- Parish House
Sermon for Christmas Eve – Luke 2:1-20
The Rev. Dr. Kate Alexander
Christmas seems to come each year just when we need it most. When the days are short, holiday lights go up to brighten the long nights. Decorations delight our senses. Christmas carols make us nostalgic. Christmas is surely a season of warmth and peace and joy. And for those who need a little extra comfort this year, the spirit of Christmas can offer some joy for hearts in need. And let’s be honest about Christmastime – in addition to all that love and goodwill, it’s also the season for snooping around. Kids snoop around the house when adults aren’t watching, hoping to find a secret stash of presents before Christmas day. There might be adults here who still do this. No judgement. And there are other sneaky activities this time of year. Wrapped presents under the tree are analyzed on the down low, by shaking and weighing them to guess their content. I discovered that one of my kids has been sneaking extra wish lists to Santa this year using her elf on the shelf as the carrier, ever hopeful that more lists will mean more presents. And then there are the holiday foods. In this season of extra cream and butter and sugar, I bet most of us have been known to sneak extra treats.
I confess to such sneaking around as a child, trying to find the hiding place for presents well before Christmas. I got caught a couple of times. But I pride myself on one activity that went unnoticed by the adults. After bedtime, when the house was quiet, I would start my search for hidden presents and maybe an extra candy cane. I’d make my way into the living room, which was usually lit only by the lights on the Christmas tree, and sit in front of a little nativity scene. I think my parents bought it at a religious supply store down the street. I was captivated by it – with Mary and Joseph with the baby, shepherds, wise men, angels, sheep, a camel if I recall, and a star centered on top of the stable. The figures were not remarkable in craftsmanship or detail. The paint job was an indication of mass production as the people’s facial features were slightly askew. And a bit of the fake moss on the roof fell off each year from being packed and unpacked. But for all its imperfection, I would stare at it for hours under those magical tree lights, full of childhood wonder as the story came to life in those little figures.
Years later, my older brother inherited that nativity scene. It was a great injustice, of course. I never saw him sneaking into the living room after bedtime to admire it. But maybe he did. And either way, I still have a love for nativity scenes from those early memories. And I have a soft spot for all of them – from the ornate ones of the fine arts, to the living ones with real people playing the parts to offer their hope and faith on a cold December night. I sort of especially love the sacrilegious ones, like the hipster nativity scene. That’s the one where three wise men arrive at the manger on Segways carrying their gifts in Amazon Prime boxes, while Jospeh with a man-bun and Mary holding a latte take a selfie with baby Jesus. Clearly the possibilities are endless, but however the nativity is expressed, you know the iconic scene when you see it. The cast is set with the angel, the star, maybe a shepherd or two and some livestock, the magi carrying their gifts, and the holy family in the middle. This is how we picture that holy night long ago.
But that is not how Luke tells the story. His version is surprisingly simple and bare. He has kept the story clean of any decoration that would remove the story from the lowly, the poor, and the marginal of the earth, those who needed most the good news of the coming savior. Mary and Joseph withdrew to a shelter at the back of a house. They alone tended to the chores of childbirth under hard conditions. The feeding trough had to do for a crib. That’s pretty much it for the first nativity scene, according to Luke’s account. And how quickly the church runs over to Matthew’s gospel to borrow the royal visitors with their gold, frankincense and myrrh. How quickly we add a glow to the hay in the manger and put a bright star above it, and add a host of glowing angels to the sky. We would expect, that as God entered the human story in flesh and blood, there would be a whole lot of heavenly glory surrounding that extraordinary child. But the glory wasn’t there. “Luke does have a glow in the story, but it was shining elsewhere, in the shepherd’s field” (Fred Craddock).
It was a kind of radiating light that met the shepherds that night. The glory of the incarnation was already spreading out to those who needed the good news. The angel came to some not very important people on the night shift with a most astounding message. “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 Savior, which is Christ the Lord.” A savior has arrived, for now an infant both human and divine, who will grow into the one to reconcile a broken world to God, overcoming sin and death through the power of his resurrection. The grace of that salvation will be for all, not just the powerful and the rich, or the good and the perfect. The angel said it will be for the shepherds, too, and even for us. The heart of the angel’s news is that we are all included in God’s loving grace. The light radiates to all of us. The tidings of great joy, after all, shall be to all people.
The great spiritual writer Phyllis Tickle once told a story about an encounter she had with a young woman at a book signing. The topic of Christmas came up, specifically the idea that God became incarnate in a baby born of a virgin. Phyllis thought the young woman would scoff at the miracle, expecting this young hipster with sleeve tattoos and a nose ring to take a skeptical position on such an old-fashioned doctrine. But the young woman surprised her. Her face lit up and she said, “Oh, but it must be true, because it’s so beautiful!” And just like that, the radiating light of Christ was at work again, as on that first night when the shepherds stumbled upon glory in their field. That ancient glory radiates out to reach us. This light looks nothing like the nativity scenes in our living rooms, but it is true to form from the first night of God on earth. On that night, the light began to move out from a baby to where the glory and the grace of God were needed. That same light comes to us, like holiday lights on a long winter night, just when we need it most.
Maybe this season you have snooped around for presents. Maybe you have snuck extra treats. Chances are, if you have displayed a nativity scene, it’s historically inaccurate. No judgment. Tonight is about that radiating light of Christ finding you here, just as it found the shepherds in the field. And its abiding message of God’s incarnate love is the same, so beautiful that it must be true. The glad tidings of great joy really are for all of us.