2017 December Issue
of The Sermon Mall


Sorry We Missed Your Birthday

Isaiah 40:1-5

"All flesh shall see it together."

But it didn't happen that way, did it?

That first Christmas came and went and only a handful of people knew about it. We sometimes forget that in our sense of Advent ecstasy. After all, here were all these stories of people who did see, people whose lives were changed, presumably forever.

Zechariah and Elizabeth. Joseph and Mary. The shepherds. The wise men. Perhaps even Herod, who sought the Child's death. And, afterwards, old Simeon and Anna, in the temple. But nobody else. A mere handful of people—perhaps fifteen or twenty—out of hundreds of thousands in the world.

All those people in Bethlehem—so crowded that there was no room in the inn for the Savior to be born there—and apparently none of the rest of them knew a thing about it. The Savior of the world born in a stable behind the local hostelry, and they didn't even hear about it.

Sort of eases our guilt about Christmas, doesn't it? I mean, here we were, celebrating the birthday of the Prince of Peace, the Bright and Morning Star, the Son of the Most High God, and many of us didn't give it a real thought, did we? A whole month of our lives was given over to the festivities—shopping, wrapping presents, decorating our homes, baking, giving parties, going to parties, having special events at church—and most of us were so busy through it all that we barely had time to see the mystery again, to be quiet and to feel the presence of the One born in the stable, to know in our hearts that God has come and is struggling with the world to turn it into his kingdom.

"All flesh shall see it together." But not this Christmas, any more than the first Christmas.

And ministers, I have to tell you, are just as bad as anybody else. Maybe worse. We are so busy stage-managing, making Christmas happen for everyone else, that we are very prone to miss the point of it all. I remember once in Nashville, when I was a professor, that a minister friend from a large church came to our home for something. We had decorated the tree, Christmas music was playing on the stereo, and the smell of gingerbread floated through the house. "Don't you love Christmas?" my wife asked. "I hate Christmas," said the minister, "—and I hate Easter, too." My wife looked at him, aghast. "They're the worst times of the year for me," he said. "I'm so busy I can't even sleep." My wife didn't understand until we'd been back in the parish a couple of years. Now she grudgingly admits he may have had a point; Christmases and Easters do seem to fly by before we've had a chance to celebrate them properly.

I will tell you a secret: I often celebrate Christmas when it is over. The day after Christmas is a marvelous day for me. All the Advent preparations are over, the special services are past, the excitement of Christmas itself has come and gone, and I can feel this wonderful sense of peace and relaxation, like all of the wind going out of my sails, and I am becalmed on the sea of life. It's wonderful! And then I really worship. Then I say, "Lord, forgive me for being so busy all these weeks"—you know, like "Sorry I missed your birthday"—and I confess my need of him and he fills my cup again.

I often feel that's what the Sunday after Christmas does for a lot of worshippers. It gives you a chance to make a similar confession—to say, "Lord, I missed it again; I meant to watch for it and be ready this year, but you know how busy I've been"—and then to feel his presence and peace fall like a mantle over you, silencing your noisy heart and restoring you to a sense of what life is all about.

It is, after all, only human to get in this bind and let Christmas go by without having truly received it, without having seen the Baby in the manger again. It is this humanness that W. H. Auden celebrated in his Christmas oratorio For the Time Being. In that long passage at the end, the Narrator speaks of our having once more seen "the actual Vision"—what God is doing in the world—and failed to entertain it as anything more than "an agreeable possibility." That is, it has not converted us, has not taken over our lives. And so, after Christmas, we return to what he calls our

moderate Aristotelian city Of darning and the Eight-Fifteen, where Euclid's geometry And Newton's mechanics would account for our experience, And the kitchen table exists because I scrub it.

The kitchen table, he says, seems to have shrunk during the holidays. The streets are narrower than we remembered, and we had forgotten how depressing the office is. For a moment, life seemed larger, more beautiful, more magical. Now it is settling down to its old proportions again, becoming prosaic once more. "The happy morning is over, /The night of agony still to come."

Personally, I am consoled that, though we were not converted and time was not stopped forever in its tracks, we came away again with a glimpse of what God and life are all about. For I have found that revelation, the burning bush and the Damascus Road experience aside, usually comes in glimpses. It is like those persistent drop-drop—droppings of water in a limestone cave that eventually leave such a deposit of their visits that a stalactite is formed and then a stalagmite and eventually a column to stand for all eternity. One day, perhaps when we least expect it, the column forms and ceases to be transparent, and we know in all our being that God is here, that he has never been away, that the One who was in the beginning before all things were made was also born in a cattle stall in Bethlehem and was put to death on a cross on a hillside near Jerusalem and is now stalking our lives from the future, whence he shall rapture us and carry us away to what has always been our home, even when we didn't know it.

I remember a beautiful passage in Harry Williams' autobiography Some Day I'll Find You. Harry, one of the great Anglican theologians and preachers of our day, had a nervous breakdown. His world had been completely shattered. He was unable to perform the simplest tasks—even to walk across the room. Then he began to recuperate, to come out on the other side of this devastating experience. One day, as he did, he recalled an experience on a winter's day shortly after World War II. There was not much fuel, and the buildings were very cold. A light snow had fallen, and Harry decided to go for a walk to get warm. He entered Regent's Park. It was almost tea time, and the sun was beginning to set. The air was unusually still, as it sometimes is after a snow, and the park was very beautiful.

Here I must let Harry speak, for he does it so memorably: "The trees with their leafless branches thinly covered with snow looked like the ethereal guardians of some sublime secret. The grass was white with patches of green here and there as though it rejoiced in the snow without being overwhelmed by it. The shrubs were bursting through their white covering as if delightedly playing a game. And the sun—a combination now of gold and red—suffused the air and gave its colour to everything. It was impossible to conceive of anything more glorious than what lay around me. It was overpowering without losing any of its gentleness. It was blessedness and love."

"Or it should have been," says Harry. "But it wasn't."

It wasn't, because Harry couldn't receive it then. He had been coming apart at the seams then. His life was unraveling, and he couldn't appreciate anything.

Yet the experience wasn't lost. He remembered it months later, perhaps years later, when he had recovered. It was one of those gentle evidences of the divine in our midst, of God working to reclaim the world he made and lost, or made and gave up to its own devices. It was a glimpse. Nothing more. A glimpse. But it spoke to Harry, and kept speaking through the long months of his psychological ordeal, and was speaking still when it was over and he could see the patterns of his life.

Perhaps Christmas is that way for us, even when we have missed it, when we were too busy to celebrate it or to see the mystery of it. It leaves its small deposit, its gentle reminder that life is interlaced with holiness, that the kitchen table is real not because we scrub it but because it is held somehow, inexplicably, in the mind of God.

I hope so—and that, if you didn't have a merry Christmas, you will still have it, recalling the glimpses along the way.

John Killinger Samford University Birmingham, AL