Reverend Philip Stringer
December 25, 2022
LET US PRAY: Lord Jesus Christ, be born in us anew today and speak to us through your word, that we may be living mangers who present you to the world. AMEN
Ah, Christmas! It comes around every year! I’m not going too far out onto a limb to say that there is no other holiday — no other time of year steeped with so many traditions.
Customs and rituals.
And because of everything that comes with the holiday, we have a lot of memories. For most people, those memories are about family — loved ones and special times.
I have those kinds of memories, too. But I am a pastor, so I also have some other kinds of memories about this season. Theological memories. Stories and experiences having to do with intellectual wrestling over the meaning of the season. After all, every year pastors have to come up with a sermon for Christmas.
As I look back through my memories there are several stories I’d like to share
— and when I put them all together they leave me with a single, recurring point— “Look into the manger.” Keep looking in the manger.
The first two memories I have involved fellow pastors.
The first one I met early in my ministry as he was approaching the conclusion of his. A long ministry of serving congregations. Looking ahead on the congregation’s calendar, we began to discuss plans for worship, congregation activities and the preparations we would need to make, and he said to me, “Christmas just leaves me cold!”
Patty and I have laughed about that for more than 30 years. He was a loving pastor and a good guy, but he was just tired of fighting the battle of trying to focus people’s attention on Jesus— the “reason for the season” and “keep Christ in Christmas.” It seems at least once a year one of us will say to the other, “Christmas just leaves me cold!” and we’ll laugh. Humbug!
He had a point of course— and we can certainly sympathize with his exhaustion. Jesus does tend to be noticeably absent from a lot of the commotion. But I can’t help but be a little sad for him, too. Because there is reason to celebrate, even if it isn’t what many are focused on.
My daughter, Margaret, has participated in the HPCT production of “A Christmas Carole” for quite a few years now, and that is something I’ve come to enjoy. But theologically-speaking I am mindful that many people blame Charles Dickens for starting the trend that has led to the secularization of our religious holiday. His story says nothing about Jesus— but instead refers to the “Christmas spirit” and the meaning of Christmas is of human substance. Christmas means that people choose to be kind and generous. Because of Dickens, they argue, Christmas has become a celebration of the goodness of the human heart. A celebration of our capacity to do good and choose good. But what Christmas is REALLY about is that when humans DIDN’T choose the good, the good chose humans. Instead of a celebration of the goodwill of people, it is a celebration of goodwill toward people. Eh. I suppose there may be some truth to that— but I don’t think that is entirely fair to Mr. Dickens. The focus of Christmas is on the One in the manger— but the good news of Jesus’ birth should bring about change in our hearts and love for our neighbor that leads to action. So I think it is quite appropriate for us to join with Mr. Dickens in saying, “God bless us, EVERY one!”
The second pastor I met midway in my ministry in Taiwan. He was a Presbyterian pastor and professor at the seminary there. He’s still there, actually. A remarkable and gifted man.
Taiwan has an interesting history, and its people are primarily aboriginal or have roots in China. Religiously it is primarily Buddhist, Taoist, Folk religions or some combination of them. Only 4% of the population is Christian. So Patty, the girls and I were surprised when Christmas was approaching, to find Christmas music and decorations EVERYWHERE— Candy canes and elves, and displays with shiny gift boxes, reindeer and— of course— Santa Claus. He was EVERYWHERE— pictures, mannequins, actors dressed like him— and on the outside of the 10-story Takatsumia Department store— multiple “ninja” santas scaling the outside walls with red-and-white striped ribbons.
Most of the people in Taiwan don’t even know who Jesus is!— and yet, here are all of these “Christmas” decorations. A person could take a pretty cynical view of this, but my pastor friend has another take on it. He said to me— “You know for most of the people here, Christmas is the only thing they know about Christianity. Even if they don’t know anything about Jesus, if their first impression of Christianity is one of joyfulness and celebration and kindness and giving to others…… well, that’s not such a bad start!”
I think that’s a healthy approach for us, too. After all, one could argue that our cultural observance of Christmas in American is not so different from Taiwan— and although many may know the story of Jesus, it has always been a “thin tradition” of those who shape their lives by faith in him— so Christmas is not such a bad place to start if we would like to introduce them to him. In fact, we could all use a reminder now and then to “look into the manger” at Christmas.
That reminds me of yet another story. This one involves Cyrus the Great and a tribal Chieftain warrior, Cagular. Cyrus the Great created a vast empire— the Persian Empire— through cunning and might. It spanned from the Mediterranean Sea all the way to India. But he had a problem on his southern border— Cagular refused to submit and time after time, roundly bested the troops that Cyrus sent to do battle.
Finally, Cyrus amassed his great army on an offensive to surround Cagular’s lands and entrap him. He was captured and with his family was hauled off to Persepolis to face Cyrus himself.
The day of trial came and Cagular and his wife were taken to the judgement hall where Cyrus was seated upon the throne. Cagular stood tall and proud and Cyrus was impressed. After questioning him, Cyrus finally asked, “if I were to release you, what would you do?”
Cagular replied, “If you release me, I will dutifully serve you for the rest of my life.”
Cyrus then asked, “And what will you do if I spare the life of your wife?”
“If you spare the life of my wife,” he said, “I would die serving you.”
Cyrus did, in fact, spare both of their lives and Cyrus appointed Cagular to serve as governor of the southern province.
As they left the city, Cagular marveled at all that had happened. “Did you see the power of the city— and the marble columns— and the grandeur of the palace— and that throne— like a solid lump of gold!”
His wife replied, “I saw none of those things.”
Incredulous, he replied— are you blind?! What did you see?
She said, “I saw only the face of the man who said he would die for me.”
There are lots of busy and flashy traditions around Christmas. There’s nothing in particular wrong with that. In fact, I think it is wonderful. But when all is said and done, none of those things really matter.
What matters is the face of the one who came to die for us. And that is why it is so important for us to remember to look into the manger.
A final story to share is about an organist I once knew. The staff was planning Christmas worship— but we were having a problem with the length of it. He suggested that one way to shorten the service was to drop a verse from a hymn. In particular, he suggested we drop the verse in “What Child is This,” that goes, “nails, spear shall pierce him through; the cross be born for me, for you.” The reason, he said, is because that verse “is a downer.”
God sent his son into a world that God knew would kill him. The baby— lying in the manger— was born to die. That is why it is so important for us to remember to look into the manger. Within it is the face of the one who came to die for us.
At the beginning of this sermon I mentioned the memories that so many of us have from Christmases in our past. remembering these things can be painful when they remind us of loss— but if we recall those memories “in the light” of who is in the manger, then our grief is mitigated by the promise that is ours through him. If you think about it that way, it seems to me that there can be no better way to remember our loved ones.
Without the manger, our memories can only serve to remind us of what we have lost. But here is good news of great joy for all people: The manger is not empty!