Christmas Eve 2021

Sermon Preached Christmas Eve 2021

I was at Lake Barkley yesterday wrapping presents for families who were displaced by the tornadoes, many of whom were living at the lodge. There were mountains of toys, and when the event was over we had barely made a dent in the sheer number of toys. People were loading big boxes full of presents for their families, getting more than many had gotten for Christmas in their lives. Most of the people I wrapped presents for were adults getting toys for their kids, but there were two young girls who came through and picked out their own things. I got to wrap for one of them. She was about six and I could tell that her family had been poor for a long while, as had pretty much all of the people I met. She had at least ten dolls of all varieties. She laid them out on the table in front of me in eager expectation. I put a bag of them down on the floor as I was wrapping to make space and when she noticed, she earnestly picked up the bag carefully and put it back on the table. She didn’t want any to be missed. She didn’t want her dolls to be forgotten. 

And I realized that in that moment, she, and many with her were experiencing a small glimmer of God’s extravagant “yes” to the world. Yes, she could actually have all the dolls she wanted, free of charge, gift wrapped and delivered to her door. Yes, she could have warm food, a nice room, and new clothing. She’d gone through a traumatic experience that took so much away, but with her dolls she was claiming something for herself. She mattered and she was going to ensure she wasn’t left behind in the shuffle. 

It was such an ordinary moment in so many ways, but there was also a unique reason for it. She had lost her home in a tornado. In Jesus’ time, the governor decided to do a new tax roll. They had to move and accommodate things outside of their control. I’m sure the last thing Mary wanted to do was travel 85 miles to Bethlehem, but Joseph may have been the strongest support system she had at that moment. I can’t imagine Mary being pregnant before the wedding was an easy thing for her family to grapple with. She went to Elizabeth’s house for six months, only coming back when it was time for Elizabeth to have her baby and focus on her newborn. What if she still needed space from the people around her? Bethlehem, though a hard trek for a very pregnant body, offered that. 

I imagine Joseph had some family in the Bethlehem area. Our translation says that there was no room in the inn, but the word in Greek is more accurately translated “guest room”. I can see Joseph talking with his relatives, trying to figure out where to take Mary when her labor pains began.  The guest room was occupied with other relatives and there surely wasn’t enough space or privacy to give birth there. Instead, they went to where there was space to spread out and have the space birthing takes. They went into the stable. 

I’ve always imagined that open air wood frame structure of the nativity set, with a thatched roof. But when Jamie and I were in Israel, we went to the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem. We were taken down into a cave with a few different rooms carved out of it. The cave itself was split in half, shared by both the Roman Catholic and Orthodox Churches. There was a sizeable line for the Orthodox side, with its beautifully painted interior made to look like stars in the sky. Our tour guide slipped past them and went into the Catholic side, which was just plain rock with a plexiglass window that looked into the spot where Jesus was said to have been born, a spot I imagine the Orthodox side also had a window into. It was nothing fancy, but it was clean and protected. I could see why someone might say, “Go there”, something I never understood when I thought of a structure without walls. 

Mary and Joseph were a couple trying to figure things out on the fly, piecing together what they could with the support of relatives who didn’t have a lot to offer, but tried. Maybe they were the best people for Mary to be with when she gave birth. Who knows? 

The birth itself was so ordinary. I imagine that someone called a midwife and Mary was guided through the process. She laid her baby in the feeding trough and called it a night. If it had been any other child, it would have ended there. A quiet night, a newborn tucked away in the closest thing to a crib the family could find, simple and humble. Unusual for sure, but I’m not convinced Jesus was the only kid to be born in a place like that. Poverty means that you make do with what is available, and the cave was a better space for the occasion than a crowded house. 

If the story had ended there, maybe Luke and Matthew would have, like Mark and John, ignored the birth narrative altogether. A baby born in poverty, a little girl who loved dolls. What kind of story is that? It’s something with unusual beginnings but perfectly normal outcomes. You make do. You figure it out. You move on. 

But this wasn’t a normal baby. This wasn’t a normal moment. Out of the ordinary, suddenly the extraordinary appears. God says “yes” to the world. Because that baby wasn’t just a baby. The baby was fully God and fully human, a divine newborn who could change the lives of shepherds without even waking up. This angel just shows up in the middle of the field. The angel comes not to the kings, not to the people with prestige or power. It comes to Israel’s equivalent of a crew of minimum wage workers. Their jobs were essential, but they were often overlooked. If the angel showed up today, it may very well appear in a fast food lobby as they were closing up shop. Unannounced, unexpected, just there to tell them about a baby. A choir of the heavenly host followed. Every single one of them singing praises to God. But the angel was firm in this. The sign of God’s favor wasn’t the presence of angels, as amazing as that was. The sign was a baby in a feeding trough, tucked away in a cave where animals were kept. The sign was God coming not just to be a part of the world, but to be a part of their reality, their poverty, their struggle for daily life. God didn’t come to live a life of great wealth, God was here to live the average life of the majority of Israelites in their time, trying to simply get by. Out of that simple baby, that vulnerable newborn, salvation came to all people. Not just some people, but everyone. 

Someone asked me recently what sin is, and if you look in our catechism, you’ll find that sin is selfishness, both individual and communal. That’s not to say that we shouldn’t take care of ourselves or provide for our own needs. God wants us to have enough. But God also wants everyone else to have enough too. Salvation is not only a trusting, loving relationship with God, it’s a life of seeing all our neighbors as equals, even when the world ranks and categorizes them into people who deserve more or deserve less. God just puts one label on all of us, “Beloved Child of God.” 

I think something extraordinary did happen with the little girl at Lake Barkley, and it really has nothing to do with cheap plastic dolls. I think a little girl who had endured so much for a moment got to feel that label, “Beloved Child of God” attached firmly to her. She was able to say, “I matter” and hear an affirmation back. She did matter. Nothing of hers would be forgotten or left behind. Even if she lost all her other dolls in the tornado, these ones were hers and would stay with her. Children often take the intangible and uncontrollable things of the world and center them into something they have control over, and that was exactly what she was doing. She was declaring her worth with her dolls. 

In that moment, Christ was present. God was near, saying to her, “You deserve it. You are worth it. You are mine.” just like the angel spoke to the shepherds two millenia ago. The sign of this promise is not big or extravagant. It’s a doll that won’t be swept away in the middle of the night, something she can hold onto through the months ahead. It’s a promise that things won’t always be this way, that the world can be better. 

We today, are also signs of God’s promise. We have taken Christ into ourselves. We have been fed and nourished on God’s promise, God’s dreams for the world. We reject selfishness in ourselves and in the world, seeking a better way that affirms the dignity of every human being. We are Christ’s hands and feet. We are called to help facilitate those extraordinary moments between humans and God, where, even for a moment, there is enough for all. May we never forget that even in the most ordinary of times, the extraordinary love of God can break through. Amen.