Luke 2:8-20; Isaiah 9:2,6
The Reverend Tom Herbek
December 20, 2015
In the world in which we live, sometimes it is hard to believe that God ever came to us as a baby, ever actually became “God with us.” In our better moments, we may be able to believe that it did happen 2000 years ago- somehow. And in our best moments, we actually entertain the possibility that that joyous event still happens. If we keep our eyes open, and most importantly, our hearts open, who knows?
Poet Ann Weems says it’s not over:
It is not over,
There are always newer skies
into which God can throw stars.
When we begin to think
that we can predict the Advent of God, that we can box the Christ
in a stable in Bethlehem,
that’s just the time
that God will be born
in a place we can’t imagine and won’t believe.
Those who wait for God
watch with their hearts and not their eyes,
for angel words.
At this time of year, we never know when joy may catch us by surprise.
Author Harper Lee, of To Kill a Mockingbird fame, once described a time when she was a very young writer from Alabama, living in NYC. She worked full-time for an airline so she never got home to Alabama for Christmas, and many Christmases did not even get the day off. She usually spent Christmas with a couple and their two young sons- or at least what part of Christmas she could- with these friends who were fellow writers. She describes them as “a young family in periodically well-to-do circumstances,” meaning they did well when their writing sold.
Our Christmases together were simple. We limited our gifts to pennies and wits and all-out competition. Who would come up with the most outrageous for the least? The real Christmas was for the children, an idea I found totally compatible, for I had long ago ceased to speculate on the meaning of Christmas as anything other than a day for children. Christmas to me was only a memory of old loves and empty rooms, something I buried with the past that underwent a vague, aching resurrection every year.
One Christmas, though, was different. I was lucky. I had the whole day off, and I spent Christmas Eve with them. When morning came, I awoke to a small hand kneading my face. “Dup,” was all its owner had time to say. I got downstairs just in time to see the little boys’ faces as they beheld the pocket rockets and space equipment Santa Claus had left them.
Bedlam prevailed until they discovered there was more. As their father began distributing gifts, I grinned to myself, wondering how my exceptionally wily unearthments this year would be received. His was a print of a portrait of Sydney Smith I’d found for thirty-five cents; hers was the complete works of Margot Asquith, the result of a year’s patient search. The children were in agonies of indecision over which package to open next, and as I waited, I noticed that while a small stack of presents mounted beside their mother’s chair, I had received not a single one. My disappointment was growing steadily, but I tried not to show it.
They took their time. Finally she said, “We haven’t forgotten you. Look on the tree.”
There was an envelope on the tree, addressed to me. I opened it and read: “You have one year off from your job to write whatever you please. Merry Christmas.”
“What does this mean?” I asked. “What it says,” I was told.
They assured me that it was not some sort of joke. They’d had a good year, they said. They’d saved some money and thought it was high time they did something about me.
“What do you mean, do something about me?”
To tell the truth- if I really wanted to know- they thought I had a great talent, and –
“What makes you think that?”
It was plain to anyone who knew me, they said, if anyone would stop to look. They wanted to show their faith in me the best way they knew how. Whether I ever sold a line was immaterial. They wanted to give me a full, fair chance to learn my craft, free from the harassments of a regular job. Would I accept their gift? There were no strings at all. Please accept, with their love.
It took some time to find my voice. When I did, I asked if they were out of their minds. What made them think anything would come of this? They didn’t have that kind of money to throw away. A year was a long time. What if the children came down with something horrible? As objection crowded upon objection, each was overruled. “We’re all young,” they said. “We can cope with whatever happens. If disaster strikes, you can always find a job of some kind. Okay, consider it a loan, then, if you wish. We just want you to accept. Just permit us to believe in you. You must.”
“It’s a fantastic gamble,” I murmured. “It’s such a great risk.”
My friend looked around his living room, at his boys, half buried under a pile of bright Christmas wrapping paper. His eyes sparkled as they met his wife’s, and they exchanged a glance of what seemed to me insufferable smugness. Then he looked at me and said softly; “No, honey. It’s not a risk. It’s a sure thing.”
A full, fair chance for a new life. Not given me by an act of generosity, but by an act of love. Our faith in you was really all I had heard them say. I would do my best not to fail them.
Harper Lee found out that someone believed in her, even when she did not yet believe in herself. Ann Weems is right. It’s not over, this birthing of God’s presence, of God’s love in our world and in our lives. And sometimes we get to spread some of the joy ourselves.
For me, babies are always a good reminder that it’s not over.
When I first became a hospital chaplain, there was an on-call room in the hospital where we slept so we could be available at a moment’s notice. Having a staff chaplain in-house even in the middle of the night was a big help to the rest of the staff:
- I was often awakened to take the family in to see the body of their loved one after their death in a terrible car or motorcycle accident.
- I was the one to go in to the Burn Unit to talk with the man who had been burned over most of his body, and, because of shock, felt nothing, calmly talking to me about last night’s basketball game, unaware that he would not live more than a day or two because there was no hope he could survive.
- I was the one who would be asked to go in with the mother to visit her young daughter who had been beaten and abused by the mother’s boyfriend, because the staff was not sure if the mother had been a part of it.
In those days I saw far too much violence and tragedy, and it is still hard for me to watch movies with much violence or tragedy. I have seen too much of the real thing to be able to watch Hollywood’s reenactment of it.
In those days, in the middle of the night, I would sometimes throw on my shoes (I always slept in my clothes) and I would go down to the nursery. The night staff was always glad to see me and would hand me an infant to rock. No matter what had happened that day, rocking an infant would make me smile and would fill my heart with joy.
And as I sat there, I got to watch the staff and the family members who could not sleep walk up to the window and look at the infants in the nursery. And the smiles would begin, the eyes would crinkle up, and there would be laughter — and it would spread. And strangers would giggle together, pointing out different infants to each other. Any heaviness outside that window was wiped away – even if just for a moment – and when people left, they walked with a lighter step and joy in their hearts.
The shepherds felt such joy as the angels described the newborn’s birth, and they ran to the stable, and the joy of his birth also spread joy in unexpected ways.
There is a lot of pain and sadness in our world. No one is exempt from it. But if one person feels the joy, it spreads. True joy cannot be kept to yourself. It infects everyone around you. In Bethlehem, they realized that God had come to us and gotten down where we are. It still happens, if we keep our eyes open.
On the Sunday before Christmas, Bill decided to go to a suburban church across from the college where he was a student. He walked in with sandals, jeans, his T-shirt, and wild hair. The service had already started and so Bill started down the aisle looking for a seat. The church was completely packed with people in suits and Christmas finery and he couldn’t find a seat. By now, people were really looking at him, a bit uncomfortable, but no one said anything.
Bill got closer and closer and closer to the pulpit, and when he realized there were no seats and no one made room for him, he just squatted down right on the carpet next to the third row of pews. Now the people were really uncomfortable, and the tension in the air was thick.
About this time, from way at the back of the church, an elderly usher was slowly making his way toward Bill. Now this usher was in his eighties, with silver-gray hair, and a three-piece suit – a godly man, very elegant, very dignified, very courtly. He walked with a cane and as he started walking toward this boy, everyone was saying to themselves that you couldn’t blame the usher for what he had to do. How can you expect a man of his age and of his background to understand some college kid on the floor?
It took a long time for the usher to reach the boy. The church was utterly silent except for the clicking of the man’s cane. All eyes were focused on the usher. You couldn’t even hear anyone breathing. The minister waited until the usher did what he had to do.
And then they saw this elderly man drop his cane on the floor. With great difficulty, he lowered himself and sat down next to Bill so Bill wouldn’t be alone.
Everyone choked up with emotion: some of it was shame that they had not thought of doing something to welcome the boy, and compassion, and a sense that they had just seen something extraordinarily special happen, and finally– joy.
At Christmas, maybe we will realize that God got down on the floor next to us. At Christmas, it doesn’t matter what anyone says or does or that there is a lot that is wrong in our world. When we realize that God is the one who is right down here with us, Emmanuel, “God with us”, we too are filled with joy.
Certainly new life, new babies, fill us with joy.
And the birth of this particular baby in Bethlehem, the fact that God actually got down on the floor with us, is cause for great joy. Shepherds were so filled with joy that they actually ran at full speed, ran in joy, to see this baby.
John’s gospel says that “The word became flesh and dwelt among us.” But it did not just happen once, 2000 years ago. It keeps happening. We just have to keep our eyes open, and especially, we have to keep our hearts open.
If we do, we may just discover that it still happens– in babies, and in times when people believe in us (even before we believe in ourselves), and in elderly ushers and college students, and wherever God gets down where we are.
And then, when we realize what is happening, we are so full of joy that we also might just believe that it still happens- Emmanuel- God with us!