Rev. Joel L. Tolbert
Let's Go, Again!
Christmas Eve, preached December 24, 2021 for the 800pm Worship
This Advent, we heard about Good Heavens, stories of scripture and Jesus that point to… Heaven on earth, Heaven in the Flesh, Heaven among us, and Heaven forever. Tonight, we are at the manger to meet the one who reveals and embodies good heavens.
Scripture Luke 2:8-20
8 In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. 9 Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified.
10 But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: 11 to yall this day in the city of David a Savior is born, who is the Messiah,[a] the Lord. 12 This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.”
13 And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host,[b] praising God and saying,
14 “Glory to God in the highest heaven,
and on earth peace among those whom God favors!”[c]
15 When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let’s go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.” 16 So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger. 17 When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child; 18 and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them. 19 (and) Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart. 20 The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.
If it’s really Christmas, several things happen, and I don’t mean trees and carols and presents. When it’s really Christmas, something will interrupt us and reveal something new to us about the glory of God, something hard to believe. Real Christmas sounds strange in our minds and feels uncomfortable in our hearts. Real Christmas is different and new. Real Christmas urgently invites a decision and an action, and pushes us from our habits and routines to try something out-of-character. That’s how we know its really Christmas. Something urgent, unexpected, and new is being born, and we are terrified. The pain of birthing something new terrifies us. That’s a strange hard truth of Christmas. If it’s really Christmas, its new and unexpected, its makes us act, and will likely be painful. That terrifies us, just as it did the shepherds in the field.
The weekend after Christmas 2019, Jill and I flew up from Georgia to BWI. I drove her out to Chestertown for her first time seeing this quaint secluded time-warp town. The Pastor Nominating Committee of this church had us a room in the White Swan, built in the 1700s. We came to worship here the Sunday after Christmas and it was good attendance which is strange for any church the Sunday after Christmas. But for this church, it was a congregational meeting to examine me as a possible new pastor, to see and hear me lead worship beside Caitlan, and to preach. I read and preached THIS scripture that day, Luke 2, shepherds who were interrupted, heard a message of something new, and were afraid.
Two years ago, I knew it was a real Christmas because I was afraid. I heard your invitation, God’s invitation to leave where I was and come here and try good new things with you. My fears were about leaving friends, leaving a congregation I had served ferociously for almost 8 years, leaving my home state, selling a house, moving ourselves away from our three boys. My fears were also about seeing the age and stage of this congregation, hearing stories of who this congregation had always been, then hearing different new visions of what the PNC and Caitlan and other leaders believe this church is called to become. I was afraid of the difficult journey with you from where you’ve been to where God is calling you. I was afraid of leading you along that journey, and being doubted or resisted or rejected. Those fears felt so real in the midst of a Christmas message about shepherds who heard something new and something good, and were called to join in, and were afraid. I heard that kind of invitation from this congregation and from God, to something unexpected and good and new, here with you, and I was terrified.
Most people come to Christmas expecting things to be very close to what they’ve always been. Music, songs, carols, hymns. Purples, whites, red, greens. Poinsettias, hollies, wreaths, trees. Candles, candy canes. Friends, family. We’ve come to believe the comfort of Christmas is in its dependability. We’ve fooled ourselves into believing it’s really Christmas when things happen all over again just as they always have. The familiar traditions, decorations, habits, rituals, carols, foods, as lovely and as dependable as they are, as precious and important as they feel to us, they are not what makes Christmas real. Those are just symbols and decorations.
Real Christmas is a terrifying new message of God being born among us. This God does not just appear, but enters the world through the sweaty, painful bloodly birth canal, where mother and baby scream together to force something new and precious into the world. This God does not snap finger and win all battle in wink, but uses words, humility, compassion, meekness, and love to invite change rather than force it. This God does not measure success by the obedience of God’s subject, but sacrifices God’s self to show mercy and grace when we disobey. This God is not interested in preserving personal privilege or freedom, but lays those down, and puts God’s self in a dependent position on a woman, on friends, in order to knit all God’s people back into one community, into wholeness. The God of real Christmas is so new, so unexpected, so different, its hard to believe, and it terrifies us.
Some may judge Christmas by how consistent it is to their expectations. Real Christmas can only be judged by how unexpected it is, a new message, a new song, something that shocks and interrupts and terrifies us, and makes us choose… Will we go back to old habits, or will we do something good and new?
The shepherds had lots of options that first Christmas night. The Christmas message interrupted them, surrounded them. They had no place of comfort to hide. The messenger said something new in a new way, something unexpected. God’s messenger asked them to notice, to believe, to decide, to act. God’s messenger invited them to trust and do something that didn’t make sense, and that felt a bit irresponsible. They were terrified.
Thankfully, a real Christmas will terrify us, but doesn’t stop there. A real Christmas also promises the joy of the good. “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news, something new… and I know how new and different terrifies you, but also something very good… This new turns fear into joy. This new may feel scary to you now, but it will bring good joy for you and for all people.”
Two years ago, I lifted up the Shepherds response, Let’s go. The Shepherds felt the fear of God. They didn’t have to say yes. They could have shrugged it off and went back to shepherding. They could have stayed in the fields that night as they had done so many nights before. But they didn’t. They looked at one another and said, Let’s Go! That’s why their story got written down and remembered. On that first Christmas night, who knows how many others God’s messengers appeared to and terrified. Salespeople. Teachers. Food workers. Nurses. Accountants. Pilots. Secretaries. Journalists. Politicians. Perhaps they were invited too by the shockingly new, terrifying message of a God born among us in a manger, wrapped in swaddling clothes. Maybe some of them showed up a few days later, after Joseph, Mary, and Jesus were already on the move. But those silly shepherds, when they were confronted with something new and were terrified, they believed. They believed the new would be good, and would bring great joy, not just for them for lots of people, and they said to one another, Let’s Go. They got up and went together.
What good, new invitation are you hearing from God? What good, new way to be a parent or a child, a spouse or a partner are you hearing? What good, new way to be an employee, or a boss? What good, new way to lead or to serve are you hearing? What good, new way to be more true to your true self, has been growing inside you, and is ready to be born in your actions? What good new way of being more kind, understanding, and compassionate in your important relationships is ready to appear, not in power and glory, but in humility and sacrifice? Listen for the real Christmas message. It will be new. It will likely terrify you. Its been growing for a while. This Christmas, believe. This Christmas, say yes. This Christmas, lay down what was, and say Let’s go, again.
This Christmas, I am still a bit terrified of what lies before us as a church, and what lies before me as one of your pastors. But I pray for the conviction of a shepherd to believe, say yes, and go.
And now, blessing laughter and loving be yours, and may the love of a great God, who names you and holds you as the world turns and the flowers grow be with you, this day, this night, this moment and forever more.