In my seventeen years of ordained ministry, I’ve found the Christmas Eve sermon to be a tricky sort of venture. On one hand it is, in many respects, the easiest sermon of the year; it kind of preaches itself, this wonderful story about God’s son being born into the world. It’s not like you have to manufacture something to capture people’s imagination.
But on the other hand, it’s a difficult sermon too, precisely because this story is so familiar, is so beloved. It’s like trying to preach on the beauty of a sunrise over the ocean, or that sacred moment when you watch your own child being born. Where do you find words to describe something like that?
And then there are times, like tonight, when the sermon kind of writes itself for you.
So have no fear, my friends, I am going to tell you tonight about the birth of Jesus. I’m going to tell you about how he was born in a manger, about the shepherds and the animals and the angels. I’m going to tell you about how he was born a king in the most humble of circumstances; and, as I said a few Sundays ago, not looking down at us from on high, but looking up at us as a tiny baby gazes up at all who’ve come to see him.
I’m going to tell you all that – but before I do, I want to tell you about someone else. I want to tell you about John. And not any biblical John, like the cousin of Jesus who announced his arrival or the John who wrote one of the four gospels: And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us…..
No, I’m talking about the John I had the pleasure of breaking break with less than a week ago in our church’s Fellowship Hall. John was there with seven or eight other women and men as part of our church’s “Room In The Inn” ministry. I knew this ministry has a great impact on the lives of the people it helps. What I wasn’t expecting that night was how much of an impact those people – and one in particular – would have on me.
John was in his 50’s, I’d venture to say. He had short-cropped dark hair and sported a well-worn navy blue sweatshirt. As the folks came through the food line that night, John’s face stood out from the rest. He wore the look of someone who was completely spent, as if every last ounce of hope had been drained from him. It wasn’t just his body that was tired – it was his very soul.
John had trouble talking, he told me from across the table, because he was sick and his throat was swollen, inflamed. Every word felt like speaking through sandpaper. When he did get the words out, he shared his story. John had lost his job at the manufacturing plant earlier this year, and had been on the street ever since. All those nights, and nowhere for him to go.
Gives a whole new meaning to the expression "no room at the inn,” doesn't it?
John said he was planning on going to the ER the next day, because that’s the only kind of health care he can get. He hopes they’ll admit him, because John wants very much to get better, so that he can get a job again. Contrary to the persona some may place on those like John, he has no interest in “gaming the system.” He wants desperately to get his life back on track. But, as he acknowledged through cough fits and motioning at a body that had not showered in nearly a week, “who would ever want to hire someone like this?”
He told me that his only salvation since this whole nightmare-ish ordeal began was this very night: a place to go, and a hot meal, and the company of caring strangers, and the soft mattress laying on the floor of a warm church Fellowship Hall. And as I left John that evening, he said to me with worn but grateful eyes, I’m so glad you people are here, So glad.
So let me thank you, Trinity Presbyterian, for doing what you did for John that night. And for Doris, and Marvin, and Charles, and LaTisha, and all the others. Thank you – because it’s through your gracious support that the homeless in our community, for one night, at least, can receive a night of quiet and rest in the midst of an otherwise chaotic storm. And you know what that means, don’t you? It means that you’re not just meditating on a 2000-year old story of an innkeeper this evening. You, in fact, are that innkeeper – the one who said, “I know you’re in dire straights; I know you’re sick and don’t have a place to go, I know you’re about to give birth to your child. I don’t really have a place for you, but maybe, just maybe, we can make a little room for you. A little room in the inn….
That is the heart of this very night, is it not? In the midst of all this glorious celebration, this beautiful worship experience: There is room for you, John. As we find ourselves consumed by consumption, wrapping gifts just so they can be unwrapped (does that really make sense?) Family and friends and lights and carols and cookies and pies and red and green and “ho-ho-ho;” all the things we love about this season, all the things that mean so much to us: There is room for you, John.
Because if we are honest with ourselves – really honest – the truth is that John’s Christmas looks and feels a whole lot more like the original than the one we celebrate. Think about it. There was nothing planned or anticipated about that first Christmas. There were no traditions, no rituals, no routines. Mary and Joseph were not scheduled to arrive in Bethlehem promptly at 5pm and 9pm on Christmas Eve!
That first Christmas? It was ordinary and unplanned and haphazard. It wasn’t like Mary and Joseph asked for their long journey to Bethlehem – they were forced to go against their will. I know some of you think that making the obligatory trip to see the in-laws is a form of seasonal torture, but trust me, this was worse! You’re 39 weeks pregnant and you’re riding day and night on the back of a donkey. No telling where they slept along the way, if they slept at all. No telling where they got food from, if they ate at all. Relying totally and completely on the kindness of strangers, when and if that kindness ever came.
And this is the scene we revere every Christmas, this glorious, haphazard, simple, ordinary scene.
A minister friend of mine posted a wonderful story on her blog yesterday about an exchange she overheard in the grocery store checkout line a few years ago, right before Christmas. The lady in front of her asks the clerk if they had any Christmas stamps. The clerked looked and then shook her head and said, "I’m sorry, we don’t. We’ve got liberty stamps and then some lady holding a baby.” That’s what the clerk said: some lady holding a baby. The customer said, "Can I see those?" The clerk handed them to her, and sure enough, the stamps were a picture of Mary holding baby Jesus – specifically, Raphael’s “Madonna of the Candleabra.”
Some lady holding a baby. I actually like that! I mean, we can be offended that someone wouldn’t instantly recognize this iconic Christmas scene, lamenting the ever-increasing secularization of this holiest of nights. Or we can cherish the authenticity of this grocery store clerk’s words, and the ordinary-ness of this extraordinary scene. Mary, after all, surely wasn’t the only expectant mother making her way to Bethlehem. I doubt Joseph was alone in his frantic search for a place to stay that night.
And then, in their hour of greatest need, when Mary was about to give birth to her firstborn and there was nowhere to go, they found him. An innkeeper; and there was nothing special about him either, other than the fact that he saw a possibility when no one else did. And because of him, a newborn baby was brought into the world in an animal stable. That Christmas Eve long ago, those who were seeking help in their hour of greatest need found it. They found it in the innkeeper. They found it in you.
Don’t you see it? The story of Christmas is not some sweet little tale we observe from the audience. No – we are all actors and actresses playing the lead role in the greatest drama the world has ever staged! You and I, the innkeeper; receiving Christ into our hearts and into our homes, with all we have and all we don’t have. You and I, the innkeeper; receiving Christ because we’ve prepared for this for a month and because, truth be told, we are still woefully unprepared. You and I, the innkeeper; receiving Christ because we’ve been following the script, our rituals and routines; and because, if we’re honest, we lost the script a long time ago and every day of our lives we’re just winging it.
Sometimes I even wonder if people like John get the Incarnation better than most of us – the whole notion of God filling up our ordinary space. Incarnation – a sense of sacredness in the simple: a hot meal and a warm bed. Was that not what some lady holding a baby experienced? A drafty stable, smelly animals, a feeding trough full of hay. Could there be a more perfect place for the son of God to be born!
Noted Presbyterian minister and author Frederick Buechner – someone whom I know means much to this church – I’ve always loved his understanding of Christmas: it’s grace, he says. Grace. He goes on:
Perhaps it is the very wildness and strangeness of this grace that has led us to try to tame it. We have tried to make it habitable. We have roofed it in and furnished it. We have reduced it to an occasion we feel at home with. But if the Christmas event in itself is indeed all it’s cracked up to be, then even at best our efforts are misleading.
And why is that? Simple. The Word became flesh. Ultimate Mystery born with a skull. It is not tame. It is unthinkable darkness riven with unbearable light. You can only cover your eyes and shudder before it, as the Nicene Creed puts it: “God of God, Light of Light… who for us and for our salvation came down from heaven.”
Came down. Yes, came down. Only then do we dare uncover our eyes and see what we see. It is the Resurrection and the Life she holds in her arms, and it is glorious. (From Beyond Words: Daily Readings in the ABCs of Faith by Frederick Buechner. HarperCollins, 2004, pg. 61)
A little less than a week ago, my friends, there was room for John. And on this night, and every night, there is room for all of us. Every one of us. May there always be room for the strangers in our midst. May there always be room for God to come along and surprise us with some lady holding a baby. Immanuel, God-With-Us. God, almost here. Come, Immanuel, Come! In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, thanks be to God. AMEN!