December 24, 2018 – Christmas I
© 2018 Evan D. Garner
Audio of this sermon can be heard here. Video of the entire service can be seen here.
A man in his fifties sits behind his desk at work. He is a physician in a large research facility who spends more time in his office than he does with patients. It is an ordinary day, which is to say that he is busy. Two other colleagues are meeting with him in his office to review cases and determine which patients will be accepted and which ones will need to find another place for treatment. For the most part, they are not difficult decisions, but they are significant, supremely consequential for the individuals and families that they represent, so they give it their full attention and focus. In the middle of their tedious work, there is a sharp knock at the door. “Come in!” the man whose office it is calls out, but the door does not open. After a pause, he repeats his invitation a little more loudly, but, still, the door remains shut. There is another knock, even harder than the first, which serves to elevate exponentially the tension and frustration in the small space. “Come in!” the doctor yells back, already beginning to make his way from behind his desk to the door, but his command is only met with another defiant knock. “Where did my assistant go?” the man angrily wonders to himself as he approaches the door, grasping the handle and snatching it open.
When he does, he sees a familiar but completely unexpected sight: a young man in a military uniform with a mischievous but authentic smile on his face. For a split second, the physician does not understand what is happening. The frustration and anger have vanished, but his heart and mind do not quite know what emotions should replace them. By the time he is able to take in a breath, he recognizes that it is his son, who has come home from Afghanistan and has dropped by to surprise his father. The man wraps his son in an embrace as years of worry pour out in tears of relief. His knees buckle. His torso shakes as he sobs. The other men in his office, recognizing that their work will need to wait, offer a congratulatory pat on the back as they walk past, in response to which man does not relax his grip on his son even slightly.
I am a sucker for military reunion videos. The hospital nurse whose daughter comes home from South Korea. The cafeteria worker whose son sneaks into the kitchen to surprise her with a bouquet of flowers. The middle school teacher who takes her class to the pep rally not knowing that she will be the subject of the entire school’s celebration. It grabs my heart to see an adult so surprised and so overcome with joy that he or she acts like a little child. In that moment, the magic of surprise takes over and nothing else in the world matters except the miracle standing right in front of them.
One night, a long time ago, some men went to work out in the fields just like they did every night. It was cold and dark. Usually, not much happened. The hardest part was staying awake. But that night was different. All at once, the darkness was split apart, and the angel of the Lord stood before them, and God’s glory wrapped around them, and they were terrified. “Fear not!” the angel said, “For 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.”
On every level, it was a surprise too amazing to be true. It took their breath away. (Literally, they “feared a great fear.”) The Savior of God’s people, the Messiah, had been born in the ancestral city of David, the great king of Israel, and the news of this birth had come to them—some lowly shepherds? They were just in the fields doing their job—the kind of job no one really wanted to do—and the angel came to find them? This was news that belonged to someone far more important—a priest or a prophet, perhaps. But God’s messenger had come into the fields to find them and let them know. How wonderful! How incredible beyond imagination! What sort of miracle must this be in order for God to seek out these shepherds and share this news with them?
It is a miracle that startles the world by belonging not in a palace or in a hospital or even in an inn but in a feeding trough. “This will be a sign for you,” the angel continued, “You fill find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.” The absurdity of what God had done was only magnified by the sign of its taking place. It was a confirmation that made as little sense as the message itself. God’s anointed was wrapped in throw-away rags and placed in a manger? Before the shepherds had a chance to contemplate the significance of what they had seen and heard, suddenly, alongside the angel was a multitude of the heavenly host—angels too numerous to count—all praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!” And, when the angels had departed and gone back into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go now and see this thing that has taken place.”
In order to receive the message of the angel, we, too, must be surprised. We, too, must let the confusing miracle consume us. The astonishing truth of Christmas is that, in order to save the world, God becomes a child. In order to protect us, God becomes as vulnerable as a newborn and as humble as a carpenter’s son. The astounding message of the incarnation is that, in order to heal us, God takes all that is broken within us onto himself. And all God asks of us in return is that we come and see.
God is doing something wonderful, something marvelous, something miraculous. Tonight we celebrate that God is at work reversing the course of human history, changing the darkness into light, transforming despair into hope. But, if we want to see it, if we want to be part of it, we must look where that miracle is to be found—not in places of wealth or power or influence nor among the religious leaders of our day but in the quiet, vulnerable, humble places where God’s greatest surprise is taking place. In every generation, God’s work is to reach out in love to those who least expect God’s love to find them. As such, that work will always surprise us. It is revealed to those who do not see it coming but who still keep room for hope in their hearts. It is alive in those who seek the miracle of surprise, in those who look for good news not in the headlines but in the stories of those they love, in those who refuse to let the noisy narrative of the world supplant the quiet narrative of God’s work within it.
Allow yourself again to be overwhelmed with the surprise that God gives to world this night. Behold this thing that God is doing with the same astonishment as the shepherds and the same amazement as the children around us. Hold onto hope with every ounce of strength you have and believe that God can bring the miracle of surprise to even the least likely circumstances. That is the miracle of this night. That is the message of the angel and the testimony of the shepherds. That is the truth of Christmas, revealed to those who believe in the power of surprise. Come, again, to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place. Let it take your breath away. Come and see God’s gift of love for the world. Come and see and be amazed.