There Is a Sign, Christmas Eve

There Is a Sign

Isaiah 52:1-7; Luke 2:1-20

The Rev. Catherine E. Schuyler

Catskill United Methodist Church; Christmas Eve, December 24, 2019

 

There’s a vivid contrast in the mood of tonight’s story. Joy is everywhere, but there’s gentle quiet joy and raucous joy both in the few verses that tell the story of this night of nights.

 

The baby is born in a place where there are no other people but his parents, because there is no room for them at the inn, whatever precisely that might mean. It wasn’t a local hotel that couldn’t take them in, nor even probably much like a tavern with a restaurant and bar and a few rooms in the back, though we’ve imagined both scenarios often, I suspect. But there wasn’t room wherever they might have expected to stay, and so they stayed somewhere with the animals – the only real details we’re given is that the child was laid in a manger, a trough for hay for cattle or sheep. A stable, a garage-sort of space, perhaps, a cave or a little nook, as some songs suggest. It wasn’t crowded with people, that much seems clear. So we’ve imagined it to be quiet, peaceful, with a holy awe folded in to the beauty of a new baby’s gentle sleep. How silently, how silently the wondrous gift is given. We’ll reflect that peace, that tender silence and awe with candlelight and Silent Night later in the service, a beloved and favorite part of a good Christmas Eve service.

 

Right now, I’m going to head to the hillside, the field where the shepherds were spending a similar quiet evening, hanging out with the sheep, probably keeping warm by a fire, maybe with a sheepdog or two by their side. (I read recently that dogs have been keeping humans company for thousands of years. So I’m hoping there was a dog or two. It’s pure speculation; there is no scriptural warrant. Humor me, if you will). We can relate to that; it’s not utterly different from an evening by our own backyard firepit. I doubt they had marshmallows, but the fire and the stars were similar.

 

Then an angel of the Lord stood before them. That’s the exact wording. No intro, no warning, just boom! An angel who was terrifying enough that the first thing said was, Fear not! Huge, perhaps, or maybe just dressed as a traveler, but still, appearing out of nowhere. And the angel said, “I bring you good news of great joy! To you is born this day in Bethlehem, the city of David, a savior, the Messiah, the promised one, the Lord.”

 

For context, the shepherds knew about God’s promised Messiah. They had heard the words of the prophets; they knew that God knew that the world in which they lived needed saving. There was deep poverty, and they were deep in it. There was nastiness, and they were as good at it as anyone. There were leaders who wielded power inappropriately, with little to no thought or care to the needs of the poor and the hungry. There was meanness and evil and injustice and fear ever-present in their world. A savior, a real savior, was good news indeed! But, really? A child who is a gift from God, to us? Children are certainly gifts, but not much beyond their immediate family.

 

Stay with me here; this is key. The angel senses the skepticism with which the shepherds receive the news. There is room for doubt; the angel doesn’t simply walk/fly/dissipate away at the scent of disbelief. Nope. The angel expects it. And so goes on.

 

Hard to believe? Here’s a sign, a concrete way for you to know that what I say is true. You can go find this baby, swaddled and lying in a manger. Most babies are swaddled, but very few start their lives in the hay. That’s how you’ll know this gift from God is real; that’s how you’ll recognize this baby I’m talking about.

 

Then, ‘suddenly’ (again, straight from the text), all heaven breaks loose! A host of angels, which is to say, an army of angels, a whole lot of angels, fill the sky with shouts or songs or some mixture of the two declaring Glory to God in the highest and peace on earth. Composers have envisioned this declaration and set it to beautiful music in hundreds of ways over the last two thousand years. This is joy, raucous, loud, expressive, maybe to some, even excessive joy! Heaven can’t keep quiet about the joy that this baby’s birth brings! That joy is why we have bells, and why we’ll close the service with Joy to the World.

 

Our world today is not significantly different from the world of the shepherds and of Mary and Joseph, except for the advantages of indoor plumbing and heat. We still live in the midst of poverty and hunger, nastiness and oppression, leaders who think more of their own needs that of the needs of the people, injustice, evil, fear and sin. And like the shepherds, we hear the message of the angel with a mix of hope and skepticism. We so need the presence of God, but really? After all this time? In the midst of this world today? Good news of joy – that’s kind of hard to believe, great hymns or no great hymns. I get it. I’m not far behind you. So I appreciate God’s ongoing tolerance for skepticism. A sign, Lord. A sign. We’d love a sign that says we haven’t crossed the threshold of sin into a time that’s unredeemable. A sign that tells us that your love is still here, Emmanuel, God with us. That your birth in this world as one of us still matters and still has the power to save. Like the shepherds, we need a sign.

 

The sign is love, my friends. Christmas cards from friends you haven’t seen in years, forgiveness offered from a cousin you hurt deeply, the piles of toys and food shared with kids and families at Christmas, the people who spend volunteer hours each week packing up cans of beans into paper bags or making soup and coffee for hungry neighbors who count on regular lunch at soup kitchens. Love seen in the care offered by teachers in the Catskill schools and by nurses in local hospitals, love made manifest in people who care enough to speak their mind, even when their voices shake, in order that the world might be better tomorrow than it is today. If all those things, all those instances of love seem too small, too insignificant, then I turn you again to the manger, that one manger with a child in it, those many years ago. The shepherds found that manger, just as the angel promised. The good news they heard and the sign they saw changed their hearts. There was no skepticism left once their hope was confirmed. They left the manger rejoicing (which my mind has always envisioned as dancing, running, laughing shepherds).

 

Jesus comes into the world for love and as love. Jesus comes because he loves us dearly, and that love never ceases. This is not the last we hear of Jesus – he grows up, teaches with wisdom and compassion, heals the sick and opens the eyes of the blind, and proclaims the good news of the kingdom of God where the poor and the outcast find welcome and grace. When he threatens the powers of the world, they have him put to death on a cross. Even that’s not the end, because God’s love in Jesus Christ is more powerful even than death. Jesus rose from death into life, and offers us that same life in his love. That’s why we celebrate this tiny baby tonight, this presence of love in the world, because that love is everlasting love, and the good news of great joy the angel proclaimed is still good news today – Jesus came to bring us life – abundant and free, for all people, even those we struggle to love. This good news is for you, whether you’ve been following Jesus for decades or whether you’re only here because someone you love asked you to come tonight. The sign for us is love, love that makes a difference beyond itself, love that reaches out into the world, love that changes lives through acceptance and welcome of the stranger and the outcast. God’s love works through little things, over and over again, to guide us home. Merry Christmas, friends. Amen.

 

Isaiah 52:7-10

7How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of the messenger who announces peace, who brings good news, who announces salvation, who says to Zion, “Your God reigns.” 8Listen! Your sentinels lift up their voices, together they sing for joy; for in plain sight they see the return of the Lord to Zion. 9Break forth together into singing, you ruins of Jerusalem; for the Lord has comforted his people, he has redeemed Jerusalem. 10The Lord has bared his holy arm before the eyes of all the nations; and all the ends of the earth shall see the salvation of our God.

 

Luke 2:1-20

In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. 2This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. 3All went to their own towns to be registered. 4Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. 5He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. 6While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. 7And 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.

8In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. 9Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. 10But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: 11to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. 12This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.” 13And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying, 14“Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!”

15When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.” 16So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger. 17When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child; 18and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them. 19But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart. 20The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.

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