These notes are intended for distribution to members and friends of the Kirk of Kildaire, Presbyterian Church family. While effort is made to give credit for work done by others, the notes may use material for which appropriate credit is not given. Also, the notes may differ from the actual sermon as it was delivered. Remember, sermons are meant to be preached and are therefore prepared with the emphasis on verbal presentation; the written accounts occasionally stray from proper grammar and punctuation.
Maybe it is because my daughter now works in the theatre… maybe it is because I have seen a lifetime of nativity plays and read Christmas stories… maybe it’s because I’ve seen the adaptation of the Christmas Carol in Raleigh by Ira David Wood… maybe it is because Christmas Eve always has a sense of drama to the evening… but in my mind’s eyes tonight, I look back on the first Christmas Eve with a sense of the dramatic. In my mind’s eye, I see the stage is set. The curtain is still closed but the angels are off in the wings. And in my imagination… the angels are excited… I mean really excited… There is a hum going on backstage… The angels have been warming up their voices… and they can’t wait… they can’t wait… for their cue.
Down below on earth in a quiet out of the way place called Bethlehem- away from the capital and seat of power… in a small down east type of town… almost unnoticed, a child has been born not in the maternity room of a hospital, not in the warm of a home… but in a feeding trough where the cows and donkeys have recently eaten and drooled…[and you know what a stable looks and smells like-ask the Dirty jobs guy!]
A child has been born to a couple who would have been lost in the crowd of people who were forced by the great Emperor Augustus Caesar… to come to Joseph’s ancestral home to register for taxes. A 75 mile trip on foot.
In the midst of that, you might miss the great thing God has just done… the great gift God has offered the world.
So, as the stage is set, I see the angels are standing in the wings… with their wings… ready… ready for the cue… Can you feel the excitement… the tension in the air? It is so dramatic!
Forgive me, but I think of the song about the theatre made famous by Bugs Bunny:
"Overture, curtain, lights, this is it, the night of nights
No more rehearsing and nursing our parts
We know every part by heart…"
And the time comes for the curtain to rise that separates heaven and earth. And their audience… they are not playing in the Kennedy Center before Caesar… they have not been asked to offer their performance before the priests down at the Temple Hall… or in their sanctuary…
No… the curtain rises above some fields outside of Bethlehem… where some obscure shepherds… some forgotten shepherds… the least, the last, and the forgotten people of their day… are tending sheep. A great announcement is about to be made to people who least expect it. They weren’t looking for God to do much of anything. But the angels will surprise them with an announcement.
And what an announcement it will be! And the angels know it. That’s why I can still sense their excitement as the curtain opens.
First only one angel will come. After all if you are not looking for angels or looking for God to say or do much… a heavenly host of angels might be just too much. So a single angel breaks the news… hardly able to contain the excitement: When the angel shows up the whole glory of the Lord appears to them… full of lights and magic worthy of the best Broadway Show ever but also enough to frighten the heck out of you. I’m not surprised they were terrified. Wouldn’t you be? But the angel speaks:
"Do not be afraid; for see-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. This will be a sign FOR YOU: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger."
And suddenly… as if they cannot contain themselves… the rest of the whole heavenly host of angels-more than you can count-they break onto the stage with song: "Glory to God in the highest heaven and on earth peace among those whom he favors"
And when the angels go off stage…the shepherds drop their work-leave the sheep in the field-you can’t travel with haste with a bunch of sheep can you?… and go to see this thing that has taken place … that the Lord, through his angels made known. After sharing the story with Mary and Joseph… the shepherds return home with a joy they had never known before.
And so the drama unfolds for them… and for us. What makes Christmas Eve so difficult is that it is hard to re-create the drama of the first Christmas. We can only recall the drama. It’s like recreating the drama of the day you graduated from college or were married or had a child… the best you can do later is to remember those days… you can’t re-create them. But remember we do. Because even the memory brings joy.
Tonight, if there were one gift I would give to you from the angels, it would be the gift of joy that comes from recalling what God has done for us… and not just any joy but the kind of joy that can carry you through your life – even if your life is not so exciting-maybe it is as boring and difficult as being a shepherd.
The joy that excites the angels is far more profound than the joy we usually think of. Your team wins… and you cheer with joy for your team… but that will fade away until the next game or next year… Or you get the job you dreamed of… and there is good joy in that… but you will discover there is more to life than a job…
For the shepherds the joy they knew before might have been as simple as knowing the sheep are safe… and you are at peace… Tomorrow morning there will be a lot of joy from children in homes across the world… there will be a joy that can’t wait to come down the stairs to see what Santa brought… there will be joy for some that you didn’t get ashes or coals this year! There will be a joy you will hear when boxes are opened and you get the gift you hoped for… But then you know what happens… in just a few hours… the wrapping is on the floor or in the trash… the joy fades… and in a few days it is back to normal.
The joy that excites the angels is different. Joy is defined in our story as the gift of a person… a savior. Joy is defined as God breaking through to earth… God loving and caring enough to come among us. This is a joy especially meant for those who have been living without joy.
People like Mary and Joseph. Ask Mary and Joseph how joyful they were when there was no room for them in an inn as she is about to give birth. Ask the shepherds how joyful life had been for them in a job that was seen as a disgusting job among an unclean people. It is the kind of joy meant for those who have no presents to open tomorrow… or no one to share the day with… this is the kind of joy meant not for Augustus or Herod who have everything in the world… but for those who have little or nothing. This is a joy meant for those who are the most in need of joy.
Joy to the world, the Lord has come… that is what excites the angels. The Lord has come-in the flesh. They know God is coming to earth to bring love, peace, hope and joy to our lives in the birth of Jesus the Christ. This would be good news indeed… joyful news. The story of Christmas… the story of the incarnation… is joyful because it is the story of the God who came down to show us that we are not forgotten…[God is not just watching from a distance-] quite the opposite… God is coming among us to show us that we are deeply and dearly loved beyond our imagining. It is a love that we will see, as the baby grows up… a love so deep… it will suffer and die for us.
I think of the story I heard of Father Damien who was a priest who became famous for his willingness to serve lepers. He moved to Kalawao, a village on the island of Molokai in Hawaii that had been quarantined to serve as a leper colony. For sixteen years he lived in their midst. He learned to speak their language. He bandaged their wounds, embraced the bodies no one else would touch, preached to hearts that would otherwise have been left alone. He organized schools, bands, and choirs. He built homes so that the lepers could have shelter. He built 2000 coffins by hand so that when they died, they could be buried with dignity.
Slowly, it was said, Kalawao became a place to live rather than a place to die, for Father Damien offered hope. Father Damien was not careful about keeping his distance. He did nothing to separate himself from his people. He dipped his fingers in the poi bowl along with the patients. He shared his pipe. He did not always wash his hands after bandaging open sores. He got close. For this people loved him. Then one day he stood up and began his sermon with two words: "We lepers…" Now he wasn’t just helping them. Now he was one of them. From this day forward he wasn’t just on their island; he was in their skin. First he had chosen to live as they lived; now he would die as they died. Now they were in it together."
One day God came to earth and began his message:
"We lepers…" Now, he wasn’t just helping us by calling Abraham or Sarah… Moses or Jeremiah or Isaiah or any of the rest to be his agents on earth …. He wasn’t just helping us… Now he was becoming one of us. Now he was in our skin. Now we were in it together.
The story of Christmas is a joyful story because it is the story of a loving God who decided to get down and dirty with us. It’s the story of a God who would not only tell us of a light in the darkness… this God, in Jesus would be the light in the darkness… showing us the way to a lasting peace and joy and love that we all long for. Tonight, God wants to bring the joy that came to the shepherds to us. If you are living in a difficult time right now… know that God wants you to know the joy and peace that comes in believing. God wants to bring the world that joy. God wants us to share that joy. In fact, do you know what I think-I think God wants us to become his angels– his messengers on earth. God wants us to share the joy of our Lord. So… are you ready? "Overture… curtain… lights…" Amen.