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Sermon: Christmas Eve 2010

January 3, 2011

I don’t normally write out my sermons, but when we have a homoletical marathon like we did this Christmas, having a text is invaluable to me! I am indebted to N.T. Wright’s excellent book, Simply Christian, for getting me started thinking about the idea of an echo in this context.


Christmas Eve, Year A – December 24, 2010
“The Christmas Echo”
The Nevil Memorial Church of St. George
Ardmore, PA

Isaiah 9: 2 – 7  •  Psalm 96   •  Titus 2: 11 – 14   •   Luke 2: 1 – 20


In my cousin’s family, they have an odd little Christmas tradition that I grew up hearing about, but never participated in myself.  Maybe some of you have heard of this tradition?  It involves hanging a particular, peculiar ornament deep in the boughs of your Christmas tree.  The ornament is a glass pickle, and it might look like this [hold up pickle].  The first child in my cousin’s family who found the pickle on Christmas morning would receive a prize of some kind, usually a $5 bill.  And so, it became part of my tradition every year to find out who found the pickle.  It’s a silly little tradition really, but the fact that it is a family tradition is what makes it important.  I am sure all you here tonight have family traditions that you hold dear, but when you try and explain them to others, sound a little idiosyncratic.  But that’s half the fun of it!

So, one year during Advent I think, I preached a sermon about the importance of traditions and I told this story about the Christmas pickle.  Two things happened after the sermon.  One, a number of people came up and asked me if I hung a Christmas pickle on my tree and when I told them, “No, I don’t even own a pickle ornament,” it wasn’t long before a couple of generous parishioners provided me with one.  I think we have two or three different Christmas pickle ornaments now!  The second thing that happened was some parishioners informed me that the Christmas pickle tradition was an old German tradition.  And indeed, when I received one of my pickle ornaments, it came complete with a little story about its German origin.  Being the kind if historically inquisitive person I am, I did some research on the German tradition because I wanted to know more, and let me tell you, I was shocked at what I discovered.


As it turns out, the idea that the Christmas pickle is an old German tradition is made up.  Entirely made up.  You can go home tonight, look it up on the internet and see for yourself just how made up it is.  But what interests me is the fact that we felt the need to devise a history for something, as if we needed to lend the tradition credibility of some sort.  To me, the hanging of the Christmas pickle and calling it Deutsch is a pretty endearing, uniquely American tradition that stands all on its own.  If we look deeper though, what it says about us is that we are a people searching for meaning, yearning for substance.  It is as if we have heard a voice crying out in a canyon and went chasing the echo, rather than looking behind us and seeing the person who called out in the first place.


Another way to think about that idea is how Bishop N.T. Wright puts it in his book, “Simply Christian.”  He speaks of this search for meaning in the context of dreaming.  This is another experience we all have had:  you are having a dream, it might be profound, moving, or wonderful.  But then you wake up and you have instantly forgotten what you dreamt.  The ethereal fingers of your mind clutch helplessly at the fleeting and swiftly dissipating images.  And just like that, it is gone.  But it has left you with a certain feeling of longing to remember, longing to relive the scenes so recently played out in your unconsciousness.


The thing I want to tell you tonight, on this beautiful, sacred night, the one thing I want you to come away from the service feeling and knowing deep in your bones is that that dream we are so trying to relive, that voice whose echo we are chasing, is God.   But you already know that, don’t you?  You can already feel that?  Buried, deep within souls, within your human experience of life and all its soaring heights and tragic depths and everything that makes up the middle.  It’s there, isn’t it?  It’s always been there.  We know this because from our very earliest days, Bishop Wright reminds us, we’ve known.  He says that every time we hear a child cry out, “But, that’s not fair!” we are hearing an echo of the very rightness of God and God’s vision for us, His people.  We know that vision well, but it is one that, like a swiftly fading dream, we seem to have forgotten how to hold on to.  That’s our human story.  It’s become so commonplace, our forgetfulness, that every time we hear a news story of a murder, of a family losing their home to a fire, or of a war, we shake our heads in despair and in depressed acceptance.  And yet, something deep inside of us knows that it isn’t right.  There’s an echo of something greater, something more, and if we focus on that echo, and let it lead us back to the original voice that declared that all of creation was very good, we will start to feel a certain energy in ourselves.  A very recognizable energy.  Sometimes, around this particular time of year, that energy is called the Christmas Spirit.  But it is way, way more than that.


Look at everything around you!  Look at everyone who has put up Christmas lights, who have adorned their cars with wreaths, who have dropped spare change into a Salvation Army bucket or volunteered to ring those little bells out in the cold.  Look at all the TV shows and the special radio programs, at all of the concerts and benefits and parties and gatherings.  Look at our own Tommy’s Gift for Kids program!  Look into a child’s eyes, glistening with excitement, as they see it all again, as if for the first time.  Do you hear what I hear?  A song, a song, high above the trees, with a voice as big as the sea!  All of these things are the echoes of God’s mighty voice, but we’ve forgotten the source a bit, haven’t we?


And why have we forgotten that source?  Why have we forgotten that the echo belongs to God’s voice, ringing in us like a tuning fork vibrating a certain holy pitch?  We have forgotten it because the messengers of God’s grace manifested in the Church have all too often displayed their own human brokenness and not sought reconciliation!  Mother Church might cry out with all her might her Christmas Alleluias, but we have taught the people that we cannot be trusted.  That our voice does not lead to truth.  But this is not the first time this has happened.  In fact, this has happened as long as humanity’s history has been recorded.  But despite that, and throughout that history, there have been those that knew the source of the echo, the giver of the dream.  There have been those who were bold enough to stand up in the face of danger and proclaim the name of God to the powers and dominions of this world.  Through them, God has called us to return to Him, again and again.  Sometimes we would listen, sometimes we wouldn’t.  Eventually, God had to turn to a more dramatic measure.

In the fullness of time, (which is another way of saying, ‘just at the right time,’ or ‘just in the nick of time’) God did something very special.  God sent his voice, his Word, into the world in the form of Jesus the Christ, God’s own and only Son.  No longer would we have to hear the echo; the Word walked among us.  But history has a way of repeating itself, and we rejected God’s Word and sent Him back.  But God did not ever leave us alone, despite our best efforts.  God is and always will be, with us.  We just have to hear God’s voice in whatever way we can.


Everything we see around us this Christmas season, every tree and decoration, every gift given and received – they are all echoes of a Truth, echoes of the Word that once walked among us as one of us, that came to us an innocent little baby.  Even when someone is trying to be politically correct and wishes “Happy Holidays,” even that is an echo.  Holiday comes from holy day.  Merry Christmas might be a bit of a louder echo, from Christ Mass, but even that is an echo.  It is up to us if we want to hear the voice and it is up to us if we want others to hear the voice of God rather than the paltry, commercialized echoes that surround us.  It is up to us if we want to recognize that the energy we call this time of year “The Christmas Spirit” is actually the energy of the holiness and the rightness and the goodness of God, which in Jesus was pleased to dwell.  It is up to us if we want to spread the righteousness and the justice and the peace of God that Jesus showed us was possible beyond this season.  It is up to us to be those signposts on the way, to quit pointing to ourselves in whom the echo has a tendency to die out from lack of nourishment, and to point to God who is the source of the echo, the Word:  the Way, the Truth, and the Life.


We are a people looking for meaning and yearning for substance.  We desperately need those things.  Our world desperately needs those things.  So, let us recognize this night that that meaning, that substance, that life, was all shown to us in the only way we could ever really understand it.  As one of us.  As a human being, yet fully God.  Born this night as a baby, in the city of David.  Our Savior.  Let us recognize that fact tonight and carry it with us out into our world, into our lives as we go forth from this place.  Let us be like the shepherds, who with all creation cried “Hallelujah!” and told abroad the story of the infant King, who was God made flesh.


Listen closely and you’ll hear it.  The echo this night is particularly strong and if you listen, you’ll be able to tell where it came from.  You’ll be able to follow it back to its source, like some Wise Men of old who followed a star.  Are you following it?  There!  That’s it!  In the stable!  That’s not the echo anymore, but the very voice of God, crying in His mother’s arms, surrounded by angels singing, “Glory to God in the Highest and on earth peace, goodwill toward men.”


Isaiah said that a little child shall lead us.  Let the Holy Child this night show us the way.  Hallelujah!




Fr. Ryan+

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