(shared with the people of Friendship Church, December 12, 2004)
It was our first Christmas Eve at the first church I pastored, up in northwestern Ohio. After several years of living in places like concrete block-apartments and fishing cabins, we were living in a house, the parsonage provided for us by our congregation.
We had made wonderful Christmas plans. Ann’s family would come up for Christmas Eve. We would have Christmas dinner and let the little ones open their gifts before the church Christmas Pageant. Then, after that service, we’d go back to the house, where the adults would exchange gifts.
Christmas Eve arrived and everything was going fine. We’d had our meal and the two cousins aware enough of things to do so, including our son, then three, had opened their gifts. I was upstairs, dressing for the service, when I heard a wailing.
It was our son. He’d tried on one of his Christmas presents, a firefighter’s helmet topped with a flashing red light and screaming siren. He’d been tearing around the house with this thing, but found it a bit top heavy. He tripped and fell into the sharp corner of a coffee table. He put a gash in his forehead and we knew that he’d need stitches.
So, my brothers-in-law and I took him to Henry County Hospital in Napoleon. We left in such a hurry, that I neglected to take a diaper bag and in the midst of the frenzy, Phil did what children do when their dads forget to take diaper bags. Here we were on a frigid Christmas Eve, me holding my son close, while one of my brothers-in-law held a cold compress on his cut to stop the bleeding, the windows rolled down to protect us from the stench. It was a wild ride!
Needless to say, my son, my brothers-in-law, and I missed my first Christmas Eve as a pastor. Our son, now twenty-three, still has a scar on his forehead, and our family has a Christmas memory that we recite to one another almost every year. And it underscores an important lesson: In life, don’t take your plans too seriously; expect the unexpected.
Sometimes, the unexpected things that happen in life are miracles from God. John William Smith was a young teacher who taught high schoolers in an old, semi-dilapidated school in the inner-city. Christmas was Smith’s favorite holiday and he determined to make this Christmas a special one for his students. He got permission to put a blue spruce Christmas tree at the very center of his classroom.
Then, he asked all 120 students he taught to bring one ornament from home. He was amazed at how well the kids responded to that request. Some brought homemade decorations. Some had even made special purchases, indicating that they probably had no ornaments at home.
His students were a raucous bunch, apt to fight at the least provocation. They even fought over who had dibs on where they hung their ornaments. If somebody brought no ornament or two ornaments, someone else was quick to pick a fight with them. Smith says that it was a terrible time for him: He wanted this to be a joyous memory for the kids and he feared that it wouldn’t be.
After the tree was decorated, Smith spent an entire school day, each and every period, explaining what Christmas was about, what it meant to him, and what he felt it should be like. In addition, though he didn’t know whether he should do it or not, Smith decided to read aloud to his students the Bible’s accounts of Jesus’ birth on the first Christmas (see here and here) and then began to read A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens. Of that, Smith says:
Many of [the students] were moved. I could tell. In one class, one of the girls began to cry when it appeared that Tiny Tim was going to die--not loudly, but someone noticed and ridiculed her. “Hey, look, Brenda’s crying.” “I am not,” she sobbed, “and I’ll smash your face if you say I am.” That’s when Jim [the biggest kid in the class, a kid who was tough but never looked for trouble] stood up....[Jim grabbed the boy who’d made fun of Brenda]...by the shirt collar. He jerked him out of his seat and held him with his feet about six inches off the floor...[and said,] “You shut your filthy, big mouth. Let her cry if she wants to. I might cry myself, and if I do, you’d better start crying too, or I’ll give you something to cry about. Now, I’m gonna hear the rest of this story, and I mean to hear it without no stops” [from you].Smith continued reading the story and the kids loved it, for the same reason, he believed, that they had loved the story of Jesus’ birth. As Smith explains it:
“[Jesus] was poor and they were poor, and he was oppressed--the underdog--and they saw themselves as oppressed, as always being the underdogs--and they were. For all their toughness, Jesus and Tiny Tim melted them.”Smith says that sharing Christmas with these young people brought something unexpected into their lives: the kindness, the gentleness, the love of a God so wonderful and so committed to us that He became a baby who soiled His diaper and years later, went to a cross to die for us, only to rise three days later, opening up eternity to all who follow Him.
God’s love, come to us at Christmastime, is a miracle. Today’s Bible lesson tells us that even Mary, Jesus’ earthly mother, thought so. She might have thought differently. (I think I would have thought differently were I in her place.) Here she was, an impoverished girl of maybe fourteen or fifteen, engaged and not yet married, a virgin, pregnant. An angel tells her that she is to give birth to the Savior of the world. She might have feared that people wouldn’t believe this fantastic story. The law in those days called for women who were unwed and pregnant to be taken outside of town and stoned to death. For much of the rest of her life, Mary bore the derision of many who claimed that Jesus was the result of Mary having sexual intimacy outside of marriage.
Yet Mary isn’t bitter toward God, even though God has handed her an unexpected and almost unbearable change in the plans she had for her life. Shortly after learning that she was to give birth to Jesus, she traveled to see her relative, Elizabeth, a post-menopausal woman who was also pregnant. She was to give birth to John the Baptist. Mary immediately tells Elizabeth how blessed she feels:
“Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed; for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is His Name!”Mary became the first person to welcome Jesus, to believe in Him.
She understood that the very fact that God had chosen someone like her to be Jesus’ mother signaled something very important: God means to lift up the lowly and bring down those who arrogantly think they can live without God. It’s all there in her words to Elizabeth:
“[God] has shown strength with His arm; He has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; He has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.”Mary knew that God is the master of interrupting our plans, replacing them with His plans for everbody's good! She knew what we must know, that in Jesus Christ, God reached down to touch and change us with His tough and tender love.
It was Christmas morning and Mass was being disrupted. A man, who appeared to be a homeless bum, wrapped in a blanket, and set amid the congregation, was snoring loudly. Father John figured the guy had entered the church building to get warm and had fallen asleep. Some church members laughed. Some expressed disgust.
But then it happened. A child asked, “Do you think he had a nice Christmas too, Mommy?” And another wondered, “God loves Him, too, doesn’t He?” Still another child asked, “Daddy, can’t we share our Christmas with him? Can I have some money? I won’t wake him up. Promise.”
A little girl stood up, moved toward the sleeping vagrant, and gently dropped some money onto his blanket. As Father John blessed the congregation signaling the end of the Mass, others--children and adults--moved silently toward the man, placing and dropping ones and fives and tens on his blanket.
Sometime later, the congregation gone, the priest approached the man and gently reached out to wake the man. It was then that Father John recognized him as Chris Gregory, a fireman and paramedic he’d known for years. “What’s this?” Chris wondered, as he saw all the money.
Chris apologized for falling asleep during Mass and explained that he’d been on three different fire calls the night before. The last one included a girl about to give birth who had sought relief from the frigid temperatures by standing close to the fire. She was in labor and Chris delivered the baby right there on the street. After that, he’d gone to the hospital to make sure the girl was okay and stayed longer than he’d planned.
So, dissheveled and sooty, he drove straight to Christmas morning Mass, intending to go home and sleep afterwards. He felt embarrassed that he’d fallen asleep during worship. But Father John made a suggestion. “Suppose we divide the money--all $600.00 of it. Half you take to that poor girl to help with her expenses. The other half I’ll take to the soup kitchen.”
When the love of Jesus comes to us, as it did to that Church one Christmas morning, amazing things can happen. We learn to lay aside our plans and instead, let God make plans for us. And we learn that His plans are always best.
As we prepare to celebrate Christmas, let’s be open to allowing God to interrupt our plans and to welcome Jesus in whatever ways He comes to us.
[Dealing with this text was inspired by a message by Pastor Michael Foss. The true story of the sleeping firefighter was told by him there. It originally came from Chicken Soup for the Soul Christmas Treasury.
[John William Smith tells the true story of his Christmas with inner-city students in Hugs for the Holidays.]