Christmas Eve Sermon 2017
St. Augustine’s Church | Wilmette, IL
There’s a video of a pageant gone rather awry making the rounds right now on social media. The video begins at what I imagine is supposed to be the end of the pageant – Mary and Joseph and some angels and animals are all gathered around to adore the baby Jesus as the church’s children’s choir sings “Away in a manger”
(A note worth mentioning here is that the role of the Baby Jesus in that pageant is played, safely, by a doll).
One sheep in that pageant is so consumed in her adoration that she is overcome by it. The baby Jesus is just too irresistible for her probably three-year-old self. So first, she tears off the blanket covering the manger, and throws it aside. But then, there he is – and the singing is still going, and he’s there in the manger, and it seems that there’s nothing to be done but just to pick him up, right? So she does.
Amid the grownups’ laughter that you can hear at this moment on the video, the children’s choir is steadfast. They continue singing. So the little sheep, holding the Baby (doll) Jesus, and now possessing the attention of pretty much every single person in the church, she starts to dance, even, a bit.
Well. Mary the Mother of God does not ponder these things in her heart. In fact, Mary is having none of this. She’s a little bit older than that sheep, and a little bit bigger, and she knows how this thing is supposed to go. Which is not with the Baby (doll) Jesus kidnapped by an affectionate, dancing sheep – however cute she may be.
Mary takes the adoration into her own hands, literally. She reclaims the Baby Jesus by taking the doll right out of the arms of the adoring, adorable sheep and she restores him to his rightful place in the manger.
It turns out, though, that some sheep are tenacious. And this pageant has that sort of a sheep. She waits for her opening, when Mary’s hand has left the manger, grabs the Baby (doll) Jesus and makes a break for it.
Mary comes in hot pursuit, but the sheep blocks her. At the point when “Away in a manger” draws to a close, which helpfully coincides with the moment that suggests Mary might actually tackle the wayward sheep, an adult finally intervenes. And…cut scene. I can only imagine what happened on the other side of that taping – the consolations and reconciliations to be made among members of the holy family...and resident livestock.
I shared about the writing of this sermon on Friday morning after Eucharist with the group of us who gathered for breakfast after church. One of our members talked about how neat we tend to be in illustrating the story of Jesus’ birth – Mary is always depicted as calmly holding the baby, with everything in place. We find ways of making this story safe, and clean. When I looked back at the children’s Bible that our daughter Grace grew up reading – a version I usually really like, actually – the nativity story has Mary smiling as she finds her way in among the animals for the night: “I’ll be alright here in the hay,” she says to Joseph, “it’s very comfortable.” (Have you sat on hay?!) We domesticate this mystery. We clean it up, make it nice. We discuss it in the abstract. We make it into an intellectual discussion of here, or there, or – God help us – if, at all.
Children’s Christmas pageants bring us back to the audacious particularity of the mystery we proclaim. This person said this. That person did that. This thing happened over there.
And really, sheep gone rogue or not, that is the scandal of this night: the God whom the People Israel had known as transcendent and all-powerful and distant and scary and sometimes smiting was in fact so crazy in love with this creation, with people made in the Divine image who looked like God, that God came into the world She created, looking like us.
The world that God came into had not already gotten its act together in preparation for that night. It was not a safe and clean and peaceful and just and well-fed and logical place, the place where God chose to be born.
In the person of Jesus, God was born: not to Caesar’s wife, or to Herod’s, not to a prophet or the priest of the Temple, but to a young, unmarried woman and her boyfriend, both of them from a small country town that nobody paid attention to. In the person of Jesus, God was attended by the lowliest kind of folks – shepherds were treated like tax collectors and prostitutes, considered dirty because of the kind of work they did; the Magi who came bearing gifts were foreigners, outsiders – they were strange people from a distant land who didn’t belong. In the person of Jesus, God had to escape in the middle of the night, because his life was in danger. In the person of Jesus, God had to get counted as part of a census, to make sure that his family, in their poverty, paid the taxes they owed to the empire.
God was born into all that, and God, in the person of Jesus, blessed every bit of the creation into which he was born. It’s not safe. It’s not clean. It’s not abstract or hypothetical. But it’s real. This night. This place. This holy mystery. Told by these children.
And maybe, through it all, that persistent little sheep with her beloved Baby (doll) Jesus has something infinitely important to teach us about God. Because I believe it’s true that God is so crazy in love with creation, even now, that God will disregard how this thing supposed to go, and tear through the veil of all that would separate us…cast it aside without care for the consequences, in order to get to us. In order to dance with us, even. In order to be with us.
Christ is born, my friends. Alleluia.
 Watts, Murray. The Bible for Children: “The Birth of Jesus.” Intercourse, PA: Good Books Publishing, 2002. 218.