Dr. Anne M. Cameron
Christmas Eve 2010
Lake Highlands Presbyterian Church
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.
In 2003, our family ate what turned out to be our final Christmas dinner at my mom's house. Mom was frail. She wasn't driving anymore. She could barely get from her wheelchair into the car. Despite all this, she proudly hosted our Christmas dinner. She spent the whole week fretting, marshalling helpers to shop and cook and clean. As we gathered around her glittering table, we held hands and bowed our heads. I looked at my ailing mother, my older sister, my steadfast husband, our three beautiful children. I looked again. In their places, I caught glimpses: infants and toddlers, men and women; aging adults. Just for a moment, the past came rushing forward to meet the future.
After the first round of eating, mom began to tell some old stories. How her family prepared Christmas turkey over seventy years ago. Mom was born at the end of the Great Depression. My grandfather ran a tavern. In addition to beer, he served fried chicken. Times were tough, and there wasn't much meat around, because of war rations. So my grandfather raised chickens in their back yard. Mom told us how she helped her dad slaughter and pluck and dress those chickens, as well as the holiday turkey. In her words, I heard the past echo into the present.
We found a Christmas tree farm outside town that year. Five of us trooped out there, searching for the "perfect tree". Cutting down a Christmas tree---another old story. Then, there is the decorating ritual. Untangle the lights, replace the broken ones, untangle the lights again, get frustrated. Put on the Christmas music, take a breath. When you squint, you can see trees and ornaments and even people from your personal past rush up to greet you. To remind you---there is something special and unique here, and you don't want to miss it. There is something very old and brand new all in the same moment.
Unwrap all those ornaments. Remember that one? No, it can't possibly be ten years since you got that one! You remember it like yesterday. And those homemade ones, with the kids' pictures on them!? Who are those little bitty kids, now young adults!? The past greets the present in those pictures, in those ornaments, in that tree.
In Burnet, Texas, every December, churches get together to retell another very old story. Several town blocks are magically transformed into first century Bethlehem. There are crude stone buildings, a synagogue, an open market, small fires and oil lamps, a blacksmith banging away, sparks flying. There are real live sheep and cows---and dirt and straw and manure. Shepherds appear in rough clothing. There is the deliciously warm smell of bread baking over an open fire.
In this town, there is no money exchanged. No admission, no sales. This Bethlehem doesn't look like much of a place to visit, but every year, the lines of visitors grow longer. Amazingly, people seem to grow more patient. What is happening there in Burnet, Texas? What is happening is a glimpse. This "night in Bethlehem" offers a glimpse into our past and a hope for our future. This nowhere little town holds a strange and compelling grip on those of us told to look for bands of swaddling cloth. It grabs shepherds, like us, as we look for a sign, as we strain our ears to hear a small, piercing cry in the night.
Tonight we are many sorts of shepherds. Some of you never miss your watch on this night. Others of you come reluctantly, skeptical. You may simply be seeking solace on a chilly, wet night. Still others are drawn here for reasons you cannot begin to know. We are all shepherds tonight: huddling around our fires, hungering for a glimpse. A glimpse of SomeOne to answer us, some place beyond our day-in and day-out ordinariness. We search for something big, and what does God do? God gives us something small.
This isn't the first time God gives us something small and makes something big of it. This isn't the first time God does his own peculiar math, putting the last first, making heralds out of shepherds.
One more time, we turn our faces to the manger. We look to the past, and we squint toward the future, all in the very same spot. Once again, our mouths form the very old story, words practically engraved on our hearts. "Fear not! Look for a baby in a feed trough!" And we look. We look to this rough nursery, to that unwed teenage mother, to the squalling baby boy, even if it doesn't make much sense. A manger. Angels. Bethlehem. An ordinary place, more common than a loaf of bread. A small, insignificant place, where God had big plans.
Bethlehem. Look back, and look forward. Search for a sign, in the worn and familiar patterns of your celebrations, in the ornaments of your lives. You just might find it in the dusty streets of a live nativity or in a lighted creche on your street. If you squint just so, you will see Bethlehem tonight as you place your money in a basket, when you gather round this table laden with light and bread and wine. You will find the One you have been wondering about, in a shared and mysterious meal---the Bethlehem One, the Bread of Life.
Bethlehem. It is a place where time blurs, where you're not sure if it's past, or now, or when. A stable, a manger, where the forces of the universe converge and something awesome happens. Where eternity comes together, telescoped into past---present---future. And you don't quite know where you are, or what time it is.
And then in the darkness you hear a baby cry. Out of the corner of your eye you can just make out the twinkle of a very large star. And---look right in front of you! There is gold in the straw and myrrh in the manure!1 Some of you drop to your knees; others run scared into the night. Somewhere, off in the distance, you hear the purest sound of voices singing "Hosanna". "Hosanna in the highest." And He shall be our light, and our bread, and our life.