Sermon #213 St. James the Less #120 12/24/20
In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. All went to their own towns to be registered. Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.
In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, "Do not be afraid; for see-- 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. This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and 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 heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!"
When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, "Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us." So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger. When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child; and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them. But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart. The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.
The Young Marine
In the 1950s a young Marine was stationed in Atlanta, Georgia, and he was about to take a ten-day leave to go to his home in a small town in Florida for Christmas.
His leave, like all military leaves, actually began at midnight on Christmas Eve, but he knew he could leave by 4:30 p.m. when his office closed. He made sure to go by his quarters before leaving, in order to pick up the clothes and the presents he was taking home.
There were no interstate highways back then, so he chose to take Highway 441, southeast of Atlanta. He got in his 1953 Plymouth Coupe and headed onto another road before linking up with 441.
As he headed south, he knew it would be difficult to get gas on Christmas Eve—time was of the essence. Having made the drive many times before he knew there was a Texaco station in Fargo, Georgia that closed at 10 PM. The only trouble was Fargo was 250 miles away.
Just like tonight, it got dark early but thankfully it was a clear and moonlit night and there was no traffic in sight. He was making great time as he drove through all the small southern Georgia towns.
When he looked at his watch around 9 o’clock he figured he was thirty or forty miles from the gas station in Fargo. The only trouble was, his gas tank was almost empty—his only hope was reaching that station before his car puttered to a stop.
Twenty miles out and he was still going strong, then ten, then five, but his luck ran out. Just three miles north of Fargo he ran out of gas and decided to try to hitch a ride by standing next to his stranded vehicle.
Fifteen long minutes passed and then he saw headlights in the distance, as it got closer his hopes began to rise. But as he stuck out his thumb, the car vroomed past him, not even tapping on the brakes once.
And so, the stranded Marine started walking the three-mile journey to the Texaco station. A few minutes passed and then he saw another car making its way down the highway, not going nearly as fast as the other one. As it got closer it slowed down and he could see it was a beat-up, out of production, Kaiser. The driver stopped and rolled down the passenger window.
You could tell it had been a while since the driver had a good shave or been to a barber. He yelled out the window, “What’s the matter – need some help?” The young Marine said yes and he asked if he could get a ride into town. The old man said, “Sure, hop in.”
As he got in the car, he noticed two children in the back, and then realized that all the family’s belongings were in the car and on the top of the car—it was a mess and it smelled, but the Marine was just grateful to have a ride.
The conversation was minimal – the old man was an out of work house-painter who hoped to find a job in Florida. The Marine didn’t really want to talk with him, he had more important things to think about. He was thinking about the long drive he still had for the night, and then also the excitement of celebrating Christmas with family and friends.
Thankfully, they got to Fargo just a few minutes before the station closed. The Marine got a can of gas and started to walk in the direction of his car. The old man said, “I’ll give you a ride – I’ve got nothing to do, I’ve got lots of time.” No matter how messy or smelly that car was, it sure beat walking, and so he hopped back in.
They rode and the silence was heavy. The Marine finally said to himself, and yet out loud, “Why did this have to happen to me? I just want to get home for Christmas!”
After a pause, the old man said, “I know why it happened, it’s so I can tell you about Jesus Christ – how he was born this night for you and for me.” The Marine thought, “Oh no! I’ve got a crazy one here.”
The old man went on and said it was this Jesus who gave him hope and encouraged him to go on, and who gave him salvation. And like Linus from the Peanuts, he looked at him and said, “That’s what Christmas is all about.”
When they reached the Marine’s car he jumped out of the old Kaiser, said thank you, and pulled out a $10 bill to give to the man. The old man said he didn’t need it, but the Marine insisted on paying him off, in part, to get him off his conscience.
As he got back in his car and headed south the Marine was relieved to get away from the old man and all his talk about Jesus. He was ready to get home and see his family and open some presents.
But even so, what the old man said lingered in the back of his mind not only for the rest of the car ride home but months and years later.
Rediscovering the Meaning
I tell you this story because like the stranded Marine, our Christmas this year is anything but ideal. If anything, this Christmas, with all its restrictions, feels a little bit like being stranded by a broken-down car. This is not how any of us thought Christmas would be a few months ago, but even so, here we are.
We need to hear the old man’s words and be reminded what Christmas is really about. The presents and the time with family and friends are important to all of us, but they, in themselves, are not why we are here.
Being disconnected from our loved ones this year is forcing us to rediscover the true meaning of Christmas.
The true meaning…it seems like an easy answer, we must’ve learned something about it in Sunday school as a child, right? I was actually dumbfounded a few years ago around this time when a kid asked me, “Why didn’t Jesus just show up as an adult?”
Kids have a knack for asking brilliant questions, don’t they? I should’ve just handed her my seminary diploma right then and there.
But really, if you think about it, it is odd that the Almighty God would voluntarily be put in such a vulnerable position—completely dependent for food, clothing…everything.
I didn’t have a good answer for that little girl, and you could tell she wasn’t very impressed with my answer. But on further thought, I believe God wanted the full human experience and that included even things like birth and infancy.
Those experiences couldn’t just be thrown away, they were too valuable in what it means to be human. Something would’ve been lost if Jesus just walked onto the scene and was ready to do ministry on Day One.
By his incarnation he was not only sanctifying creation and humanity but even infancy and childhood.
It’s no wonder that those outside the church look at this story with skepticism—it is odd for God to act this way, to choose infancy over his eternal throne, vulnerability over power and might—but if it were to be true, well then, the world’s general notions of a God who is detached from his suffering creation and who is either violent in nature or just plain temperamental, those notions would have to change.
The classic Christmas hymn puts it just right, “Veiled in flesh the God-head see; hail the incarnate Deity, Pleased as man with us to dwell; Jesus our Emmanuel.” Jesus, our “God with us.”
It is an odd story, there is no doubt about it. There are terrified shepherds, a host of angels showing up out of nowhere, and a virgin birth of all things, but for some reason, God was “pleased as man with us to dwell.”
And we come tonight to celebrate the fact that this story is true, that we believe it actually happened—that God did indeed come to dwell with his creation, and he did it in the most humble and surprisingly way possible.
And the world has never been the same since his arrival. Wrapped in swaddling bands of cloth, lives and breathes the Author and Source of our salvation.
It sometimes takes those stranded-by-the-side-of-the-road moments to make you pause and reflect—it may jolt you out of some preconceived notions, or it just may force you to meet someone you’d otherwise never talk to and hear what they have to say.
That young Marine got home safely that night in Florida, but the conversation with that man stuck with him, it planted a seed that would slowly grow over the years. He would become a successful insurance agent before discerning a call to the priesthood later in life.
He would end up being my childhood priest in Murfreesboro who not only baptized me but also did the wedding for Megan and me.
The power of the Christmas message has the ability to transform all of us, but especially the skeptic and doubter in each of us. The part of us that says that we’re not good enough, not worthy enough, that this silly story can’t possibly have an impact on our life. And each time the Christmas story shows us that yes, God did leave his heavenly throne, laid down the rights and privileges of divinity in order to be one of us; that in fact, it pleased God to dwell with us.
And so, even if this Christmas isn’t ideal—that we’re figuratively stuck on the side of the road during this festive season—the Good News of Jesus is no less joyful and hopeful and transformational.
And you may agree that we need to hear this story afresh, now more than ever.
"Do not be afraid; for see-- 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.”
Christmas Eve. Year B. Lk 2:1-20. Story told by The Rev. Gene Wise. Picture here.