“Do not be afraid, I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people…”
Every year we tell the same paradoxical story on this night. We repeat the story of the miraculous birth that was foretold by the Hebrew Scriptures. The Messiah was foreseen to be the king of kings. The prince of peace. The promised healer who would raise up the broken and restore them to wholeness. The Word of God was made flesh and dwelt among us. We tell the story of a divine son at the same time as we tell the story of a child who was born under very humble circumstances, to ordinary parents, in a stable in Bethlehem. A child, tiny and weak, vulnerable and dependent, reveals the deepest truths about God, for with the birth of Jesus, God chose to enter the most fragile part of human life, in order to transform it to glory. For some reason, God chose to reveal this first to the shepherds in Bethlehem. Not to the rich or the powerful or the influential, but to ordinary people who labored in the fields with sheep.
It is nearly impossible to tell this story and ignore its ending. By its ending, humanity came to see the glory of God. Even if you have never stepped into an Episcopal church before this evening, you can look around and know the ending, because the church is filled with crosses. We tell the beginning of the story, fully aware of its ending. For without his cross and resurrection, Jesus would be just another charming baby. But he is not. He is God, who has come among us and has changed our life forever.
How can this be? Why would God do such a thing – to come to earth as a human, to live and die as a fragile man? There are many who tell us that this story makes no sense at all.
Let me tell you a story. It is not new – originally told by Louis Cassels (1959) and repeated by Paul Harvey on radio – but it is worthwhile.
There was once a man who did not really believe the story of Jesus. He was a good man, and kind, and he worked hard to provide for his family. He struggled with faith. It made no sense to him that God would humble himself to live as a poor man like Jesus. And so he would stay home on Christmas when his family went to church – he was not going to participate religious traditions that made no sense.
One snowy Christmas Eve, while his family was at church and he sat in his living room, he heard a thump against the outside wall. And then another. And another. He thought some teenager was throwing snow balls at the house, and he looked out the window to see who was out there, but could not see anything at all. The snow was falling pretty heavily and the wind was blowing, and he could only see a few feet. While he was at the window, he heard another thump, and he decided to go outside and look around.
In the field next to the house, he saw a flock of wild geese. Apparently they had been confused in the snow and wind, and had been grounded in his yard. Several of them had run into the house and were injured. His heart was moved to compassion, and he wanted to help them. He knew that the barn where they kept the horses would be the perfect place for them to stay until morning. So he went and opened wide the doors of the barn, hoping they would notice and go inside. But the poor geese were so lost and disoriented, that they just wandered aimlessly in the field.
Thinking he might be able to entice them with food, the man went into his house and got bread, breaking it up and making a trail leading into the barn. Still, the geese did not follow him.
Frustrated, he went behind them and opened his arms wide and tried to shoo them into the open doors. But they became more frightened, and scattered in every direction.
He suddenly realized that his size and power made him a terrifying creature to the geese. They would not follow him, and they would not allow him to coerce them into the barn because they were afraid. And he said out loud, “If only I could be a goose for a few minutes, then I would speak their language and tell them not to be afraid and that I want to care for them. But I would have to be one of them so they would understand.”
At that moment the church bells rang in the distance. It was midnight and the service was finishing up. And suddenly he understood. And he sank to his knees in the snow. And he wept. And through some miracle, the geese began to fly into the barn, and they survived the storm.
Every year, we tell the story of Jesus, over and over, because it reminds us of who we are and who God chose to be for our sake. Even if our hearts are not moved by rescuing flocks of geese, we tell the story because it is a part of us and because we want to know it more deeply. We are not just flesh that will fade away and die. Because God chose to partake of human life so completely, human beings can partake of the eternal life that belongs to God. This tradition of the Incarnation of the Son of God is unique to Christianity, and it is a powerful testament to the eternal Love which changes everything.
God gave us the Word, and fulfilled a promise made centuries before the birth of Jesus. God is for us. God has dwelt among us. God dwells among us still, for by our baptism we are part of the Body of Christ. There are little miracles around us every day, if we are willing to perceive them.
Unto us was born this night a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. Let us follow the example of the shepherds and make this known to all people! Let the church say Amen!
This sermon was preached by the Rev. Dr. Amy Welin at St. Stephen’s Cathedral on December 24, 2018, for Christmas Eve. The texts for the day, which can be found at this link, are:
- Isaiah 62:6-12
- Psalm 97
- Titus 3:4-7
- Luke 2:1-20