Christmas Eve


“While they were [in Bethlehem], the time came for her to deliver her child. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.”

It’s a story we all know.
A familiar story,
layered with memories and meaning from all our Christmases past.
It brings to mind churches where we worshiped by candlelight
with loved ones who are gone.
Pageants with children dressed as shepherds and angels,
singing Away in a Manger.
Caroling in neighborhoods or nursing homes,
sharing well-loved songs with friends and neighbors.
I often hear in my head the voice of Linus from the Charlie Brown Christmas special, “In those days a decree went out . . .

It can be hard for us to hear this story,
covered as it is by so many memories and expectations.
How do we open our ears to hear the story?
Preacher and professor Fred Craddock put the question a different way,
“The first question is, how will we get to Bethlehem? The magi are directed by great leaning, by their ability to interpret the movements of stars and planets in the heavens, and by the learning of the sages in Jerusalem. Mary and Joseph travel to Bethlehem as a family going about its business of life. The shepherds go to Bethlehem by dramatic, heavenly revelation. By all these roads travelers can reach Bethlehem. By whatever road we take, the story invites us all.”

The way to Bethlehem is different for each one of us.
Our way depends on who we are and our own circumstances.
Each of us has come to this place of worship tonight by a different path,
yet we are here for the same reason -
to hear again the story of the birth of Jesus Christ.

Amid all our holiday preparations, many of us set out nativity scenes,
which remind us of the story of Jesus' birth.
At my house we have a nativity scene with a cardboard stable and plastic figures.
It is set out in the boys’ play area,
and I’m always amused to see what or who has found its way in
to stand beside the virgin and her baby.
Cars and trucks, always.
A stuffed bear or penguin.
Noah’s toy phone, beeping and chirping, “Let’s call Mommy.”

It reminds me of a news story I heard years ago.
The story was about a small part of Italy,
and a special tradition they followed in setting up their nativity scenes.
In each household, extra objects were carefully placed in the scene
beside the traditional figures.
I think the story made the news because it was the year Princess Diana died,
and many households included a picture of Diana in their nativities.
Pictures of loved ones – mementos of past events –
symbols of hopes and worries for the future -
all found their way into the stable with the shepherds.
The people in this region made their own memories and expectations,
their own grief and hope, part of the nativity scenes.
They literally laid their hopes and dreams and struggles
at the feet of the baby Jesus.
In this way they brought their lives into the Christmas story.

How will we get to Bethlehem?
What will we bring to lay at the feet of the Christ?
As I reflect on these questions,
it occurs to me that maybe they aren’t the right questions to ask.
Christmas is about God’s decision to become human and come to live on earth. 
Christmas means that God chose to come to us,
to become part of our world.
The baby born at Christmas is Emmanuel, God with us.
God is in the world, whether or not we see.
God is at work in our lives, whether or not we recognize it.

So perhaps the real question to ask at Christmas is,
How has God come into my life this year?
In what, or in whom, have I met God today?

This is the power of the Incarnation, God becoming human:
Because God took on flesh in a particular time, in a particular place,
God enters into the lives of believers in every time and place.

There is a story I read in high school which I have always remembered,
but have never been able to find again.
The story is set in the south, in the middle of the 20th century.
A poor black man is traveling by rail.
He gets off in a small town and asks for help, but no one will help him.
He goes to the home of the pastor, and the pastor runs him off.
So he leaves the town, walking along the railroad tracks to the next town.
While he walks, a man joins him, and begins to walk with him.
The man is dressed like him, talks to him in a dialect just like his own.
He doesn't preach, or teach, or ask a lot of questions.
He just greets the man, and walks along beside him.
The companion is Jesus, and the story ends with the two of them walking along the rails.

We come together tonight to catch a glimpse of Bethlehem,
to hear again the story of a baby named Jesus, Savior.
We come to hear the proclamation of the angel:
“I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people;
to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior,
who is the Messiah, the Lord.

We come to sing with the host of angels,
“Glory to God in the highest!”
Because we know that this story is our story.
We know that this savior is our savior.
We know that this news is indeed good news of great joy.
Because we know the Savior lives not only 2000 years ago,
but here and now, in our world
in our own lives.
Thanks be to God.

Lutheran Church of the Servant, Santa Fe
The nativity in the photo was made in Ecuador and given to me by my parents.

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