christ in our own hearts, let alone to find a place for him to stay there (though I’m told even Mary and Joseph had that problem). Yes, in the midst of all the wonderful activities of the season, losing Baby Jesus is a real risk.
Now, for Grace’s little nativity, it wouldn’t be too hard to replace the little figure of Baby Jesus. I contemplated calling the company and ordering a replacement, or even just whipping up a new one in my sewing room out of felt and a sharpie… Then I recognized, with chagrin, that this is all too often the solution to losing Jesus: we simply replace him with something else. We try to fill the lack, the emptiness, the Jesus-shaped hole in our lives with any number of other things – some not inherently bad, and some that we know are not good for us, yet we gravitate toward them anyway. We replace going to church with going to sporting events, or sleeping in, or brunch, telling ourselves that these activities are better for our developing a sense of community, or for our families, or for our own self-care. We replace prayer and a spiritual life with seeking advice on social media, or with self-medication, whether that “medicine” is alcohol or shopping or working more. We replace trusting in God with trusting in ourselves. All of our replacements seem much easier than continuing to look for Jesus who sometimes, if we’re being honest, can be a bit elusive.
I wonder if that is how the shepherds felt in the fields that night? I wonder if they had grown weary of searching for something they could never seem to find? As a child and even into adulthood, I always imagined the shepherds as faithful, gentle-spirited men, who were doing hard but important work. In pageants each year, shepherds were always played by the coolest boys, so I assumed the real shepherds must also be pretty cool. Turns out: not so much. Turns out, shepherds were the opposite of cool. They were in fact among the most despised in society, physically and socially on the fringes. In some ways their reputation was earned, as some shepherds were careless and irresponsible. But many were victim to a stereotype, that shepherds were untrustworthy scoundrels, dirty, lowly, and a menace to society. Because of their reputation, they were often denied charity or even civil rights. One written Jewish law even went so far as to say that if you found a shepherd who had fallen into a pit, you are not obligated to help them.
Being a shepherd was a tough life, physically, socially, and emotionally. And so I can’t help but wonder if they ever questioned whether God might be absent from their lives? Did they ever feel like they had lost God, and that it was too taxing to keep looking… so they either sought some insufficient replacement, or abandoned entirely the hope of God’s love in their lives?
How remarkable – and how appropriate – that it was to these lowly, despised shepherds, that the angels first announced the entrance of God into the world. Generations have asked, “Why the shepherds? Why not the powerful? Why not the faithful? Why not the clergy?” But the answer, I think, is obvious: the angels came to the shepherds because it was they who most needed to find God. The angels came to the most in need of love, the most in need grace, the most in need of a savior, to announce that on that night, that which they craved and sought had arrived, and he was called God-with-us.
And so it should also be no surprise to us that the shepherds would abandon everything they were doing to see it for themselves. Let us go now and see!” they say. They rush into town, running through the dark streets of Bethlehem, until they find the even darker cave where the holy family was staying – and find that its darkness has been filled with the light of love. “They went with haste,” Luke tells us, “and found … the child lying in a manger.” They found him. They found love. They found grace, and peace, and hope. They found their hearts’ deepest desire. They found Jesus.
I don’t want to leave you hanging about the saga of our little nativity. Last week, I was walking through the sanctuary… and there, sitting in the pew, was Baby Jesus: unassuming, quiet, just waiting to be found. “Baby Jesus!” I exclaimed, with what perhaps seemed disproportionate enthusiasm for those standing nearby. My heart filled with joy and relief. I eagerly returned him to Grace when I got home, and she, too, excitedly exclaimed, “Baby Jesus!” and then, “You found him!” She immediately ran to find his manger and place him tenderly inside. “Jesus in the bed,” she said, contentedly. She knew right where he should go.
The next day, I caught Grace eyeing another nativity we have in the house. This one looks much different from hers – it’s made of wood, and does not have movable characters. I asked if she knew who it was, and she correctly identified the people. Then suddenly she gasped and ran out of the room, and came back with Mary, Joseph, and Baby Jesus from her own nativity. She held Jesus up and exclaimed, “Same!” She recognized Jesus, even in a place she did not previously know to look for him.
And announcing her recognition of Jesus in that place was just the right thing to do – for once we have found Jesus, we must look at everything else with the intention of finding Jesus there, too, and then telling others about it. That way, we will never lose him; he will always be found.
So, where should we start looking? Well, the angels announced God’s birth first to the shepherds because they were the most in need of hearing the good news. So now we know to look for Jesus among the lowly and despised, or among those who sometimes feel that way. Jesus was born to peasants who were not welcomed in a place far from home, and who were pushed aside and dismissed. Now we know to look for Jesus among the poor, the stranger, and the refugee. God came to earth during a particular moment in history in which the government was oppressive and the poor were heavily taxed. Now we know to look for Jesus among the oppressed, among those who, due to forces outside of themselves, lack what they need to thrive.
This old and loved story has much to teach us about where to look for – and where to find – the God of love, who came to bring peace on earth, goodwill among people, and the knowledge of God’s abiding presence.
And so my hope and prayer for us this Christmas, is that we might take a cue from a toddler hearing this story for the first time: to react with enthusiasm, genuine joy and delight, whenever we find Jesus in the world; to rush to find a place for him in our hearts, and place him tenderly there, and continually to search for him in those places we might not have thought to look, to hold him up to what we see in the world around us, and to announce it when we do, marveling at the ways God continues to come among us, at Christmas and every day. May it be so.
In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.