Can you hear it? There’s a buzz in the air. Or maybe you can feel it, enough even to give you goose bumps. As the song puts it, “There’s a feeling of Christmas.” It permeates everything tonight, doesn’t it? Everything.
Since this is the time of year when nostalgia runs rampant, and nobody dares act like Scrooge and complain about it, let’s give in to it for a moment. It won’t hurt a thing. Trust me.
Those of you old enough to remember… remember when you’d walk into the old five-and-dimes? For you young uninitiated folk, five-and-dimes were stores, the forerunners to Wal-Mart. We had a couple in my hometown of Paragould, right there on the main drag of Pruitt Street: Ben Franklin’s and Sterlings. Remember Kresge, McCrory’s, Kress, and the most famous of all… Woolworth’s? Needless to say, they got their designation from the old days when most things in these stores cost a nickel or a dime.
But what I want to remind you of is the smell. Do you remember the smell of the old five-and-dimes? It was a combination of popcorn, bubble gum, and shoe leather, all ground in together in the ancient hardwood floors. If we’d have known these stores would become extinct, we would have bottled the smell to keep for all eternity. It was almost better than new-car smell. One thing for sure, you can’t get that when you order through the Internet. You can’t even get it at Wal-Mart.
Well, the buzz you hear – or feel – tonight is kind of like the smell of the old five-and-dimes. It’s a combination of things as well. It’s not just one thing but a compilation of many things: anticipation, memories, hopes, fears, joys, sadnesses.
You walk into a coffee shop and the person behind the counter asks you what you would like to order. “I’d like what I’m smelling,” you say. “We can’t do that,” you are told. “What you smell is a combination of everything we have.”
The same is true with Christmas Eve. What you sense, what you smell, what you see and hear and feel at this very moment… it’s a combination of everything you have experienced this Christmas season and all the Christmases before it. It’s what you bring to the celebration of Christ’s birth that makes up the experience. What you are feeling in your heart and in your soul right now is the sum total of it all.
We know it won’t last, but we sense it – right now – and we want to savor it for all it’s worth. At least, while the moment lasts (and that’s all it is, just a moment), we want to celebrate the buzz that comes only at this time of year.
Barbara Brown Taylor puts it this way… she says that Christmas Eve is the time “when the membrane between heaven and earth is so thin you can almost see through it. Tonight is the night we measure all time against.”1
This church’s sanctuary, so beautifully decorated for the season, has become a waiting room. We find ourselves pacing the floor nervously until we get news the baby is born. That’s where we are.
That waiting, in itself, comes in different forms.
Ask the children here tonight what they’re waiting for and chances are the images in their heads come in the form of brightly-wrapped gifts under the Christmas tree, or what they anticipate when they wake up in the morning.
Some are celebrating their first Christmas in their new home.
There are a few folk in our church who have a new baby in the house, so for them Christmas brings its own nativity scene.
There are others who can’t wait to see the faces of their children experiencing their first Christmas.
One couple is anxiously waiting until they can get their preemie out of the hospital and into their home. Life for them won’t be complete until they are all together, safely under the same roof.
Others are expectantly waiting a new arrival. This year to come is the one when their family will be enlarged.
Talk to my generation, or those older, and they might tell you they look forward in the morning to waking up to a house in which all the beds are occupied with children and grandchildren who have come home for Christmas.
Whether we like it or not, Christmas Eve is a time machine and this place is our Bethlehem where we have hauled the hopes and the fears of all our years and laid them in a manger.2
For that reason alone, it is good for us not to make this story we read a moment ago into a fairy tale. It was hardly that. If our hopes are dependent on the marketplace or in a fairy tale, we’ve not only missed the point, we’ve deluded ourselves in the process and set ourselves up for a big, big disappointment. There is a certain degree to which, even on Christmas Eve, we have to deal with the reality of the story and not just the fantasy of it. There were no talking animals, no drummer boys, at the birth of Jesus. It was what it was, and we need to acknowledge that.
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Christmas began with an arduous journey. It’s not much to us… seventy miles or so. Give us an interstate highway and we can make it in about an hour. Do any of you have family in Clarksville, Arkansas? It’s about that far. Try it, however, on your own two feet carrying a nearly full-term baby and see well how you do.
And even when they arrived, they found hospitality to be in short supply. We can’t help but wonder, if Bethlehem was Joseph’s hometown – or at least where his family was from – why did they have to go calling at the door of a fully-occupied inn? Wasn’t there an uncle or a cousin – somebody – who could take them in?
How would you like to settle for a stable as a delivery room? With animals attending to the birth instead of a qualified medical staff? With the smell of hay instead of baby powder? Potpourri is nice for us, but it was in short supply in Bethlehem, let me tell you. The whole thing would have made for riveting reality TV.
Some of you have to deal with your own reality at Christmas, and that’s hard enough. For some of you, Christmas is, in the words of my late friend Don Harbuck, “the burdened season.” It’s a hard time of year. You’ve got an empty chair to deal with. You have a stocking that will be staying boxed up,3 and Christmas is lonelier than it’s been in a long, long time.
Truth be told, there’s not been a Christmas – not even the first one – that went off exactly like everybody would have wanted it to. But that doesn’t – that cannot – deny the heart of the story; namely, that on this one night, God chose to come in human flesh. Heaven came down and glory filled our souls
That’s a nice thought on this Christmas Eve, and one that I hope you will take with you. Sometimes we work really hard at Christmas time to bring heaven to us. We decorate with images of angels and shepherds, with wise men gazing up into a star, in order to make a connection between heaven and earth, divinity with humanity. I would not diminish that for a moment. In fact, I do the same. We all do.
But when all is said and done, when the house is decorated and the cookies are baked, when the presents are wrapped and waiting for eager hands to unfold their contents, we are finally left with this and this alone: tonight, at this very moment, the whole world has stopped (okay, our world has stopped) simply because “a child has been born to us.” And in that child heaven came down.
May the glory that fills your soul this night be the presence of God made flesh in you.
Come to us, Lord Jesus, into our hearts we pray, Amen.
1Barbara Brown Taylor, Home By Another Way (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Cowley Publications, 1999), p. 20.
2Ibid., p. 21.
––Copyright 2005, Randy L. Hyde. Used by permission.