Is there a better gloria than Hark, the Herald Angels Sing? Nicole always does a great job with the music, but I look forward to her tinkering during major feasts days. Truthfully, I have a hard time hearing the song and not seeing Snoopy dancing in my head. Those of you not laughing may not know me well and might be surprised to hear me bring up the characters of Peanuts on this Holy Night. When reading Luke's account of the birth of Jesus and the announcement of the fact to the shepherds by the angels, I cannot think of another modern sermon illustration that captures the images of Luke any better. The cool kids and the “in crowd” sends Charlie Brown after a tree because they want him out of the way for rehearsal. Each, in their own way, wants to be the focus of the Nativity Story they are getting ready to put on. Charlie Brown, tired of the commercialism and wrong focus, keeps reminding them to be faithful to the story. He becomes such a nag that the kids tell him to pick out a tree as a prop for the play. Needless to say, Charlie Brown picks out a tree that is rather sad. When the kids place a single ornament upon its branches, the tree bends over and its top touches the ground. The kids ridicule the blockhead for choosing such a pathetic tree.
Linus steps in to save the day. Linus proclaims that he sees the beauty in the tree that first attracted Charlie Brown to it. He wraps his blanket around the tree like a makeshift tree-skirt. He declares that it needs a bit of love and care. The other kids hear him and decorate the tree, which becomes more beautiful than seemed possible when the tree was bent over with the single ornament. The blockhead becomes a hero, and the group breaks out in Hark, the Herald Angels Sing while Snoopy does his happy dance.
I suppose my mind is on such things as the first service focused on the kids. Cohen, in particular, was trying to contain his Snoopy dance. After church, he was heading over to his grandmother's to open gifts, and he could hardly stand it! I think his attitude, and those of the other kids, accurately reflects our own attitudes. Many of us are just wanting to get through the obligatory service so we can get to the food and presents and football, aren't we? Many of us come to church this night more out of a sense of tradition or a mom's or grandmother's nagging than any real sense of joy and love, don't we? Most of us probably share Cohen's desire that the sermon goes quickly so we can get out of here.
In truth, it is a difficult thing to prepare a sermon on Luke's passage. For most of the year, the congregation and pastor share a rhythm. We progress through the readings and the seasons and share in a corporate life of baptisms and deaths and births. Once a year, though, we pause. We pause and share with visitors and infrequent attenders the images painted in the words of Luke and John. And it is the job of the pastor to make the well known words seem vibrant and relevant. The truth is, we pastors cannot. Only God can do that.
At the early service tonight, we looked at bullies and how God works in the face of bullies. It was a decent sermon for our youth. Cohen said it was great because it was short. We looked for a bit at Augustus, the Emperor of Rome. Augustus had a revenue problem. People, he thought, were not paying their taxes. So he declared that all who lived within the empire should go to their hometowns to be registered. This was his way of ensuring that those who depended upon the empire for its livelihood and protection would render the required support. Notice that Joseph and his 9-month pregnant wife travel to Bethlehem to be registered. Such was the power of the Emperor that no one dared defy his edict. Our airlines will not let women on planes that are seven months along. Doctors and midwives strongly discourage travel within six weeks of a due date. Augustus, however, wants his subjects registered, and he gets what he wants. Mary trudges along with her betrothed, at times walking and at times probably riding that donkey. Can you imagine how uncomfortable she felt? Ladies who have born children, how afraid would you have had to be to consider undertaking such a journey on foot during your ninth month?
Opposite Augustus and Quirinius, his governor, are the shepherds. If there was a group of people more outside the circle of power, it might have been shepherds. Shepherds were the original “those people.” They slept during the day and worked mostly at night, just like our modern laborers who work third shifts across the country. Their job was tedious until it was not. Nights might pass with no predators or thieves or illness and then, boom!, the flock was in danger. To make it harder for shepherds to blend in, their work caused them to be surrounded by a particular odor which often offended the sensibilities of others. Those of you who grew up working around livestock know that smell. Oh, and let's not forget the rumors. Shepherds, you know, were probably the reason Yahweh had included the prohibition against bestiality in the torah. I mean, come on, who really knows what is going on out in the fields at night. You laugh, but how many of us make certain assumptions about the people who do certain jobs in our offices? How many of us think we know people by what they do?
So, on the one hand, the narrative of the Gospel is set against the rich and the powerful. As today, the powerful issue commands, and those of a certain standing obey, regardless of the cost. On the other hand, God is using the marginalized to grow His kingdom. More specifically, God uses the marginalized in this case to announce His kingdom come! It is an interesting polemic to be sure. Augustus, and his representative Quirinius, believe themselves to be the most powerful men. God is so powerful, though, that he can use those forgotten or ignored by society and those in power to accomplish His purposes. The message is a warning to those who are on the inside and a note of encouragement to those on the margins. There is another group intended to hear this message tonight, though. Did you catch it? I wonder how many times we have read the story and not really listened to the words? “For unto you is born in the city of David, a Savior.” Did not Mary just do the hard work? Was not this baby born to her?
Many of you here tonight know that I have had some cause to be in labor, delivery, and recovery rooms around this country. Those of you who do not know me may be unaware I have seven kids with my lovely wife, Karen. As a dutiful father, I attended the birth of all my children. I see you older men looking a bit squeamish, I get it, Believe me, I understand why you all may have preferred to wait outside in another room and not hear the screams that accompany the pangs of childbirth or the blood and other fluids. I was so dutiful I even did my pre-birth class of hoos and hees. Yes, like an idiot, I heed and hooed for Karen for precisely a few minutes of one birth. I managed not to get light-headed and pass out which, let me tell you, is no mean feat! Having been at the birth of seven children, delivering one of those while a new nurse panicked and a doctor could not be found, never in all those childbirths did anyone suggest that a baby had been born to someone else. Yet here are the angels telling us through the shepherds that the Savior has been born to you, and to you, and to you, and to me. We are also part of the intended audience of this Holy Night. The Savior has been born to each one of us.
Let that thought roll around in your head for a bit. For unto you is born the Savior. We talk in the Church a great deal about the grandeur and majesty and otherness of God, what theologians call the transcendence of God, and often rightfully so. He is so far beyond us that we are often grasping at shadows when we describe Him to others. Yet this night reminds us of one of those glorious mysteries revealed to humankind. God condescended to take on human flesh in the form of a little baby. He belonged in a heavenly palace, and yet His throne became a manger. The greatest of the world's aristocrats should have been their to pay Him homage, and yet God selected shepherds to become the heralds of His Gospel. Even more amazing, though, is the purpose behind this uncomfortable labor, this rather ignominious birth, by human standards. He came to save you and to save me! That little Babe lying in a manger came for the purpose of walking that path that leads to Calvary and the possibility of you and of me being reconciled to God. That, my brothers and sisters, is the reason we gather here and remember that night nearly 2000 years past. We gather to remember and to reflect upon a miracle too amazing for words. God became human to save each one of us.
When I was describing the scene from Peanuts earlier, I noticed a number of longing faces. I think everyone was familiar with the animated special that airs this time of year. How many of us, though, feel a bit more like Charlie Brown than Lucy or Schroeder or the girl with the naturally curly hair. How many of us really feel like we are leaders or have a special, valued talent, or are simply beautiful on the outside? I think part of the timeless allure of the Peanuts narrative is that it speaks to the Charlie Brown inside each one of us. Each of us wants to be able to kick the ball, direct the play, get a kiss from a crush, believe ourselves not to need a psychiatrist, or some other dream. Each of us realizes that, in the eyes of so many in the world, but especially in the eyes of our own selves, we are much like Charlie Brown. We want desperately to be important, to be known, to be loved.
This night we are each reminded that we are loved. Unto each of us this night in the city of David was born our Savior. Best of all, our Savior is none other than the God who created all things in the beginning. The absolutely transcendent God came down from Heaven and dwelt among us, enfleshed in human form. That, brothers and sisters, is why we gather. That, brothers and sisters, is the beginning of the Good News of Jesus Christ. That, brothers and sisters, is our message to those who are not with us this night. To them, just as to us, was born the Savior. And just as He charged the shepherds 2000 years ago, He charges you with this wonderful knowledge. And now He bids you to glorify Him and tell all you have heard and been told of this Babe, lying in a manger!