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“The Perfect Christmas”

Pastor Wilbert Miller’s Christmas Eve Sermon
“The Perfect Christmas”
December 24, 2016
The Evangelical Lutheran Church of the Holy Trinity-New York City

Don’t you long for the perfect Christmas, one where snow gently falls and your horsedrawn sleigh drops you off right here at Holy Trinity’s doors?  Never mind that there is only a 25% chance of a white Christmas in these parts, we can still harbor dreams of perfection, can’t we?

While dreaming of Christmas perfection, let’s talk a bit about trees.  Dagmar and I recently went on an epic journey in search of our first New York Christmas tree.  The evergreens at Lowes, a mere two blocks from here, appeared exquisite to my clumsy eye but did not measure up to my dear wife’s exacting Teutonic standards.  Both of us regarded the ones sold only three blocks away as stunning though a tad pricey for our proletarian pocketbooks.  Finally, a Holy Trinity parishoner merrily reported to Dagmar that a bodega at 82nd and Columbus was selling enchanting conifers at sensible Manhattan prices.  Eureka!  We discovered our flawless tannenbaum for sixty-five bucks, including free delivery, that is until our salesman found out we live at 65th and Central Park West and grumbled, “Are you kidding me, mister?  We don’t deliver there!”  And so, ever the devoted husband, I risked a coronary and schlepped our seven-foot wonder-tree twenty-two blocks via the arduous Central Park route so as not to impale any innocent pedestrians.

You have likely engaged in similar sapling deliberations: will an artificial tree suffice or must you have the real thing with needles falling all over the living room floor; will your lights yet again be the sublime white ones or might you try something friskier this year like blinking, colored lights with chasers?

What lengths we go seeking perfection and how miserable the never-ending search makes us.  I wonder if that is why God comes to us as a helpless child.  The moment we catch sight of the tiny Babe of Bethlehem, we sense God creeping into our ordinary routines, our petty disputes, and our distressing blunders.

It is almost unimaginable that God comes amidst the messes we have made but you know how the story goes.  Mary and Joseph trudged seventy miles from Nazareth to Bethlehem on dusty, rutted roads just to be enrolled in the census.  Highly pregnant Mary was jarred to and fro on a stubborn, sweaty, swayback donkey.  When the holy family finally arrived, the city of David was nothing more than a backwater Podunk kind of place six miles south of the bustling metropolis of Jerusalem; Bethlehem certainly lacked the obligatory splendor for newborn kings.  Not only that, God’s little family ended up in a rickety shed because even the seedy Econo Lodge and Motel 6 had been booked months in advance; as they say, there was no room in the inn.

At first glance or the thousandth, this story is hopelessly flawed. The inconvenient trip, the half-pint rulers, the fleabag accommodations—everything was bleak.  Quite bluntly, the God of creation came among us in diapers.

You know how messy diapers devastate our visions of sugar plum Christmas perfection—your health is shakier than last year, you obsess over your enduring sorrows, and this ferociously unstable world makes the age of Caesar Augustus seem like an adorable kitty-cat video.

Even with “she gave birth to her first-born son and wrapped him in swaddling cloths” ringing in your ears, candlelight piercing the darkness, and “Silent night, holy night” echoing through this sanctuary, there is a hollowness for some of you.  Even with the Christ Child’s body and blood fresh on your lips, you may still crave something more.

I have adored the picture on this evening’s bulletin since I first saw it a number of years ago at the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church in Berlin.  The Kaiser Wilhelm Church, by the way, is exactly where the truck barreled through the annual Christmas market festivities on Monday, killing twelve and injuring dozens.  (Believe it or not, I had planned to use this picture long before that brutal attack.)

The artist, the Rev. Kurt Reuber, was a pastor and a doctor in the German army during the Battle of Stalingrad in 1942.  More than two million people lost their lives in what is considered the bloodiest battle in history.  Pastor Reuber realized his medical skills were incapable of providing what was ultimately needed so he drew “The Stalingrad Madonna” on the back of his military map (note the fold marks).  The German word Weihnachten (Christmas) appears with licht (light), leben (life), and Liebe (love) along with im Kessel Festung Stalingrad (in the cauldron of the Stalingrad fortress).  Pastor Reuber hung this picture on a wretched bunker wall as a Christmas gift to weary soldiers craving the Christ Child’s presence at their side.  Similar to how God came to shepherds out in the fields, this time God came to terrified soldiers trapped in a ferocious hell.

The “Stalingrad Madonna” is as timely today as it was seventy-four years ago.  Take this picture home with you as a little Christmas gift, hang it on a wall.  May it remind you that God comes to you at all those inopportune moments of imperfection, proclaiming, “for to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.”

We never really are able to choose exactly what our Christmas will be like.  I’ll bet one of you has a diamond ring in your pants pocket and, in a few hours, will ask the lovely person at your side to marry you.  One of you is delighted to have your family together for the first time in quite a while.  For a number of you, this night is tinged with melancholy as you recall Christmases past and those you have deeply loved.

The gift of Christmas is that God comes down from heaven on this holy night and is placed into our hands as a vulnerable Savior, with the words, “This is my body given for you.”  The Christ Child embraces you, not as you wish but just as you are.

May you have a very happy Christmas and may you find perfection beyond all measure with the Christ Child at your side.

“Those Stinking Christmas Letters”

Pastor Wilbert Miller’s Sermon
“Those Stinking Christmas Letters”
December 18, 2016 (4th Sunday of Advent)
Matthew 1: 1-25
Evangelical Lutheran Church of the Holy Trinity-New York City

So, tell me, are your family and friends as brilliant and successful as ours at least according to their Christmas letters?  Do their mistletoe missives overwhelm you with mind-boggling exploits and sentimental cheeriness?  You know: “Little Johnny, only 4 ½ years old, scored twenty-three goals in his first three soccer games as throngs of spellbound scouts from premier colleges looked on.  Dazzling Suzie, a few days shy of ten, presented a dazzling accordion recital in October at the local Y; some believe she may be the first accordion prodigy ever to receive early admission to Julliard.  As for mom and dad, our countless successes simply cannot be contained in this extraordinarily modest Christmas epistle.”

In all these stinking letters, the marriages are tranquil, the children’s exploits mind-boggling, and the trips exotic.  Why isn’t your family perfect?  Why does your beguiling teenager, Brock, regard his biggest—and only—achievement to be keeping his acne under control?  You would never dare mention that your precious little Abigail spends every waking hour locked in her room with shades drawn, obsessing on her iPhone with who knows whom about who knows what.  Add to that, your job stinks and your annual performance evaluation was rotten.

Sometimes coming to church only exacerbates matters.  You sneakily look around and everyone seems so cheery and successful.  You think and spot HER: I’ll bet she finished her Christmas shopping in September and mailed her 200+ Christmas cards the day after Thanksgiving, each with a sweet, personal, hand-written note.

Tell the truth: these idyllic Christmas letters drive you nuts!

Here is some pastoral advice—a Christmas gift really: if you are tired of everyone else looking perfect, read the Christmas story according to Saint Matthew.  This gospel does not resemble Luke’s jollier version where the babe is wrapped in swaddling clothes, the shepherds lovingly tend their adorable sheep by night, and the angels sing enchanting melodies from heaven above.  Matthew’s account tells us more about Joseph and less about Mary and frankly Joseph comes off a bit the buffoon: Mary is in a family way and Matthew ain’t the daddy.  Matthew writes of Joseph’s baffling quandary, “Being a righteous man and unwilling to expose [Mary] to public disgrace, [he] planned to dismiss her quietly.”  That is, of course, until an angel appears and says, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit.”

Matthew includes this tawdry mess in his Christmas letter.  Can you believe it—there for all the world to read!  Would you tell others that your daughter is pregers and no one has yet figured out who pops is?  Come on: you would never want Aunt Tilley and Uncle Tito catching whiff of this humiliating scandal.

Today, wishing to spare you the agony, we opted not to read the first sixteen verses of Matthew’s gospel known as the genealogy of Jesus Christ.  While the thought of Jesus’ family tree may sound fascinating to you, the church has avoided Matthew 1: 1-17 like liver and onions, never, ever reading it aloud on any Sunday morning in the entire three-year lectionary cycle.  And when people attempt to read through the Bible in a year, these long lists of descendants are usually skipped over with ne’er a misgiving.  That all means, we never may know the whole truth and nothing but the truth about Jesus’ family.

Just for fun, let me read you a few verses: “An account of the genealogy of Jesus the Messiah, the son of David, the son of Abraham.  Abraham was the father of Isaac, and Isaac the father of Jacob, and Jacob the father of Judah and his brothers, and Judah the father of Perez and Zerah by Tamar, and Perez the father of Hezron, and Hezron the father of Aram, and Aram the father of Aminadab, and Aminadab the father of Nahshon, and Nahshon the father of Salmon, and Salmon the father of Boaz by Rahab, and Boaz the father of Obed by Ruth, and Obed the father of Jesse, and Jesse the father of King David…”  It goes on ad nauseam until, mercifully, we arrive at this: “…Jacob the father of Joseph the husband of Mary, of whom Jesus was born, who is called the Messiah.”

In those initial verses, you hear things about Jesus’ family that make your blood curl and cause you to feel a lot better about your family.  While we won’t delve into Jesus’ entire family history this morning, trust me when I tell you, it is filled with murderers and scoundrels, cheats, adulterers, and harlots.   If you don’t believe me, go home this afternoon and investigate who exactly Tamar and Rahab and Jacob and David are; see what mischief and mayhem they mastermind.  I warn you: keep your Bible inside a brown paper sack—it is disgusting stuff.

Why aren’t the revolting exploits of Jesus’ ancestors left out of the Bible or at least doctored up so polite company like us will not be offended only a few days before Christmas?  And yet, isn’t this the kind of Christmas letter you read from start to finish; its candor makes you feel so much better about your own bumbling family.

Saint Matthew’s Christmas letter tells us the truth about the folks God chooses to hang around with in this world.  God does not come to an imaginary wonderland abounding in purity and loveliness; God comes to a real world teeming with mayhem and tomfoolery…a world just like ours.

If you wish, you can look around this room and make believe others are far more perfect than you but I promise you…I promise you…this simply is not the case: no one here today is perfect, thus saith the Lord!  In every age, God comes amidst scoundrels and misfits, cranks and foul-ups, among people just like us.  To know this is receive the greatest Christmas gift of all because “unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given.”

On behalf of all those naughty and zany people in Jesus’ family, I wish you a very blessed Christmas.  Like Joseph, may you know the Christ Child coming to you.

Services for Christmastide at Holy Trinity

Services for Christmastide at Holy Trinity

Please join us for worship during this special time of year! Our Christmastide schedule is below; to view our full worship schedule, click here.

Sunday, December 18, 4th Sunday of Advent

11:00 AM –  Mass

5:00 PM – Lessons & Carols

Saturday, December 24th, Christmas Eve

5:00 PM – The Christ Mass

10:30 PM – The Christ Mass

Sunday, December 25th, Christmas Day

11:00 AM – The Christ Mass

Sunday, January 1st, The Name of Jesus

11:00 AM – Mass

Thursday, January 5, The Eve of Epiphany

7:00 PM – Mass