There are two occasions during the church year that can be difficult to preach. It’s not what you’d think really. It’s Christmas and Easter. The truth is that the stories we tell at these times of the year: the birth of the Savior and the resurrection of that Savior, all for love of us, are told so beautifully, so completely in scripture, it is hard to come up with something to say that has meaning.
In truth, what could I tell you about Mary and Joseph, angels and shepherds, inns with no vacancies, and a tiny baby laid so carefully in the place where animal’s live and feed, that you haven’t heard before? It is a tale well told. Its edges are softly worn from repeated hearing like a child’s favorite book that is read over and over, once upon a time laid down as a familiar woodland path in the child’s memory. A path so clear that most of us, now grown ups, could recite a good deal of it all by heart.
Much of this story is retold in artful words woven together with carols and hymns, leaving their foot prints even deeper in our crowded memories. They say that music sinks a lasting anchor into us that remains long after words have left us. The melodies of Away in a Manger and Silent Night and all the images these conjure lie deep within the hearts of all of us who have sung these so repeatedly that we do not really need to see the words on the page.
So why do we retell it every year? We all know it by heart. I love that expression: by heart. Its meaning is more than just learned words but that the story is written into us.
We retell this story of Mary and Joseph and their child because the world is still broken. We retell this story about God coming to lift up the lowly, heal the broken hearted, and shine light into darkness because our world still has lowly that need lifting, hearts that need healing. And because the darkness still comes.
The Christmas Story, just like the Resurrection Story, is not one that has a final page we can turn to that reads, “and they all lived happily ever after. The End.” That page still rests in the trustworthy hands of God, but these stories of God coming to live with us and God coming to give us new life are both still in the process of being told. The story of the Incarnation of God, the time when God, wrapped in human flesh and blood, came to us every bit as vulnerable and fragile as every other child, is a story that we still participate in now as the Body of Christ, wrapped in our own God-created flesh and blood that is every bit as fragile and vulnerable as the rest of whole world.
Another reason that we tell this story over and over again is because we hear a very different story from the rest of the world every day. The story we hear on a regular basis goes something like this: you are worthless. The only thing that matters is power; power in the form of money or might, power executed in the form of cruelty. If you don’t have some of that power, you do not matter and it does not matter how you treat others who have no power. Things and people are only for your exploitation and you are either a user or someone being used. Hope is a waste of time. Darkness is getting darker and will put out the light in the end.
The great theologian, St. Linus, friend to Charlie Brown in the land of the Peanuts, retells the Christmas story we so badly need to all who will hear it and he does so over and over again. I can tell you what Christmas is all about, you who are lost, lonely, broken and afraid. And there were shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid. And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, which is Christ the Lord. And this shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, 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, and on earth peace, good will toward men.”
That is what the Christmas story is all about. And that’s why we retell it over and over. So that we will remember, within this weathered, old tale that feels magical and ancient and wise, the truth that we are not worthless but priceless to God. We tell it to remember that the almighty and powerful creator of the universe can still be found amongst animals and within that which is small, vulnerable, and fragile, that all creation is precious to God and not a possession to exploit but a gift to receive, and that the presence of hope is real and lies within the life and light those angels sang about to shivering shepherds so very long ago.
So let us hear again the ancient story of God coming to us. O come, O come Emmanuel, this night and for all time.