Christmas Eve, Year A (12/24/16)
We are not merely spectators at Christmas, but beneficiaries; God does not simply put on a show for us to see, but offers us an invaluable gift. This event is for you. You belong in the Lord’s presence not because of who you are, but because of who he is. So, receive this child, God in the flesh, who arrives in the middle of life as you know it to share the burden of your circumstances. And, receive him again in bread and wine, the gift of his very life given and poured out for you.
“To you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.” To you.
I wouldn’t blame you if you felt a little detached from the story of the first Christmas. A Roman imperial decree, a journey on foot through the Holy Land, an extraordinary child born in a stable, a chorus of angels singing to frightened shepherds in the middle of the night – it’s all so ancient and peculiar. Luke’s Christmas account is a nice legend, fit for a movie screen or a stage, but what does it really have to do with life at the end of 2016? Even a living nativity scene demands that we keep our distance, separated from the story by a fence or a stretch of grass or some other boundary. In any case, Christmas may seem like it comes to us from another time and place – if not from another world altogether – and the best we can do is sit through the story once a year, sing a few carols, and return to our ordinary lives.
Our ordinary lives, after all, are already brimming with responsibilities and struggles, relationships and conflicts, hopes and fears. Christmas itself may feel like one more in a long and complicated list of obligations, and frankly, for some of us, it’s a miracle that we made it to church this evening at all. So, what does the story of the first Christmas – now that we’ve heard it yet again – really have to offer us?
Martin Luther, the sixteenth-century German teacher and reformer of the church, insisted that Christmas becomes significant only when it becomes personal. Drawing our attention to the angel’s nocturnal appearance to the shepherds, Luther observes:
“[The heavenly messenger] does not simply say: ‘Christ is born,’ but: ‘for you he is born.’ …What good would it do me, if he were born a thousand times and if this were sung to me every day with the loveliest airs, if I should not hear that there was something in it for me and that it should be my own?”
“To you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.” To you. The angel’s good news implies that the shepherds are not merely spectators at Christmas, but beneficiaries; God does not simply put on a show for them to see, but offers them an invaluable gift. So, if you feel removed from the story of the first Christmas, it may help to think of it less as a divine spectacle and more as an act of divine love and generosity.
And it’s no coincidence that the declaration of this gift is directed to shepherds. Conventional wisdom would have it that news of the Messiah’s arrival should go first to distinguished people – kings and high priests and other dignitaries – the ones we would expect to find in the Messiah’s entourage. After all, this is the Lord, the Savior promised of old who comes to offer the world nothing short of God’s own peace. Who are the shepherds, that they should receive the honor of such an announcement?
Nevertheless, it’s in the middle of their ordinary, even marginal lives that God’s messenger suddenly breaks in to deliver the good news. And if it’s good news for shepherds, then it’s good news for us: “To you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.” To you. This event is for you, regardless of how ordinary or marginal you are. This event is for you, regardless of how unworthy or spiritually disconnected you feel. This event is for you, no matter how messy or broken your life is.
No wonder the shepherds drop everything to go find the baby Jesus, resting in his ordinary, even marginal birthplace. The wise men insist on bringing gifts to him, but the privilege of being in his presence is the true gift, the gift God gives to us. The shepherds certainly don’t have anything to offer but their excitement. And, remember the Little Drummer Boy? He brings nothing to Jesus but a simple song. Yet, the baby blesses the Drummer Boy with a smile of approval, acknowledging his dignity and confirming that he belongs in the Lord’s company. Christmas is for him.
And Christmas is for you. Like the shepherds, like the wise men, like the Little Drummer Boy, you belong in the Lord’s presence not because of who you are but because of who he is. And this, according to one interpreter, is “the Gospel in a nutshell. That the immortal and all-powerful God does not shy away from ordinary, finite, and even mundane creatures like us but rather draws near, eager to embrace us” with all the love and generosity we witness in the life – and death – of our humble Messiah.
So, receive the gift of this child, God in the flesh, who arrives in the middle of life as you know it to share the burden of your circumstances. Then, in a few moments, come to the table and receive him in bread and wine, the gift of his very life given and poured out for you. And finally, in the words of the beloved carol, “Thus rejoicing, free from sorrow, praises voicing, greet the morrow: Christ the child was born for you! Christ the child was born for you!”
 As cited by Charles M. Wood, in Feasting on the Word, Year A, Vol. 1, 116.
 Tr. Edith M.G. Reed, “Infant Holy, Infant Lowly,” Evangelical Lutheran Worship, Assembly Edition, #276.