Charlies and the AngelsChristmas Eve - Wednesday, December 24, 2008
8In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. 9Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. 10But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for seeI am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: 11to you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, who is the Messiah, the Lord. 12This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.” 13And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying, 14“Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favours!”
I'm no stranger to Christmas Eve worship. There is nobody I can check this with, so I'll state it as the gospel truth (knowing there is no way you can check it either): During my lifetime, I don't think I've ever missed a Christmas Eve service. In my mother's arms or on my own two feet, neither rain, nor sleet, nor gloom of night ever kept me away. That being said, I am also no stranger to Christmas Eve sermons. In my sixty-three years I have preached about half the ones I've ever heard. And I've even stayed awake through most of them! Think of it this way: I preached my first Christmas Eve sermon before I had children ... and tonight Charlie Kiederer holds my granddaughter as he sings, "Joseph's Song." - http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DW53O37VctU - A life measured in Christmas Eves ... how could it be?
Do I have a favorite Christmas sermon? I mean, besides Charlie singing to my granddaughter? I'd have to say it was the one written by another Charlie, the Right Rev. Dr. Charles Dickens. Actually, Dickens was no preacher, but he wrote a Christmas sermon so powerful that it reverberates, for most of us, in the fiber of our being. It's a story about redemption ... this side of the grave. And if the coming of God at Christmas has meaning at all (and it does), it is the story of new life for Ebenezer and for us all - and new life not only on this side of the grave!
Ebenezer Scrooge is dead, metaphorically speaking. Of course he doesn't yet realize the fact. Sometimes people get to wondering if there's life after death - for Ebenezer, there was not a whole lot of life after birth. Scrooge's business partner, Jacob Marley, is dead. Literally and metaphorically. Marley and Scrooge were bankers and penny pinchers. And they let nothing and no one get in the way of their greed. Marley has been dead seven years now, and on Christmas Eve, Marley pays Scrooge a visit; Scrooge is thinking, "This is weird - just Marley and me." And Marley warns Scrooge to change his greedy ways before it's too late, because death without God is no picnic.
How does Scrooge interpret the visit from Marley. He thinks Marley is a figment of his imagination and blames it on indigestion: "a bit of beef, a blot of mustard, a crumb of cheese, a fragment of an underdone potato." The grave is not the problem; it's the gravy. And if gravy is the problem, perhaps two Tums will be the solution. Uh, uh. It takes three Christmas spirits, the third of which scares the dickens out of Scrooge, so much so, that the man who made a life of silver and gold, awoke on Christmas morning wanting to play Santa Claus to all London. When he is freed from his fear of death - Ebenezer Scrooge fully embraces life. And thank you to another Charlie, Charles Dickens ... and what a Christmas sermon that is!
I wonder if Dickens took inspiration for A Christmas Carol from another carol? The one proclaiming that Jesus was "Born that we no more may die, Born to raise each child of earth, Born to give us second birth." Any good sermon preached on Christmas Eve will want to make this point in one way or another: Jesus was born to give us life ... on both sides of the grave. With that kind of security in our lives, we can be free to live joyfully and generously - and is not that the meaning of Christmas?
By the way, there's another good Christmas sermon by another Charlie, Monsignor Charles Schulz. I can't fool you this time either. Charles Schultz was no clergyman ... but what a preacher! And just as you're likely to see A Christmas Carol on TV during this holy day season, you're also likely to see A Charlie Brown Christmas. Charlie Brown directs a Christmas play and he hunts for the perfect tree. But it is little Linus who preaches the punchline.
I watched this particular scene on YouTube the other night, and it still puts a lump in my throat - http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pn10FF-FQfs - And just as an aside, in the very first Christmas sermon I preached, way back in the last century, strangely enough I never mentioned YouTube. Charlie Brown says, "Isn't there anyone who can tell us what Christmas is all about"? And Linus says, "Sure Charlie Brown, I can tell you what Christmas is all about." And Linus drags his security blanket to the center of the stage, says: "Lights please." And then he recites from memory these familiar words from St. Luke, "And there were in the same country 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...." And I saw something on YouTube I had never noticed before. When Linus says, "Fear not...," he drops his security blanket. Just as Ebenezer wakes to the dawn of a new day and lets go of the security of silver and gold, so Linus drops his security blanket as he recites the words, "Fear not." And thank you Charles Schulz, for a wonderful Christmas sermon.
"Fear not." I suspect those shepherds in the fields of Bethlehem had much to fear that first Christmas Eve. It was a hand-to-mouth existence, this being a shepherd. Economic insecurity can shackle a person as much as the chains of Jacob Marley. And then there were the dangers of predators lurking among the hills of Bethlehem ... both the four-legged and the two-legged variety. And of course, the Jewish shepherds of Bethlehem live in a land occupied by foreign soldiers, who could and did claim their flocks and their fields ... a context shared this very night by Palestinian shepherds in the fields of Bethlehem.
And the more things change ... the more they stay the same. Our security blankets are somewhat tattered by the economic criminality of modern day firms like Marley and Scrooge. Our cities and towns have predators lurking, and so many are facing the loss of land by foreclosure. In our own congregation there are several who are battling illness and disease and depressing thoughts of Christmas future. And we, as much as anyone at any time, we need to hear and take to heart the announcement of angels, "Fear not."
And so, as we sit again in this relative silence ... listen once again to the heralding of angels: "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."
Who preaches the best Christmas Eve sermon? For my money, hands down (or should I say, "Wings Down"?), it's not the Charlies, but the angels, who preach the best sermon of them all! For this is the meaning of Christmas - "Fear not. For unto you. A Savior who is Christ the Lord."
I am indebted to Walter Sundberg, Professor of Church History at Luther Seminary, St. Paul, Minnesota, for his thoughts on A Christmas Carol