Wesley Memorial United Methodist Church
December 9, 2018
Festival of Lessons and Carols
Luke 2: 1-7 (CEB)
In those days Caesar Augustus declared that everyone throughout the empire should be enrolled in the tax lists. 2This first enrollment occurred when Quirinius governed Syria. 3Everyone went to their own cities to be enrolled. 4Since Joseph belonged to David’s house and family line, he went up from the city of Nazareth in Galilee to David’s city, called Bethlehem, in Judea. 5He went to be enrolled together with Mary, who was promised to him in marriage and who was pregnant. 6While they were there, the time came for Mary to have her baby. 7She gave birth to her firstborn child, a son, wrapped him snugly, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the guestroom.
Some 25 or 30 years ago, I was riding in the car with my family. It was a Christmastime tradition that after dinner one night around mid-December, we would pile into the family car—usually a wood-paneled station wagon—and we would drive around town looking at Christmas lights. On this particular night, we had followed the highway out of town and into the next town, and as we drove my parents talked. I don’t remember exactly what or how it was said, but on that ride, I learned that a few days before Darren Morrison had died in a car accident. Darren was the teenage son of one of my Dad’s co-workers. He was several years older than I. My family didn’t really know him all that well; just about as much as you can get to know someone when you see him at the occasional company picnic or whatever. Later that year, his parents would park his car at the busy intersection in the middle of town—a reminder to everyone who passed of the dangers of speeding. To this day, though, I cannot hear the song, “O Little Town of Bethlehem” without being reminded of Darren. I learned a few years ago that the same is true for my sister. We discerned that the song must’ve been playing on the radio when my parents shared the news of Darren’s untimely death. So now, every time I hear that song, I think of Darren. As I would imagine that every Christmas, the Morrison family faces the reality that once again, Christmas will come and go and their son will not be with them.
We all carry around a lot of baggage. But at the same time, we approach Christmas-time every year with expectations of perfection. It’s really a most amazing dichotomy. We spend time decorating our homes just so, we buy candles with holiday scents to create a certain mood and ambience. We make sure to purchase these amazing gifts for our loved ones, and especially our children. Even the music this time of year is special. But then, at the same time, we are dealing with all this crazy stuff in our lives. We are forced to face Christmas for the first time without a loved one, or we are keenly aware of all the people with no family at all, maybe even no home at all. There are soldiers deployed overseas—their children reveling in the magic of Christmas without Mom or Dad there to celebrate with them. It’s rather strange, isn’t it. It’s like hearing the gentle melody and the lyrics, “O little town of Bethlehem, how still we see the lie…” while seeing in your mind this vision of a completely mangled deathtrap of a car.
But Christmas is supposed to be perfect. We all desperately want Christmas to be happy and joyful. I think sometimes that’s part of the reason we spend so much time preparing things “just so;” to try and make Christmas go off without a hitch. And I imagine that because we work so hard to make Christmas perfect every year, we also imagine that the first Christmas was absolutely perfect. In the stable, all was serene. The baby slept quietly in the manger while two adoring parents looked on. All around them were animals, nestled into the hay, sleeping soundly. In the fields outside of town, the shepherds were serenaded by the most beautiful of heavenly choruses, the likes of which earthly choirs can barely match. And thousands of miles away, in the East, some wise men calculated the meaning of a bright star newly revealed on the horizon. All is calm. All is bright. Right?
Well, not exactly. Things started south eight or nine months before when Mary got the news that she was pregnant out of wedlock. The pregnancy got a little more complicated when Mary and Joseph had to travel to Bethlehem near the end of her pregnancy to register in the census. And wouldn’t you know, not long after they arrive, Mary goes into labor, but there is no proper place available for them to settle as Mary prepares to give birth. At the point at which the innkeeper pointed Mary and Joseph to a stable, Mary must have been absolutely frantic, and Joseph perhaps even moreso! These are not serene moments, and to be relegated to a stable, among animals, to give birth… definitely not ideal!
The animals were probably agitated that there was a disturbance in their resting place. Mary was probably freaking out because there was no bed, she was surrounded by animals, and it was cold and dirty. Then, when the baby was born, there was no place to put him but a manger. The manger that held the hay that the animals ate. I don’t think we could concoct as less-ideal Christmas scenario if we tried. The unplanned pregnancy, the sudden census, the stable, the manger—if anything could go wrong for Mary and Joseph that year, it did. And here they are now, surrounded by animals, with their newborn child lying in a feeding trough.
On that first Christmas, it seems, anything that could go wrong did go wrong. Except for the fact that into all of that wrongness came the most right thing this world has ever known. Into all the disappointment and fear and doubt came a child of promise and joy and hope; proof that Christmas doesn’t have to be ideal in order to be perfect. Into all the darkness of this world, there shone a light.
Robert Louis Stevenson, the author of the classic Treasure Island, was a sickly child. One night, his nurse found him with face pressed against a cold windowpane in the middle of a bitter winter. The nurse urged him to move away from the window, warning him that he would catch his death of cold, but he wouldn’t budge. Eventually, the nurse approached the window to see what held young Stevenson’s attention. The nurse looked out to a scene of utter blackness, save for one figure. On the cobbled streets below, a lamplighter slowly clicked down the streets on his stilts. Every so often, he would pause as he lit the next lamp. Together, Stevenson and his nurse watched the man do his work. After several moments, the young boy turned to his nurse and said, “See! He’s poking holes in the darkness!”
It’s dark out there. Jesus was born into a world of oppressive Roman rule, and his birth was announced to a crowd of lowly shepherds. For Mary, Joseph, and the shepherds, there was much to fear. A lot has changed, but it’s still a dark world. Parents face Christmas without their children. We fear the next strike of the terrorists. Certain illness means some will move through Christmas knowing it might be their last. There are wars and rumors of wars. We have reason to fear even still. But into the midst of our fears, into all the darkness of this world, God is sending his light; God is “poking holes in the dark.” That is the message of the angels in the Christmas story, and it is the core of our Christmas celebration. We can have faith.
In Christ, God gives us reason to celebrate—to worship and praise God no matter the circumstances. In Christ, God banishes the fears of our hearts and bolsters our faith. In Christ, God shows us that what he promises is true, that the worst thing is never the last thing, and that light always overcomes the dark. As we celebrate Christmas, we celebrate the fact that “light shines in the darkness and the darkness does not overcome it!”