Christmas Eve 2018
Brothers and sisters in Christ, grace and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus, the Christ-child we worship this day. Amen.
I’d like to begin with words that spoke deeply to my heart as I prepared for this year’s Christmas Eve sermon. Bishop Jon Anderson of the SW Minnesota Synod began his 2018 Christmas greeting with these words, “The Christmas Story invites us to watch for the surprising presence of God in our lives here and now even as we remember the coming of the Messiah in Bethlehem long ago.
We often look for God in the wrong places.” The Bishop wrote, “Today’s Gospel reminds us that God works in surprising ways and works in the midst of the most vulnerable of people and places.” [https://swmnelca.org/2018/12/18/christmas-message-2018/]
If you recall from the scripture we just heard and the songs we just sang and the lives you and I have lived over the past twelve months, Bishop Anderson’s words couldn’t ring more true. The Christmas story invites us to not just listen to it, but to live in it. To live in it, just like the Christmas story invited Mary and Joseph, shepherds and wisemen so long ago.
The Christmas story invites you and me into it today, and on every other day in our journey of faith, even when we think we don’t have time for it or that we aren’t good enough to deserve anything from God so why bother, the Christmas story invites us in.
God comes to you and to me in the birth of a baby named Jesus – the savior of the world. And even 2,000 or so years later, Jesus’ birth still makes all the difference. All the difference because God is here…for you, for me, and for every child of God who will ever live on this tiny, little speck of God’s good creation that we know as planet Earth. It’s easy for us to miss that. To miss God’s presence in our lives and the difference the birth of Jesus makes.
Earlier this year, Wendy and I hired a young, just getting started, contractor for a little backyard construction project. One evening as Kyle and his crew were finishing up work on a concrete pad that would serve as the foundation of the project, we struck up a conversation about a variety of things, not the least of which was theology. Kyle was raised and is still active in a Christian tradition a little different than the ELCA that Good Shepherd is part of. What we discovered through our conversation is that we are pretty different from one another in many things – theology definitely being one of them.
But our theological differences concerning things like the Sacrament of Holy Communion and who is really welcome at the Lord’s Table, didn’t get in the way as both of us recognizing the presence of God. The presence of God in a seemingly ordinary conversation about life and God and everything else, while enjoying a cold beer in my backyard on a beautiful fall evening after a long, hard day of working with concrete. It would have been very easy to miss God’s presence in that moment.
A few weeks ago I was in Minneapolis for some meetings and arrived at my hotel a little earlier than anticipated. I was pleasantly surprised to see that my hotel was right next door to one of the greatest men’s shoe stores in the known universe. Which of course is only my opinion. I just had to see if I could check in early and make a quick trip to the shoe store. After all, it would be the only opportunity I’d have on this trip.
The hotel was more than accommodating. I made my way quickly up to my room to drop off my bag, only to discover that my room wasn’t actually quite ready yet. A gentleman named Mark was still getting the room ready. I knocked on the door. Which startled Mark. Mark is a middle-aged, African American man who is probably on the severe end of the autistic spectrum.
He poked his head around the door and shouted at me that the room wasn’t ready, I needed to come back. I said that I just wanted to drop my bags and then I would leave. This further upset him. For the next several minutes I could hear him in the bathroom shouting with everything he had, “The room isn’t ready yet! The room isn’t ready yet! I’m not done! Go away! Come back later! The room isn’t ready yet!”
Mark didn’t know that I knew his name. I learned what it was from a flip chart on his cleaning cart outside the room. I knocked on the door again. And with my bags in hand, uninvited and all, I stepped into the room.
I greeted Mark by name and said that my name was Pastor Craig and that it looked like he was doing a great job at getting my room ready. I told him why I wanted to drop off my bags, asked him where would be a good place to put them so they wouldn’t be in his way, and assured him that I wouldn’t be back in the room until at least 10 o’clock that night, so he could take his time and didn’t have to rush getting the room ready. Almost immediately, his anxiety dropped and you could sense a new found calm in his demeanor.
He said, “Ok. Have fun at the shoe store.”
The next morning, I saw Mark in the hotel lobby. We smiled from across the lobby and waved at one another in a way that can only be described as a sharing of peace between two of God’s children.
Our gospel reading on this Christmas Eve says that Mary, “treasured all of these words and pondered them in her heart.” [Luke 2:19] Mary didn’t know everything that was happening to her or why it was happening, but I believe she knew it was sacred and holy. For a young, unwed mother who had just given birth, it would have been very easy to miss the presence of God in the chaos of a stinky, loud barn. Especially a barn with a bunch of uninvited guests who showed up long before the new baby’s room was ready.
It would have been very easy to miss the presence of God when a hotel room was not quite ready for a guest too. But as children of God named Mark and Craig met, for the first and maybe only time, God was most definitely present.
Just last week, Wendy and I and several hundred other people in our community attended a holiday band concert at Century High School. A public high school. Surely God isn’t present there too, is he?
The second half of the concert began without any formal introduction. The audience continued to engage in loud conversation and walk about freely in the auditorium. Almost no one noticed that the concert had once again begun as a simple melody floated out of the last row of the band from one solitary instrument.
In reflecting upon this piece of music, the composer said that “I learned an amazing lesson before I began this piece. I consider myself to be a ‘good’ person. [One day,] I was outside a food store with my kids and there was a man outside asking for some food. I watched quite a few people walk by. Some actually said ‘sorry’ as they walked by, but most of them did not even look at him or acknowledge him when he spoke to them. Finally, I walked up to him and asked him if he was okay. He just needed something to drink and a little bit of food. I took him into the store with me and bought him something. His name is Bruce. He is 32 years old. He has 3 kids – 2 in elementary school and 1 in middle school. He acknowledged that he’s made plenty of mistakes in life, but that he is trying really hard to get back up on his feet and live in the area so he can be close to his kids.
As we were leaving, he held the door open for us and said thanks. ‘It’s hard when people ignore you all day long. Thanks for stopping.’’ [taken from the program notes of the musical score for “A Solitary Wish” by Brian Balmages]
This encounter in front of a grocery store inspired a composer to write a beautiful piece of music called “A Solitary Wish.” A piece of music in which all proceeds from the sale and performance of are now shared with homeless shelters and food pantries around the world.
Last week in Bismarck, a simple melody began the second half of a concert as an audience ignored it. This melody was passed from one musician to another throughout the band as it grew and faded and grew again. And as an audience received a 5-minute gift of music during a 45-minute holiday concert, God’s presence was felt. Yes, God is present, even in a public high school’s auditorium.
The Christmas story invites us in to the very presence of God. Brothers and sisters in Christ, God is here – in your life and in mine. God, who is not only found on holy nights like this, in holy worship spaces like the one we are sitting in now. God, who is walking with us in every time and in every place that we might find yourself in.
And so, as we return to our seemingly ordinary lives, with ordinary times and places beyond this holy night, may we join with Mary and Joseph, and all of the angels and shepherds and wise men, glorifying and praising God for all that we hear and see along the way. That’s the Christmas story after all.
Merry Christmas. Amen.