Such a lovely room

Such a lovely room

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Monday, December 24, 2018

YEAR C 2018 christmas eve

Christmas Eve, 2018
Isaiah 9:2-7
Psalm 96
Titus 2:11-14
Luke 2:1-20

In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  Amen.

So, a couple weeks ago, a reporter from the Massillon Independent asked me to join two local pastors for an interview, to ask about our holiday service schedules, and to have us explain what Christmas means to us.  Part of that interview involved making a video, where we each could speak for one minute and make our case.  Imagine, keeping clergy to speaking for just one minute.  Especially the Baptist pastor!  But we did it, and when I watched the video later, I kept thinking how interesting it was that we all focused on a different aspect of the birth of Jesus.

I said, essentially, Christmas is the annual reminder that God sides with the poor and oppressed.  The nondenominational church pastor talked about the sacrifice of Jesus.  And the Baptist pastor talked about how Christmas is the last chapter of God’s love story with human beings, the fulfillment of God’s promises.  We all said completely different things, but they were all completely true.

Ask any group of people what Christmas means, and you will get a group’s worth of responses.  And that same group of people will probably have different responses if you ask them next year.  In the most obvious example, a child and her parent have totally different ideas of what Christmas means.  Finding “the true” meaning of Christmas is kind of like that old example of three blindfolded people touching an elephant and describing the animal.  None of them is wrong, but they experience completely different things; so saying one thing about Christmas is just saying one thing about Christmas, is my point.

So, speaking of Christmas, are you ready for Christmas?  (This is where all the children say “yeah!,” and the adults ask, “are you kidding?”)  I have realized that there are two kinds of people:  Those who are not yet ready for Christmas, and those who have not yet realized they are not yet ready for Christmas.  If you think you are ready for Christmas tonight, well . . . as I say, there are only two kinds of people.  No matter how much you do to prepare, you will never get it all done.  And what exactly is the “it” that we never get done?  Well, take your pick.  Christmas preparation is an ever-expanding horizon.  Everything you did last year to get ready is just the preparation to get ready for this year.  This is just the way life is; you cannot fight it; you can only submit.

But what is it exactly that we are all racing around doing to get ready?  Well, that varies from family to family of course, depending on your traditions and stuff.  Decorating our houses, sending out Christmas cards, getting trees, tipping garbage collectors, paper and mail carriers, hanging stockings, and watching the Charlie Brown Christmas Special . . . or Die Hard.  Not to mention parties and school assemblies.  There’s a lot to do to get ready for this day, and we never seem to get it all done.  As much as we prepare, there is always something missing.  And that seems appropriate, in some way.  Because, despite all our preparations, we can never be ready for God breaking into the world.

Many years ago, when our nephew Walter was about 2 years old, he noticed there was something missing from the manger scene his parents had set up.  His family always waits until Christmas Day to put Jesus in the manger—as many of us do.  Although, come to think of it, we do put the shepherds and wisemen there long before Jesus arrives, so I guess we’re not all that rigid about it.   Anyway, nephew Walter noticed that the manger was empty, and realized that his Oscar the Grouch finger puppet was the perfect size.  Each day, Walter would wrap the Grouch in swaddling clothes and lay him in the manger.  Because there was no room for him at the Inn of  Walter’s Patience
Still, you can’t hurry a baby.  A baby comes in the fullness of time, and not a minute sooner, even if some of us can’t wait forever.

Parents, on the other hand, can wait forever—at least when there’s a deadline of a newborn breathing down our necks.  Here comes December 25th.  We’ve known it was coming for more than nine months.  But still it’s not enough time to prepare.  There’s a baby coming, and we are not ready.  But can you ever really be ready for a baby to come?  As every first-time parent can tell you, the answer is no.  No matter what you do, no matter how many books you read, or classes you attend, there is too much uncertainty in the birth of a baby ever to be truly ready.  Still, you hopefully do something to prepare for the birth of a baby.

But what if you’ve done nothing to prepare for this baby?  What if you have intentionally decided to say, “bah humbug” to that whole Christmas spirit stuff?  What if you have spent the last four weeks refusing to buy into the commercialized hype?  Or, what if you have spent these past months grieving the loss of someone who meant the world to you?  Or wondering how you will explain to your kids that their parents are not living together on Christmas morning?  Or what if the last thing you want to do is celebrate some religious holiday that makes no sense to you, based on a god you don’t believe in, but you came to church tonight in order to make your mom stop complaining about the loss of family traditions? 

What about those of us who just don’t get it?  Well, I think we’re in good company.  Just look at all the people in the story who don’t get it.  We could start with the innkeeper.  Not only does the innkeeper not understand, he has no room for Jesus; he sends him away.  Tells him to go find somewhere else to be born.  Hustles the parents around back where the animals live, sending a king to be born in a stable.  And the shepherds?  Just look at the language they use to describe Jesus’ birth.  They know something has happened (angels appearing over your head and singing songs is a pretty good clue of that), but after the angel explains, they say, “let us go and see this thing that has happened.”  And then they go out and tell people about “this thing that has happened.”

“Hey, you’ll never guess what happened!”
“This Thing!!!”

Or take Joseph.  In Matthew’s version of the story, he is planning to send Mary away and break off the engagement quietly.  It takes a personal visit from an angel to make him consider welcoming Jesus.  And in Luke’s version, Joseph is essentially just the guy leading the donkey, heading off to be counted.  And Mary?  She is treasuring words and pondering these things in her heart.  Sounds nice, dreamy even.  But as any child knows, if you ask your mom for something and she says she will ponder it in her heart, the real answer is “probably not.”  Way back when, as I got down on my knees in the sand and asked Cristin to marry me, if she had said “I will ponder this thing in my heart,” well . . . I would have taken that to mean, “no thanks, pal.”  To ponder in your heart isn’t even close to “Yes!  I totally get it!”

In the story of this baby being born—God coming into the world—nobody gets it.  Nobody understands.  Nobody is ready.  But the baby comes anyway.  Perfect.

And so what does this mean?  What does it mean that nobody knows what it means?  When three clergy people living in the same town have three completely different answers to the question, “What does Christmas mean?”  We all want to know what it means -- to understand this Christmas story.  And, on cue, Hollywood steps in with the answer.  How many movies and stories talk about the “real meaning of Christmas?”  No matter the plot of any Christmas story, somewhere in the last few minutes, I guarantee that somebody is going to learn “the true meaning of Christmas.”  Happens every time: because they see Santa Claus, or because the villagers gather and sing despite having no gifts, or because an angel gets his wings, or because the Christmas spirit makes a sleigh rise up over Central Park, the point is always that someone finally learns the true meaning of Christmas.

But that’s life in the movies.  After all my years of actual life, including being ordained for nine years, I do not understand the full meaning of Christmas!  And I don’t think anyone could explain the full meaning of “this thing that has happened.”  But we all know it when we see it, don’t we?  We must have some shared idea of what it means, because we appeal to people’s sense of “Christmas spirit.”  Come on, pal, where’s your Christmas Spirit?  We don’t have this with other days—not even Easter.  And certainly nobody ever questions your sense of Whitsunday spirit, or Transfiguration cheer.

Christmas is kind of a trump card: a get out of jail free pass.  You go to your boss with your hat in your hand and remind her that it’s Christmas, and you probably get the day off.  (Unless you’re a priest, of course.)  Cop pulls you over on Christmas, and you’re not breaking a serious law, you might get by with just a warning.  The phrase “but it’s Christmas” has deep meaning for us, even for people who don’t consider themselves to be Christian.  But what exactly is that deep meaning?

It’s got something to do with an undeserved gift, doesn’t it?  There’s some hint that none of us deserves what we’re getting, so we are generous to one another.  There’s some admission that none of us is ready, and the baby comes anyway.  There’s some recognition that we’re all in this together, no matter how different or distant we might seem from one another in these divided times.  After all this preparation, we are not ready; after all the trying so hard to be good, we are not worthy; after a lifetime of hearing this Christmas story, we still do not fully understand it.

Here’s the crazy thing.  No matter how much we have done to prepare, it is not enough; but no matter how little we have done to prepare, it is enough.  We do not understand, and God understands that.  Jesus meets us at this altar, whether we are ready or not.  Jesus promises to be in this place—to meet us here, whether we understand or not.  You are welcome here because God has broken into our unwelcoming world.  The one born in a stable sets a table before you and says, “Come and eat—you are welcome, and I am here for you.”  We are not ready, and we do not understand, and we don’t feel ready to meet God.  And that’s okay.  Because, in the birth of Jesus, God is ready, God understands, and God has come to meet us.

Merry Christmas indeed!


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