So the baby is born in a barn after a long hard journey by Mary and Joseph from Nazareth to Bethlehem, a journey no pregnant woman should have to make, yet a journey made because it has been compelled by the distant dictator ruling the known world, Caesar Augustus, who declared himself to be the son of God.
But the true son of God is born in a barn, because there is no room for him in the inn, born in the midst of stench and filth.
Part of what is so powerful about the Christmas story is that it pulls no punches in describing the darkness of this world – the darkness into which the bearer of the true light was born. Life in this world, the story acknowledges, can be very, very hard.
The story continues from where Bob left off, and I am willing to bet that everyone here this night has heard before the telling of what follows in Luke’s story that I am about to play for you. In playful cartoon fashion, it portrays something of the same darkness – a kind of darkness we have all at one time or other know. And that is the darkness of self-contempt that Charlie Brown knew.
“That’s what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown.”
In the end Christmas isn’t something we do, because we like poor Charlie Brown can’t fix ourselves. It is something God chooses to do for each one of us, out of great love — the gift of a savior who enters our darkness, born to a homeless family, for whom there was no room in the inn, his birth announced first of all to poor shepherds, for whom there was no room in the towns and villages. The savior comes to those left out of the circles of this world, declaring that there is room for every single human being in the great circle of God’s love.
Like the clip that I just showed you, there’s a movie that I would be willing to bet pretty much every one of you has seen, that for me expresses something of what Christmas is all about. It was made in 1946 and wasn’t such a great hit when it came out. You probably have guessed what movie I’m talking about: “It’s a Wonderful Life”. It tells the story of George Bailey, who grows up in the little town of Bedford Falls, with big dreams of leaving the town to win fame and fortune. In the course of his life, however, George is presented with choices to make which, if, he is going to do the right thing — the decent thing – will mean sacrificing those cherished dreams.
The movie even has it’s own version of Caesar Augustus, or more exactly, evil King Herod from Matthew’s version of Jesus’ birth, the sinister Mr. Potter who connives to crush the little ones that God cherishes.
George has tried to do the right thing for the sake of the little ones of this world, but at the climax of the movie Mr. Potter seems to have successfully conspired to destroy poor George.
The movie was somewhat shocking when it was first released, because in certain scenes the movie expressed a depth of despair that wasn’t considered appropriate at the time for movies meant for entertainment. The deepest darkness in the movie occurs late afternoon on Christmas Eve.
(View clip – George’s despair.)
Like Charlie Brown before, I suspect most of us past a certain age have felt at times some degree of identification with George in this scene — this mixture of anger and deep sadness, the temptation to despair, that leads him to go to the bridge with plans to take his life.
(Advance to picture of Clarence.)
You know what happens. In order to keep George from carrying through his plan, a junior angel named Clarence appeals to George’s better nature by jumping into the river before George has the chance to, compelling George to save him. In what follows, George declares to Clarence that it would have been better if he had never been born. So Clarence shows George what Bedford Falls would have looked like if he hadn’t ever lived, and as you know, it wasn’t a pretty picture.
Afraid his wish to have never lived has been permanently granted, George ends up standing alone at that bridge crying out,
“I want to live!” And he is given back his old life, but now his old life seems truly wonderful, leading to this familiar clip.
(Show clip of George’s joy.)
His heart is bursting with love, love enough it would seem to love his enemies, to wish Mr. Potter a merry Christmas.
He has his old life back, problems and all, but he feels like a newborn baby, for he sees his life with new eyes, with a new heart.
He sees the wonder of all the love.
His heart is bursting with all the love.
So the Christmas story as told by Luke reads a little like “It’s a wonderful Life.” The shepherds lived hard lives.
They lived out in the fields with their sheep, scratching out an existence, exposed to the elements, unwelcome in town.
They are given an amazing vision of angels dancing and weaving in the sky, declaring to them that they need not be afraid, that the future is in God’s hands, and all will be well.
They hear good news of great joy to all people. And joy is different from mere happiness. It comes from a far deeper place.
The vision of the angels was extraordinary, but it wasn’t really the centerpiece of the story. The heart of the story came later, when those shepherds made their way to Bethlehem and found the little, newborn baby, lying in a manger – a baby in appearance I suspect not so very different from any other baby, but having seen that baby, they could never look at their old lives – let alone any child or grown up – the same again. They were awoken to a great love that undergirded their lives to a depth they had never imagined possible.
When I watch “It’s a Wonderful Life,” and when I contemplate the Christmas story – I experience a healing of my heart, moving me to tears of joy, cleansing my vision. I already have what I most need: People to love, and people who love me. It shifts my attention away from a sense of frustration and longing for the things I don’t have that I am tempted to believe I must have if I am going to live a full life. And I experience instead a sense of abundance, that if God could be born in a broken down old stable in Bethlehem, God can be born in my life as well, with all its imperfections.
May it be so for you this night.