Welcome to Christ Church on Christmas Eve! Welcome to one and all. And, as we say every year, an extra welcome to all the CEO’s out there. That is, those who come to church on Christmas, Easter, and Other special occasions. Each of you is right where you need to be tonight. No matter who you are, whether you are a believer, bored, faithful or fearful or all of the above: tonight you are here to hear about the baby born in Bethlehem.
Chances are, you’ve heard this story before, probably many times before. But, it’s a story we want to hear again and again, don’t we? When William Faulkner was a visiting professor at UVA, an interviewer asked, “Some people say they can’t understand your writing, even after they read it two or three times. What approach would you suggest for them?” Faulkner replied, “Read it four times.” He wasn’t joking.
Thankfully the Christmas story isn’t difficult to understand, and reading it a fourth or even four hundredth time is a pleasure. Although, sometimes it does take at least a few hearings to get the facts straight. Last week a Christ Church mom asked her daughter what she had learned in Children’s Chapel. The little girl replied, “I learned that Jesus was born in Neverland!”“Neverland? Really?”the mom asked. “Well, maybe it was Never-ham, or Bethle-land. Not sure.”
The girl’s reply perfectly captures a common misappraisal of Christmas. Neverland is an imaginary, faraway place where children never grow up. It’s not a real place with real problems. It’s a magical, mythical place set apart from the realities of the grown up world. I was never a big Peter Pan fan, but I sure like the idea of a place that rebuffs the difficulties and strife of life.
Many of us look to Christmas to do just that. Christmas provokes a nostalgia for childhood, a longing for a pocket of peace amidst the onslaught of real-life issues. In Neverland, you don’t have to worry about how to pay for the presents that won’t be appreciated. In Neverland, you don’t have to think about which divorced parent to visit with the grandchildren over the holiday. In Neverland, you don’t have to worry if someone you love is drinking too much.
In Neverland, there is no anxiety or illness or ennui. In Neverland, there are no fires or floods, no shootings or assaults, no government shutdowns, no wars or rumors of wars. In Neverland, all is merry and bright. Even the original Captain Hook, the closest thing to a threat in Neverland, was apparently a very decent fellow who attended Eton and Oxford and said things like, “Jolly good, Old Chap!”
The good news of great joy for all people is that Jesus was not born in Neverland. He was born in Bethlehem. Why is this good news? It’s good news because Bethlehem was and is a real place with real problems. It’s not magical and mythical. Mary and Joseph likely wished they were in Neverland. Surely in Neverland there would have been room for them at the Inn.
Instead they found themselves on the way to Bethlehem in order to pay taxes.
The reality is that Joseph and Mary were homeless refugees, fleeing an oppressive government. Mary was an unwed teen mother with no insurance. And as an OB friend of mine says, “Joseph was a Hebrew man whose closest experience of childbirth was probably the family sheep.” The baby was born on the run, in a stable, away from friends and family, without medical help or attention or drugs.
The bible says it this way. “And she brought forth her first born son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger, because there was no room for him at the inn.” Talk about real life problems. Giving birth in a feeding trough after riding a donkey on the lam? Even the beautiful King James language can’t entirely obfuscate the fear and anxiety that must have been present in the scene. Nor can the admittedly clever sign I saw outside a country church in Madison County – “The Manger: The First King Sized Bed.”
That Jesus was born in Bethlehem rather than Neverland is good news of great joy for all people because God has come into the world – into your world – as it actually is. I love what Bishop Susan Goff says in her Christmas Message. “God chose to be born as one of us in the middle of fear, in the darkness of night, in the bleakness of a world gone wrong. In Christ Jesus, God chose to become our hope, our light, our joy. In Christ Jesus, God lived and died and rose again to show us that fear never has the last word, that light shines in the darkness, that love can and does and will prevail.”
In other words, if Jesus was born in Neverland, then we are all on our own in this world gone wrong. But since He was born in Bethlehem, then Jesus is born straight into your actual life. He was born in it and born for it. His love for you can and does and will prevail. There is nothing difficult to understand about that!
So hear the story one more time. “And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid. And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David – the city of Bethlehem – a Savior, which is Christ the Lord.”
Merry Christmas and Amen!