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Christmas Eve, December 24, 2016 | 8:30 and 11:00 p.m.
We Didn’t Know Who You Were
Shannon J. Kershner
Pastor, Fourth Presbyterian Church
There is an old Christmas spiritual called “Sweet Little Jesus Boy.” I won’t sing it tonight, but here is the way it starts: “Sweet little Jesus boy, they made you be born in a manger. Sweet little Holy Child, we didn’t know who you were.” I bring that song to your attention because the implication of that first verse, the overall implication of the song, is that had we just known who this baby Jesus was, things would have gone very differently at the time of the birth on that long ago holy night.
Perhaps that’s true, but we’ll never know. The premise of the song reminds me of a true story about a church Christmas pageant, however. The pageant took place in a small town somewhere here in the Midwest back in the early 1960s. The account was written up in a magazine shortly after it happened, and the story focused on a boy named Wallace Purling (retold by Michael Foss, pastor of Prince of Peace Lutheran Church in Burnsville, Minnesota, in his sermon “Christmas Eve 1999,” www.day1.org). Wallace, or Wally for short, really, really wanted to be a shepherd in the pageant. He zealously loved everything involved with being a shepherd: hearing the angels, guarding the sheep, running to Bethlehem to see the new baby. The chance to be one of the shepherds had been Wally’s dream for years, and all the children and adults who annually took part in the pageant knew it.
That particular year, Wally hoped it would finally be his turn to live his dream. However, as rehearsals geared up, Ms. Lumbard, the director, began to get very nervous about the idea of Wally as a shepherd. She knew that Wally sometimes had difficulty remembering things, and he could often be quite clumsy. If he forgot his lines or knocked things over when he arrived at the stable, the pageant’s drama would be ruined, and no one wants anything ruined on Christmas Eve. So she came up with a different plan.
Instead of asking him to be a shepherd, she would ask Wally to be the innkeeper. That part had fewer lines and little movement. Wally could do that part well, she thought, and to his credit, he agreed. He would wait yet one more year to be a shepherd. This year he’d play the part of the innkeeper instead.
Christmas Eve arrived, and it was finally show time at Wally’s church. There Wally stood—right where he was supposed to stand behind the wooden door, waiting for Mary and Joseph’s arrival. Finally the couple made their way to the door, and Joseph knocked on it. Wally, right on cue, opened the door and demanded, “What do you want?” Sitting on the front row, Ms. Lumbard felt a rush of confidence. He was playing the part of the cranky innkeeper just right.
“We seek lodging,” Joseph said. “Seek it elsewhere. The inn is full,” Wally responded. “But sir,” Joseph continued, “we have asked everywhere in vain; we have traveled far and are very tired.” “There is no room for you in this inn!” Wally sternly proclaimed. “Please, good innkeeper, this is my wife, Mary,” Joseph implored. “She is pregnant and needs a place to rest. Surely you must have some small corner for her. Please.” And then, for the first time, Wally the innkeeper relaxed his stiff stance, looked down at Mary, and took a noticeable pause. Ms. Lumbard held her breath. Had he forgotten what he was supposed to say? “No, begone,” she whispered from her seat, hoping to remind him. It worked. “No!” Wally responded. “Begone!”
And with that line, Joseph placed his arm around Mary, just as they had practiced, and Mary laid her head upon his shoulder. The two of them began to slowly move away, but Wally, who was supposed to close the door and exit the chancel, did not move. He stood there, mouth open, brow creased, his eyes following Mary and Joseph as they slowly walked away. And then everyone in the congregation saw his eyes fill with tears. “Don’t go, Joseph!” Wally cried out. “Bring Mary back!” And as the tears rolled down his cheeks, his face suddenly brightened with hope. “I know—you can have my room!”
If only that had been true on that day so long ago. Wouldn’t that have been something if the innkeeper had said “No wait. Take my room. My family will get you some warm towels and a pillow for your back, Mary.” Yet that is not the way the story of Jesus’ birth unfolds. Sweet little Jesus boy, we made you be born in a manger. Sweet little Holy Child, we didn’t know who you were.
Biblical scholars have helped us to realize that Mary and Joseph’s lodging situation was probably not quite as desperate as we usually make it out to be in our church Christmas pageants. But Mary and Joseph were given leftover space instead of the innkeeper’s room. They were given a feed trough instead of a cradle. They were given bands of cloth instead of soft blankets. And Jesus, God-with-Us, was born into poverty, into lowliness, into plain ordinariness and nobodiness instead of into power, into a place of honor, surrounded by the high and mighty, by those who call the shots.
If you want to see a modern-day tableau of what Mary and Joseph’s journey might have been like, just pause the next time you see a photograph of a displaced Syrian family, where, as Jill Duffield writes, “families are [still] being forced by events outside of their control to journey to places where there is little or no room for them. It seems the political, worldly powers still impact the vulnerable in ways far more tangible than angels, stars, and the Holy Spirit” (“Christmas Eve” devotion from www.pres-outlook.org). Sweet little Jesus boy, we didn’t know who you were.
But what if the others had known? If the others had known, like our friend Wally, of the dramatic event taking place, the changing of history about to happen, the proclamation of God’s tremendous love for humankind being revealed in the birth of this baby, this God-Made-Flesh—would that holy night have been handled differently? We’ll never know.
But the longer I am in ministry and the older I become, the more I am convinced that the God I try to trust, the God you try to trust, would not have had it any other way. God knew full well that people would not know who Jesus was at his birth. God knew full well the Holy Child would be seen as just one more baby born on the run, born into poverty and anonymity. God knew full well that Jesus would not be given a place of honor but a place of leftovers; that he would not have warm towels waiting to receive him but only the warm arms of a very tired mother and father, who had no idea what they were going to do next. God knew full well that the world would end up treating this Holy One with contempt and disdain, because this Holy One named Jesus would practice what he preached—a gospel of God’s great kingdom reversal where the mighty are brought low and the low are lifted up and the outcast have special reserved seating at the banquet while the insiders have to move down a seat to make room for them at the table.
A great kingdom reversal where all people—men and women and children—all, not some—are seen first and foremost as children of God and are to be treated with the kind of care and dignity that that claim demands. Where a young woman is called to smuggle God’s salvation into the world, and where lowly, ordinary shepherds are the first ones visited by angel choruses with the good news. The longer I am in ministry, the older I get, the more convinced I become that God would not have had it any other way but to be born into a leftover place and to a left-out people, knowing full well no one else knew what God was doing in that sweet little Jesus boy.
By being born as unwelcome and unknown, God was taking the daring risk of Great Love. God was proclaiming to us all that God loves us so much that God is not content to be without us. God was determined to show us God’s constant presence and love by getting down into the grit of our lives, down into the grime of our pain, down into the messiness and beauty of being a human being, a child of God, a baby—completely weak in power, completely vulnerable to the world. As William Sloane Coffin once preached, “To break through our defenses, [God] arrives [in Jesus] utterly defenseless. Nothing but unguarded goodness in that manger” (William Sloane Coffin, “Power Comes to Its Full Strength in Weakness,” 25 December 1977). God knew exactly what God was doing at this moment of birth into a leftover place to a left-out people, even though no one else did.
In his memoir My Bright Abyss, the poet Christian Wiman claims that if “nature abhors a vacuum, Christ abhors a vagueness” (Christian Wiman, My Bright Abyss: Meditation of a Modern Believer, p. 121). Thank God. God knew a vagueness would not save us. Rather God knew we needed a Savior for whom flesh and blood, suffering and joy, life and death are good enough to take on firsthand. Given the fractures in our nation’s fabric; given the horror that took place this week in Berlin; given the ongoing violence and deep pain that just keeps unfolding in Syria; given the increasing numbers of people who come to this church without enough food to eat or a safe place to sleep; given how so many people in our world still feel like all they ever get are the leftovers and still experience the pain and grief of being left out—given all of that, if the God we worship did not know what pain and loss and fear felt like, honest, strong hope would be a whole lot harder for us to claim, and joy to the world might seem to be a naïve wish.
But on this night, because of the way God chose to be God-with-Us in a baby, born into poverty and anonymity, born into a world full of violence and fear, born completely vulnerable and totally unguarded—because this is the way God has chosen to make God’s love most fully known we do claim Hope and we do sing of Joy. For any God who would choose to come be with us like that is a God who will never harm us. Any God who would choose to come be with us like that can only be a God full of more love and grace and mercy than we can ever imagine.
So yes, God knew exactly what God was doing at this moment of birth, what we call incarnation. Even if they didn’t know who the baby was. Even if we still don’t completely know who this Jesus is. God knows what God is doing. And that is more than enough.
Therefore on this night hear anew what the angels sang: “Be not afraid. For I bring you good news of a great joy for all the people. To you, for you—messy, beautiful, broken you—is born this day a Savior, who is the Messiah, who is God-with-Us, who is the Lord.” Sweet little Holy Child. God’s Love-Made-Flesh. Let us not forget. And let us learn from Wally’s compassionate example and recommit to living that Love out into this world. Amen.