Christmas Eve B2017
by Pastor Sarah Stadler
My dad’s also a Lutheran pastor.
Three weeks ago, he retired after 39 years of ordained ministry from Spirit of Hope Lutheran Church in east Mesa. Of all the Christmas Eve sermons I have heard him preach, the one that sticks with me is the sermon where he told the story of a young woman giving birth in her car, a hatchback, behind a particular Circle K in east Mesa, cold, alone, scared. I don’t remember if the story was true or not. I don’t remember if the birth brought joy to the mother or if she remained to the end cold, alone, and scared. What I remember is feeling like I was in the wrong place on that Christmas Eve. While listening to this sermon, I was sitting in the then newly-completed sanctuary of Spirit of Hope Lutheran Church. Warm and snug, merrily decorated, trees lit up, candles burning, strains of cherished Christmas carols filling my ears, hot cocoa to drink following worship, surrounded by my family. But when I heard my dad’s sermon, I suddenly realized that, though we tell the story of Jesus’ birth in church, God breaks into the world not just at church but in the parking lot of Circle K. And just like that, I yearned to be in the parking lot of that Circle K with the young woman giving birth—not just because I didn’t want her to be alone but also because I didn’t want to be alone either. To be so snug and warm, merry and bright felt contrary to the good news of great joy of Jesus’ birth.
You see, on that first Christmas, the angels did not descend upon the Temple in Jerusalem, among the religious leaders of the day, or to Emperor Augustus or governor Quirinius. Celestial beings did not even sing God’s praise over the manger and the holy family. Instead, the angels proclaimed the good news of great joy of Jesus’ birth to shepherds, out in the relative cold of the fields where they were watching over their sheep. We know nothing of these particular shepherds but only of shepherds in that culture—men marginalized by smelly work, without families, living perpetually outside. Shepherds’ testimony was not admissible in court, and many towns had ordinances barring shepherds within their city limits. Because of their ritual uncleanliness and lack of Sabbath observance due to their work, they likely could not step foot inside their local synagogues—at least not without encountering scorn. These are the men to whom God sent the angels to proclaim good news of great joy. Shepherds and apparently nobody else. I don’t think God was discriminating against the religious leaders or callous toward people of privilege. I think God chose the shepherds because they needed good news of great joy the most, and maybe they were the most ready to hear it too.
When we’re snug and warm, merry and bright, we may feel insulated from our need for good news of great joy. But when we are cold, alone, and scared, we yearn to hear good news of great joy. We can’t wait for the angels to show up and proclaim the sweetest of all messages: Jesus Christ is born!
When was the last time I heard good news of great joy? Wednesday, at GLOW, when we gathered in the dark with battery operated candles, sang Christmas carols, and shared what is hard about Christmas: not being able to see your kids, not being able to buy presents for others, your family not wanting to see you. Yesterday, when a small group of us went Christmas caroling at North Mountain Rehab Center and to the homes of a couple members who struggle to get out because of medical limitations. Last Sunday around the fire at the youth and young adult Christmas party when we talked about the next steps in our lives and all the unknowns involved in those decisions. This past week as I’ve talked with friends who are going through difficult times in their relationships.
It almost makes me laugh, the times and places I have heard good news of great joy…because they were all times and places when I have encountered my own or someone else’s vulnerability, when I have felt cold, alone, and scared or when someone else has. That’s when I’ve heard good news of great joy.
So if today/tonight you are wondering where you might find great joy, the Christmas story reveals that we find it not in power, not in wealth, not in popularity or certainty. Good news of great joy came to vulnerable people who were ready to hear it.
What is it about feeling vulnerable that opens us to the good news of great joy? I wonder if it only when we feel vulnerable that we are open to receiving love. And the good news of great joy is news of love incarnate, a love made manifest in a baby, a love that doesn’t count the cost of loving.
On this holy night, nostalgia and dreams of what could or should be could easily swallow us up. We might eagerly anticipate Christmas Eve because we believe this night will transport us back to a time when all was well, all was bright. But those days are past and gone. In the present moment, whether that is filled with an abundance of loving family or bitter conflict between family, health and strength or aches and pains or even more serious medical concerns, hope and joy or confusion and overwhelming sadness, in the present moment, in the real quandaries of this life, we hear the good news of great joy. News of love, deep, abiding love that has come to dwell with us, Jesus Christ our Savior.