A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Christmas Eve, December 24, 2014, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scripture: Luke 2:1-20
Copyright © 2014 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

It’s been a quiet week in Mount William, New Hampshire, my hometown. Sure, there’s been plenty of last minute Christmas shopping and grandparents have been called in to provide childcare reinforcement since school was out all week, but most people seem to have fortified themselves against the demands of the season and have managed to focus on their families and community.

The chatter at the Chowder House has been about Christmas – Christmas plans and Christmas hopes. Some have been hoping they won’t argue with the in-laws this year. Some have been hoping the turkey isn’t too dry. Some have been hoping they’ve found a good present for that person who they love but who is so difficult to shop for. Maggie John had been hoping that she would be able to round up a group of old high school friends to go caroling.

After her divorce, music has taken an important role in Maggie’s life. She joined a community chorus that rehearses in Concord back in September and she’s found healing in the music, the singing, and this new community of friends. Maggie hadn’t sung in a chorus since she was in high school. It was at a rehearsal of her new chorus that she got the idea. They were singing a movement from The Messiah and it brought back a flood of memories from those days over 30 years ago.

Back in high school, some of her chorus buddies made attending the annual Messiah sing at First Congregational Church in Concord a tradition, and they followed it with Christmas Caroling around Mount William. At the rehearsal, as they sang, “And the glory, the glory of the Lord, shall be re-e-e-e-ve-e-e-ealed,” Maggie was suddenly transported back in time and she could see herself standing in the snow in front of a white clapboard house singing about figgy pudding, stomping her feet to try to get them warm again. In her mind’s eye, she could see the others: Susan who harmonized on alto so well; Laura who was always suggesting which song to sing next; Jeremy who had a beautiful tenor voice, and beautiful eyes, and a beautiful smile. That really was a hard crush she had. And wasn’t he Jewish, at least nominally? Why was he out Christmas caroling?

Anyway, this fond memory grew into a hope that she could round up enough friends from decades past to form a little choir to go caroling again.

Somehow she managed to pull it off and Sunday night some old friends, their spouses, and in a few cases children and even a grandchild joined her knocking on doors, singing Christmas carols they knew and loved. It was a fun evening, even though there really wasn’t much snow on the ground.

Christmas seems to be filled with traditions. Each family has their own and they can be so strong kids are often surprised when they learn their friends have different traditions. All those traditions are gone for Maggie. It used to be that her family would spend Christmas Eve with her now-ex-husband’s family and Christmas Day would be spent at her parents’ home. That whole schedule has been tossed on the trash heap because of the divorce. She’ll still go to her parents’ home tomorrow, but her children will be with their father in Florida this year.

Christmas started to take on a new meaning for Maggie, what with the change in her family system. To her surprise, Christmas is taking on a religious meaning for her, and she blames that on the singing. One of the songs her chorus sang is a contemporary, fairly complex setting of an ancient text. Once she started getting the music down, she started paying attention to the lyrics.

Tomorrow shall be my dancing day;
I would my true love did so chance
To see the legend of my play,
To call my true love to my dance;
Sing, oh! my love, oh! my love, my love, my love,
This have I done for my true love.

Then was I born of a virgin pure,
Of her I took fleshly substance
Thus was I knit to man’s nature
To call my true love to my dance.
Sing, oh! my love, oh! my love, my love, my love,
This have I done for my true love.

In a manger laid, and wrapped I was
So very poor, this was my chance
Between an ox and a silly poor ass
To call my true love to my dance.
Sing, oh! my love, oh! my love, my love, my love,
This have I done for my true love.[1]

“What an amazing way to look at the birth of Jesus,” Maggie thought. “And what an image of Jesus – a dancer, a lover – who doesn’t come to judge us, but who comes to dance with us, to woo us – who comes to dance with me.” Maggie had to wipe a tear away as she continued rehearsing. And now, Maggie is looking for ways to dance with Jesus.
Chester Banks has also undergone a bit of a transformation. It happened on the bus ride from New York City last Friday. Chester is spending his junior year of college studying in France, and he flew home for Christmas. The cheaper fare was to New York, so he decided to spend a couple days there, and then to take the bus to Concord where his mother picked him up.

About three hours into the seven-hour journey – well, it’s scheduled to be a seven-hour journey, but with traffic – Chester started getting impatient and bored. He can’t read in a bus without getting carsick and his iPhone had been dead for half an hour, so his mind started wandering. Images from the hours he had spent in museums over the past four months flashed before him. The bus reminded him of how nice European train travel is, at least comparatively speaking. That made him think about his trip to Belgium, which brought the Royal Museum of Fine Arts to mind, which brought Pieter Bruegel’s The Census at Bethlehem to mind.

Chester’s journey from New York to Mount William was something like two and a half times as far as the trip from Nazareth to Bethlehem, he figured. If his phone had been working, he would have asked Siri how long it would take to walk from Nazareth to Bethlehem. Days, he figured, and when you factor in “marauding bandits, deep rain-washed wadis cutting through the path, inns with no room, or full-term pregnancies,”[2] he wouldn’t be wrong. Who was he to complain about a seven-hour bus ride that covered more than twice the distance?

“And what idiotic government bureaucracy,” Chester muttered aloud, thinking both about Caesar’s order for families to return to their ancestral home to be counted, which made him think about the hours he’d be spending at the DMV next week to get his drivers license renewed.

Chester had learned in a religion class his freshman year that there is little historical evidence of this census. But then, for “Luke, the mandate from Rome and the journey of two peasants from Galilee to Judea are not primarily geographical or historical matters but theological ones. The question for Luke is where hope might be found for people like Mary or Joseph. They are, like poor and defenseless people everywhere and in ever time, at the whim of whatever caesar or mindless bureaucracy or uncaring machinery of state happens to lash out in their direction. Caesar issues a decree, drinks another glass of wine, eats a cluster of grapes – and Joseph and Mary pack provisions and head out on the Roman road to Judea.”[3]

Chester’s mind drifted back to Bruegel’s painting. Bethlehem looks very much like a 16th century northern European village in the painting and it’s not obvious who Mary and Joseph are. They are just part of the peasantry filling the village. “They have disappeared into the anonymity of the powerless. The irony is that while Joseph, Mary, and their unborn child are heading to Bethlehem to be counted, in fact they do not count, not to Rome anyway. They are faceless nobodies under the boot of an uncaring empire.”[4]

Suddenly a detail popped out – not from Bruegel’s painting, but from a display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. Under a grand Christmas tree, there’s a grander, 18th century nativity scene. “In many ways it is a very familiar scene. The usual characters are all there: shepherds roused from sleep by the voices of angels; the exotic wise men from the East seeking…; Joseph; Mary; the babe – all are there, each figure an artistic marvel of wood, clay, and paint.”[5] But behind the holy family, so subtle he had almost missed it, Chester remembered there were crumbling Roman columns.

Chester grinned as he thought about the juxtaposition – the power of Rome crumbing before the vulnerability of a baby. He looked out the bus window at nothing in particular, holding this thought.

The bus pulled off the highway and into a city. Chester wasn’t sure which one. Heck, he wasn’t sure if they were in Connecticut or Massachusetts at that point. He noticed how bus stations seem to almost always be in a more depressed part of town. “These are Jesus’ people,” he thought. Then he thought about the crumbling columns.

“Why is the world still like this? Why hasn’t God changed things?” he found himself asking. He didn’t think these questions were a prayer, but apparently they were, for Chester felt an answer welling up in him. “While I’ve been waiting for God to act, God’s been waiting for me to act. No wonder nothing’s happening.”[6]

And I’m pretty sure that Jesus was born again in that very moment.

That’s the news from Mount William, New Hampshire, where all the women are strong, the men are good looking, and all the children go to Sunday School every week.

[1] These are the first three verses of this ancient song that tells the life of Jesus from his point of view. They are quoted from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tomorrow_Shall_Be_My_Dancing_Day (accessed 24 December 2014)

[2] Thomas G. Long, “Living By the Word,” Christian Century, 10 December 2014, p. 21.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Thomas G. Long, Something Is About to Happen, CSS Publishing, quoted in an email from sermons.com, dated 16 December 2014.

[6] This insight is actually from John Dominic Crossan that he has published in at least two books: The Greatest Prayer and The Power of Parable.