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.