Grace Presbyterian Church
December 24, 2015, Christmas Eve C
Isaiah 9:2-7; Luke 2:1-20
John Bell, a hymn writer and leader of the Iona Community in Scotland, occasionally gives talks on the subject of the songs we sing as congregations and the ways they shape our thinking about God, for better or for worse. Bell is particularly keen to point out that our hymns and even carols sometimes have a really bad habit of putting in our heads very unrealistic images. For example, Bell cites the carol “Away in a Manger,” in which we are informed that even though “the cattle are lowing, the baby awakes, but Little Lord Jesus, no crying he makes.” Given the scene in which the infant Jesus is resting in a feed trough, with cattle and who knows what other animals are “lowing” and probably worse, I’ve always thought Bell’s response to that “no crying” line was quite on point: “Why not? What’s wrong with him?”
Even though we will in fact sing “Silent Night” toward the conclusion of the service, we need to be able to acknowledge that the Nativity was probably a bit more chaotic scene than we might imagine in our Christmas carol-informed minds. Because there was “no place for them in the inn,” Joseph and Mary had been shunted aside into an animal stall of some sort, where the newborn child Jesus was wrapped up in cloths and laid in a manger. There was no room in that inn most likely because the Roman emperor of the time had ordered an empire-wide census of all of the residents within the Roman realm, which led to the chaos of families and individuals packed up and returning to their family hometowns to be counted (remember this in 2020, and be glad all you have to do is fill out a form). Bethlehem wasn’t exactly a bustling metropolis, so the number of people filling the inn argued against quiet as well.
The animals accustomed to having the stall to themselves were most likely a bit unsettled by the presence of these unfamiliar humans in their space, and were likely making noise about it. Finally, the act of childbirth itself is not exactly a stress-free experience for most; if Mary was in fact quiet and silent, it was quite possibly because after their stressful travel and then giving birth, she was exhausted.
Finally, the child. Children are chaotic creatures. Whether it is the infant crying out for no apparent reason, or the toddler who can inexplicably get to everything in the house no matter how you child-proof it, or the twelve-year-old who really knows how to cause trouble (that’s a preview of Sunday’s sermon, by the way), children tend to wreak havoc. In short, no matter what Joseph Mohr and Franz Gruber might have come up with, it’s pretty unlikely that the night of Jesus’s birth was anything at all like a “silent night.”
And that, my friends, is part – a big part – of the good news.
The kind of event Isaiah’s prophecy describes isn’t “quiet” news, for one thing. It’s joyful news, it’s news of something exciting and uplifting that God’s people will be delivered. It’s exciting that “a child has been born for us” – how many times do you hear an announcement about a new or impending birth being greeted by demure, polite commentary? No, people shout and laugh and make joyful noise. Isaiah truly wouldn’t get this business of a silent night.
Luke’s own account is pretty chaotic as well, even once you get past the actual birth itself. As if Mary weren’t wiped out enough, here come these shepherds, rousted from their pastoral duties by a decidedly unquiet “multitude of the heavenly host” singing their most unquiet song about “Glory to God in the highest heaven.” As the angels have told them, the shepherds do indeed go and find “Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in a manger,” which was a wonder for the shepherds but a little bit of a riot for the new parents, having a bunch of shepherds who had likely been out in the fields for weeks suddenly crowding into the stall.
No, it’s not a silent night, and that is good news.
God does not wait around for our lives to be perfect and orderly and prim and proper before breaking in on our world. God doesn’t wait for a room to open up at the Hampton Inn (or at Shands for that matter) before being born. God doesn’t wait until you’re ready for a holiday open house or homes tour before bursting into our lives with the deliverance and salvation we didn’t even know we needed. God comes to us when the time is right, not necessarily when we’re ready.
Amidst the chaos and clutter, “a child has been born for us.” Amidst the uncertainty and fear and disquiet of our own lives, “a son given to us.” Even as we face disorder and chaos and illness and even death, the angels deliver “good news of great joy for all the people,” even us. The one is born who will be called “Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace,” whether everything is peaceful and orderly or not.
And this, maybe more than anything else about this night, is good news.
Thanks be to God. Amen.
Hymns: “O Come, All Ye Faithful” (PH 41); “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” (PH 31); “Good Christian Friends, Rejoice” (PH 28); “The First Nowell” (PH 56); “Silent Night, Holy Night” (PH 60); “It Came Upon the Midnight Clear” (GtG 123)