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Christmas Day 2020
“Let Us Go Now and See”
Bishop Patricia Lull
Grace and peace to you from God the Father, our Lord Jesus and the Holy Spirit. AMEN.
People are so hard to recognize these days. With our faces hidden behind the masks we wear to stay safe in this pandemic, it can be hard to recognize even old friends when we pass on the sidewalk or wait in line at the checkout. But there are others, who escape our notice because they work the graveyard shift while we are not even awake.
There is the ER doctor, poised for the arrival of the next patient to pass through triage, not knowing in advance if they will be COVID-positive or not. She is hard to recognize behind the N95 mask and full face-shield she wears, but her posture indicates she is determined; ready to be of help. There is the driver, who unloads the semi, while the stars are still out, so that the grocery shelves can be restocked when the store opens at nine.
And there are others, of course – the EMTs on alert for an incoming call; the janitor working to sanitize the office where others have come and gone during the day; the nurse keeping vigil up and down the nursing home corridor; the Uber driver, waiting to catch another fare from a midnight traveler.
There are the police officers in their cruiser; the operator of the 24/7 crisis line; and the UPS supervisor, pulling an added shift in a rented truck to get packages out to their intended destinations. There is the homeless youth, in the backseat of the bus with his hoodie drawn tight around his head to fight off the chill, and the driver of that bus, making a last, late-night run and wondering if he should slip a $10 bill to the kid in the back. After all, it is Christmas.
In ancient Israel, among those keeping vigil through the night were some shepherds out in the hills beyond Bethlehem. If they remembered the stories their grandparents told, they might have thought about the regal location where their sheep were bedded down for the night. King David came from that place and he had been a shepherd, too. But like most of us they probably fought off sleep with other stories and banter, their ears attentive for any creature that might prey on the sheep. The last thing on earth they would have expected was the appearance of an angel and a message that would turn the whole world on its head. No wonder they were terrified.
Friends, Christmas morning has come and the angel’s voice still echoes across the dawn. “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.” (Luke 2:10-11).
And it wasn’t just one angel; no, the whole heavenly host left their eternal home and showed up to praise God – the God, who created heaven and earth and all that is – showed up to sing their cantata in the sight and hearing of those shepherds. “Glory. Glory. Glory to God in the highest,” they sang. “And on (this) earth, peace among those God favors. Peace.” (2:14)
When I was growing up, one of the very best roles in the Christmas pageant was a speaking part given to one of the shepherds. In those days it was always a boy – a boy, who could be trusted to speak his line from memory without laughing; a boy, who would bring the appropriate, serious tone to that pivotal moment in the sacred drama. “Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.” (2:15) Let us go now and see.
And yet, year after year, there is One who always preempts that line. I don’t mean like the time the kid-shepherds tripped over each other and all fell into a heap or the years the scripted line was forgotten and with a stage whisper an adult prompted the recitation from the side aisle.
No, whether we are cast in the role of shepherds or not, every Christmas we work so hard to do everything just right. To meet every expectation for a perfect holiday celebration. And every year at Christmas we are confronted with our own incomplete tasks, our unfulfilled hopes, and our unprepared hearts.1 This year is no exception.
This is a Christmas Day we will remember a very long time because of all we are unable to do – this year we cannot gather with extended family, worship in a decorated church building with friends so dear to our hearts, lean into the preacher’s sermon from our place in the pews or even sing our hearts out on the familiar carols. This year we are reminded that so much in our lives is a jumble and if it depended on us, we would not be able to rise from our resting place by the sheep we tend to go off to Bethlehem to check out the news the angel has just spoken.
Friends, let’s be honest. It is that way every year, really; which is the whole point of Christmas. Before the adolescent voice of a teenage shepherd can ring out, God has already taken that shepherd’s line to heart. It is God, who first picks up and goes. It is God, who has come to us, in the wee child, who waits to be noticed in the manger.
2020 has been a trying year. There have been lots of reasons for us to be filled with fear and worry and more than a fair share of weariness. I am grateful for all the steps you have taken to stay safe in your congregations, in your homes, and in our communities. This pandemic year has taught us that that none can really be well or safe unless everyone around us is doing well. That is true when it comes to racial justice and equity, as much as it is true about mask wearing and hand washing. We are in this together and we deceive ourselves if we think Jesus -- and the great message of peace on that first Christmas morn -- was just intended as God’s gift to a privileged few of us.
And so to all who have waited and watched through the long night of this year; to those who weep and those who tend the ailing ones; to those who suffer and those who grieve; to the broken ones and the joyous; to the little ones and those who seek a fresh start in life -- a word of hope, a message of peace, the amazing witness of the shepherds still rings out.2
Friends, a Child has been born. Our God has come to us, right where we are in the messiness and the loveliness of this unforgettable year. And with the shepherds we are called to glorify and praise God for this good news.
“Glory. Glory. Glory to God in the highest.” And praise to the One who will see us through to a time of health and wellbeing, again; to the time when we can gather in-person once more and sing our Christmas praise aloud. Thanks be to God. AMEN.
1 Timothy F. Lull, Prayer for Christmas Eve, unpublished works
2 Based on a prayer attributed to St. Augustine of Hippo