A light-hearted story by way of an introduction. Billy was six years old the year that he asked his mother for a bike for Christmas. Not a tricycle – he already had one of those -- but a real, grown-up two-wheeler. He explained to her that he knew he’d have to use training wheels for awhile, but that was okay. And, he’d only ride it in the driveway, and around the circle of their cul-de-sac, where there was hardly ever any traffic. He’d even wear a helmet if his mom thought he really had to. He could already see the bike in his head – shiny red, with silver handlebars and a black leather seat and a loud horn. Billy’s mother sighed, and said, “Well, I guess you better ask Santa.” Billy did not like that answer, not one bit. Last year, when he was five, he asked Santa for a puppy. Christmas morning came and went: no puppy. His mom explained that Santa had thought about it carefully, and didn’t think it was a good idea for them to have a puppy because both Billy’s parents worked long hours and there would be no one to take care of it. The year before, when he was four years old, Billy had asked Santa for a cell phone. Both his mom and dad had cellphones, and they talked on them a lot, and Billy figured if he had a cellphone, maybe he could call them. Christmas morning that year came and went: no cellphone. His dad explained that Santa thought he was just too young for a cellphone. Maybe when he was twelve, but that seemed like a long way off. Anyways, Billy was not about to put his hopes on Santa again; he’d been disappointed too many times. So, Billy went up to his room and sat on his bed and tried to figure out what to do. Then it came him. For the last couple of weeks, Billy had been rehearsing for the Christmas pageant at church. This was the first year he was in the pageant, and he was pretty excited. He was going to be a shepherd, with a cool robe and a weird hat thingy and the best part of all: a really big stick with a hook on the end, which he knew was NOT to be used to hit anyone with, even though he sometimes sorta forgot. Billy and his family had only started attending church recently, something, he’d heard his mom say to his dad, that was important “for the children.” He’d learned a little bit about Jesus, enough to know he was a pretty important guy. And, just a few weeks ago, his Sunday School teacher had told his class about Jesus doing miracles, like feeding five thousand people with just a few loaves of bread and a couple of fish. This gave Billy an idea. He got off his bed and went over to his desk and took out a piece of paper and a pencil. Then he started a letter. “Dear Jesus,” he wrote, hoping that he was spelling his name right. They never really talked about spelling in Sunday School, which was a relief because sometimes it felt like that was the ONLY thing they talked about in regular school. He kept writing: “Would you please give me a bike for Christmas?” He paused. He knew that Christmas was really Jesus’s birthday. Shouldn’t he be giving Jesus a present instead? But it was also Christmas, and people give presents on Christmas. Besides, they had learned a song in Sunday School, “Jesus loves me, this I know.” So he thought it was probably alright to ask Jesus for a bike. He wrote, “I have been good for six months.” He looked at that for a minute or two, and then he carefully crossed out “six months” and wrote “three months.” He frowned, thinking about that fight he had with his sister on Thanksgiving that had landed him in time out. He crossed out “three months,” and wrote “two weeks.” But there was that little incident with the big shepherd’s stick at pageant rehearsal just a couple of days ago. Billy thought some more. Finally, he got up and went downstairs. He made sure his mom was busy in the kitchen, and then he snuck into the family room where the nativity scene was set up. He carefully picked up the little figure of Mary, and then he quietly went back upstairs. He opened his dresser drawer and wrapped Mary in a t-shirt, gently put her under a pile of socks, and closed the drawer. Then he walked back to his desk, sat down, took out a clean piece of paper, and started a new letter. “Dear Jesus,” he wrote, “If you ever want to see your mother again…”
Poor Billy isn’t the only one to get it wrong. Once again, we’ve spent the time between Thanksgiving and Christmas getting into arguments over nativity scenes in public places and angrily debating whether to say “Merry Christmas” or “Happy holidays.” We’ve seen the news coverage of shoppers knocking each other down in stores as they try to save a few bucks, and we’ve wrung our hands about the rampant consumerism that has overtaken the holiday. And despite our resolutions just a few weeks ago to simplify our own celebrations so that we’re not so stressed, to get our shopping done ahead of time so we’re not dealing with the traffic and the crowds at the mall at the last minute, to cut back on extravagant gift-giving and give our credit cards a break, to take it easy with the eggnog and the cookies and the cheese dip, here we are, at least some of us: exhausted and stressed out. For others, despite our best efforts, we once again find ourselves feeling down. Christmas brings up memories of every other Christmas, and sometimes those memories are bittersweet as we remember people we love but see no longer, as we remember better times. Or we have a sense that somehow, other people are enjoying the holiday more than we are able to, and we wonder what is the matter with us.
There’s one thing, though, that I think we’ve all gotten right tonight: we’re here in church. Now, I know we’re all here for different reasons. Some of us are here because we love singing “Silent Night” by candlelight. Others are here because we want to see our children and grandchildren in the pageant. Some like to hear the familiar readings once again, that wonderful passage from Isaiah, “For a child has been born for us, a son given to us; authority rests upon his shoulders, and he is named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.” Or the familiar story from Luke, “And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn,” even though we really wish it still said “swaddling clothes” instead of bands of cloth. Some want the opportunity to say our prayers, and to receive communion. And I’ll bet some of us, I’m sure only a couple of us, really, would rather not be here at all, and can’t wait to get home. Whatever brought you here tonight, whatever reason you have for being here, welcome. I hope our worship provides a measure of peace and joy for you on this most holy night.
The story of Jesus’s birth that we just heard from Luke and which our young people will present in a few minutes is so familiar and beautiful that you probably know a lot of it by heart. Joseph and Mary travel from their home in Nazareth to the city of David called Bethlehem. When they get there, there’s no room for them in the inn, and they sleep in a stable. Mary gives birth to Jesus in that stable, and lays him in a manger: a humble birthplace for any child, much less the Messiah, the son of God. Luke tells us that Jesus’s birth is announced by an angel. But the angel doesn’t go to the king, doesn’t appear to the important people in government, to the high society types, or the news media. Rather, the angel appears to a ragtag bunch of shepherds out in the country. They are terrified, and I expect if I ever saw an angel, I’d be frightened, too. The angel says, “Do not be afraid (as if that ever helped anyone to not be frightened); 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.” Anyways, you know the rest. Luke tells us how Jesus, the Messiah, is born in humble surroundings, worshiped by simple, lowly shepherds.
What Luke doesn’t quite explain is what all of this means. For that, we look to John’s version of the Christmas story, which Lina read for our second lesson. While Luke’s version gives us the details, John’s version tries to explain what it means. John writes in a sort of dense theological way as he tries to explain who Jesus is. In the beginning, John writes, was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. Finally, John writes, this Word became flesh in Jesus Christ, became flesh and lived among us. But I think John sensed that this was still not clear enough, and so he sums it up at the end of the passage. He writes, “No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known.” In other words, if you want to know what God is like, look at Jesus. Look at Jesus who surrounded himself with the poor, the sick, the marginalized, and the untouchables. Look at Jesus who was criticized by the religious elite for hanging out with sinners. Look at Jesus who treated women with dignity and respect at a time when that was unheard of. Look at Jesus who taught his disciples to love their enemies, to give without expecting anything in return, to overcome evil with love. Look at Jesus who wept when his friend died, who suffered on the cross, who forgave those who persecuted him. The Quaker theologian Elton Trueblood puts it this way: “The historic Christian doctrine of the divinity of Christ does not simply mean that Jesus is like God. It is far more radical than that. It means that God is like Jesus.” It means that God suffers, God forgives, God cares for the poor, God cares for the sick, God loves God’s enemies.
Maybe, like me, you sometimes have your doubts about God. I struggle to make sense of the violence and suffering in the world, I ask why innocent people are killed, why good people get cancer, why life is so hard and seems to involve so much pain. I know better than to ask Jesus for a bicycle for Christmas, but I hesitate even to pray for health or world peace because I fear I’ll be disappointed and I don’t like to think about what not getting something I pray for says about either me or God. But the hope that I take from this holy night, the hope that I’ll try to remember tomorrow and the next day and next week when the happy Christmas memories have faded, is this hope of the incarnation. God loved us enough to become like us. When God wanted to show us what God is like, God showed us Jesus. That is the good news this Christmas night, the hope of our faith. I pray that it is the hope that will sustain us through the rest of the year. Merry Christmas.