Hark The Herald Angels Sing #4
Here we are. Christmas Eve. We come to celebrate the birth of Christ. And as the great old hymn says: “Christ Is Born In Bethlehem.” And here we stand, ready to celebrate His birth. This is the night of a story that is so new, so fresh that it seems to electrify the air with anticipation and expectation.
And yet it is a story and message which is so old that it is hard to hear it without slipping into automatic response mode. And yet, somewhere along the way, usually when we least expect it, this story is born again in our hearts; Faith and Hope are birthed once more in our spirit. And with Faith and Hope filling our spirits, the world may not make sense, but our place in the world begins to.
With Faith and Hope we can face anything because the baby born tonight, Emmanuel, God with us, means we are not alone. The universe is not some black hole sucking the life out of us, it is home to God the Creator who loves us dearly, so dearly that he sent His only Son in the most vulnerable way possible, as a baby born into a family just like ours and a world just like ours. He became one of us and walked where we walk.
He came to break down walls. He came to break down social and political and religious barriers. He came to free us from sin and death. He came to be our Savior. This babe, this child of Mary.
A. A Church in a County Seat town 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. There were slums, and street people who slept in the park a few blocks away, but you couldn’t see them from the church.
They set the nativity up on the lawn on the designated evening after dark and flooded it with carefully placed spotlights. For anyone driving around the square it was a dazzling sight, a Christmas card come to life. When word got out people came from miles around, from all over the city and the suburbs.
The first one was very simple, 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 it was a huge success and they continued the next year and the year after that.
As the crowds grew each year the nativity became a bigger and bigger production with Shepherds, wise men, an inn keeper, King Herod, a small flock of sheep with lambs for the children to pet, a donkey for Mary to ride, cows with calves, chickens, ducks, and geese. Thanks to special arrangements made through the local Shriners, there were even three genuine two-hump camels to carry the wise men as they followed the star.
The star? It rolled along on a track which had been laid out across the roof line of the church. They rented doves one year to perch on top of the stable and coo, but they couldn’t get them to coo on cue and they discovered that the pigeons that flew down from the clock tower could play the part just as well, and they were free, so that was the end of rented doves.
The latest addition had been a 40-voice angel choir with the choir director playing the part of the archangel Gabriel. The choir director loved to dress up in his flowing white robes and magnificent wings with gold glitter on the tips. He suggested that he carry a flaming sword when he made the announcement to the Shepherds, but the director thought that would be too much.
However, they did give him a special halo with soft blue light which made him stand out from the others whose halos were a much dimmer white. One of the guys in the tenor section said he looked like he was announcing a K-Mart special.
The angel choir 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 wonderful 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 the 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 a billboard and to talk to some of the wealthier 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 to the idea of painting the nativity on a billboard for all of the city to see. He said it had been a life-long dream to paint a sign that would be a witness to his faith.
The sign painter asked for only one consideration: “a free hand in painting the nativity as the Holy Spirit led,” was the way he put it. Of course, they were glad to agree. They had seen his work and they knew there was no one better in the sign painting business. They also agreed that 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. It was the same in all the meetings in preparation for the Nativity. 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, there would be a dozen more angels and the wise men would have servants following along behind the camels. They rented several more animals including a goat and a flock of peacocks. It would add more atmosphere, they said.
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. It was one of the best advertising locations in the city. Two hundred thousand people would see the sign every week.
The mayor of the city was to assist the pastor and the nativity director in the unveiling. 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 even sent a reporter and a camera crew, and of course, several people in the congregation had brought video cameras. Everybody 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 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.
And then they saw it. 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 Wise Men, 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.”
Of course, everyone put the best face on things that they could. The director said something about the church’s ministry to the poor. What else were they going to say? They couldn’t say that it was a mistake. They were on live television, in front of the mayor and the whole city. But it was difficult to hide their disappointment.
Everyone was gone within five minutes of the unveiling. The retired sign painter was left alone with the television reporter to try to explain his modern rendering of the nativity. But even he was beginning to wonder if he had made a mistake.
His wife, his children and his grandchildren had all left with everyone else. He stood there and wondered if they’d ever forgive him for this embarrassment to the family. Perhaps they would never go to church with him again.
It was on Monday morning, just after the church secretary came to work, about eight o’clock, that the phone started to ring. There were not only calls from within the city, there were calls from all over the country, newspaper reporters, disc jockeys, talk show hosts; everyone wanted to hear more about the sign. And the calls kept coming all week. It seemed like everyone in the nation knew about the Church’s unusual sign.
The retired sign painter became an overnight celebrity. By Thursday he had been on two national talk shows and was scheduled for Oprah the next week.
The following Sunday the church was packed to overflowing at both services. The pastor was so taken aback that by the second service she had discarded her sermon notes and was talking about the miracle that God had worked among them.
She suggested that while the nativity was a wonderful ministry, perhaps God was calling them to a new ministry with the poor and homeless. Perhaps they could start a shelter in the basement of the church and maybe they could help the Habitat folks build and renovate houses in the slums of their city. When she was finished preaching, the choir sang “Joy To The World” as they led the congregation out the door, around the square, and down the two blocks to the sign. There they stopped and looked again at the child who smiled out at them from the rags and cardboard shack.
From somewhere near the front of the congregation there came the soft sound of a single voice. It was the choir director, and he was singing:
“What child is this who laid to rest, on Mary’s lap is sleeping?’
Whom angels greet with anthems sweet, while Shepherds watch are keeping?”
And then the choir and the whole congregation joined with him, singing with all of their might:
“This, this is Christ the King, whom Shepherds guard and angels sing;
haste, haste to bring him laud, the babe, the son of Mary.”
This “babe, the son of Mary” WAS and IS the Son of God, the King of Kings.
He wasn’t born into royalty. There was no fancy castle or crown. He was born to parents who would soon be homeless and running for their lives. He was born in a stable and laid in a manger because there was no crib. There were no royal attendants, no crown, no servants, just a few shepherds and some stargazers from the east. There were no royal robes, just swaddling clothes.
Yet, this IS Christ the King, Emmanuel, God with us. There was No Room At The Inn that night but there is more than enough room in our hearts. Christ Is Born In Bethlehem.
He came for us; as one of us; to deliver us and that’s what makes this night so holy.
This is the Word of the Lord for this day.
1. John E. Sumwalt