(if as you read this, it sounds a little strange, it's cause its a rough outline of my sermon tomorrow... just go with it)
Where is your happy Christmas place? Where do you go to in your memory, when you idealize Christmas time? Who is in the snapshot in your mind?
For me, now and probably forever even as we form new Christmas traditions, when I think of Christmas I will always see a Christmas tree, covered with lights, tinsel, and ornaments, surrounded by a ridiculous number of presents in a living room on N. McDonel Street here in Lima. And in the recliner, in the middle back of the room facing a TV that was always on, was my great-grandfather, while my grandfather handed out presents to us all, safely warm and tucked away on a snowy Christmas eve. More than thirty years have passed since those days, which only grow more hazy in my mind, but that is the moment that every Christmas I will go back to, and feel waves of nostalgia washing over me.
Where is you happy Christmas place? Who is in the snapshot that you see in your mind?
By all accounts it won't matter that gas is $3 a gallon, or that flying will mean having to brave crowded airports stuffed with people anxious to get where they are going, in the paper yesterday it said that over 50 million Americans will traveling this weekend, virtually all of them, I suspect, to go spend Christmas with family or friends. 50 million people who know that if they only left a week sooner, or a couple of weeks later that they could save the hassle of dealing with 49,999,9999 other people all out in the road or air at the same time, but who do it anyway because they long to be in a happy Christmas place. A place where certain groups of people, by their presence and willingness to help create all the strange traditions that held in common, state unequivocally that their life just wouldn't be the same without you.
That's why, after all the clarion calls from a bunch of different corners of the culture, Christmas is as commercialized as its always been. Cut spending by 20% nationally, and this would still be the most important retail season of the year. There are hams to buy or cookies to bake. There are ugly sweaters contests that have to be won and a yearly ornament to mark the passage of time to be crafted. If a unit of money is what is exchanged for our time, energy, and effort at work, than it is a representation of the essence of who we are. And, for better or worse, in a culture so busy that time leaves little opportunity for the vast majority of us to actually get good at doing anything other than the skills necessary to make a living, how else can we symbolically exchange a piece of ourselves so that the ones we love will know that they matter to us?
I remember a Christmas, years ago, where largely because my wife decided that our family's "addiction" to materialism was getting out of hand (and also cause we didn't have a lot of money) my wife decided to make gifts for everybody. I can't remember exactly all of the gifts, but I remember that for the adult guys she made cologne from a formula she found in a magazine. The formula consisted mainly of about four or five different forms of grain alcohol. I remember when she was done, having bottled the 140 proof concoction in various bottles, that she invited me to dab on the end product. I declined, telling her that if I got pulled over by the police there'd be no way I could convince them that I hadn't been drinking..... heavily. I'm guessing a lot homemade cologne got sampled, and then in short order, was poured down the drain in hopes that it remove any slowly forming clogs that Christmas.
That is not to say that my wife didn't mean well, or that her gift wasn't from the heart, or that people didn't appreciate the trouble she went to on their behalf. She just isn't a real good men's cologne maker, hence the fact that Ralph Lauren hasn't coming knocking on our door looking for her super secret formula for "Hooch" cologne.
Most of us just don't have the time to become expert woodcarvers or potters, so in turn we end up buying a waterproof AM/FM radio (for my brother-in law one year), a chia pet (from my wife's grandmother another year), or a Jeff Gordon commemorative nylon wallet (let's just say a little bird told me I'm getting one this year) to try to communicate something deeper about how we feel. It's a cliche, but it's the thought that counts.. and that's really the truth. Whether good or bad, we are attempting to create together a happy Christmas place that says "you belong here". And maybe if we were a less materialistic culture and not so disconnected from one another, we'd be better at this. I mean, for three of the last four years I think I bought my sister-in law a Yankee Candle for Christmas, largely because I don't know her well enough to get a sense of what she would really like to have. They live their life, we live ours, largely disconnected. But all the same, I do know she likes candles, and I want her feel welcome in our family's strange little world.
So "bah humbug" me as another over-commercialized product of my environment. We bought our Prison Fellowship Angel Tree gifts... we know that Christmas isn't our birthday... give us a break.
Besides, in our own strange way, when we do this, try to create a Christmas happy place in our own somewhat deficient, strange little way, I think it is a manifestation of a yearning for something deeper.
Last week, in front of about 70 hearty souls who were itching to get out there an hit that "4-wheel drive" button, my sermon focused on the gift of the angels, which was the unencumbered presence of the living God, available for all. The angels are intermediaries who proclaim that they are no longer necessary because God isn't housed in some far away place, only available to the holiest of holy people.... he is Immanuel. With us. Proclaiming that his intention is bring God's good will and everlasting peace to all. Peace for us as individuals, reconciled with the living God. Peace for us collectively, as God is interested in justice for people in this life.
Which brings us to the subject of this week's biblical study: The shepherds.
Of all the people in the story, the characters I most identify with are the shepherds. I'd like to think I'm as noble as Joseph, or as dutiful as Mary, or as wise as the Kings. But really, I'm just a just another clueless shmoe, out there trying to do the best he can under the circumstances. That, to me, are the shepherds in a nutshell. They are on the job on what they think will be just another routine night of long stretches of boredom, punctuated either with the need to take care of the sheep or face whatever danger out there threatens their welfare: rustlers, animals, the stupidity of the sheep that wanders off clueless into a river or a brier patch or some such something that make it a difficult job for the shepherd that evening. More than likely these are just boys or teenagers, commissioned to take care of not just a bunch of livestock, but probably most of the family's wealth. I'm guessing they went to work without much more than the checklist of what they needed to do on their minds... much like you and me.
Yeah, that's right... I go to work thinking about the people who will need visited, the bills that need paid, the problems that need solved, and the next sermon that needs written. I never go thinking God will show up in a new and unexpected way. If I did, it wouldn't be unexpected.
So when God's emissaries, his mouthpieces, appear in the sky singing, filling the night with holy light and the beauty of their chorus, it's no wonder they start this gig by telling the shepherds to not be afraid. Who wouldn't be? Anyone in their right mind would be terrified of such otherworldly sights and sounds.
But the angels aren't there to proclaim God's might. They're there to tell the shepherds about God's son, and then they offer this extraordinary gift.... an invitation to go see him. Go into the Bethlehem, they say, and this is what you need to look for... a baby wrapped like all baby's are wrapped, with cloth, but lying in a manger. The King of all the universe lays in a goat's supper. You can't miss him.
And whaddya know... they go into Bethlehem, and there he was. Mary by his side.... Joseph watching over his young family... People twittering in and out.... probably all in the happiest corner of all Bethlehem, for mother and child are well, and the miracle of life has been experienced again.
It makes perfect sense to me that shepherds would tell everyone they knew about what they had seen. I'm sure some people thought they'd been drinking and still others probably wondered what their game was, but the shepherds don't really care. As soon as they leave that stable, they can't keep their mouths shut. Everybody has to hear the story again and again.
That's what ordinary, everyday people do. It's like when my brother was working part time in car detailing/repair shop in Toledo owned by Jimmy Jackson (of OSU and multiple NBA team fame), and having to call me the day he came in. Or all the times I've had to hear my wife tell me about the time she met Rob Lowe in high school. Or all the times my friend Merv tells people about his experience of delivering a van to hall-of-fame catcher, Gary Carter.
The shepherds are no different. This is the same thing, only, you know... bigger. So big that we tell the story, again and again, year after year, marveling again at what it must have been like on that first Christmas Eve when Heaven stretched into a shepherd's field, and God's living room into a stable, and regular Joes like the shepherds were invited. Just think... if you are regular joe or josephine out there, it could have been you.
Think how unusual that is. I had a history prof in college, B.H. Smith, who would start each and every semester by asking his students why people studied history. The proverbial answer, "So we won't repeat the same mistakes made in the past" would be uttered, and B.H. would always reply, "No. That's not it at all. Virtually every person in this room will never be important enough to make the same mistakes made in history. For us, history is about dates and dead people. That's all."
But in this case, when we tell the story of the shepherds just one more time, B.H. Smith is wrong. God invites ordinary schmoes to his son's birthday party. Summoned again and again to that first Christmas celebration complete with angels, sheep, shepherds, a manger in a stable, and a baby wrapped in cloths. A baby, the Son of God, not protected by some velvet rope or worldly or otherworldly armies meant to keep us ordinary people away. We are invited, all of us, and its OK to tell whoever we want, what it is we've seen.
It might sound corny, but you are in God's happy Christmas place. You have a place in the snapshot picture... near the manger, next to young woman exhausted from labor, with a peculiar smile on her face.
I think mainly on a primal level, that's we come together each and every year. We trying to recreate this moment, in our strange ways complete with trees, lights, wrapping paper, and sugar cookies. To offer that special invitation once again. We do it in all the fragility of our human mortality, seeking to create the experience, maybe holding onto moments that can't be recreated, because people or places in the snapshot aren't there any more. But what we really yearn for is that personal invitation by the Living God. To sit in his presence, and in the midst of the insanity of this world, know beyond a shadow of a doubt, that truly we are favored by him.
It is the gift of this invitation that the shepherds give us. An invitation to their happy Christmas place.