Sermon: Christmas Eve 2019
Merry Christmas! And welcome to Saint John's Episcopal Church. We are glad that you have chosen to spend part of your holiday worshiping with us tonight. I also pray that tonight's service enhances and deepens your Christmas celebration.
As I was preparing this sermon, I found myself asking this question over and over: What draws us to this place? I suppose there are as many answers as there are people here tonight. For some, it might be a desire to sit in the presence of God in the beauty of holiness. I know that, for me, this is one of the most beautiful and holy places I have ever experienced. This is a good and holy place, and it reminds me that, despite everything going on out there, God is with us. Sometimes I am moved to tears by all of THIS.
For others, tonight is a chance to once again hear the story. Once again we gather to hear that timeless story of how the immortal, invisible, omnipotent God became a mortal, visible, lowly human being in the form of a fragile newborn baby. Once again we hear the story of how God gave his only son, born of a woman, for the salvation of many. And once again, that story amazes and bewilders us.
I'm sure there are many other reasons for why we have gathered here tonight. And while there may be many reasons for why people are here, I want to focus on that second reason I named – that we gather to once again hear the story. So I want to more deeply examine this old, familiar, and beloved story.
One of the things about this story that we may have missed (due to our overlooking it or it being overly familiar) is the story's dual nature of being both private and communal.
“While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. And she gave birth to her firstborn son . . . and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.”
This is a private moment. Giving birth is a highly personal and private moment. We don't normally invite friends and family to participate in this event with us. Only those necessary to the event are welcome; everyone else is kept away. I remember this time in my own life.
Our daughter was born back in the dark ages before cell phones, so when you wanted to contact someone in the hospital you had no choice but to go through the main switchboard and have them transfer you to a room. While in our room, and before she was born, we kept getting phone calls for what seemed like every ten minutes asking if she had been born yet. I finally called down to the switchboard and said that, unless someone was dying, NOBODY was to be transferred to our room until further notice. It was a private moment that I didn't want outsiders intruding upon.
After she was born, however, it became a communal event. I allowed calls to come in. We made the necessary phone calls to family and friends. New grandparents came and visited. We showed her off at church. In Mary and Joseph's case, they received a group of strangers who had come to see them. The private and personal had become communal.
We also see this movement of the personal and private to the communal with the shepherds. “In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. Then an angel of the Lord came and stood before them.”
I imagine only a handful of shepherds here, probably no more than five, gathered together at night. Maybe they gathered around a fire for warmth, or in the safety of its light. They might be sharing stories of their day or of people they've had to deal with. This is a shared, private moment. It isn't necessarily a time when outsiders were invited in. It's the proverbial “teachers' lounge,” where we can gather together in private.
But suddenly an angel of the Lord appeared, intruding on this private gathering. The angel isn't named, but I'm guessing it was Gabriel, because making announcements is what Gabriel does. Gabriel announced the meaning of Daniel's visions, and Gabriel made the annunciations of both John and Jesus to Zechariah and Mary, respectively. And now an angel appears and announces to the shepherds the birth of the Messiah. The angel is joined by a heavenly chorus singing, “Gloria in excelsis Deo,” after which they disappear and the shepherds make their way to Bethlehem to find said child.
Mary and Joseph's personal, private moment has just become a communal event.
But in some ways, this is still a personal, private moment for the shepherds. How many of us, when gazing at a newborn, or holding a newborn, feel like we're the only two people in the room? I imagine this is what the shepherds felt as they gazed at the newborn child and cautiously intruded upon the Holy Family – it was just them and the baby in a private moment.
But then someone spoke up. “My lady . . . good sir,” or whatever passed for a proper greeting in those days, “You may not believe this, but an angel from heaven sent us here to be with you.”
When Mary and Joseph heard this, they were amazed. I've often wondered about that – they were amazed. How, exactly, were they amazed? I think maybe it wasn't because they were astonished, surprised, or perplexed. I don't think it was the amazement we experience when we see something “miraculous,” although this event certainly was miraculous. I think, instead, it was the amazement that comes from having some outrageous or unconventional experience confirmed.
As an example, when I first felt called to ordained ministry, I was amazed at how many other people in my life said something like, “It's about time,” thereby helping to confirm that call.
I think Mary and Joseph were amazed in a way that confirmed their own experiences.
Luke tells us that Mary had been visited by Gabriel earlier in the year and told she would give birth to the Son of the Most High. Over in Matthew we are told that an angel visited Joseph in a dream and telling him to not be afraid to take Mary as his wife and that the child would save his people from their sins. And now again in Luke we have the story of angels visiting shepherds. Within these two gospels we have three instances of angelic visitations. I think the sense of amazement felt by Mary and Joseph was along the lines of the amazement when your outrageous and unconventional experience has been confirmed. It's a, “So this is really happening,” amazing moment. It's the amazement that comes when you see the hand of God at work in the world around you.
After visiting the Holy Family, the shepherds returned to their field, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen. This is no longer a private moment. This now becomes a communal event for the shepherds who praised and glorified God in front of all those who heard them. This is an experience that cries out to be shared with those around. This is an amazing experience in which the shepherds, like the song says, “Go tell it on the mountain.”
These personal and private moments of amazement, awe, and wonder now become communal events because the news cannot be contained. The story cannot remain private.
We have gathered here tonight for any number of reasons – but hopefully the number one reason is to celebrate the birth of the Son of God. We are here to hear the story. We are here to worship God in the beauty of holiness. But even in that, even amongst everyone gathered here tonight, this can still be a private moment. We offer our private prayers. We allow the music to wash over us individually. We receive Communion individually, privately.
But in all those private moments, this is a communal event. We pray together. We sing together. We receive Communion side by side, together.
So no matter the reason why you are here tonight, think back to that timeless story, of how the immortal, invisible, omnipotent God became a mortal, visible, lowly human being in the form of a fragile newborn baby. Think back to how these several private moments became a communal event. And then ask yourself, “Am I amazed enough to share this story with others?”
Because no matter how personal or private we think this story is, this story is ultimately a communal event because this story demands to be shared. And really, isn't that the point of Christmas – to share what we have with others?
May you have a blessed Christmas, and may you share this amazing story with those around you.