A Christmas Sermon
Once again our society has gotten it almost entirely wrong. Christmas trees have been out on the floors of BJ’s since early October for those who can’t wait to put out their decorations. This includes some in my own extended family who expressed dismay back in early November when they learned that we don’t get our tree until the last weekend before Christmas. A local radio station has been playing holiday tunes 24-7 since November 1. I can not even begin to imagine the number of times “White Christmas,” “Jingle Bells,” or, God help us, “Santa Baby,” has played until now.
And I can assure you that, even though it’s Christmas Day—the very first day of the twelve that stretch out before us until Epiphany—there are thousands of retailers around the country who will be heading in this evening to slash prices on Christmas merchandise that has become stale overnight. They are wanting to move all of that stuff—the wrapping paper and peppermint bark and ornaments and bows—to make room either for the bathing suits and shorts folks will need when they head off on their winter vacations, or for Valentine’s Day gifts and candies. Mark my words, the local Walgreens will have displays of hearts, teddy bears and chocolates within a day or two.
What gives? Maybe I’m wrong, and our culture does have it right. Maybe Christmas is all about the lead up to that one silent and holy night, when we gather together in near picture perfect settings to greet this Christ child anew, and then move on to getting our lives back to normal. And yet, I can’t help but think that this is only just the beginning. That somehow we are totally missing the point if we spend Advent as merely one extended Christmas shopping experience to have it all deflate by Christmas afternoon when talk turns to when the tree will be coming down. Surely there is more to this arrival of the baby Jesus. Isn’t there something else to this birth in Bethlehem?
As any new parent can tell you, babies of all stripes bring transformation with them. Beyond the sleepless nights, the repetition of feedings and diaper changes, there is something more that a child brings to her parents. Many will say there is more love in their lives than they’ve ever experienced before. There is an unbelievable sense of joy and awe and wonder. And for them it is only just beginning.
What more than of this one who comes for our salvation? What of this babe wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger? What of this one who angels heralded and sleepy shepherds hailed? John tells us what happened when he came into this world, as the light of world. “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it,” or as another translation puts it, “the darkness did not understand it.” John writes further, “He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him.” In other words, this babe lying in a manger was more than people bargained for, he brought with him more than the world expected. And when you do that, when you exceed expectations, people get anxious. They’re not quite sure what to do.
We’re no different, of course. Instead of pondering during Advent how this babe can bring change to our lives, we have been spending time planning for Christmas dinners, and what presents to give, and the Christmas cards to send, and how to graciously decline that party given by the neighbors that we don’t really care for. We are keen on the idea of this one bringing salvation. We like the image of the Son of God coming down to earth as a baby to bring us peace and joy and goodwill for all humanity. But I think we get caught not knowing how to respond. “He came into the world, and the world did not know him.” We just didn’t recognize him, and so we don’t know what to do or how to react.
In marrying a francophile, I have been privileged to discover new traditions and customs for the Advent and Christmas season. Melissa and I have long celebrated Saint Nicholas Day on December 6 when children—and adults!—put out their shoes or slippers at night to be filled with candies the next morning by Saint Nicholas. We also have a crèche filled with santons—small clay figures—depicting the scene at Christ’s Nativity. We have beautiful hand-painted figurines of Mary and Joseph, a cow and donkey, a shepherd with a lamb slung around his neck, the magi and their camel. But in addition to the regulars of the Christmas story, there are also figurines of French townspeople from the region of Provénce where Melissa bought the crèche. Santon means “little saints” and so the townspeople, these saints, gather in their typical dress, joining the throngs bringing gifts to the baby Jesus. There is a man carrying wood for the fire, a woman with a bouquet of flowers. There is the one bought in my honor, Monsieur Le Curé, the priest, bringing incense, and a drummer boy with mallets in hand.
And then there is the Ravi, who, curiously enough, has nothing in his hands at all. The Ravi is the town fool, the one with no education or trade, the one who literally has nothing whatsoever to offer. The word “Ravi” can be translated as “delighted,” and this delighted one has his hands thrown high into the air; in his gesture, he brings praise and adoration to the Christ child. Having nothing whatsoever to offer Jesus, he brings the only thing he has: himself.
And in the end, that is really all we can bring too. Listen to John’s words, “But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God.” When we come before Jesus we can give him nothing less than our entire selves, and when we do this he does something radical for us: he makes us his sisters and brothers. He receives us into the family of God. When we believe in the name of Jesus we are given the hope and peace and love that we truly long for. We are given the true meaning of Christmas.
He is here waiting for us to come to him and believe in his name. He is here wanting us to bring the gift more costly than any other, our very selves. What he gives us in return is transformation, a changed and new life. What he offers us is the possibility to be the people we are called to be, the people of light rather than the people of darkness. People who accept the love of Jesus Christ shown to us in the babe in the manger. He is here in this place, now. Will we receive him? Will we allow our lives to be transformed by the very power of God? Will we accept this one so often rejected by the world, and in so doing, become the very children of God?
What these 12 days of Christmas can truly be for each of us is only just beginning. We can decide not to move on to Valentine’s Day simply because a marketing person somewhere says we should. We can instead reflect on the wisdom of that Ravi, and give the gift the Baby Jesus wants so much from us this year. I think the words to the last stanza of the carol “In the Bleak Mid-Winter” sums it up best of all. “What can I give him, poor as I am? If I were a shepherd, I would bring a lamb. If I were a wise man, I would do my part. Yet what I can, I give him, give my heart. Give my heart.”