This past week, as I scrolled through my Facebook feed, a picture called out to me—and so I stopped—and I looked—and I just lost myself in the scene.
The picture showed a little girl—a bit over two years old—touching an ornament on her Christmas tree.
Everything about the picture is perfect—a barefoot toddler stands on tiptoe—her arm reaches as high as she can lift it—her body leans somehow over a pile of beautifully wrapped packages—each a testimony to a family’s love for one another—her face reflects the glow of the lights from the tree.
The two year old’s name is Alice—a child I’ve not yet met. Alice’s mother was herself a child when I first met her some twenty-three years ago—her own parents are dear friends and were wonderful members of the congregation in Nashville where I was a pastor so many years ago.
There was something about that picture that took me back.
I suspect you’ve had it happen.
Maybe you’ve pulled a grandchild close beside you on the couch and flipped through an old photo album with them—looking together at pictures from Christmases long, long ago—when you were younger and your children were even younger than your grandchildren are now.
Or maybe you pulled out a box of old Christmas cards, and when you opened one, a picture fell out. And when you picked it up, you stared at the image in your hand for who knows how long—just lost in some memory that stirred your heart as if it were happening again in that moment.
Or maybe you were walking through a crowded store, or driving alone in your car, when a song came on the radio, and when you heard it playing, it was as if the music lifted you from where you were in that moment, and took you back to another time, to another voice singing that song you’re listening to now.
For my cousin Jane, memories of Christmases past are triggered, she says, by the special foods and treats that only made an appearance during Christmas. Making Grandmother’s boiled custard and special cookies always takes me back to her house during the holidays, even though both she and the house have been gone for years.
But making the treats now, my cousin says, allows my heart to travel in time.
And you know what that’s like…how some picture or melody or taste can blur every line between the past and the present…and you are back…in that place…among those people…when things seemed to make sense, when Christmas was Christmas, and when the world seemed to slow down long enough for you to know and to be known, to love and to be loved.
Luke’s story works that way for me.
I can read or hear a single phrase from Luke’s story, and it’s as if Luke takes me by the hand and drags me right into the story.
In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus…and we’re with Mary and Joseph as they make their difficult journey to Bethlehem.
Or…In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night…and we’re there in the fields with those shepherds, staring into the night sky suddenly filled with the splendor of God.
Or…and they found Mary and Joseph—and the child, lying in the manger…and, by simply hearing those words, we’re there among the animals and the shepherds, standing around Mary and Joseph and their newborn son, and none of us knows what to do except Mary. And so there we are—beside her—as she treasures all these words and ponders them in her heart.
I think that’s about the best you can do when you’re swept into the story of good news of a great joy for all people—that a Savior has been born.
To treasure the story.
And to ponder it in our hearts.
Only we do that not simply to experience all the feels—just to go back on some nostalgic journey to a simpler time that—in truth—was nowhere near as simple as we remember it to be. Or as perfect as we wanted it to be.
No Christmas—not even the first one—was ever perfect—except in the way God makes things perfect, which is by taking our feeble efforts and then covering them with grace—the kind of grace that came to life in Jesus.
And maybe the point isn’t just going back to stay there, but to begin again.
I think that’s why so many of us long for this night, when we can gather here for the first time or the hundredth time—with our whole heart believing—or with our heart shattered in a million pieces—with all the faith in the world—or with nothing more than some glimmer of hope that you might somehow discover again what you once believed.
All I know is that standing here among you, hearing the voices around me, seeing the light shining in the darkness—well something happens—and you can call it wishful thinking if you want—nothing but a fairy tale story of a non-existent dream—but for me—when I hear you sing, when I see your faces reflecting the light you hold to scatter the darkness—you remind me once more that nothing is impossible for God.
And I need that reminder this year.
And I’ve listened to enough people around me to know that maybe some of you need it to.
Do you need to remember that God has the power to set things right?
Do you need to remember that no matter how dark it may seem—or how long the night—that the light shines in the darkness and the darkness will never overcome the light?
Do you need to remember that goodness is stronger than evil, that love is stronger than hate, that light is stronger than darkness, that life is stronger than death?
There’s just so much pain, so much hurt, so much anger, so much fear, so much death stalking us these days that it’s almost impossible not to be sucked into the vortex of despair, that place where you begin to wonder whether even God has the power to do anything about it.
I saw that very thing happen on Facebook earlier this week.
Someone shared some words from an old Christmas song called “My Grown Up Christmas List.” Maybe you remember some of the words from that song:
No more lives torn apart.
That wars would never start.
And time would heal all hearts.
And everyone would have a friend.
And right would always win.
And love would never end.
That’s my grown up Christmas list.
While my list would be a bit different, it would hold many of the same hopes:
That forgiveness would be given and received.
That no one would go hungry.
That all would have shelter.
That justice and mercy and love would fill every heart.
That differences would no longer divide us.
Different words, but the same dream for you, for me, for the world.
Only I suspect I would hear the same thing that the only person who offered a comment on the original wrote that day on Facebook: “Good ideas, but very unrealistic unfortunately.”
Maybe hoping for those things is hoping for the impossible.
But I don’t think so.
I think it’s hoping for the very things God has promised to do in Jesus Christ.
For if this is the story is what we believe it to be—if it’s the story of God loving the world enough to be born into it—of God drawing near to set things right—of God showing up with power to save—of God sending the light into the world that no darkness shall ever overcome—then this is a story that not only warms—but stirs—our hearts—stirs them to a deeper love for God and for one another.
I guess I just want to say, “Thanks for being part of the story.”
“And thanks for bearing the light into the world.”
****Originally offered as a homily for Christmas Eve on December 24, 2017 from the pulpit of Massanutten Presbyterian Church. You may listen to an audio recording of the homily on the website at www.massanuttenchurch.org.