Dec. 24, 2017 Fourth Sunday of Advent/Christmas Eve Luke 2: 1-20
Prayer: Dear Lord, the essential core of our faith is that you came to earth to dwell among us. Emmanuel. God with us. What a Christmas gift! We pray in the name you wore, Amen.
Last year, one of our worshipers, Jim Grantham, shared with me one of his family’s Christmas traditions. It was a CD with Ferrol Sams reading his book, Christmas Gift!
Ferrol Sams was a country doctor in Fayetteville, Georgia, who began writing fiction in his late 50s. His books “Run With the Horsemen,” “The Whisper of the River” and “When All the World Was Young,” were both critically and commercially acclaimed.
Dr. Sams died in 2013 at age 90. His son, also a doctor, was quoted in The New York Times as saying the cause of death was that his father was “slap wore out.” Ferrol Sams would’ve loved that.
Often in pictures, Dr. Sams stood in front of a gracious white Southern mansion with wraparound porches on both floors. The house had been in his family for six generations or more.
When he was 67, he wrote a story for his grandchildren about Christmas in that house during the Depression. That was the story Jim sent me.
It was called Christmas Gift! – with an exclamation mark. The tradition in the Sams family was that on Christmas morning, the first time you saw another person, you tried to be the first to yell Christmas Gift! It was sort of like saying Merry Christmas or April Fool, but there was a competition to it. You wanted to yell it before the next person could.
No one could ever beat Dr. Sams’ father. His father was known as the Bear Cat – as in “wild as a bear cat.” And the Bear Cat was the master of yelling Christmas Gift!
During the Depression, several generations lived in the grand old farmhouse in Georgia, but scores of aunts and uncles and cousins came to spend Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. The book tells about:
traveling to Atlanta to shop,
baking cakes for days ahead,
the eccentricities of the relatives as they arrive,
cutting down and mounting a fragrant cedar tree,
bringing in a live turkey to fatten, kill and cook,
the children lining up smallest to tallest to march into the parlor on Christmas morning,
shooting fireworks on Christmas night – all of the glorious holiday family traditions that existed in the days before television, computers and cell phones.
Well, when Jim gave me the CD, I pulled out my old boom box because it was the only thing in our house that would play a CD. And I listened to the story, thinking This is OK.
But then the characters began to creep up on me. Dr. Sams’ grandfather, Mr. Jim. His wild dad, the Bear Cat. His mother, so wise and warm. The grandmother and great-uncles and aunts. And I found myself listening more closely, going back sometimes to pick up something I’d missed.
And then suddenly, Christmas during the Depression was over. Dr. Sams jumped ahead to a time when his grandparents were gone, and his parents were gone.
Now he was the grandfather, rising before dawn to be alone in the cemetery on Christmas morning. And he wept for all those who had gone before him.
The book ends as he invites two of his grandsons, 8 and 6, to accompany him to the graveyard on Christmas Eve. What for? they ask him. And he tells them he wants to get Christmas Gift! on the Bear Cat.
And so the grandfather and the two little boys sneak into the cemetery at daybreak. And they leap from behind the tombstones yelling at the top of their lungs Christmas Gift! Christmas Gift!
When we are children, we think Christmas will always be as it is. But of course, it can’t be. Grandparents and great-aunts and great-uncles die. Homeplaces are sold. Parents and aunts and uncles die. And we find ourselves in new places and in new configurations of families.
Once Kevin found cowboy outfits and GI Joes and chemistry sets under Debbie and Harry’s tree. Now he and Brooke are putting out gifts for Channie Quinn under a tree of their own.
And while many, many of our life changes may be rich and good, Christmas carries an inevitable sense of loss as well. We all find ourselves in the graveyard yelling Christmas Gift!
For some in this place, the loss is sharper. Some of us have lost more people, more traditions, perhaps even a home in which to celebrate Christmas. And I think we must always be cognizant of the grief that can accompany the holidays for many.
But so much of what makes up Christmas – even in Dr. Sams’ Depression-era story – falls into the category of “trappings.”
That was the point of Dr. Seuss’s How the Grinch Stole Christmas. The Grinch set out to ruin the Whos’ Christmas by stealing all their stuff – the presents, the ribbons, the wrappings, the tags and tinsel and trimmings and trappings.
Then he packed up his sleigh and raced up the mountain to dump it, pausing for just a moment to hear the Whos wailing.
He heard something all right. But it wasn’t wailing. Instead, to the Grinch’s horror:
Every Who down in Who-ville, The tall and the small,
Was singing! Without any presents at all!
He hadn’t stopped Christmas from coming!
Somehow or other, it came just the same!
That’s because there’s an essential core to Christmas that has nothing to do with turkey or Christmas trees or stockings or presents or even the people we miss. It has to do only with a gift. A Christmas gift.
If you’d like to read along in your Bibles this morning, we’ll be reading Luke’s gospel account of that first Christmas morning, completely bare of any tinsel or trappings.
Luke 2: 1-20:
In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. 2This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria.
3All went to their own towns to be registered. 4Joseph 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. 5He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child.
6While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. 7And 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. 9Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified.
10But the angel said to them, ‘Do not be afraid; for see — I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: 11to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. 12This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.’
13And 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.’
16So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger.17When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child; 18and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them.
19But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart.
20The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.
Well, what about the gold and frankincense and myrrh, which we use as reason for all our extravagant gift-giving? Those things are in Matthew’s gospel, in a visit by foreigners from the East that may have occurred two years later.
Luke’s story is free from any trappings. His story is bereft of all gifts but one. The baby himself.
In this story, Luke goes to great pains to show that the baby is of the house and lineage of King David. That’s why he has it set in Bethlehem, the city of David.
Back in the Old Testament, from the time Moses led the children of Israel out of Egypt, the nation was a loose federation of nomadic tribes. Those were the 12 tribes of Israel named after the sons of Jacob. The ark of the covenant moved around as they moved – set up each evening in a tent.
So the home of their God was in a tent.
In the book of Samuel, the people finally settled into the Promised Land. King David settled into a new home made of fine cedar in Jerusalem. And he decided it was time to build a magnificent temple for the Lord.
“I am living in a house of cedar,” King David told his prophet Nathan, “but the ark of God stays in a tent.” (II Samuel 7: 2)
But the Lord spoke to Nathan in an almost comical exchange to tell David no, he was not to build him anything grander.
Here’s what God said: “I have not lived in a house since the day I brought up the people of Israel from Egypt to this day, but I have been moving about in a tent and a tabernacle…. Did I ever speak a word with any of the tribal leaders of Israel …, saying, ‘Why have you not built me a house of cedar?’ ” (II Samuel 7: 6-7)
One thousand years later, this same God came to earth, out of the lineage of David. And lo and behold, he took a step down from that tent. He was born in a manger.
I call Luke the gospel writer for Triune. Because more than any other gospel writer, he focuses on Jesus’s solidarity with the poor and marginalized, with women and other less-than characters of the first century. And it all begins right here, having our newborn God laid in a manger.
I find this the most incredibly beautiful and insightful story ever told, a king born not in a palace but in a stable.
A king who will touch lepers and eat with tax collectors and allow prostitutes to perfume his feet.
A king who will tell us that when we serve the least members of his family, we serve him.
A king who will be executed by the political powers of his day.
Whether this year is joyful or bleak as far as holiday trappings go, whether or not our memories of Christmases past raise a lump in our throats, we can center ourselves with this stripped-down story of the first Christmas.
The one with the real Christmas gift.
Because that’s what Ferrol Sams and his grandsons were hollering about in the graveyard. Christmas Gift! Christmas Gift!