The Pixar film, The Incredibles, begins with a disgruntled superhero living as a normal suburban working class stiff. Every day when he comes home, a little boy from the neighborhood witnesses him damaging his car while trying to be “normal”. One day he looks at the boy and says, “What are you waiting for?” The kid responds, “I don’t know, something amazing – I guess.” And the disheartened hero responds, “Me too, kid.”
I wonder, sometimes, if that is not how we approach Christmas Eve. We put up the decorations and we let memories of the past flow over, in, and through us. We rush around to try and find the perfect gift, or to distract ourselves from loss, or maybe even to create the perfect experience. Sometimes we hit pay dirt and we produce a Christmas experience that is amazing.
Yet Christmas – in its essence – has never been about what we can do for each other. It has always been about what God has done for us.
There is a reason that we retell the story of slaves seeking release. There is a reason that we relive the experience of the disciples who have been transformed by the experience of Jesus. There is a reason that we retell the story of a baby who was claimed by God but rejected by everyone but his parents and a group of people who were untrusted and unseen by others.
The reason we retell and relive all of these things is that slavery still exists – whether economic and physical or emotional and spiritual – and we are still in need of release. The world is still a place of occasional darkness. All of us at times need to be reminded that all of the darkness in all of the world cannot extinguish the light of even one tiny candle – and by our faith we are called to bear light into the darkness.
In order to have the courage to become as light shining in the darkness, we need to hear that something greater than our own desire for good is out there, in here, and moving and forming the chaos we experience into something beautiful.
And so we need to hear what transformation was like for the disciples. We need to hear that they were also waiting for something amazing to happen. We need to know that something amazing did happen – and that it pulled them in from the role of spectators to become actors. It fueled their passion and informed their actions so that they became “zealous for good deeds.”
And the same story that transformed them is the one that invites us into transformation today. It is the story of a baby who was claimed by God and rejected by everyone else. It is the story of the promise of God being fulfilled, and it had to happen in a way that should not have been possible in order for us to see that it was the action of God.
I mean, regardless of the debate over the virgin birth, Jesus was born in the most bacteria filled environment possible! And then he was laid in a rough hewn wooden box that was normally used to feed livestock. The mere fact that they traveled 68 miles on foot during the third trimester (no donkey is mentioned but I hope to goodness they had one) is pretty amazing!
Then the scene shifts to shepherds. Even though the care of a shepherd was still a metaphor for the love of God, shepherds were not welcome in cities and markets except to provide resources and go away. These were people who lived much of their lives in the fields with animals. They were unclean and considered untrustworthy. Some scholars give evidence that they were not even allowed to testify in courts and tribunals. Their word lacked credibility, and so their testimony was – in fact – incredible, and not in a good way.
And this is how God chose to reveal God’s self to the world for once and for all – through a vulnerable, unlikely to survive child and through the public witness of people whom no one trusted. Yet, of course we know that this child would become the one who would offer the experience of God’s presence to those who would receive it. We know that this child would become the one who encouraged others to explore a new depth of meaning beyond a set of rules. Of course we know that this child would become the one who expressed the love of God most perfectly – not even sparing his own life – so that we might know that nothing, not even death, can separate us from the love of God. That’s some pretty amazing stuff!
Before we go too far with that though, I want to come back to the rejection of Jesus and the proclamation of the Shepherds. Jesus came in a state of rejection because we need to know that God is with us in ours. Whether it is direct or indirect – a job, a loved one, an attitude, a behavior – we all experience rejection at some point. And the worst thing is that the first thing we do is to internalize it – we reject whatever it is within us that caused us to feel rejected by someone else. We devalue ourselves and tell ourselves that we deserve whatever rejection we have to face, and we turn lies into truth.
That’s why the shepherds are so very important to this story! There is nothing about their public witness that should matter to anyone. But they don’t care! All they care about is telling everyone that something amazing has happened. Perhaps in the months that followed the locals convinced them that the sky did not actually rip open to reveal the heavenly host. Maybe they even backed off on the story out of embarrassment. We’ll never know.
What we do know is this: God comes first to the outcasts and transforms them into a people that cannot be ignored. And so God’s living word comes to us on Christmas Eve with the announcement that God is with us! God is actively working to transform us, and God want us to tell others about it.
So, what will you tell others about Christmas? Will you look for the opportunity? Will you say that the sanctuary was beautiful, the candles were pretty, and the sermon did not put you to sleep?
Or will you say that you found a place where you believe you can experience, explore, and express the love of God? Will you claim – with great joy – the connections between church and stable, even with the chaos and mess we sometimes step in? Better still, will you say that you have heard about a way that you can experience, explore, and express the love of God no matter where you are? Better still, will you say that the story of Christmas is a way to know that God enters into the most chaotic experience you could ever have, chooses people you would never expect, and promises things that only God can deliver?
That’s what I hope to say the next time I get the chance to tell the story of Christmas. Whatever you do, please don’t just sit around waiting for something amazing to happen – for the most amazing thing that could ever happen already has. And “It came without ribbons. It came without tags. It came without packages, boxes or bags.” This Jesus – the Christ – was born and lived and died and even conquered death so that we might live fully in the here and now and in the life to come. And that, beloved of God, is pretty amazing. Alleluiah! Amen!