This sermon was written for a Christmas Eve on which the Church of the Epiphany hosted a pick-up pageant, invited any and all children to come and pick out a costume to join in the play as they arrived in the church that evening. No one knew who to expect, or how many, or whether it would work. I’ll let you know!
There is always a sense of trepidation in trying something new for the first time. I know that for many of you, these pageant costumes are as old as your memories, but they have been packed away for a long, long time, and they are doing a new thing tonight, with new characters to try them on and bring to life for us that ancient Christmas story.
There was so much that we didn’t know, going into this. We didn’t know if we could find the costumes, or what state they would be in (we did wash them); we didn’t know who would be here tonight, and whether they would want to be part of the play, and how it would all work out. But we trusted that our worship is acceptable to God when we play with it out of love, out of reverence and gratitude for all that God has done for us.
There was a whole lot that Mary and Joseph didn’t know, going into all of this. They had a long journey, from Nazareth to Bethlehem, and they didn’t know whether the baby would arrive in the middle of the night in the middle of the desert along the way, and they didn’t know when they got there where they would stay, and no new parent knows, really, the first time around, what to expect when those first twinges start and the baby announces that, ready or not, it’s on its way. There’s a lot they had to take on trust, that God was with them, and would see them through.
The animals were truly out of the loop in terms of knowing what to expect. Their routine was pretty well set: at sundown they got fed, then the innkeeper went to bed, and they would snuggle down for the night and snore till sun-up. Not tonight; they were woken up, their beds borrowed, their feed tray invaded by a squalling new infant, hairless and strange to them, but rather lovely. The animals didn’t know what to expect, but they were very kind, making room, sharing their home, warming their unexpected guests.
The shepherds were just plain astonished. They had never dreamed of anything like this, angels singing and the sky lit up like Christmas (see what I did there?). I don’t know what the angels were expecting, but they might have been a little nervous about how the shepherds would react. I would be. And the sheep were simply not used to being left behind, so they tagged along to the stable, and everyone looked at each other, amazed and bewildered but incredibly happy to be there.
And that’s just the thing about God, about Jesus, about Christmas and Easter and everything else. It’s all so unexpected and unpredictable – who would have thought that God could be born as a baby and still be God? It’s amazing! Who would have thought that God could be killed as a criminal? It’s beyond believing. Who would have thought that a man could rise from the dead and kick closed the doors of death behind him? It’s astonishing.
We live in an unpredictable world, and we rarely know what is going to happen next. Sometimes, as with presents under the tree, surprises are good. Sometimes, the uncertainty that troubles a life is almost unbearable. But when we find ourselves here, at the manger, with Mary and Joseph, embarking on a whole new journey of parenthood, with the animals, generously making room and sharing, with the shepherds, who are just plain astonished, and the angels, keeping watch over these flocks by night – when we find ourselves here, a little bewildered as to how we got here, and not sure what will happen next, we might remember that as unpredictable and unexpected as God is, God is always Emmanuel, always with us, in the confusion and in the joy.
The reason we tell this story time and again is not because it’s the usual story, but because it is so astonishing, that God would be born as a baby and still be God, just to be with us, just to love us and bring us home, that we tend to forget it from one Christmas to the next. So I thank our brave pageant players for giving us such a wonderful image of God’s grace, to carry in our memories, to refer to on the days when we wonder how we got here, and where we will go next.
May the light of God guide you, the whimsy of God entertain you, and the warm embrace of God enfold you this Christmastide, and until we meet again.