The Rev. John Ohmer
Rector, The Falls Church Episcopal
Falls Church, Virginia
“And the angel said [to the shepherds] “Do not be afraid; for behold, I bring you good news of a great joy...”
I bring you good news of a great joy: to us Christ was born – made real – that first Christmas;and to us Christ is born – made real – this Christmas.
A colleague of mine tells the story of a man putting his 3 year old daughter to bed for the night. The family was visiting out-of-town relatives for the weekend, and when it came time for bedtime, he could tell right away that his little girl did not like the idea of sleeping in a strange room all alone.
He leaned down, and kissed his daughter, and told her not to worry,
he told her she was not alone…
that God was with her…
not to worry, the Spirit of God was all around her.
But the 3-year-old reached up grabbed her father by the chin and said,
“But Daddy, I want a God with a skin face.”
That little girl, afraid in a strange room, articulated a deep desire that we all carry to some degree…we want to know if God is real.
For some of you, the question may be very much on your mind: if you are going through a particularly difficult time, if you’re struggling financially or with health issues, the death of a loved one, or you’re carrying some other personal setback or disappointment.
But even if things have been going relatively well for you…even if this is a relatively good time for you…
We can be doing well,
But still, at times, weary…
“rich in things, but poor in soul” …
We can be surrounded by many things and people (and tomorrow morning about to receive and be around even more of them!) but deep down – after the last present is unwrapped, after the last party has been attended…we can feel a bit dissatisfied,
yearning, hungering for something more…
…there are times when we do wonder – in times when we are scared, when we are feeling alone, when we feel empty, wondering what it’s all about…there are times we wonder if God is real.
In such times,
it is not enough to hear reassurances that we are not alone…
it is not enough to be told “God is with us…”
that the “Spirit of God is all around us” in some general way…
It is not enough to know that “God is up there”
if “there” isn’t “here.”
We need God with a skin face!
And so shepherds
And 3-year olds
And nearly all of us
need to hear the message of that first Christmas –
Be not afraid; I bring you good news of a great joy: to us Christ was born – made real – that first Christmas;
And I mean REAL.
Now, we don’t always get that message at Christmas time. There’s a popular cultural myth of Christmas that makes Christmas out to be a kind of airbrushed fairy tale:
you know what I’m talking about:
Chestnuts roasting on an open fire;
the extended family all gathered around the piano singing and getting along,
children behaving perfectly, deeply appreciative for whatever they get
…the calm, stress-free wife who has had plenty of time on her hands for weeks -- calmly making cookies from scratch;
The husband who has shared equally in all the preparations and who has bought the perfect gift for everyone without overspending…the hap, hap, happiest time of the year.
If that’s the Christmas story you have in mind, it can be difficult to think of Christmas as real.
But what happens when you think about Christmas the way the story is told in the Bible?
First of all you’re struck by how it’s anything but a fairy tale, you’re struck by how REAL, how concrete, it is.
“In those days,” – the story begins -- in a specific day and time.
Historical people – real people, in real places:
Augustus who was the ruling Caesar at the time,
Quirinius who was the governor.
a pregnant young woman and her husband, harried and hassled by a long inconvenient journey they did not want to take.
And all this happening not in “Narnia” or “Hogwarts,” but in real places you can find on a map, to this day: Syria, Nazareth, Galilee, Bethlehem.
We have a tendency to think that if God is real…and if God reveals God’s self or his will, it is through inspiration, or universal truths, or grand, timeless principles. But the first thing we notice when we look at the real Christmas story is particulars, particular specific people and places.
That first Christmas 2012 years ago, God wants to communicate with the humanity, God wants to reveal his will for this world most fully,
and how does he do it?
Does he do it by announcing some universal truth,
making us memorize a doctrine,
sign a legally binding covenant?
a baby in a manger at Bethlehem.
I will walk among you, and will be your God, and you will be my people” (Lev. 26:12)
That’s the first thing you notice about the real Christmas story: how concrete, how local, how specific, how real it is!
And the second think you notice about the real Christmas story is this:
how it’s announced – to whom it’s announced.
Is this unprecedented and grand entrance of God into the world announced with a burst of light that would envelope the entire universe?
Does God gather all the most important rulers of the world into one place and come down on pillars of clouds with thunderbolts?
No. The first Christmas message was delivered to shepherds pulling the night shift.
Now the shepherds in our Christmas children’s pageant wearing bathrobes are cute, shepherding their even cuter cotton ball sheep.
But 2,000 years ago in rural Palestine, shepherds in that day and time in that culture were anything but “cute.” They were at or near the bottom of the socio-economic scale.
It’s interesting that Sanhedrin texts in those days mention that herdsmen – shepherds – were on the list of those who were ineligible to be judges – shepherds were not allowed even to be witnesses in court – they were considered dishonest, so much so they were excluded from court.
As Garrision Keillor says in his Christmas monologue,
"They were a kind of motley bunch, those shepherds were. It was not a profession that educated people went into…
"They were not looked on with esteem by other people. They were not considered to be high class citizens because sheep are not high class animals - let's face it. From a distance sheep may be, but not up close. Sheep are fine as long as they are doing what they want to do, but as soon as you make them do what you want them to do, I tell you, all the high class people get out of the profession at that point and the only ones left to be shepherds are the ones who don't have anything else."
God could have come to this earth any way he wanted. But how did he do it?
Through ordinary people
In stressful circumstances
Under grimy conditions,
And announced to guys out pullin’ the night shift!
(Good news of great joy) That is the way The Lord of the Universe entered this world!
(Good news of great joy) That is the way the Son of God, the Word of God, was made real – that first Christmas.
And good news of great joy, that is the way God enters this world.
That is the way Christ is born – made real – not just THAT Christmas, but THIS Christmas.
You see, while that first Christmas was unique, the incarnation – the in-fleshment, God taking on a skin face – still takes place.
God continues to create, call, speak, and become incarnate.
There’s a story told of a monastery that had fallen on hard times. It had once been a great order, but there were only five monks left in an old decaying house: the abbot and four others, all of them were over seventy years of age. People would occasionally come to picnic on the grounds and wander around, but clearly it was a dying order.
In the woods surrounding the monastery there was a little hut that a local rabbi occasionally used for a retreat. It occurred to the abbot that he should go visit the rabbi to seek advice on how to save the monastery.
The rabbi welcomed the abbot to his hut. But when the abbot explained his visit, told him why he was there, all the rabbi could say, “Oh, I know how it is. The spirit has gone out of the people. It’s the same in my town. Almost no one comes to the synagogue anymore.”
So the old abbot and the old rabbi wept together. Then they read parts of the Torah and talked a long time. When the abbot had to leave, he said, “this has been a great visit, but I failed in my purpose for coming here. Is there nothing you can tell me that would help me save my dying order?”
“No, I am sorry,” the rabbi responded. “I have no advice to give.
“But, I can tell you that the Messiah is one-of-you.”
When the abbot got back to the monastery, his fellow monks gathered around him, eager to hear from him. “Well what did the rabbi say?”
“The rabbi said something very mysterious, it was cryptic. He said that the Messiah is one-of-us. I don't know what he meant.”
Well, in the next few weeks and months, the old monks wondered about what the rabbi said. The Messiah is one of us? Could he possibly have meant one of us monks? If so, which one?
Do you suppose he meant the abbot?
Yes, if he meant anyone, he probably meant Father Abbot. He has been our leader for more than a generation.
On the other hand, he might have meant Brother Thomas. Certainly Brother Thomas is a holy man. Everyone knows that Thomas is a man of light.
But he could not have meant Brother Elred! Elred gets crotchety at times. But come to think of it, even though he is a thorn in people's sides, when you look back on it, Elred is virtually always right. Often very right. Maybe the rabbi did mean Brother Elred.
But surely not Brother Phillip. Phillip is so passive, a real nobody. But then, almost mysteriously, he has a gift for always being there when you need him. He just magically appears. Maybe Phillip is the Messiah.
Of course the rabbi didn't mean me. He couldn't possibly have meant me. I'm just an ordinary person. Yet supposing he did? No, no, no, not me.
As they thought about this, the old monks began to treat each other with extraordinary respect on the chance that one among them might be the Messiah.
And they began to treat themselves with extraordinary respect.
People would still occasionally come to visit the monastery, to picnic there on the land, to meditate in the dilapidated chapel.
But as they did so, they now sensed the aura of extraordinary respect that began to surround the five old monks and seemed to radiate out from them and permeate the atmosphere of the place.
There was something strangely compelling, about it. Without even knowing why, they began to come back to the monastery to picnic, to play, to pray. They brought their friends to this special place. And their friends brought their friends.
Then some of the younger men who came to visit the monastery started to talk more and more with the old monks. After a while one asked if he could join them. Then another, and another.
So within a few years the monastery had once again become a thriving order and, thanks to the rabbi's gift, a vibrant center of light and spirituality in the area.
Am I saying the Messiah -- the Christ -- could be one of you?
Yes, I am…that is exactly what I am saying.
But of course it’s not just me saying that; I’m not making this up!
Every time there is a baptism, what do we promise? That we will “Seek and serve Christ in all persons,”
In our post-communion prayer, we recall that we are “living members of the body of your Son.”
When Paul wrote in 1st Corinthians 12 that
“you are the body of Christ, and individually members of it”
he was not speaking metaphorically –
he did not say “you are like the body of Christ”
he said “you are the body of Christ.”
And all this of course rests on the fact that Jesus himself said “Abide in me, and I in you.”
One of our youth group members, David Gardner, 11 years old, has been, of his own initiative, collecting sock, toiltries, soaps, deodorant, toilet paper, distributing to homeless and down on their luck people at the Welcome Table who gather at the Presbyterian church on Wednesday nights.
David is good news of great joy to those people.
To them on Wednesday nights Christ is born, made real, and is ALIVE, to them…they see God with a skin face.
When ministers of liturgy make tonight’s worship service happen – when the combined efforts and talents of musicians, ushers, acolytes, Eucharistic ministers and clergy gather in this space which the altar guild has so gorgeously prepared, and when they make music, greet, serve, and nourish us in Word and Sacrament, they, are to us, gathered here good news of a great Joy. To us, this day Christ is born, made real, and is ALIVE: To us this day we see God with a skin face.
When Debbie Miller, our parishioner, leads a medical mission trip to Haiti, she takes with them these hair ribbons for little girls and these silly banz for boys – and she hands them out to the children she meets. On each one is attached a little card, that says, in Creole, “God loves you.”
When people receive medical care they cannot afford or access otherwise, Debbie and her team are good news of a great joy to them; to them Christ is born, made real, and is ALIVE, to them, they see God with a skin face.
And you – yes you -- when you leave here tonight,
nourished by God’s word and sacrament,
and go out into the world wherever you are –
And remember that you are the body of Christ,
That you dwell in him, and he in you --
When you encounter
In stressful circumstances
under grimy conditions
And you remember that that was the way Christ was born – made real – that first Christmas
Then – to a world that is yearning, hungering, and frightened, this Christmas, you decide to be good news of a great joy,
Then through you, this Christmas, Christ is born –
is made real
Then you, this Christmas, are God with a skin face.