Pastor Wilbert Miller’s Sermon
“Glad Tidings of Great Joy”
Luke 2: 1-20
Christmas Eve (December 24, 2017)
The Evangelical Lutheran Church of the Holy Trinity
New York City at Central Park
On behalf of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of the Holy Trinity, I wish you a very happy Christmas! Your presence adds wonder to this holy night and we are thrilled that you are here!
Let me offer my sincerest apologies in advance with hopes that I don’t place a damper on this glorious Christmas evening. Every preaching professor vehemently warns against what I am about to do. But please bear with me as I tell you the truth this one time.
Over the past forty-one years, I have found preparing Christmas Eve sermons an excruciatingly grueling task and this one has been even more so. It isn’t because I began preparing yesterday at the last minute; oh no, I have pondered this sermon for months, meditating on Saint Luke’s Christmas gospel, reading sermons of the great preachers, and perusing my file of Christmas quotes stowed away just for this extraordinary evening. I know you come with great anticipation: to behold stunning decorations, to sing glorious carols, and to be bathed in beautiful candlelight. I suspect you even come with hopes of being transfixed by this sermon, or at the very least, hoping it will be mercifully brief.
That’s why I have toiled over this sermon. I have stared into space for hours on end, frantically searching for a salutary word worth saying to you and just as quickly deleting each typed word as too mediocre and unfitting for a night such as this. Some of our staff have peeked into my office and asked, “Is everything alright, Wilk?” My best guess why it is so impossible to prepare this blasted thing is because I so desperately want it to be perfect for you and, as you have already surmised, perfection is beyond my grasp and, as you all know, that can be terribly discouraging.
The difficult part does not come in reflecting on that first Christmas 2000 years ago—that’s easy. Mary and Joseph placing the Babe in a manger because there was no room in the inn, angels announcing “glad tidings of great joy” to the shepherds and the shepherds then running off to Bethlehem to see the great thing that had taken place—we love this story and are enchanted by the wonder of it all; it grows in every new telling in indescribable ways.
We also love embellishing the story, adding a little here, a bit there, trying to make it more perfect than it was the first time around. Think of “Away in the Manger”: “The cattle are lowing; the baby awakes, but little Lord Jesus, no crying he makes…” Really? The Bible never mentions the baby Jesus not crying but we have romanticized his birth to make it flawless. And that other carol, “Silent Night”: you will easily sing the words without the program in a few minutes, “All is calm, all is bright,” and tears will roll down your cheeks—I hate to disillusion you but my instincts suggest that Bethlehem, rather than being silent, was a raucous place with frazzled throngs dashing this way and that to sign up for Emperor Augustus’ exasperating registration.
We have even touched up the Christmas story in our northern climes to make it even more enchanting, adding ever-present Christmas trees no matter that the trees must be shipped in from Vermont and Pennsylvania and Quebec. And then there is that dreaming of a white Christmas: did you know there is only a 22% chance of it ever snowing in New York City on Christmas Eve? But I will confess, that part about hearing sleigh bells—perhaps no snow but if you wander over to Central Park following our Christmas Eve celebration you might hear the jingle, jingle of horse drawn carriages—exquisite but not quite perfect.
While the memories of yesteryear are enchanting, they can play tricks on us and haunt us pretty badly. A baby that doesn’t cry, a silent night, sleigh bells in the snow—is it any wonder we never achieve perfection in our family gatherings and personal lives and even in the sermons we write and hear? Is it surprising that some call Christmas “depression alley” as we stare idly into space, realizing we will never experience the perfection our memories and dreams create?
Oh, for sure, we should remember Mary and Joseph and the baby Jesus; we should fondly recall going to Christmas Eve Candlelight services with grandma and grandpa and mom and dad years ago. And yet, the wonder of Christmas is not just that God came 2000 years ago but that God comes tonight and tells us, “For unto you is born this day a Savior.” God comes, not amidst the perfection we long for, but amidst our mixed-up lives, cockeyed country, and reeling world. Think of Emperor Augustus and wicked Herod, the befuddled husband and the highly pregnant teenager on a sweaty donkey’s back about to give birth to the Son of God here on earth; ponder the stinking stable and the pushy crowds. That’s how Christmas was the first time around and, dear friends, that is how it is tonight…Hardly perfect, but, then again, when God comes to town, Christmas is always perfect. It is as if God says, “Perfect or not, here I come.”
I invite you in a few moments to cup your hands and watch mother Mary gently place her precious Child into the manger you have created; listen attentively as she lovingly says to you, “The body of the Christ Child given for you.”
I pray that in years to come you will have fond memories of worshiping here tonight and that those memories will help you discover the Christ Child wherever you may be and in whatever you face. Even when all is not quite perfect—just like this sermon—may God come to you and proclaim glad tidings of great joy, “ For unto you is born this night a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord.”