Meg Peery McLaughlin
December 24, 2019
Luke 2/Matthew 2
In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. All went to their own towns to be registered. Joseph 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. He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. And 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.
In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, ‘Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.’ And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying,
‘Glory to God in the highest heaven,
and on earth peace among those whom he favors!’
When 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.’ So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger. When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child; and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them. But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart. The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.
In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, ‘Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.’ When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. They told him, ‘In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet:
“And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,
are by no means least among the rulers of Judah;
for from you shall come a ruler
who is to shepherd my people Israel.” ’
Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, ‘Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.’ When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure-chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.
In a lot of ways I feel like a visitor tonight.
This is our first Christmas in this room, around this wreath.
There are many faces I don’t yet recognize, though I long to.
I know where my office is of course,
though my pictures are still not yet hung on the walls,
but I am hazy where these candlesticks came from, having never seen them before.
In a lot of ways I feel like a visitor tonight,
and yet I come, eager to come close to the baby.
This past month in one of our Sunday School Classes,
we’ve been talking about the state of the church America.
Pew Research tells us that across the board membership is declining,
the church has gotten it wrong a lot: on race, gender, sexuality,
by practicing toxic charity that makes the giver feel good,
rather than practicing real partnerships with our neighbors,
but research tells us that everyone still comes on Christmas.
Look around, story checks out.
It seems we still want to come close to the baby.
Because the internet knows I’m a pastor, I got some email this week about visitors at Christmas. It said:
If your church is like the vast majority of churches, it will completely botch Christmas Eve’s golden opportunity[i]. Then it suggested tactics such as:
Giving $5 to the local food bank for each first-time visitor card that’s completely filled out.
Or, sending sets of volunteers two-by-two dressed as the Magi to drop off a wrapped gift for visiting family within 30 minutes of the worship service’s close.
Now, I’m glad y’all are all here, but I can promise you I am not showing up at your doorstep later tonight.
The Christmas story is filled with visitors. I decided to read both gospels tonight,
because why not? . . . the story and the songs are the best part anyway,
and because I find it fascinating which visitors show up where.
In Luke’s version, it’s the shepherds,
living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night.
An angel appears and I love the way the King James Version says it:
the shepherds are sore afraid.
Is it not true that fear makes us ache?
Maybe the shepherds weren’t just afraid of the messenger,
but that angel, added to the fear that comes from barely scratching out a living,
the fear that comes from being on the edges of society, was just a tipping point.
Luke says they were sore afraid, and even so, they get the message that
there is someone who has come to save, to make right,
there is someone who has come to change things, to upend the old ways.
They decide to visit.
And I have to wonder if it wasn’t because the angel gave them a clue that they would find a welcome though they be “that sort of visitor.”
The angel said this savior was but a baby, and not one in gold, fleece diapers,
but rather wrapped in bands of cloth, and laying in an animal’s feeding trough.
It’s like the friend who invites you over and says “I haven’t done the dishes”
so you know you don’t need to change out of your sweatpants.
This is a come-as-you-are-kind-of-visiting,
so they come close to the baby.
In Matthew’s version, the visitors are a whole different crowd.
Magi from the East who know about astronomy and interpret dreams.
Who have resources to bring gifts and clout to talk to kings.
It’s odd, really, that these are the first visitors in Matthew,
for his is the most Jewish of all the Gospels.
Every other breath, Matthew is quoting the Hebrew scriptures,
begging us to see how this baby is the fulfillment of a particular tradition and
gift to a particular people. But the first visitors? NOT JEWISH. Outsiders.
People who cross borders and make national leaders nervous.
These are the ones who come close to the baby.
Scholars, and the really good ones,
will tell you that these birth stories are the good news in miniature.
The visitors tell you about the bigger story, of course.
This Jesus is for the poor and marginalized, the foreigners and outsiders.
I believe this is true.
And for all the effort given to describe the visitors,
what is striking to me, is that we never see them again.
In the land of biblical character dress up: I would wager that besides angel halos,
there are more old bathrobes and shepherd crooks,
more plastic crowns and treasure chests than any other costumes.
Seriously, oriental trading company racks up this time of year.
But they only get used once: showing up in a single solitary scene.
But here is what I trust.
And I consider it the best news there is:
That baby that those visitors wanted to get close to,
the one who did indeed grow up to care for the poor and marginalized,
who came for insiders and most assuredly for outsiders, for a particular people and absolutely for all people,
the baby that those visitors wanted to get close to,
was the one who came down to be close to them.
They came close to the one whose very purpose and nature is to be close,
it’s why we call the baby, Emmanuel, God-with-us.
The gift that is Christmas is that God chooses,
in love, to come close no matter what,
no matter how far a distance is needed to close the gap,
God chooses to visit us,
and there is nothing we need to earn such a presence,
and there is nothing we can do to escape such love.
We spend so much time apart
apart from our neighbors in this nation, in partisan echo chambers
apart from our family, estranged by old injuries
apart from the earth, which is crying out for attention and protection
apart from humanity,
only surrounded by those whose color and creed and credit matches ours
apart even from ourselves, guarded against our own vulnerabilities .
with this as our norm,
well then, the closeness of Christmas feels risky.
Ruth Coker Burks knew that[ii]. Back in the mid-eighties at University Hospital in Little Rock Arkansas, she was visiting a friend getting reconstruction surgery after breast cancer. Ruth noticed a door with red plastic covering it. An untouched breakfast tray lay near the doorframe. She watched the nurses literally draw straws to see who would go in to visit his room, to check on him. Burks knew enough about AIDS to guess who the patient inside the door was. She inquired of the nurses if he had any family in there with him. They laughed, and said “Honey, He’s been here six weeks. Nobody’s coming.’” Burks made a decision. She opened the door, snuck inside, and discovered a skeletal young man, scared and alone. She pulled a chair up close to his bed, and took his hand. In an interview with Katie Couric, Burks said “I ended up staying with him for thirteen hours until he took his last breath on this earth.”
Now, maybe you are thinking, okay, new preacher, are you here to bring us down with talk of disease and distance and deep loneliness? on Christmas eve of all nights? Hear me right: I don’t want to ruin your Christmas. I don’t think God does either.
This is what I believe with all my heart tonight. God doesn’t want to ruin your Christmas, but to save it, to save it from irrelevancy, and meaninglessness, and ultimately despair[iii]. God wants to save your Christmas. For that is who God is and what God does. And God does that in the flesh—
God comes close
no matter what sadness we hold
God comes close
no matter who we are.
No offense to that email about the visitors
the one which told me I’d likely botch Christmas Eve’s golden opportunity,
but it seems to me we can’t botch Christmas,
for it doesn’t ride on us:
whether we are visitors or regulars
whether we are new pastors or present procurers.
And our golden opportunity, it seems, is to remind one another
as we gather here to get close to the baby tonight,
that God risks it all,
to get close to us.
[ii] https://www.amightygirl.com/blog?p=27159&fbclid=IwAR0vzZRq216NWRWiiiJKPXQa7mRS-D57ORfAC4CT25AhDlz8EtHCMdIl3BM Thanks to the Rev. Laura Becker who pointed me here from her sermon on World Aids Day in 2019
[iii] This line is from the Rev. Dr. Dan Lewis, FPC Wilmington