Christmas Eve Sermon 2011
Southminster Presbyterian Church, Boise, Idaho
Strange things happen at the holidays. I suppose strange things happen all year, but perhaps we notice them more at this time of year. With the grace of God, we get through them, hopefully with a sense of humor and maybe even new understanding. I’d like to share with you an encounter that one of my friends had this past week at a grocery store in Chicago:
Customer: “Do you have Christmas stamps?”
Clerk: “No. We just have Liberty Bell and some lady holding a baby.”
Customer: “Can I see them? That’s Mary holding Jesus. I’ll take those.”
At which point the Clerk says, “How did they get a picture of them?”
Customer looks back at my friend to keep from laughing, and so my friend chimes in with, “I bet it’s someone’s interpretation of what they may have looked like.”
Clerk: “Maybe. ‘Cause I don’t think anyone took pictures back then.”
(Thanks to Ashley-Anne Masters for sharing that true story!)
Yes, the story is jarring. Especially for me, who spends my days talking about Jesus professionally. I don’t presume that everyone shares my religious views, but it is always startling to me when people don’t even recognize Jesus, even if he is only on a postage stamp.
This is an image of the 2011 Christmas stamp in question, from a painting by Raphael called “Madonna of the Candelabra”.
And if you don’t recognize the halos around Mary and Jesus, you can imagine how someone might not know that was Jesus.
It is just some lady holding a baby.
If we look at the story of his birth as told by Luke, perhaps we ought to be surprised that anyone recognized him as the Messiah in this story.
Because he was just a baby.
And when you’re looking for a savior, I suspect you look for an adult.
Because what’s a baby going to do for you?
Now, don’t get me wrong. I love babies. They are cute. I love to hold them while they sleep. The world is ever more peaceful while a baby sleeps.
But babies don’t lead armies. Babies don’t topple oppressive Roman governments. Babies can’t even pray for you, which is what they were expecting from their Messiah.
What’s a baby going to do for you?
My youngest son’s birthday is just a few weeks after Christmas, so I remember being “heavy with child” and hearing the Christmas story. I remember thinking, “no way. Not going to Bethlehem. You go get registered, Joseph. I’m nesting.”
I remember thinking, “she had to give birth where ever she could find space? Are you kidding me? They couldn’t find a room anywhere??”
My pregnant reaction to the Christmas Story might be reason 832 why God didn’t choose me to be the mother of our Lord and Savior.
In any case, Mary gives birth under circumstances that make me twitch. And, no matter how well the labor went, we know it was painful, and exhausting, and messy, and human.
And, so she’s found a quiet place, if not a hospital room, and she’s laid her baby in an animal’s feeding trough, and she’s resting. Pondering how human the Son of God is, perhaps.
And then the shepherds show up.
Just who every mother wants to have visit after her baby has been born, right? Strangers who live on the hillside?
And they find some lady holding a baby and they tell a strange story, an unbelievable story really, about a visitation by the heavenly host. But Mary, who has had her own visit from an angel, knows enough to believe them. But they keep talking about the arrival of the Messiah, the Savior, the Lord.
Regardless of what she’d been told by the angel, I wonder if Mary thought, “Who are they talking about? Can’t they see he’s just a baby? He can’t go out and save the world right now! He’s just a baby. He can’t feed himself. He can’t even lift his head. He may be the Messiah someday, but he’s just a baby tonight.”
And, of course, it is hard for us to hear this story of a baby laid in a manger without knowing who he will grow up to be.
We know he will perform miracles.
We know he will heal people.
We know he will speak truth to power and seek justice for the oppressed.
We know he will defeat even death itself by dying on a cross.
But all of this is just a promise on Christmas Eve.
The angels announce the birth of a child.
The shepherds come to worship a baby.
And this 8 pound baby Jesus in his golden fleece diaper is worth our remembering. What does it mean that God would choose this vulnerability?
Listen to these verses from WB Yeats’ poem, “A Prayer for my Son”:
Though you can fashion everything
From nothing every day, and teach
The morning stars to sing,
You have lacked articulate speech
To tell Your simplest want, and known,
Wailing upon a woman’s knee,
All of that worst ignominy,
Of Flesh and bone.
What does it mean for us that God would choose to become human in this way?
God could have done it differently. Jesus could have just descended from the sky and announced the year of our Lord’s favor. The creator of the universe could have written the script any way they chose. And God chose to be born to a modest family with a royal pedigree in the midst of Roman occupation.
In his book, Christ: A Crisis in the Life of God, Jack Miles writes: “That God should have begun his human life as an infant is compelling…because although all men (People) are different, babies are all alike. Full participation in the human condition requires a beginning in the leveling anonymity of infancy.”(p 86)
This is an important reminder to us at this time of year. Because while we all start off this earthly journey as babies—all alike in our cute helplessness—we, as adults, are all very different. And our differences often lead to disagreements, fights, and discord. So, as you consider the baby Jesus in the manger, remember that the differences between us as adults are secondary.
Whether our mothers laid us in a manger or in a state-of-the-art crib, we all started our journey in a similar manner—helpless, defenseless, not in control of our economic or family situation, and in need of protection and care.
How can we seek that understanding of each other? How can we remember that commonality we all share? How can we remember, in a new way, that we are all children of God, that we were all infants like God?
I invite you, as you celebrate the birth of a baby this night, to recognize God’s love for us in all of the babies you see. Whether it is some lady holding a baby on the postage stamp, or a painting by Picasso or Mary Cassatt or a Crow Indian woman with her child in a backboard or a woman in Mumbai
any of these babies–all of these babies– remind us that God so loves the world that God chooses to be one of us. Let us seek to build a world where all of God’s children are recognized as signs of hope and signs of God’s love. As Isaiah reminds us:
For a child has been born for us,
a son given to us;
This is the gift this night.
Thanks be to God. Amen
Here is the link to the Puppet group’s presentation of Bethlehemian Rhapsody from worship on Christmas Eve.