We’re at the end of a long journey tonight. Tonight is different! The long season of waiting is over. Christmas is here! After four weeks of Advent anticipation, about six weeks of concerts and holiday specials, over three months of Christmas catalogs, dozens of Christmas parties, and an endless number of department store aisles and Internet searches where we’ve wondered as we wandered looking for the perfect gift as canned carols play in the background. The shepherds walking to Bethlehem on Christmas eve have nothing on some of us. Sounds a little tiring, doesn’t it. Just like the shepherds, maybe we’ve gotten to this day a little footsore?
Well, we have a reason to be tired. The social expectation of Christmas are a bit much. We can think too much of how much we’re spending, and how cheap our culture values this great day, and we only have to look in our own living rooms at our extended families to see the true meaning of Christmas, etc, etc. And yet every time we come here, on December 26 or so, things change, reality sinks in. The lights come down. Our families get unextended. People under what little mistletoe is left go unkissed (unless we were going to kiss them anyway). Our leftovers from the feast get refrigerated, our Christmas trees go into the trash and our carpets get vacuumed. Next week, we enter the dull time of gift returning, bowl games, and set our jaws squarely to meet the real world again on January 2. A week from Thursday for those of you who are counting.
Yes, I know that the season runs until the Baptism of the Lord on January 13, and I know that in many cultures, January 6 is a bigger day. However, our efforts at extending this season in God’s house frequently seem lackluster. We’re going through the motions. In American culture, after the 1st of January we go back to our work, our routine, and our day fill of ugly news. We go back to what we think is real life. We forget.
The shepherds in the Judean hills had another kind of Cable News. It came on after the sun went down, and you could see it from just about anywhere without cable. It was truly interactive, for as the program changed from night to night different constellations rose earlier and earlier, each one bringing out different stories to be retold by the fire, marking the changing seasons, providing flight to the imagination. Those shepherds needed it. They were on one of the lowest rungs of the social ladder, their testimony was not admissible in court, they were distrusted, reviled. Their entire livelihood was tied up in their flocks: providing food, clothing, housing, trade goods and shepherds traveled extensively around the Middle East trying to enhance their assets: looking for pastures, walking. Sheep aren’t terribly bright (I know this from personal experience), and they are very vulnerable, especially at night, so there would always be somebody who was staying awake, watching the Celestial News Network. If you lost significant numbers of your flocks, you weren’t only broke, you were starving and homeless, with the only bankruptcy reorganization available selling yourself and your family into slavery. Going up and down steep hills, looking for pasture with a bunch of dumb animals that your livelihood depended on, could be a life of drudgery. And that’s not getting into the politics of the time, where scandal, corruption and hypocrisy happened perhaps at a greater rate than today.
The breaking news that night in Judea that we celebrate today was a radical change in the lives of everyone who experienced it. It didn’t make them rich, or free them from dependence on shepherding, but it put reality into a far different focus. Emmanuel, God with us. Wonderful Counselor, Prince of Peace. A light in the gloom. A light that changed the way they had to live their lives, because God came among them. A meal that would later change their lives, because God came down to lie in a manger, which anticipated the great feast of the Eucharist. When they went back to their flocks, they were not the same people: instead of keeping to themselves on the hills, they went into the towns and talked to everybody, because their hearts were so full they had to share it. They no longer were the outcast, unclean, burdened by shame. They were God’s people, because their God was with them.
Tonight, God comes among us. Emmanuel. Wonderful Counselor, Prince of Peace. A light in the gloom. A light that will change our lives, because God comes among us. Tonight, we have the adult redeemer Christ in a manger right here, and who is going to become part of us. Tonight’s light can let us see ourselves and our world differently. Like the shepherds, we don’t have to be enslaved by the news on CNN, or Fox or MSNBC, by what we see as reality. We don’t have to be enslaved by our society’s expectations, whether it’s to consume mass quantities, or to drive the roads and walk the streets with tunnel vision, and ignore what’s going on around us. We have our own news to share; we have our own lives to lead. We are no longer outcast, unclean, burdened by the drudgery of our lives. We can go and live our lives differently, even if most of the content of our life and our jobs doesn’t change. Emmanuel. God is with us. God makes us new every day, just as God makes every night and day and baby new. God is in the manger with us today and every day. Let Emmanuel be the reason to celebrate tonight and today and every day.