Christmas Eve

I hope everyone had a wonderful Christmas and holiday season! This was Rev. Harrison’s Christmas Eve message.

Finding What You Are Looking For

I can’t decide if it should be surprising that so few people recognized the coming of the Messiah when it happened, or if it’s remarkable that anyone noticed at all.

The wise men spent their whole lives watching the heavens for a sign and just barely caught it. They had to stop at Herod’s place to get directions and even then showed up late.

Mary and Joseph managed to be there, but not without help. Without angels to explain everything to them Mary would just be a statistic, another teen mom whose poor choices led her down a dangerous path. Joseph would still have his righteousness, though I don’t know what comfort that would be without his bride.

And we’re told the skies over Bethlehem held the most incredible thing of all. The sky was filled with angels, a multitude of the heavenly host, proclaiming “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors.” But either the shepherds were on a very isolated hilltop, or not very many people were looking into the sky that moment, because the shepherds were the only ones who made it to the inn. Maybe there was traffic.

But so it was that on the day God took on flesh and became human, only a few people knew about it. If it were to happen again, would we know about it?

We can’t blame the Judeans for not knowing the Messiah when he came. The Israelites were looking for a different kind of Messiah. You don’t often find what you aren’t looking for. The Judeans were expecting a Messiah of the line of David, a great warrior-poet-king who would deliver them from evil and straight into prosperity and ask nothing in return.

And maybe that is still who we are looking for. A savior who will destroy our enemies for us and then stand aside while we destroy ourselves.

But that is not the Messiah that God sent. Perhaps God had saved the people from the fire only to watch them jump right back in it one too many times. Perhaps God noticed that we call out for justice and mercy far more readily than we offer them. But God did not send a judge to deliver the people, or a prophet to comfort them. God took on flesh and came down in the form of a little child.

This is how our God chooses to enter our world. In unexpected ways and in unexpected places, God creeps in to our lives and fills them with light and joy. God doesn’t come with crashes of thunder or blinding lights, but in an unexpected gift, or the kindness of a stranger. God’s presence appears to by showing us joy in the midst of our chaotic lives, or the reassurance that things may change, but love will remain. God comes to us in ways that are so meek and subtle that it is no wonder that we so often miss them.

There is a story of an old stone monastery whose walls once held a thriving center of learning and spirituality. It was now a shell of its former self, holding just a few old monks. The monks knew that their order was dying, but there seemed little they could do. No one, young or old, was interested in joining their order. So they had resigned themselves simply to be caretakers, to hold on to what was good while they could, knowing that they probably would not be able to hold on much longer.

            The abbot used to like to take long walks to contemplate what was troubling him, and in these years most of what was troubling him had to do with he monastery’s future. And it just so happened that on one of these walks he ran into the rabbi of the local synagogue. The two had never had much occasion to speak, but they did always exchange pleasantries if they ran into each other somewhere. Only this time, when the rabbi asked him how he was he couldn’t keep up the charade and simply blurted out the truth. “Awful.” And he explained what was going on at the monastery. The rabbi understood. “I know how it is. Each week fewer and fewer people show up to the synagogue.” And the rabbi invited him to his house, where they sat together and studied Torah and prayed and wept for their congregations. And when it was time for the abbot to leave, he asked one last time, “Do you have any advice on what I can do to save my dying order?”

“I have nothing.” the rabbi said. “The only thing I can tell you is that the Messiah is one of you.” And he stepped back into the house.

The abbot puzzled and pondered over the rabbi’s words. And when he got back to the monastery he told the other brothers about this cryptic statement the rabbi had given him. The monks thought hard on what those words could mean. Could one of them actually be the Messiah? Who could it be?

Brother Wilhelm? Brother Wilhelm was most definitely a holy man, everyone knew that he was the most knowledgeable and spiritual man in the order. Or Brother Isaiah? Isaiah could hardly read, and his prayers were often mumbled or forgotten. But he never had an unkind word for anyone, and even when there were many more monks in the abbey, he always knew how to make every single person feel special. Or Brother George? Brother George could be harsh sometime, but no one had a heart for the poor like George, and they were all better for it. Maybe George could be the Messiah.

As they wondered who might be the Messiah, they began to treat each other with extraordinary respect, on the chance that the other might be the Messiah. And they began to treat themselves with great respect as well, because “Who knows?”

And slowly it came to pass that the monastery became one of the most loving places there was. And people who happened to pass were often impressed by the five elderly monks who treated each other as if they were kings. They would find excuses to stop by, or bring friends to show them this place that had this incredible air about it that words couldn’t describe.

So much so that some even made it a habit of coming to the abbey regularly to speak with the old monks. And eventually one of them asked if he could stay. Then another, and another. And within a few years the monastery was teeming with people, and it was known as a place of grace and light for the community around it.[1]

Would we know him if we saw him? I still don’t know. But I do know that if we look for him we will find him.

[1] This story has been told for many years, in many ways, by many people. This particular telling is most indebted to a version found in Scott M. Peck’s, which can be found in several versions here.


About Drew

I'm the pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Pitman, NJ. I love camping, rhetorical criticism, and classic movies. I'm passionate about God's love, and the messy, beautiful ways it shows itself in our communities every day.
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