Point Pleasant Presbyterian Church
Christmas Eve, 2014
“This will be a sign for you: you will find a child
wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.”
Here’s an experience any parent of a young child can tell you about. It’s Christmas morning (or maybe Christmas Eve): time to open the presents!
They’ve got a very special gift for their little toddler: a toy they’re just sure the little one’s going to love. They place the package in front of their son or daughter — who doesn’t know what to do with it, exactly. So, mom or dad gets down on the floor and gives the kid a little help. The ribbons and the bows come off, then the brightly-colored wrapping paper — and, to the parents’ everlasting mystification, their child starts playing with the paper! Forget the expensive toy sitting off to the side, abandoned. It’s the wrapping paper that holds the true fascination.
I can see some smiles of recognition out there. You’ve been there, a lot of you! You’ve seen this stupefying wonder in your own family.
It’s no surprise that little kids would do that. When children are exploring the world around them for the first time, anything bright and shiny, anything that crinkles in a satisfying way when you pick it up, is bound to command their attention.
We who are older, and know better, look on such a scene with patronizing smiles. Who wouldn’t cut a toddler a little slack in the present-opening department? And besides, it’ll make for a good story one day.
Yet – what if a grown-up behaved that way? What if we handed over a carefully-selected present, expertly wrapped in glorious paper, and the recipient said this? …. “I love that paper. You did such a good job wrapping my gift, I think I’ll just take it home and admire it!”
You’d conclude that person was missing a few screws, wouldn’t you? Behavior we benevolently tolerate in a small child would — in a grownup — lead us to scratch our heads in wonderment.
Actually, I’ve got a story kind of like that. It happened to Claire and me. One Christmas, early in our marriage, we got a present from my Aunt Lois and Uncle Bud. They weren’t there to see us open it. They’d sent it ahead to my mother’s house, where we were opening presents.
The wrapping paper came off, and we could tell from the box that a steam iron was inside. How thoughtful of Aunt Lois to make sure we had all the essential household equipment: but, in point of fact, we’d received a perfectly good iron as a wedding present, so we didn’t need hers. We put it in the closet, figuring we’d re-gift it to someone else someday.
That day didn’t come for a very long time, maybe 5 or 6 years later. We were living in Dubuque, Iowa, where I was admissions director for the theological seminary. One of the new students was Mary Ann Warden, an Inupiat, or Eskimo, from Barrow, Alaska. She’d arrived there with her teenage daughter, Allison. They’d come by plane, so they’d brought very little in the way of household goods.
Claire and I took them to Sears. That was a bewildering experience for people who were used to ordering everything they needed from a catalog. In the course of all that, we learned that one thing they needed was an iron. We remembered that one we had sitting in the closet, still in its original box. We gave it to them, and they were very glad to receive it.
The next day, we learned what happened. Mary Ann did what we had not done, when we first received the gift. She opened the box: and discovered there wasn’t a steam iron inside at all! The box was filled with all manner of gourmet edibles. There was a can of lobster bisque, a couple jars of fancy jam, and I don’t know what else.
t’s a good thing Mary Ann has a sense of humor. She told us that when she and Allison opened the box with the picture of the iron on the side, and all that food fell out, they realized right away what had happened. They laughed and laughed.
Our first question — once we got over the embarrassment — was whether they’d eaten any of that food. Everything was way past the expiration date. We didn’t want one of our newest seminary families to end up in the emergency room with food poisoning!
Fortunately, they hadn’t eaten any of it. Mary Ann and Alison became some of our dearest friends. The story of the ersatz iron was something we laughed about for years.
The moral of the story is: when you receive a gift, you’ve gotta open the package!
That’s a piece of advice we all ought to pay attention to, at Christmas-time. I don’t mean literally, with the presents under the tree — though that’s true enough, I suppose. I’m speaking of the holiday itself.
It’s no surprise to any of us that there’s a big, hairy, commercialized secular holiday out there called “Christmas.” It has only the loosest connection to the true meaning of the word. “Christ’s mass” is what the word truly means: a worship service in celebration of Jesus’ birth — what we’re doing here tonight. You’d never know it, though, by looking at that huge retail machine that kicks into life around Halloween, and eventually swallows up everything that comes near it. This year, it just about swallowed up Thanksgiving — what with all those stores that opened up on Thanksgiving Day. Some of them even opened at midnight on Thanksgiving Eve, the way they do the night before Black Friday.
I learned, this past week, that NASA has analyzed photos taken by satellites orbiting the earth. They’ve measured the amount of electric light that shows up in those pictures. The NASA scientists have documented a spike in illumination during the month of December, on the North American continent. The cause, of course, is Christmas lights. Those millions of tiny lights, hung from the eaves of houses, may not look very bright. But together, they’re sufficient to be seen from satellites!
You could become the number-one fan of Christmas in your neighborhood. You could festoon your house with multicolored arrays of lights and synchronize them to flash off and on to the strains of “Santa Claus is Coming to Town.” You could mount cut-out wooden reindeer on your roof. You could set up a huge inflatable Frosty the Snowman on your front lawn. You could make the rounds of Christmas parties of every description. You could eat enough gingerbread men and sugar cookies to trigger a diabetic coma. You could even buy somebody you love a new luxury car with a big red bow on top (as the TV commercials suggest). You could do all these things and still not have the slightest idea what this holiday’s all about!
Interesting word, “holiday.” Most people who use it today have completely lost track of where the word comes from. “Holiday” is, of course, a shortened form of “holy day.” Yet, for a sizeable majority of Americans, there’s not much that’s holy about it. Yes, they know, most of them, it’s a celebration of the birth of Jesus — but, like Labor Day (which is mostly just an excuse for a barbecue) or Thanksgiving (which is all about turkey and football), Christmas to so many Americans has become all about parties and gift-giving. It’s about smugly celebrating how good we have it, and demonstrating to those we love how generous we can be, in our best moments.
Christmas, you see, has got to be unwrapped. And when you and I do peel off the colorful paper and open up the box within, we’re confronted with a promise of angels that’s stark in its simplicity. The promise is audacious in what it demands of us, and the world: “This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.”
A child, yes, but not just any child. This child is none other than the son of God. And look where this baby is resting: in a manger!
Now, there’s another word whose meaning we’ve lost track of. “Manger” comes from the French manger, “to eat.” A manger is where the livestock eat: a feeding-trough.
As anyone who’s ever been inside a barn will tell you, there are some interesting smells in such a place. When farm animals take food in through their mouths, there’s something that tends to fall out of the opposite side of their bodies, with some regularity. This frequently happens while the animals are eating. The floor of such a place, close to the feeding-trough — be it hard-packed earth, as in the stable where Mary and Joseph were staying, or the concrete floor of a modern barn — is a filthy, smelly place.
Think of all the precautions mothers take, today, to make sure every piece of equipment their baby touches is squeaky-clean. Now, think of how Mary must have felt, being forced to give birth in a barn, like some cow birthing a calf, and then to lay her baby in the rude wooden box from which the cows eat — why, she had to be close to despair that night!
She knew there was little her husband, Joseph, could have done to make it better. They were desperately poor, those two. They’d come, late in the day, to a village chock-a-block with other travelers. Most new parents, then or now, would feel humiliated and ashamed to be found in such a miserable place, as their baby was being born.
Peel back the wrapping-paper on Christmas, and it doesn’t look so merry and bright anymore, does it?
But peel it back, we must.
What mother would want to lay her newborn down in a feeding-trough to sleep? Only a mother who’s so utterly homeless and destitute, she doesn’t have any choice. And this is the family God chooses, into which the son of God is born? Couldn’t God do any better than that?
No, God couldn’t — because, in point of fact, there was no better place in all the world for the son of God to be born. The Apostle Paul writes, in Philippians chapter 2, that this same Jesus:
did not regard equality with God
as something to be exploited,
but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
he humbled himself…
You can’t get much more humble than a stable as a house, and a feeding-trough as a bassinet.
It’s a point Martin Luther makes, in this excerpt from a famous Christmas sermon:
No one noticed or was conscious of what God was doing in that stable. He lets the large houses and costly apartments remain empty, lets their inhabitants eat, drink and be merry; but this comfort and treasure are hidden from them. O what a dark night this was for Bethlehem, that was not conscious of that glorious light! See how God shows that he utterly disregards what the world is, has or desires; and furthermore, that the world shows how little it knows or notices what God is, has and does.
Brother Martin could just as well be talking about how our modern, secular world keeps Christmas: neither knowing nor noticing what God is doing through this miraculous birth.
What we’re all doing here, this night, my friends, is unwrapping Christmas. What remains, after we peel back the trappings of the commercial holiday — as fascinating, to the world, as shiny wrapping-paper is to a toddler — is a wonder and a mystery so great that before it, we can only look on in silent awe.
Sleep in heavenly peace, dear Jesus, in your manger bed. Sleep in heavenly peace!
Let us pray:
Lord, by whatever road we have come here tonight,
whatever obstacles we have overcome,
whatever distractions we have set aside,
grant us the privilege of peeling back the wrapping-paper
and gazing in wonderment at the bright treasure within.
There is such light emanating from that humble stable
that all the world has been illumined by love.
May we feel that love tonight, as we have never felt it before;
and may we pass it on to others,
in all the days to come. Amen.
Copyright © 2014, by Carlos E. Wilton. All rights reserved.