Texts: Luke 2:1-20;
THIS WILL BE A SIGN (1)
Christ Church put on a live nativity every year about two weeks before Christmas. They had the perfect location: downtown on the square across from the clock tower. Everyone who drove into the business district went right by the front lawn of the church. They set the nativity up on the lawn on the designated evening after dark and flooded it with carefully placed spotlights, a Christmas card come to life.
At first it was just a few bales of hay stacked up to give some semblance of a stable, a couple of sheep and two sets of parents with small babies who took turns portraying the holy family. But as the crowds grew each year the nativity became a bigger and bigger production with shepherds, wise men, an innkeeper, King Herod, a small flock of sheep with lambs for the children to pet, a donkey for Mary to ride, all kinds of other animals. The star the wise men followed rolled along on a track which had been laid out across the roof line of the church.
The latest addition had been a 40-voice angel choir, with the choir director dressed and playing the part of the arch-angel Gabriel; and they sang from an elevated stage erected on the far edge of the lawn in front of the church’s three large air conditioning units. Surrounded by clouds painted on cardboard, and raised and lowered hydraulically, it made for a wonderfully dramatic moment when their lights came on and they appeared out of the darkness singing “It Came Upon the Midnight Clear.” For the grand finale at the end of each half-hour performance they formed themselves into a giant living Christmas tree and sang “Joy to the World.”
One year, at their late summer planning meeting, the director announced that they needed a sign, a big billboard somewhere downtown, perhaps visible from the freeway, with a picture of the nativity and an invitation for everyone to come and see it at Christ Church. He said it would be a good way of expanding their ministry and it would be great publicity for the church. The senior pastor said that she knew a retired sign painter in the congregation and offered to ask him to paint the sign. Someone else offered to make arrangements to rent the billboard and to talk to some of the wealthy members about paying for it. Everyone thought it was a wonderful idea.
At their next meeting in mid-October it was reported that plans were well under way and the sign would be ready just after Thanksgiving. The retired sign painter had responded with great enthusiasm, saying it had been a life-long dream to paint a sign that would be a witness to his faith. He had asked for only one consideration — “a free hand in painting the nativity as the Holy Spirit led,” was the way he put it. And they were glad to agree. They had seen his work and they knew there was no one better in the sign painting business. No one was to see the sign until the unveiling on the first Sunday of Advent.
As Advent approached there was an air of excitement in the church like they had never experienced before. When word got around about the billboard, everyone wanted to be in the nativity. They had to create several more roles: shepherd boys and shepherd girls, the innkeeper was to have children hanging on his arm this year and a wife doing chores in the background, and there would be a dozen more angels.
The unveiling was scheduled for noon, after the last worship service, on the first Sunday of Advent. The church was packed and, after the benediction, the choir, dressed in their nativity costumes, led the whole congregation out the door, around the square and down a couple of blocks to where the billboard was located near the downtown off ramp next to the freeway. At such a great location, two hundred thousand people would see the sign every week.
The retired sign painter was standing by. It would be his moment of triumph. A newspaper photographer was to take his picture standing in front of the sign after it was unveiled. One of the television stations had sent a reporter and a camera crew. Everyone had a sense that this was to be an historic moment.
The ceremonies started with a brief speech by the nativity director, followed by a few words of greeting from the mayor, and finally a prayer of consecration led by the pastor. Then came the moment they had all been waiting for. The choir began to sing “Away in a Manger” softly in the background. The director signaled for the cloth that was covering the sign to be raised. They all craned their necks upwards and waited. At first there was a kind of quiet murmur that rippled through the crowd, then gasps, followed by a din of wonderment which grew into what sounded like a roar of disapproval. They couldn’t believe what they were seeing! It looked nothing at all like their beautiful nativity. The sign painter had painted a simple cardboard shack with a contemporary Joseph and Mary who looked very much like the street people who lived in the park a few blocks from the church. Baby Jesus was wrapped in rags and lying in a tattered disposable diaper box. There were no shepherds or wisemen, no angels with gold-tipped wings. There was only a bag lady and a cop who had come by on his horse. They were both kneeling in front of the diaper box, and the babe appeared to be smiling at them. Underneath the picture were painted the words:
This will be a sign for you:
you will find a child wrapped
in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.
How do you think you would react to the unveiling of such a sign? Surprised? Disappointed? Cautiously approving? I know my first reaction would definitely be one of surprise. Shock, perhaps. Our nativity scenes are the picture of serenity, not poverty. I normally don’t think of homeless, poor people today as the closest to Mary and Joseph’s situation that night — even though it’s the truth.
In this year of the Harry Potter series coming to a close, a big fan like me would be remiss if I didn’t borrow a quick lesson from the seventh and final book. It’s an easy lesson to understand, even if you don’t know the books, because the action in the last book is eerily and pointedly similar to Nazi Germany in the nineteen-thirties. The evil wizard Voldemort, like Adolph Hitler, is initiating a campaign of purity, and beginning to persecute all those who aren’t pureblood wizards. Voldemort’s followers, called Death Eaters, are like the Nazi Gestapo in their campaign to weed out and purge wizards who grew up in non-wizarding families. And all of this is part of a campaign to place pure blood wizards and witches in dominance over all non-magical people — a sort of Third Reich, if you will.
Harry and his friends are listening to a resistance radio show one night, and one of the radio hosts appeals to witches and wizards who are resisting Voldemort to take measures protect their vulnerable non-magical neighbors. The other host says, “What would you say to those listeners who reply that in these dangerous times it should be wizard’s first.” And the first host replies, “I’d say that it’s one short step from wizard’s first to pure-bloods first, and then to Death Eaters. We’re all human, aren’t we. Every human life is worth the same, and worth saving.” (2)
We are beginning a year of featuring Matthew’s Gospel, in which the grown-up Jesus climaxes his teaching with a similar message to that of every human life being worth the same, and that the best way to live this out is by reaching out to help the least of the human family. The Son of Man on judgment day says to those on his right, “When I was hungry you gave me something to eat. When I was thirsty, you gave me something to drink. You sheltered me when I was homeless.” Those on his right are puzzled, to which Jesus replies, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’
Jesus promises to come be with us tonight through this Holy Supper we are about to share. He comes to feed us this Christmas night, so that every day he might be present with us, guiding us with his Christmas Spirit: the spirit of giving; the spirit of holding every human life as worth the same, as worth saving. He came that first Christmas as a vulnerable, poor, and homeless child that we might learn to hear him say to us tonight, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’ Amen
Paul J. Nuechterlein
Delivered at Prince of Peace Lutheran,
Racine, WI, December 24, 2007
1. The sermon uses a story by John Sumwalt from StoryShare by CSS Publishing.
2. J. K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (New York: Scholastic, 2007), p. 440.