First, our church didn’t have a Christmas Eve service scheduled. However, on Christmas Eve, I attended two services. Yes, I am that spiritual. Kidding. The first was a 3:00 service at my mom’s Episcopal church. I’d never been inside before. The sanctuary’s woodwork glowed golden in the rare afternoon sunshine. Greenery scalloped the walls and altar. The small nave could seat about 100, firmly packed.
I grew up Episcopalian, so most of the liturgy felt familiar. Unlike my childhood church, they were a friendly, casual group. We sang several Christmas carols too quickly but thoroughly. We either stood or sat for the reading and responses instead of my childhood memory of stand-sit-kneel. Our Father, who is in heaven…I took communion with real white wine and a small square strip of wood paneling which passed as the host. We did kneel for communion. And we sang “Silent Night” as we held our lit candles. Very nice.
What struck me about the 3:00 service had to do with Joe, the rector. Father Joe gave a short homily about giving. He said they have many needy people who come to the church seeking help. He said, “We give them help. Then…they come back. They say, ‘It wasn’t enough.’ Or ‘it wasn’t the right help.’ So we give, and give, and give some more.” He talked of his struggle with cynicism, which he believes is now pervasive in our culture. It’s hard to keep on serving with no appreciation. Indeed.
Then he got to the gist of his message: “And this is the point. In order to do you what Jesus asks, we have to *let* the coming of Jesus change us. It’s up to us. We have to let it happen.” He talked of submission to the Lord when he himself felt all out of love. He quoted G.K. Chesterton: “Christmas is built upon a beautiful and intentional paradox; that the birth of the homeless should be celebrated in every home.” Father Joe emphasized that we’re all on this road together, blown away by the beauty of a penniless newborn king.
The second service took place at 6:00 at the Assembly of God church. We looked forward to this annual event with our pastor friends. They put up some pretty red and gold decorations and had a lighted Christmas tree on stage as well. It’s a mellow service, with worshipful music and good preaching.
Pastor read passages of the Christmas story out of Luke 2. He pointed out that sometimes things don’t go the way we’d like them to. Mary, he’s sure, didn’t plan to be pregnant before she got married. Joseph didn’t plan to raise God’s son. To keep on anyway, one day at a time, one foot in front of the other, takes courage and trust.
The second thing he said hit me hard. I’ll paraphrase it here.
“Angels appeared to the shepherds. The shepherds, you might have heard, occupied the bottom of the social strata. They had no illusions of grandeur. They were humble. The angels announced Jesus’ birth to them because they could receive it. They had no agenda, nothing to prove. Their ears were open because of their humility.”
I’d never thought of it that way. I always considered the message inclusive, from lowly shepherds to the wise men who served kings. I still believe that. But Proverbs 3:34 says The LORD mocks the mockers but is gracious to the humble. Pastor encouraged us to examine ourselves to see if our attitudes lined up with humility.
Both of these pastors had a similar thrust: submission to Jesus, despite all circumstances, is the essence of following the Lord. At times it costs us. We lose face. We buck sometimes, frustrated, under the Lord’s yoke. We run out of patience with the foibles of those we’re trying to help. We fall down in our human weakness, and get back up again. We won’t be perfect – ever. Yet in the end, God will lift us up. Thanks for the reminder, pastors.