Thursday, December 29, 2011

Sermon: "A Perfect Christmas"

Dec. 24, 2011
Christmas Eve
Luke 2:1-20

There was a church in the northern part of the United States that had held a Christmas pageant for 47 years with the same director. Perfection was her goal—nothing less. For years the church's pageant ran like clockwork: perfect lines, perfect pacing, perfect everything. Then one year, something even better happened.

The director's commitment to perfection had been much greater than her commitment to children. Her reasoning was: "When there are too many youngsters, there is no control."

As a result, many children in the church were excluded from being in the pageant. Only the "best" kids made it.

This particular year, however, the Christian Education Committee passed a resolution: "All children who wish to be in the Christmas pageant may do so. Parts will be found for them." This was more than the longtime director could handle. She resigned in anger and disgust.

The pageant didn't fall flat without the former director, but it was different. There must have been a dozen shepherds and at least 20 angels and probably more than two dozen wandering sheep.

The real climax of unpredictability came when Mary and Joseph entered. Joseph walked solemnly beside Mary. The narrator was to read the Biblical story about Joseph going to Bethlehem ". . . to be taxed with Mary, his espoused wife, being great with child."

One mother realized that the children didn't really understand the Elizabethan English of the King James Version about Mary being "great with child." At the last minute, she switched to the Good News Translation. As Mary and Joseph entered, the narrator read, "Joseph went to register with Mary, who was promised in marriage to him. She was pregnant."

As the last word echoed through the PA system, little Joseph froze in his tracks. This is not how he had heard it in rehearsal. He gave Mary an incredulous look, then looked out at the congregation and said, "Pregnant? What do you mean, pregnant?"

Needless to say, this brought the house down. The pastor's wife, wiping tears from her eyes, said, "You know, that may be exactly what Joseph said." The former director wore her triumphant "I-told-you-so" look.

Later, when they sang Silent Night, a couple of magical things happened. First, the sheep bleated their way down a side aisle and sat in the pews to watch the conclusion of the pageant. This meant the former director was suddenly surrounded by the children she had once excluded!

Second, snow began to fall, and the entire church became very quiet. It was so beautiful; no one stirred for some time—not even the sheep.

Then, Minnie McDonnell—hard of hearing, and always speaking too loudly—broke the spell when she "whispered" to her husband in a voice that all could hear, "It's perfect! Just perfect!"

And it was perfect, only not in the way previous pageants had been perfect. It was perfect in the way God makes things perfect—the way he accepts our fumbling attempts at love and fairness, and covers them with grace.

Many of us this time of year are sucked into the myth of the “Perfect Christmas.” We believe that if we just try hard enough, we can make Christmas “perfect.”

We can put up the perfect decorations in our homes. We can buy the perfect gifts for family and friends. We can plan the perfect Christmas dinner and arrange the perfect gathering of family where everyone will get along.

We’ve never achieved Christmas perfection before, but that doesn’t keep us from trying. Images of the “perfect Christmas” on TV and in movies don’t help much in dealing with the real world.

When you look at the details of Jesus' birth, many of the circumstances were far from perfect. Caesar was imposing taxes for his own interests; Herod violently protected his throne, motivated by fear, greed and insecurity. Joseph and Mary were not married, yet she was pregnant.

Though Joseph was a man of faith and obedience to God, I am sure this situation created tremendous concern among the members of their families. And now, days before giving birth, they find themselves on a journey to a tiny little town called Bethlehem, where there will be no adequate place for them to stay.

The King of Kings was to be born, not in a major metropolis, not in luxury and comfort, but in a stable in a seemingly insignificant town.

There was an interesting article in Money magazine a few years ago. It seems that Money ranked the area around Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, dead last among 300 cities surveyed in which to live.

The mayor of Allentown, PA—which is part of the region Money panned—said, "Lee Iacocca's mother lives here. Do you think Lee Iacocca would let his mother stay in a place that wasn't fit to live in?"

An editorial in the Bethlehem Globe-Times newspaper, said: "What a remarkable coincidence! At the same time as their survey, we were concluding that Money is the worst magazine in the nation."

If Bethlehem, Pennsylvania was rated number 300, I would hate to think where Bethlehem of Judea would rank in Money's listings. In fact, if a committee were appointed to recommend favorable places for the birth of the King of Kings, I doubt Bethlehem would even make the list.

Bethlehem was, as the song goes, a little town, far removed from the centers of influence and power in the world of its day. There was little to recommend Bethlehem for the birthplace of the Messiah. Yet it was God's choice. The prophet Micah said,

But you, Bethlehem Ephratha, though you are small among the clans of Judah, out of you will come for me one who will be ruler over Israel.

In God's wisdom, Bethlehem was the perfect place for the Messiah to be born. It is a humble place, and God blesses those with humble beginnings.

Bethlehem was the home town of King David, who was far from perfect. Yet he was called a man after God's own heart.

God is looking for something more than "perfection." That’s the whole point of the Christmas story. God didn't come to us at Christmas because we are perfect and good and wonderful. He came to us because we needed him.

Have you ever tried to keep a perfect house when a baby is in residence? It doesn't work. When there’s a baby in the house you have to forget about perfection and think about love. That's the message of Christmas. It's not about perfection, it's about love.

Years ago Harry Reasoner wrote a piece about Christmas for the show 60 Minutes. He said: "The basis for this tremendous burst of buying things and gift giving and parties and near hysteria, is a quiet event that happened a long time ago.

“You can say that in all societies there has always been a midwinter festival, and that many trappings of our Christmas are almost violently pagan, but you come back to the central fact of the day . . . the birth of God on earth.

“It leaves you only three ways of accepting Christmas. One is cynically, as a time to make money or endorse the making of it.

“One is graciously, the appropriate attitude for non-Christians, who wish their fellow citizens all the joys their beliefs entitle them.

“And the third, of course, is reverently. If this is the anniversary of the appearance of the Lord of the universe as a helpless babe—it is a very important day. It's a startling idea that a virgin was selected by God to bear his Son as a way of showing his love and concern. . . .

“The story has a magnificent appeal. Almost nobody has seen God, and almost nobody has any real idea of what he is like. But everyone has seen babies, and most people like them.

“If God wanted to be loved . . . if God wanted to be intimately a part of our life, he moved correctly, for the experience of birth and family is our most intimate and precious experience.

“So, if a Christian is touched only once a year, the touching is still worth it. Maybe on some given Christmas, some final quiet morning, the touch will take."

Maybe this Christmas will "take" for some of you here tonight. Maybe you won't have a perfect Christmas. Perhaps it will be far better than that.

I hope that you will see right to the heart of this sacred event—to the God who is looking not for perfection, but love.

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