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The Surprise Presence we get at Christmas

A sermon preached Christmas Eve, 2015
The Rev. John Ohmer, Rector
The Falls Church Episcopal

The surprise presence we get at Christmas: not the presents with a t, the presents we get to open tomorrow morning -- tonight I want to talk about the surprise presence, company, showing up, appearance, incarnation, that we get at Christmas.

I recently ran across a little book with the title An Unexpected Christmas by Simone Graham.

The author wrote the story as a gift for her own children. It was made into a short film by St. Paul’s Anglican church in New Zealand and became a hit on YouTube a couple years ago.

The book invites you to use your imagination, and imagine a conversation going on in heaven as God reveals God’s plans for the very first Christmas. I like the way it gives a whole different perspective on a very familiar story.

It starts out by asking if you have ever wondered if we
“could pull back the curtain of time that very first Christmas,” and imagine the story beginning in heaven,

with God looking at the world God had created,
concerned about the wrong things people were doing on Earth, and saying
“This isn’t what I had in mind when I created earth –
I feel so far away…
…it’s hard to be friends with people when you don’t like what they’re doing.

I think it’s time.

One of the heavenly host named Scragger says, “Time for what, Lord?”

God says, “Time for us to step in.”

One of the warrior-angels in heaven says, “Shall we ready the army, Lord? Teach them a lesson?”

God says, “No, I don’t think we should send an army.
Maybe just one person.

The angels say “One person???

And that’s when a recurring theme in the book and in the Christmas pageant begins:

Scragger says, “Brilliant! They won’t be expecting that.”

A Warrior Angel says, “Lord if you’re sending just one person, it’ll have to be someone very powerful
and very strong,
‘cause there’s tons of people down there.”

GOD says, “No, they don’t have to be strong. They’ll be going as a new-born baby.”

A new-born baby?!?”
“Brilliant! They won’t be expecting that!”

A wise Angel says,
“Lord, this plan is [rather] risky.
A new-born human baby is small and weak.
This baby must be born to people who will protect Him – maybe a Great Ruler or a Mighty King?

GOD says, “Actually, I was thinking I could send Him to a peasant girl, whose heart is beautiful and full of courage.

[Angels]: A peasant girl???
[Scragger]: Brilliant! They won’t be expecting that.

The Wise Angel says,
“My Lord, I see You are planning to take Earth by surprise.
No-one will be expecting a new-born baby born to a humble villager.
But what good can a baby do?

God says “This will not be just any baby; I’m sending in the Prince of Heaven in disguise.

[Angels]: The Prince of Heaven? Our Prince? Your Son?

[Scragger] Brilliant! They won’t be expecting that.

And so the conversation goes, with the Wise Angel saying it’s  too risky a plan,
coming as a tiny baby,
born not to power but to humble villagers,
but if that is the plan, he should be born in the most important, largest city on earth, in a palace.

And that’s when God says, “He’ll be born in a stable!”

The angels say
“a stable, surrounded by animals?
Filled with hay? And [manure]? 

Brilliant! They won’t be expecting that.

The surprise presence we get for Christmas. 

We have a tendency to think that if God does any kind of self-revelation –
if God reveals his will for the world,
Then it is through inspiration,
Or the sharing of 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 2014 years ago,
God wants to take a new step in communicating with humanity,
Beyond the love notes God leaves us in the form of nature and creation,
Beyond the goodness and love God showed in calling Israel to be his people,
Beyond the love notes God leaves us in “the word, spoken through the prophets”

God wants to reveal God’s will for us and for this world most fully,
 and how does God do it?

Does God do it by announcing some universal truth,
making us memorize a doctrine,
sign a legally binding contract?   

“There’s a reason Jesus didn’t come down as a book.
He came down as a person.
You’re struggling with your paycheck.
Or you’re worried about losing your job.
Or you’ve fallen in love, or you’ve fallen out of love.
Or you’re having an affair.
You know, Jesus became human, right?
Jesus participates in humanity, and so we [as Jesus’ followers] are called to participate in humanity.
[God didn’t come as a book] he came down as a baby in a manger at Bethlehem.”
“You know, sort of crying, and wetting his pants, and needing to be nursed. What does that say to us about who God is for us, and how God is for us, and how much God loved us to do that.”

The surprise presence we get at Christmas.

“What does that mean for you, that God comes to us as the most helpless being that you could imagine?”

“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.

God could have come to this earth any way God wanted. But how did God do it?

·       As one person
o  Through ordinary people
§  In stressful circumstances
·       Under grimy conditions,

And announced to the working poor pullin’ the night shift!

(The surprise presence we get at Christmas!) -- the way The Lord of the Universe entered this world!

(The surprise presence we get at Christmas!) -- the way the Son of God, the Word of God, the will of was made real – that first Christmas.

And the surprise presence we get at Christmas!  -- the way God enters this world. 


The surprise presence we get at Christmas is the way Christ is born – made real – not just THAT Christmas, but THIS Christmas.

Calvary Memorial Episcopal Church in Saginaw Michigan first opened its doors Nov. 23, 1884, and Episcopal parishioners continued to worship inside the building for 125 years.

"In 2010, the congregation — due to advancing age and dwindling numbers and— decided to close," or more accurately, merge with the nearby St. John's Episcopal Church.

"At the same time, a blossoming mostly African-American congregation run by The Rev. Eugene and The Rev. Melissa Burton was looking for a space of its own.

"The church they serve, Christ Image Community Church had outgrown their space and saw the church building for sale, and in 2010 entered into a $125,000 land contract with the Episcopal Diocese of Eastern Michigan to purchase the building that formerly housed Calvary Memorial Episcopal Church.

"A balloon payment of $93,000 was coming due on the building in 2015.

"[Last week,] the Episcopal Diocese of Eastern Michigan forgave the entire $93,000 debt owed by the independent church.

"It was literally a miracle for our congregation," Pastor Burton said.

"They pack the church, with regular services, Sunday school, Bible studies, youth group meetings, a men's ministry and other programs.

"And the Episcopal Diocese of Eastern Michigan saw supporting this congregation in this way as consistent with their vision. “Anyone and everyone is welcome to come check out the church, Pastor Burton said."They can come dressed down; they can come dressed up," he said. "It's not how they come, but it's how they leave."
The surprise presence we get at Christmas.


More locally, you may have seen the column by Washington Post columnist PETULA DVORAK who took her boys and one of their friends to see the White House Christmas tree. “They threw pennies at the model trains and posed for [a] photo in front of the lights.”

“As we were heading back on that cold, cold night,” she writes, “we watched a homeless man, with his pile of gray blankets, settling down on the Ellipse.

“I’ve seen it plenty, but you never quite get used to the image of a human sleeping outside, surrounded by such prosperity.

“Another family coming back from the tree also stopped to look at the man.

The dad, who was pushing a stroller, began to take off his jacket when he saw the shifting pile of blankets.

What are you doing?” his wife demanded.

“This ain’t right,” he said, [and he draped] his blue, puffy jacket over the man’s shoulders.

“Dad was in a T-shirt for the rest of the walk, powering through the goosebumps. The wife was silent.

“About 50 yards out, I saw Dad do the frantic pocket-pat thing that happens when a person can’t find something. “The Denali!”  

Dad sprinted back to the man on the lawn.

“Sorry. I left my car keys in the pocket,” he said to the man.

“That would’ve been a hell of a gift, but I don’t need a car,” the man replied.

“I’ll keep the jacket, though.”

The surprise presence we get at Christmas.

Surprise presence is not confined to that first Christmas or Christmas’ past…or to other people in other places.

Christmas is a difficult time for many people,
not easily a time of joy,
because of financial,
 or health,
or family turmoil…

But Christmas joy has nothing to do with how well or how bad our year was financially,
Whether we are in good health or battling illness,
Whether your immediate and extended family is a perfect, Normal Rockwell painting at the holidays, or could be its own reality t.v. show!,

The good news of Christmas is God’s surprise presence.

How can you, right where you are,
with God loving you exactly as you are,
where you are,
who you are,
allow God’s presence in your heart?

And then,
how can you be the
and joy
and peace of God entering the world

for someone else this Christmas?

How can you be the surprise presence someone gets for Christmas?


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