NRSV LUKE 2:1-20
2 In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. 2 This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. 3 All went to their own towns to be registered. 4 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. 5 He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. 6 While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. 7 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.
8 In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. 9 Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. 10 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: 11 to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. 12 This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.” 13 And 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 favors!”
15 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.” 16 So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger. 17 When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child; 18 and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them. 19 But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart. 20 The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.
Well, we made it. Almost. After all the shopping and the clicking of Amazon links, struggling to find out what our loved ones want for Christmas, not to mention dealing with 14 inches of snow, we are here. We still have to get through this service. I wonder sometimes what brought you here. I want to think it was fantastic preaching, but not even my ego will go that far. I know that this is but a preamble, the formal thing we do before all of the big stuff, the giving and receiving and unwrapping of gifts.
It’s the night that climaxes the Christmas season. Or so our culture would like us to think. We have been groomed to think that Christmas begins somewhere around Halloween, or sooner, with the displays and the toys out for sale and the radios getting an early start on Christmas music. We have been conditioned to believe that Christmas season ends tonight, or tomorrow at best. And that once the gifts are all unwrapped, once the big meal is consumed and the family says its good byes, it’s all over until next year.
But we in the church know that this night does not end anything. It is but a beginning. We start the season of Christmas, the 12 days of Christmas. We had a lot of fun yesterday at our Christmas breakfast, as our office administrator, Cherie Blevins, led us in a round of “The 12 Days of Christmas,” complete with hand and body gestures. It was easy to get all mixed up, especially as we got deeper into the song. But it was all great fun. It was joyous.
It is a joyous season but it is also a season which makes us ponder, like Mary. She ponders all that has been going on – the exhaustion of giving birth, the hassles of finding a place to land that got here into this barn, the arrival of shepherds telling about angelic visitations – something she would have been reasonably familiar with. She ponders. No wonder.
We, too, ponder as we reflect on these words, but perhaps we also ponder about other things. We ponder about Christmases of the past. We ponder as we consider our personal lives, the situation of the country, the crazy gyrations of the stock market, and as we note all kinds of things positive and negative that are going on in our lives.
What are you pondering about as you sit in this beautiful sanctuary on this wonderful night? I often think about that as I prepare these sermons on a night where people may just want to get back home and get on with the celebrating. I know that I won’t come up with anything original to say about this text; I mean, how can you beat the angels? But as someone who cares about people and about worship services that mean something I often ponder what is going through the minds of those I love on this special night.
A couple of churches ago, in Lansing, Michigan, I served an inner city church that had a Christmas Eve service like every other church. At the end we sang “Silent Night,” and held our candles high, just like we do here. The folks would then scurry out to family gatherings or parties. It always amazed me how quickly the Sanctuary emptied out. I would spend a moment to take in the silence of the worship place after the service. I always found that to be one of my favorite times of the year. The service was done, the planning and execution of the Lessons and Carols was complete, the assigning of Advent Wreath candle lighters was done, gifts had been bought, the franticness that comes with the first four weeks of December had come and gone. And now there was silence. A good time to ponder, to reflect on what this night, these days, mean.
It’s good to do that. Taking time to ponder, that is. Sometimes we make room for it, and sometimes it doesn’t give us a choice about making room for it. A few weeks ago we were busy planning the Lessons and Carols service, sweating out the weather (or at least what goes with sweating it out when it’s cold). Hoping beyond hope that the snow they were predicting wouldn’t be so bad and we would be able to have this special service. Of course, the snow was not like planned; it was worse. Fourteen inches of worse. Begrudgingly I called off the service, inspired by some good advice and the reality of the weather.
But all of that did something good. Snow is like that. It will slow you down. In this case, it will make you stop. When there is so much snow on the ground that folks have a hard time getting around – especially here where snow doesn’t come often – there is not a whole lot you can do when the flakes come except ponder. Ponder the weather, ponder whether or not we would be able to do this service again (which we did). But also to ponder the amazing and glorious news of this day: that God would take on flesh and dwell among us as one of us, experiencing everything that we experience. Ponder that even when Bethlehem or our lives are too crowded even for God’s incarnation, God’s new life will be born anyway – in a barn, in the out of the way places of our lives; the news given to shepherds, the street people of their day.
For tonight we do not have snow (obviously). But we do have the darkness. At least sort of. It’s interesting the way we celebrate Christmas Eve with an evening service. How do we know that Jesus was born in the dark? We don’t even have the day right – if shepherds were with their flocks then that would have been in the springtime.
But perhaps we know that this date was assigned because back in the days of the Roman Empire, when a lot of Christians were slaves, the festival of the winter solstice, the 25th of December, was the one day off they had. So it fell on this day to mark the birth of their – and our – Messiah.
But we do ponder about the ways we mark this great holy day. We mark it with this service tonight, a good time to ponder before all of the celebrating with the giving and receiving of presents. We come to this place and this evening to mark a time to sit and be still; to let the notes of “Silent Night” move within us and do something special to us. It’s a great song, one that celebrates its bicentennial this year. Two hundred years ago a minister and his music director sat down hurriedly to write out this tune, so that, accompanied by a guitar, it could be used in a worship service. Legend has it that some mice ate through the bellows of the organ, rendering it unusable (at least, that was how the Hallmark Hall of Fame TV show I saw when I was little portrayed it). Through the years this song, maybe above all others, has come to touch us with the solemnity of this night. A simple song, a powerful song – as simple songs almost always are – one that calls on us to ponder and center ourselves on what this night means.
As we sing that song and let it move within us we join with Mary in pondering this great act of God coming to be with us. David Keck, who used to be the pastor of the College Presbyterian Church at Hampden-Sydney and who now is the chaplain at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Florida, penned some words in a recent Christian Century about Mary, pondering and our need to reflect:
“This is why I love the image of Mary pausing to reassure and ponder in her heart the powerful words she hears. She is modeling a discipline for Christians, reminding us of the contemplative, thoughtful dimension of Christian faith. Mary is exhausted, but she exhibits an exquisite unity of thought and feeling when she pauses and ponders what she hears in her heart.
“She also reminds us that, whatever anyone else says about us, the treasured fact that the Word became flesh and dwelled among us is something we need to meditate on throughout our lives. Jesus, after all, knows us better than anyone else, better than those who praise or disapprove unreasonably, and he comes to us both as decisive judge and self-sacrificing redeemer. That’s something to ponder and treasure.”
It’s a good night to ponder. To ponder that God loved us so much that God came to be with us. To ponder that God’s special love came not in a palace but in a barn. To ponder that the message of this good news came first to smelly, ignorant shepherds. To ponder that God’s love meets us in whatever place we are, no matter how dark, smelly, ignorant, out of place, broken we may feel. God’s love came in the night to illumine our darkness. Ponder that. Amen.