The Christmas Eve sermon for Blandford UMC 2014.
I must admit it- I haven’t always enjoyed Christmas as much as I do now. The traditions, the preparation- sometimes I just wanted to get to the good stuff.
But there’s always been a Christmas ritual that I loved to do: putting out the nativity scene. We had this wooden one where all of the pieces interlocked, like a puzzle lying flat, and then when we stood the pieces up, they represented Mary, Joseph, the manger, the wise men, and the shepherds. There was even a camel! Now, we have several nativities – one I even preached from last Christmas Eve – and they remind me of the story, the beauty of what Christmas is and what it’s all about it. The stories that were so simple to me as a child but that reflect such deeper meanings now.
It’s amazing what we see differently as we grow older, and what we learn from the wisdom of our elders. I don’t think I’ve ever heard it put as poignantly as it was in Donna VanLiere’s The Christmas Shoes (known by some because of the movie starring Rob Lowe). VanLiere’s narrator explains:
“When we were little boys, Hugh and I helped my mother set up the Nativity. She had bought the hand-crafted Nativity years ago at a yard sale. Though my mother’s home was filled with magnificent antiques, she always claimed the twenty-dollar Nativity was one of her most prized possessions. As kids, my brother and I saw the set as little more than a collection of large wooden dolls, but each year Mom would explain the meaning of the Nativity to us.
“This is the most miraculous thing about Christ’s life, boys,” she’d say. “The most miraculous thing isn’t that he rose from the grave. He’s the Son of God–you’d expect God to be able to raise His own son from the grave. Don’t you think?” And we would eagerly nod our heads in agreement.
“But that’s not the most spectacular thing at all. What’s spectacular and mind-boggling is that God would want to leave the beauty of heaven to come to live here as a man. And you’d think that since Jesus was the King of Kings that he’d at least be born in a castle somewhere, not in some dirty barn. That’s what’s amazing!” she’d exclaim, turning Joseph ever so slightly toward Mary.
“That’s why Christmas is so special. Jesus came as a baby to Bethlehem–a baby that would grow up to live as a servant, not as a king.”
Do you ever stop and think about that? That in our story, in our understanding of God, that God sent his son, sent an outpouring of ourself to live within our world, to explore life as a human baby?
The band Downhere put it this way in “How Many Kings”:
Follow the star to a place unexpected
Would you believe after all we’ve projected
A child in a manger
Lowly and small, the weakest of all
Unlikeliest hero, wrapped in his mothers shawl
Just a child
Is this who we’ve waited for?
Cause how many kings, stepped down from their thrones?
How many lords have abandoned their homes?
How many greats have become the least for me?
How many Gods have poured out their hearts
To romance a world that has torn all apart?
How many fathers gave up their sons for me?
That’s a miracle, friends, that God came to be with us. I read somewhere that “A miracle is not the suspension of natural law, but the operation of a higher law“. Miracles…
That God came to love with us, to love us – even though God knew what we were like, having watched humanity for thousands of years.
Humanity – the depths to which we sink sometimes. From Ponzi schemes to domestic violence, from racial conflict to war in the Middle East. We can watch the news, and see the real world, and we can think that miracles are in short supply.
Charles Dickens knew a little something about human nature. His father was thrown into debtor’s prison when he was a boy, and he watched people struggle and scrap to make ends meet. He also wrote about church that we should “Look into your churches- diminished congregations and scanty attendance. People have grown sullen and obstinate, and are becoming disgusted with the faith which condemns them to such a day as this, once in every seven. They display their feeling by staying away [from church]. Turn into the streets [on a Sunday] and mark the rigid gloom that reigns over everything around.” Doesn’t sound too far away from today, does it?
But Dickens also recognized that humanity with its struggle and grind has the capacity also for great good. Dickens recognized that it is not at any one moment of a person’s life that they are judged but by the culmination of that life. Dickens saw that we could change – often with the miraculous intervention from outside forces, and so he wrote A Christmas Carol.
Whether it’s the Disney version with Mickey (or Jim Carrey), or my favorite, George C. Scott one, you’ve probably seen how Mr. Scrooge, a selfish, miserable curmudgeon of a man is visited by three ghosts on Christmas Eve. No, make that four – if we count the initial warnings of Jacob Marley, the one-time business partner that Scrooge made money with. But Scrooge, in the course of one Christmas Eve, sees his past, his present, and his future – he recognizes the kind of harm he’s done by what he’s done selfishly, angrily, meanly -and the harm he’s done by not caring for others. Finally, the last ghost shows Scrooge what his whole life has culminated as after years spent pushing others away, seeking only power and money for himself, and ignoring community. All of this leaves him broken – til of course he awakes Christmas morning and vows to make a difference.
It’s the story of Zacchaeus, the story of repentance, the story of a Christmas miracle.
The beauty of Christmas is that God does miracles – and continues to do miracles – and not just in written parables. That’s right: I believe God is doing miracles, right now, today.
There once was a little church – not too unlike this one. Okay, fine, this one. It struggled to pay the bills; it didn’t always know how it could relate to a growing, changing world around it. But that church kept praying for a miracle, kept doing the things that churches are supposed to do, pushing forward to find ways to follow God.
And then a
dilemma problem impossibility opportunity presented itself. See, this woman and a few of her friends kept being faithful to bring kids from her neighborhood to church. Sometimes, their parents came; sometimes, they stood in the cold, in the rain, for a ride. But they kept coming, and the church kept finding ways to wrap their arms, and Jesus’ love, around them in Sunday School, and in meals, and in little ways.
But the kids were still standing in the cold.
So people prayed- and they realized that the kids needed coats. So, the people shared with others that the kids needed coats, but that they didn’t know where the money for coats would come from? They knew that the kids needed coats, that it’s generous at Christmas to give gifts, that the families needed food to celebrate Christmas dinner…
It kept me up one night, so I did what I do: I wrote about it.
Because I operate under the assumption that the writer of James was right: “You don’t receive because you don’t ask” (James 4:2).
I have to admit that the Christmas miracle – the birth of Jesus – and the miracle of fifty-one kids who needed coats seemed pretty far apart. Seriously, what could we do? But an hour after the post published – the first person wrote, the mother of a friend of mine, and said they’d give three new coats. Then I heard from my mom that a check was in the mail. Then friends shared the blog with others, their family and their friends, and complete strangers got involved. And Blandford people shared the blog. And people from Blandford heard from people who’ve never been here, who live in other states, and Jason Wright who wrote Christmas Jars shared the story and someone sent in a donation. And Peakland UMC collected coats and toys, Christian rapper KJ-52 chipped in, and Target became our only corporate sponsor, … and by the end of the first week, we knew we had forty coats.
Matt Damon’s character in Interstellar says that the only thing we (as humanity) haven’t been able to get people to do is care about people who they’re not related to or in relationship with. This miracle of Christmas we’ve had front row seats to proves that’s not quite right. People did care and were willing to sacrifice time and money to make this happen.
But then more kids came. And the list grew. By TWENTY-FIVE KIDS in the next two weeks. There was no way the donations could keep up…
We received more donations but the list of kids grew again…
And people came forward and donated so that all of the ninety-five kids, even ones who walked in here a week ago, received coats and toys for Christmas. And we had so many more coats donated that we regifted them to kids and adults, like the man who wandered in the day we were wrapping up the coat matching– and was riding his bike from Florida to New York to liquidate his deceased mother’s estate, and asked if we happened to have any coats.
Meanwhile, we applied to Toys for Tots to be a recipient, not a donor, and were approved for nearly fifty kids. A friend of mine, a Presbyterian minister, borrowed his father’s truck a few towns over just to help us collect the gifts; and some of you helped deliver, unload, and wrap them! And individuals and families from the church ‘adopted’ kids to donate gifts to, and other people from the community donated, and before too long – we had gifts for all of the kids on our coat list! So a few days ago, those kids received wrapped presents from a church that loves them and people who care.
It’s almost overwhelming sometimes, to think about it. But the miracle wasn’t over.
No, the church started giving out turkey baskets a few years ago – eight of them. Then it grew to twelve and stayed in the teens. But this year, we had a list of twenty-two families who needed help to make Christmas dinner fantastic. We had nine turkeys with a week to go – but then, something happened. A few trickled in and we doubled overnight; then at a company party, another ten turkeys were donated – and suddenly, we fed twenty-three families, and provided two meals for the homeless shelter.
Folks, I want to be clear that this isn’t about our church. Or what we’ve done. It’s about recognizing that at Christmas, anything can happen.
I wonder sometimes whether it’s bigger that a financial miracle happened, that the little church in Prince George stirred the drink and all of this could make a difference, or that sharing a dream and story about these kids would do open heart surgery on us – and we would actually be changed. That we would actually be more generous. That we could show, in the midst of a world under siege by all of what’s wrong with the world, that we could light a candle and say, “there’s good still to come.”
That is the miracle of Christmas. That anything can happen.
That the Creator of the universe would stoop down low to be like us, to be with us, to be us, to love us. To set in motion a series of events where the peace on earth and thy kingdom come that we pray about would be a reality because Jesus was here.
It may surprise some of you, but this pastor needs to be reminded sometimes that Jesus is here. That the world, regardless of what the news might say, is redeemable. I even asked a friend incredulously one day, “what were we doing wrong? What’s different about this year?”
And it came to me that the difference was in the way we prayed – and the way we boldly shared the story. We didn’t know how it would work but we believed it could.
Pope Francis has said that we must pray – and then go feed the hungry, clothe the naked, shelter the homeless. We are to be prayer in action – asking God’s direction and blessing, and then going about the work.
We must be actively participating in the way that God works in the world. We must be acting toward peace, being peace, doing peace.
Take the latest example from Australia: after the hostage standoff in Sydney, where the kidnapper waved an Islamic flag, people of the Islamic faith were scared to ride the subway for fear of violence. So – God bless social media! – someone tweeted: “you reg take the #373 bus b/w Coogee/MartinPl, wear religious attire, & don’t feel safe alone: I’ll ride with you. @ me for schedule,” and followed it up with “Follow
Maybe start a hashtag? What’s in #illridewithyou?” One hundred and fifty-thousand people used the hashtag within twelve hours and a movement was born – to remind people at Christmas, in crisis, living in fear, that they were not alone.
Sometimes, sadly, it can seem like Christmas is just a blip – a day, a season, a moment. What good could it really do? What could really be accomplished? Why would the birth of a little baby on a quiet night two thousand years ago matter?
Because that miracle still matters. That miracle proves that God isn’t done with the world he created, that miracles still do happen. That miracle proves that God loves you and you and you. Regardless of what you’ve done, or what’s been done to you, you are loved. You can change – you can make a difference.
The miracles just keep coming in the proof of the baby born in a manger.
That peace on earth may be a miracle – but it’s not impossible.
That hunger and homelessness do not present impossible odds- but that they’re miracle opportunities waiting to be exposed to the world.
That our selfish desires and broken relationships are not irreparable- but that they can only be healed by the power of Jesus the Christ.
That the Christmas miracle doesn’t end with a manger, or even a cross,- but that it lives to be continued in our hearts and our minds and our actions. Tomorrow morning, and the day after, and into the new year.
What miracle will you be part of? What dream will God put on your heart?
Will it be for your own life? Will it be to make a difference in your own family? Will you make a commitment to church, or to your community?
Ask, pray, seek. Believe in the miracle that can be and remember, when your faith falters or you need reminded in the power of the miraculous, Blandford church, the people around you, will be right here to remind you.
Jesus is here. Everything is possible.
Jacob, it goes again to be true that there is no story like a true story. Experiencing beats reading, and is contagious.
Thanks, Tom! It’s been a while ride…
This brought tears. “This is what Christmas is all about, Jacob Sahms,” to paraphrase Charlie Brown. Warm, happy kids (and adults), with full bellies. I can’t complain about anything my Christmas does or doesn’t have. Thanks for sharing—all of it.
Dawn, you got ‘it’ first. Thanks for being there – and for the encouragement, always. Merry Christmas!
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This Is a wonderful testament to the power of faithfulness and love. What an amazing miracle of “open heart surgery” ( which I believe this to be the cardinal line in your sermon). I am thankful for your pastoral faithfulness and leadership, and I’m deeply proud of you. Who knows what might happen next?
Bert, thank you for the comment and affirmation. Our church has roots from many rivers and is growing into something pretty special. As to your final question, you pre-empt my sermon (publishing tomorrow!) for this Sunday! 🙂 God knows what 2015 will bring- I’m thankful to be along for the ride.