Lloyd Menke|Our Saviour’s|Christmas Eve 2017

Bartolomé Esteban Murillo [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

 

One of the things I love about Christmas is the Christmas carols. The Christmas carol, “What Child is This” begins by asking the question, “What child is this, who, laid to rest, on Mary’s lap is sleeping?”

What child is this? How is this child different?  Christians through the ages know that it is Jesus.   We sing about it in the carol.  The carol answers the question by saying (sing it with me!)

“This, this is Christ the King, whom shepherds guard and angels sing. 

Haste, Haste to bring him laud the babe the child of Mary.”   ♫

And yet, despite the way he is often portrayed in carols and Nativity scenes, Jesus looked very much like any other baby born in Bethlehem at the time.

Don’t get me wrong. I told you I love the carols and the Nativity scenes. They give witness to my faith. But, it is also helpful for me to try to imagine what it would have been like had Jesus been born today. As I thought about that – another song popped into my head. Some of you may remember Elvis Presley singing,

As the snow flies
On a cold and gray Chicago mornin’
A poor little baby child is born
In the ghetto

The manger wasn’t a ghetto – by Bethlehem standards – but was from Roman standards. Mary and Joseph were poor simple folks finding shelter where they could. They were doing what they could as they struggled to survive.  Do you remember what comes next in Elvis’s song?

And his mama cries
‘Cause if there’s one thing that she don’t need
It’s another hungry mouth to feed
In the ghetto

The world can be a hard place, especially if you are poor. As we are confronted with the harshness of life – tears, rather than songs, can seem like the most realistic response.

And his mama cries

The pain in life doesn’t magically disappear because the calendar rolls around to Christmas. In some ways it may even heighten it, with unrealistic expectations, or with bittersweet memories or traditions. And yet, it is precisely into harshness of life that Jesus is born. There is no silver spoon in his mouth.

From a Roman perspective, he was born to poor, very common ordinary peasants, in a backwater, no name ghetto on the edge of the empire. His life – if he lived at all – didn’t matter. From a Roman perspective – Mary had every reason to cry. Only there is no record of her doing that. Instead, what we do have record of is angels singing. We join their song because we know:

“This, this is Christ the King, whom shepherds guard and angels sing. 

Haste, Haste to bring him laud the babe the child of Mary.”   ♫

We have record of the angels, and when Gabriel announces God’s intention to Mary that she will be the mother of Jesus back in Luke chapter 1, we see Mary’s practicality. Cameron Howard, a professor at Luther Seminary shared in a devotion on God Pause:

When the angel Gabriel appears to Mary, Gabriel makes a lot of theological proclamations about this extraordinary baby she will have. Mary’s interest, though, is not primarily in why her baby would be called “Son of the Most High” or how he could have an everlasting kingdom. She, as the one whose body will birth this holy child, wants to know about the mechanics.

How will she have a baby if she is a virgin? God takes on a human body in Jesus Christ, experiencing all the beauty, joy, messiness and pain that having a body brings. Mary’s concern about the mechanics of her body is not peripheral to the theology of the Christmas story, but central to it.

When we suffer in our bodies, worry over a diagnosis or watch our skin start to wrinkle with age, we can rejoice that God too, has experienced the delights and agonies that our human bodies bear.

Mary does not live in a spiritual world disconnected from the realities of life. And yet, despite this, Mary does not reject Gabriel’s initial announcement that her baby will be called “Son of the Most High,” or the angel’s message:  “To you is born this day in the city of David a Savior who is the Messiah, the Lord.” Brought to her by the shepherds, Mary receives Gabriel’s message with joy, and treasures in her heart the testimony of the shepherds.

Mary holds the harshness of the world and the wonder of the God’s presence together. She doesn’t deny the harsh realities of life – in favor of a spiritualized escape – or a nostalgic diversion. But, she also doesn’t deny the truth of the angel’s message. She doesn’t doubt that God can be active in the midst of life even when it is hard or God’s action leaves her surprised, and a little frightened and confused. That both realities could be true at the same time was right there – in her arms – in the baby Jesus.

When we look at the baby Jesus we see it too, that’s why we sing.

“This, this is Christ the King, whom shepherds guard and angels sing. 

Haste, Haste to bring him laud the babe the child of Mary.”   ♫

I like the way William Willimon says it:

“After having been met by the living God in the Mary-born flesh of a Jew from Nazareth, we look for God at church and at the soup kitchen.  Like the shepherds, we seek God in angelic voices in the night sky and at a smelly cow stable.  I expect to see something of Jesus in the dear saint at church and in the disagreeable, …[person] with whom I debate… [political] policies.”

Christmas isn’t just about celebrating the past. Its real power is found in understanding God’s presence – now – in the present. And that fact gives me hope.

The angel’s message is timeless: “TO YOU is born … a Savior, the Messiah, the Lord.

TO YOU!

It doesn’t matter if you feel worthy. It doesn’t matter if you are ready. Do you think the shepherds were ready for the angel’s appearance? It doesn’t matter if you are giddy, or edgy or facing family dysfunction.  It doesn’t matter if you can’t seem to get past a “What does it matter” mood.  Or if you are feeling like Dylan Thomas describes in A Child’s Christmas in Wales, when he says:

“One Christmas was so much like another…I can never remember if it snowed for 6 days and 6 nights when I was 12 or 12 days and 12 nights when I was 6…  All the Christmases roll down to the sea, like a cold and headlong moon bundling down the sky that was our street.” 

What is revealed by God choosing Mary, Joseph and the shepherds is that even if we do not expect God’s attention or grace – Jesus comes – calls – and honors – ordinary people like you and me. Jesus comes, as God has always come, choosing to work through ordinary people to do extraordinary things. Like the way a single candle lights up a person’s face, God’s grace shines in the darkness – and while the darkness is still dark – the darkness does not overcome it.

The light shines. It shines within us – through us – even at times in spite of us. It shines in acts of generosity and kindness giving testimony to God’s work in the world. God is at work through you. Several Sundays ago, those who were in church found a $5 bill in their worship bulletin with an invitation to use the gift to build up the body of Christ. Many of you shared with me, the careful thought you put into how you might best do that. Some of you wrote down what you did. Gaye and I loved reading your responses.

Many pooled their gifts – or added to it – and reached out to people in need – individuals you knew, Hastings Family Service, ELCA Good Gifts, The Salvation Army, Feed My Starving Children, ELCA World Hunger, and the families in the Hastings Lunch Program.

Some of you got creative.  One couple built 10 mini managers and distributed them to neighbors.  One person bought 5 cards and sent to them to people who were important in their faith development – thanking them. Many of you also donated the money back to Our Saviour’s, sometimes to specific programs – but making a point of saying how much you value the ministry, work and all the congregation does.  A couple people added to it and bought yarn to knit prayer blankets.  I would like to close with a note one of those people wrote to me.  This person wrote:

Dear Pastor Lloyd,

On Sunday, November 19, my husband and I attended your church with our daughter… and her family.  A fun surprise was in each bulletin.  You cannot begin to imagine what that did for me.

You see, on November 1st I lost my mother.  She was a grand 93 years old. I knew it was going to be another rough day. Ironically, we had not planned to attend Our Saviour’s that morning. We were planning to attend our church but I had forgotten my cellphone at my daughter’s house the night before.  I could have driven to …. [her] house that afternoon, but instead we decided to attend Our Saviour’s.  Divine Guidance I call it.

While some may say what’s five dollars going to accomplish? I respond inner peace, if only for one day. Mom and I loved to knit and crochet.  We would make blankets for nursing homes, scarves for the homeless and prayer shawls for churches. I took that $5 bill and marched right over to the yarn store for supplies for a prayer shawl.  It gave me hope, it gave me excitement for a new project, it gave me a diversion from the grief.

I know the purpose of a prayer shawl is that the receiver feels God’s presence wrapped around them during their time of illness or grief.  This prayer shawl did double duty.  With each stitch created I felt God’s presence wrapped around me during my time of grief.

Thank you… for your generosity.  I will never forget your act of kindness.

[The prayer shawl she made is lifted up from the wooden manager containing the Christ Candle that sits in the midst of the poinsettias surrounding the altar.]

Here is her prayer shawl.

Lloyd Menke, own work. “Prayer Shawl”. 2017

“This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.”  We often look for God to come in the extraordinary, miraculous, knock-your-socks off events. But, God most often comes in the common and everyday things of life, using ordinary people like you and me to do extra-ordinary things.  I give thanks to God for making you an extraordinary congregation.

Merry Christmas.

[The congregation sings, “What Child is This?”]