Christmas - Dec 24

I wonder what I would have heard had I been there that night. It is a question that annually haunts me. Would I have heard the choirs of angels singing or simply the sounds of barnyard animals shifting around? Would I have seen the star in the sky that night or simply two poor and very frightened kids? Would I have understood the hushed silence of the divine presence, or simply the chill of a cold east wind. Would I have understood the message of Emmanuel, God with us, or would the cosmic implications of that evening have passed me by?
I am convinced that had two people been there that night in Bethlehem it is quite possible that they could have heard and seen two entirely different scenes. I believe this because all of life is this way. God never presents himself in revelation in a manner in which we are forced to believe. We are always left with an option, for that is God's way. Thus, one person can say "It is a miracle, while another says "It's coincidence."

Certainly very few people in Palestine saw and heard and understood what took place that night. The choirs of angels singing were drowned out by the haggling and trading going on in the Jerusalem bazaar. There was a bright star in the sky but the only ones apparently to pay any attention to it were pagan astrologers from the East. If anyone did see Mary and Joseph on that most fateful night, they were too preoccupied with their own problems to offer any assistance...

In one of the All in the Family episodes that aired some years ago Edith and Archie are attending Edith's high school class reunion. Edith encounters an old classmate by the name of Buck who, unlike his earlier days. had now become excessively obese. Edith and Buck have a delightful conversation about old times and the things that they did together, but remarkably Edith doesn't seem to notice how extremely heavy Buck has become. Later, when Edith and Archie and talking, she says in her whiny voices "Archie, ain't Buck a beautiful person." Archie looks at her with a disgusted expression and says: "Your a pip, Edith. You know that. You and I look at the same guy and you see a beautiful person and I see a blimp. Edith gets a puzzled expression on her face and says something unknowingly profound, "Yeah, ain't it too bad."

You see, what we see and what we hear in life depends not upon the events but rather who we are as people. It’s not what is out there but what is inside of us.

Many of you have seen again this year Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol.” There is one scene that has always fascinated me. Christmas Past has just paid a very discomforting visit to Ebenezer Scrooge. Clearly the old miser is shaken by the entire ordeal. But when he awakes from his sleep, does he take the message to heart? No, he simply dismisses it by saying: “Bah, humbug! It wasn’t real. Just a bit of last night’s undigested beef.” A vision to be taken to heart or simple indigestion? You tell me?

Oh, you say, had I been there at Bethlehem that night....
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It was a cold December afternoon. Rain mixed with snow splashed against the windshield. Overhead dark clouds hovered seemingly just above the treetops. All day long two men, a pastor named Jerry and a layman named Jim, had been delivering Christmas boxes. Many of the families who would receive these boxes would get nothing else for Christmas that year. The pickup truck had been loaded when the two men started out on their journey but now, only one box remained. It was covered with an old piece of tarp to protect it against the rain. 

The address on the card meant a drive of several miles beyond the city limit. "What do you think?" Jim asked. He was the driver and it was his truck. Pastor Jerry knew what Jim was thinking. Why drive way out in the country when we could give this last box to someone close by and be home in thirty minutes? It was a tempting thought. Pastor Jerry had a Christmas Eve Communion Service scheduled for 8 p.m. and he could use the time to prepare.  

Jim, however, answered his own question, "Well, let's give it a try. If we can't find the place, we can always come back and give the box to someone else."

The rain was pouring down by the time they reached the address on the card. The old white framed house stood on a hillside overlooking the valley. It had once been an elegant place, the centerpiece of a large farm. Now, the farm was gone and the house had deteriorated over the years...

            The two men slipped and slid, huffed and puffed as they carried the box up the hill.  The red clay offered no foothold and the box, wet from the rain, was beginning to come apart.  They climbed the high steps to the porch, set the box down and slid it across the floor.  They straightened up just in time to glimpse the face of a small boy at the window.  He had been watching them coming up the hill.  Now, he announced their arrival with shouts of excitement, “They’re here, Grandma, they’re here!”
            The door opened and an older woman greeted them.   She had on a dark, plain dress with a white apron.  She was drying her hands with a dishtowel and explained to them that she had been doing the dinner dishes.  “I told you, they would come,” a child’s voice said from behind her.
            The woman told them that she and her grandson were all that was left of her family.  The father and mother had divorced and gone their separate ways.  The little boy had been left behind for Grandma to raise.  She said, “Oh, I am so glad you are here.  He was up early this morning looking for you.  He sat by that window all day.  I wasn’t sure you would come and I tried to prepare him in case of a disappointment.  But he just said, ‘Don’t worry, Grandma, I know they will come.’”
            That young boy didn’t know it, but, in a sense, he was speaking for all Christianity.  More than one billion of us around the world, are pausing for a few moments this night to say, “We knew he would come.”
            The prophet Isaiah, speaking on behalf of God, had promised it hundreds of years before, “For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders.  And he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.”
            Those are magnificent descriptions of the long-awaited Messiah.  “Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.”  My favorite phrase of Isaiah’s, however, is “For a child has been born for us ...”
            Can there be a more perfect story than the story of the first Christmas?  You see, there’s something about a child.
            During the first year and a half of World War II, London was under heavy bombing from German airplanes.  Churchill knew that Hitler would win, and England would be destroyed, if he could not unite America as an ally with Britain in the war. Then, on December 7, 1941, Hitler’s ally Japan attacked the United States at Pearl Harbor.  Churchill left London and rushed to Washington to meet with President Roosevelt and speak to Congress, to try to get America to help England fight the war.
On Christmas Eve, 1941.  Churchill was a guest of President Roosevelt at the White House.
            It had been a very busy day for Churchill. That morning he had given an important speech, broadcast live on radio, before a combined meeting of the House of Representatives and the United States Senate.  He had spent the rest of that busy day in private interviews and meetings.  That evening he had given another speech when he helped the President light the National Christmas Tree.  Afterwards Churchill went to his room in the White House to prepare for a much needed night of rest.
            Also staying in the White House that Christmas Eve was the President’s special assistant, Harry Hopkins, and his nine-year-old daughter Diana.  Late in the evening there was a knock on the child’s door.  She rose from her bed and opened it.  There was the White House butler, standing stiffly in his formal dress.  He looked down at the little girl and said in a very serious voice, “Miss Hopkins, the Prime Minister wants to see you.”  The little girl pulled on her robe and followed the stately butler down a long corridor to the Monroe Bedroom.  The butler knocked on the door, and the girl heard a gruff indistinguishable response from inside.  When the door opened the child saw the penetrating eyes of the Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, staring down at her.  She was shocked when Churchill reached out his arms and embraced her.  He paused, and then said, “I’m a lonely old father and grandfather on Christmas Eve who wanted a little girl to hug.”  Then he glanced bashfully at the butler and sent her back to bed.
            I guess all of us need a hug on Christmas Eve, particularly from a child.  There’s something about a child.  That’s one reason Christmas Eve is so wonderful, the joy of anticipation that we see in our children’s eyes, and God entered the world as a babe in a manger.
            Here’s the second thing we need to see: That babe became our Savior.
Just ask the angels what they think of Jesus, they’ll tell you, “To you is born this day in the city of David, a Savior, who is the Messiah.”
            Ask John the Baptist and he’ll tell you, “Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.”
            Ask the Roman centurion what he thinks of Jesus, he will tell you. “Surely, this is the Son of God.”
            We celebrate the fact that God became a tiny babe, but we also celebrate that this tiny babe became our Savior.
            To me, one of the charms of Christmas is that it is the season of misfits, misfits like “The Littlest Angel” who couldn’t get his halo on properly or “The Charlie Brown Christmas Special” about that lovable loser, Charlie Brown.   And, of course, Rudolph, the reindeer with the bright shiny nose?
            Seventy-one years ago the retailer Montgomery Ward gave copies of a poem, “Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” to customers for their children.  It was an enormous success.  In 1946 Montgomery Ward transferred the copyright of the poem back to Robert May, who worked for the department store when he wrote it in 1939.  May, who had a sick wife and six children to put through school, sold the rights to a children’s book publisher.  The book sold more than 100,000 copies.
            Then, in 1949, a New York songwriter, Johnny Marks, a friend of May’s wrote a 113 word song based on the poem.  It took months to convince anyone to record the song, and when he pitched it to cowboy actor Gene Autry, he was turned down, politely but firmly.  Autry’s wife, however, talked him into recording the song.
            Autry said he would record Rudolph only as the B-side on what he thought would be a hit Christmas tune titled “If It Doesn’t Snow on Christmas.”  That song has long been forgotten.
            “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” was introduced by Autry at a Madison Square Garden concert in September 1949.  By Christmas, record sales were near 2 million. It has now sold more than 100 million copies, making it second only to “White Christmas” on the all-time seasonal hit parade.
            Now, why would I spend so much time on the misfit Rudolph, the red-nosed reindeer?  I mention it because at Christmas Christ became a misfit on our behalf.  He who lived in glory gave it all up to become a tiny babe and then he became a grown man who suffered and died and took away the sins of the world.
            And there was only one reason Christ came.  He came because he loved us so much.  “God so loved the world that he gave His only begotten son … ”
            In an old Peanuts comic strip, another popular misfit Charlie Brown cracks open his piggy bank. He says, “Look, I’ve got $9.11 to spend on Christmas.”
            Lucy is not impressed. “You can’t buy something for everyone with $9.11, Charlie Brown.”
            Charlie Brown retorts, “Oh yeah? Well, I’m gonna try!”
            “Then,” Lucy continues, “they’re sure gonna be cheap presents.”
            “But,” Charlie Brown says with absolute conviction, “nothing is cheap if it costs all that you have.”
            Have a grand Christmas Eve and a wonderful Christmas Day, “For to us a child is born, to us a son is given . . .”  He came.  He loved us so much, he came.  We knew he would.
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 The House of Bread

In the Hebrew, Bethlehem means the house of bread. What a wonderful poetic description of a dwelling place. I remember frequently coming home from school and smelling the aroma of baking bread, creating for our entire family a house of bread. It awakens memories of good food, a warm kitchen, conversation, fulfillment. Everyone who entered the house gravitated towards the kitchen for a piece of bread with melting butter and to enjoy that delicacy in the company of others.

At Bethlehem, at this house of bread, humanity is irresistibly drawn to share in the good news of God. All things converge there and our souls find their birth and their nourishment. The entire universe holds its breath in wonder for it is here and nowhere else that we know our names, and find our homes. 

Susan Hedahl, Places of the Promise, CSS Publishing Inc. 
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God Is Interested in Our Life

Jim Moore recently served as senior minister of St. Luke's in Houston, Texas. At a breakfast with a friend, who is now a sales representative for a large national company, the friend told Dr. Moore about a recent exchange with his new sales manager.

It seems Moore's friend was driving his new boss around town when they happened to pass near the friend's home. This friend asked the new sales manager if he would like to stop by his house and meet his family. His wife was baking an apple pie, and his children would be coming in from school. Would he like to meet them?

 "Let's get one thing straight right now," the manager replied. "I'm not interested in your family. I'm not interested in your wife or your children. I'm not interested in you personally at all or any of the circumstances of your life. All I'm interested in are results. All I'm interested in about you is your sales record!" 

The friend told Moore: "That really hurt. I felt as though someone had slapped me across the face, but you know, I realized something. I realized that God is the opposite of that! God is interested in my home and family. God is interested in my wife and children. God does care about me personally. He is interested in all of the circumstances of my life." 

That is the good news of Christmas. 

James W. Moore, Christmas Gifts That Always Fit, (Nashville: Dimensions for the Living), 64-65.
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 The New Age

Every year at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, there is displayed, beneath the great Christmas tree, a beautiful eighteenth century Neapolitan nativity scene. In many ways it is a very familiar scene. The usual characters are all there: shepherds roused from sleep by the voices of angels; the exotic wisemen from the East seeking, as Auden once put it, "how to be human now"; Joseph; Mary; the babe -- all are there, each figure an artistic marvel of wood, clay, and paint. There is, however, something surprising about this scene, something unexpected here, easily missed by the causal observer. What is strange here is that the stable, and the shepherds, and the cradle are set, not in the expected small town of Bethlehem, but among the ruins of mighty Roman columns. The fragile manger is surrounded by broken and decaying columns. The artists knew the meaning of this event: The gospel, the birth of God's new age, was also the death of the old world. 

Herods know in their souls what we perhaps have passed over too lightly: God's presence in the world means finally the end of their own power. They seek not to preserve the birth of God's new age, but to crush it. For Herod, the gospel is news too bad to be endured, for Mary, Joseph, and all the other characters it is news too good to miss. 

Adapted from Thomas G. Long, Something Is About To Happen, CSS Publishing  
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I think the Grinch said it best: 

And the Grinch, with his grinch-feet ice-cold in the snow,
Stood puzzling and puzzling: "How could it be so?"
"It came without ribbons! It came without tags!"
"It came without packages, boxes or bags!"
And he puzzled three hours, till his puzzler was sore.
Then the Grinch thought of something he hadn't before!
"Maybe Christmas," he thought, "doesn't come from a store."
"Maybe Christmas. . . perhaps. . means a little bit more!"

 Dr. Suess
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The Christian Gospel in a Nutshell

In Kurt Vonnegut's book, God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater, Eliot Rosewater, an eccentric do-gooder, was discussing with his wife the birth of twins to a half-witted townsperson named Mary Moody. "I'm baptizing them tomorrow," he says. "I didn't know you -- you did things like that," Sylvia replied. "I couldn't get out of it," said Eliot. "She insisted on it, and nobody else would do it. I told her I wasn't a religious person by any stretch of the imagination. I told her nothing I could do would count in heaven. But she insisted just the same." 

"What will you say?" inquired Sylvia. "Oh -- I don't know. I'll go over to her shack, I guess, sprinkle some water on the babies and say, 'Hello babies. Welcome to the earth. It's hot in the summer and cold in the winter. It is round and wet and crowded. At the outside, babies, you've got about a hundred years here. There's only one rule that I know of babies: Darn it, you've got to be kind.' "  

Maybe that's the Christian gospel in a nutshell. God has been very kind to us, and to live in God's sight means we must be very kind to each other. If that is not the end of the Christian faith, it may be the beginning. 

Charles H. Bayer, When It Is Dark Enough, CSS Publishing Company
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Humor: Hanging Lights for Christmas

Hanging lights on a Christmas tree can be most stressful. Some nice person on the Internet has even made a list of Things Not to Say When Hanging Lights on the Christmas Tree. Let me read some of them:

8. "Up a little higher. You can reach it. Go on, try."
7. "What on earth do you do to these lights when you put them away every year? Tie them in knots?"
6. "You've got the whole thing on the tree upside-down. The electric plug thing should be down here at the bottom, not up at the top."
5. "I don't care if you have found another two strings, I'm done!"
4. "You've just wound 'em around and around--I thought we agreed it shouldn't look like a spiral this year?"
3. "Have you been drinking?"
2. "Where's the cat?"

And the number one thing not to say when hanging lights on a tree? "If you're not going to do it right, don't do it at all. Don't just throw them on, like you do the icicles. You're worse than your father."

It's not easy getting ready for Christmas. Luke, in his narrative concerning the coming of Christ quotes the words of Isaiah the prophet: "A voice of one calling in the desert, `Prepare the way for the Lord, make straight paths for him. Every valley shall be filled in, every mountain and hill made low. The crooked roads shall become straight, the rough ways smooth. And all mankind will see God's salvation.'" (NRSV)

King Duncan, Collected Sermons, www.Sermons.com
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The Inner Galaxy 

The story is told of Teddy Roosevelt entertaining guests at his Sagamore Hill estate on Long Island. After a late dinner he invited his guests outside to walk beneath the brilliant nighttime sky. After a silent, reverent stroll Roosevelt said, "I guess we've been humbled enough now. Let's go inside." And that's what Christmas Eve is all about -- about stargazing toward the infinite to be humble in our finiteness. So in response to the angel chorus and the angel announcement, the simple, rustic, stargazing shepherds said, "Let us go even now into Bethlehem to see this thing that has happened...." And they went inside the stable, and beheld in the manger the inner galaxy -- the interior meaning of the universe. And what did they experience? 

For one thing, they experienced mystery. Luke tells us they returned "glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen...." 

Maurice A. Fetty, How to Profit from Prophets, CSS Publishing Company