Monday, December 17, 2012

Reflections on a Christmas Pageant - December 16

Kids bring us together. The tragedy in Newtown, Connecticut, leaves us all strongly aware of this. Yesterday our congregation joined with folks around the globe, believers and non-believers alike, in praying for comfort and peace, an end to such violence, for the families in Newtown.

I feel almost a duty to write about the horror of school shootings, the absolute horror of a shooting in an elementary school. This violence, with an altogether new terror and repulsion, tugs at a deep place in my heart. I remember walking my high school hallways in the days after Columbine. I cannot fully tell my own story without recounting how the televised news of that violence changed me.

But these stories and laments were in part displaced yesterday by the implacable church calendar: The Sunday School Christmas pageant was scheduled for yesterday morning. We had given the hour of our worship service to the kids to tell us the good news story of Jesus' birth.

Part of me sees a difficult irony in this. Kids sharing good news in the midst of so much tragic news about children. But hope often sounds difficult and ironic in our ears (no one foregrounds the interplay of hope and irony better than John the Evangelist). 

The kids of our congregation toddled in their homemade shepherd's costumes, some with stuffed lambs clutched in one hand. Mary and Joseph stood silent and wide-eyed before their grandparents and parents in the pews, uttering a barely audible "Oh, okay" when the angel delivered news of Jesus' impending birth. King (or, in our case, Queen) Herod gave directions to magi who were not quite on stage yet. 

In short, their Christmas program had all the dear details, the amateur earnestness, that fill adults' hearts with comfort and joy during this season. When we sang our closing hymn, "Come, Thou Long-Expected Jesus," I was certain those in the pews had heard good news as surely as if the angel Gabriel himself had appeared in our midst. Parents beamed, directors and stagehands laughed with relief, children jumped up and down in excitement as they received their Christmas treat bags from their Sunday School teachers.

I stood back and smiled. The kids had brought good news to us: "A savior is born to bring peace to all people."

But, Oh, that we lived in that peace now. Through Advent we've sang a simple song, "Come, Lord, and Bring Hope." Each verse substitutes a new word for hope: peace, joy, love, life. In some ways, our God has already answered our congregational prayer: Jesus has come, Jesus was born, Jesus lived and loved, healed and taught, Jesus submitted to death, Jesus has even risen once more to life! Like the more traditional Advent carol, "O Come, O Come, Emmanuel," our songs in this season are in no small part a re-enactment, a remembering of longings our God has already filled.

But as I watched the kids' program from the sound booth, I had the dark realization that we do not have more than twenty kids in our Sunday School program. Most of the kids are elementary-aged. Peace is still far from us. So are hope, joy, love, and life.

I gave my closing thoughts to the congregation after the program. Throughout the weeks and even months leading up to Advent, I've felt strong conviction that this worship service was one in which to be forthrightly evangelistic. I prepared my reflection early in the week, before any of us would or could have imagined such tragedy would occur so near to us. (You can read my thoughts posted below, if you'd like.)

I delivered my closing message as I'd prepared it, unsure how to speak on tragedy without robbing the kids of their joyous presentation. But I'm not confident that I made the right decision. Perhaps, I think, I should have spoken more directly to the tragic irony of proclaiming hope and peace in violent times. I'd value your input. 

Let us pray and act for peace.

(You can read the full text of what I said after the jump . . .)

My favorite characters in the Christmas story--beside Jesus, of course--may be the shepherds who lived on the open range around Bethlehem. I’m also a big fan of Mary, the teenage girl who became Jesus’ mom. But the shepherds hold my attention because they are the people in this story to whom I can most relate.

They were normal folks, people working hard to make a living. They weren’t as wise as the wise men or as holy as Mary, but neither were they as wicked as King Herod or Caesar. I doubt that chasing off hungry predators and sheep rustlers was the job these men had always dreamed of as children. I bet they didn’t like sitting out in the cold on “A Midnight Clear.” I’d guess that helping ewes lamb wasn’t their favorite part of the year. But being hired on to watch this flock for their owners meant an income, silver in their pocket.

Maybe you can too can imagine yourself among the shepherds. Life is complicated. You’re a mix of emotions. You’re optimistic enough to hope that life gets better but you’ve lived long enough to know that’s not often how the story goes. You’re thankful that you have what you have, whatever it is--a job, a relationship, family, hope, peace, joy. But, still, you have to stretch it pretty thin sometimes in order to make ends meet.

Listen to how scripture describes what happened to these folks like you and me. Luke says in ch 2, vv 8-14. . .

God’s messenger brought the shepherds good news, the best news, in fact: God has come to save us! And then the legions of heaven appeared, praising God for sending a savior, someone to bring peace, hope, joy to God’s people. They sing, “Glory to God in high heaven, for peace has finally come on earth for the people God loves!” After this magnificent chorus, the angels faded back into the starry night.

Here in the story the shepherds face a choice. What will they do now? We face a similar choice this morning. We’ve just witnessed the beginning of the glorious gospel story acted out for us this morning. We’ve just heard the news once more--or, maybe for some of us, for the first time. God can speak to us through the Sunday School kids’ play just as much as God once spoke through the angels of heaven. This morning, the good news has been proclaimed to you, wherever you are--sinful or holy, happy or grieving, exhilarated by the season or exhausted by it. Right in the mess of our lives, this morning, God has announced good news to us again.

So what will you do with it? Listen to what the shepherds did (vv 15-18, 20). . .

After the angels told the shepherds the good news, the shepherds decided to go and investigate. They hurried to Bethlehem to find out about this baby. And when they found him wrapped in a blanket and lying in a feed trough, they couldn’t keep quiet about what they’d heard and seen. God really had come to save them, to bring joy back to the heartbroken world.

The question this morning is what you are going to do now that you’ve heard this good news. Are you ready to go, like the shepherds, to find out more about this baby, this Messiah? Or, if you were there that first night, would you sit back in the fading glory, and say, “Wow, what good singing! Now it’s time to check on those sheep.”

A savior has been born for us. His name is Jesus. He was born to bring us salvation, to bring peace and hope and joy to the world once more. Christmas night, with its stinky stable and its glorious angels, is just the beginning of this good news story. I pray that you will join me, join the shepherds, join with believers down the ages, in searching out this Savior.

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