On Christmas Eve, 1972--exactly forty-five years ago this evening--I attended the midnight showing of the controversial movie Carnal Knowledge, starring Jack Nicholson, Art Garfunkel, and Ann Margaret. As I had abandoned the notion of God several years earlier, declaring myself an enlightened thinker and proud atheist, I could assure you that I wouldn’t be caught dead at a Christmas Eve church service. I could understand the appeal Christmas might have for little kids with its emphasis upon gift-giving and the such, but by the time I had entered college, it had lost any real meaning for ME.
Carnal Knowledge was one of the most dispiriting films I had ever seen. Directed by Mike Nichols, it chronicled the bitter experiences of two middle-class men over the course of three decades- Jonathan, a cruel but charismatic womanizer played by Jack Nicholson, and Sandy, a bland idealist portrayed by Art Garfunkel. As their friendship progresses through the years, their search for the ideal woman leads to failed marriages, bad relationships, and emotional emptiness. Walking out of the theater with my friend Ted, I found myself just as depressed as the film’s two main characters and I remember looking up into that cold and clear night sky with my sole thought being, “Here it is Christmas morn and I feel no joy, no hope- just NOTHING inside. Is THIS what life is all about?”
Well, around two thousand years ago, there was ANOTHER group of men standing outside on a cold and clear dark night. However, their thoughts were anything BUT fixated on their own anxieties or spiritual emptiness. Our text informs us that in the region around Bethlehem there were some shepherds out in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. Suddenly, an angel of the Lord appeared to them and understandably, they a were very much afraid. But the angel calmed their fears with the announcement that a wonderful event had just taken place which represented great news for all the people, that the long-awaited savior had finally made his entrance into history. To prove this, a sign would be given them- a baby wrapped in swaddling cloth and lying in a manger. At the conclusion of this incredible announcement, a multitude of heavenly beings suddenly appeared and began praising God.
As abruptly as the angels materialized, they just as quickly disappeared, once again leaving the startled shepherds all alone. In great excitement, they decided to go to Bethlehem and see this remarkable event which the Lord had made known to them. Hurriedly, they found their way to the Holy Family with the baby laying in the manger. After relating to Mary and Joseph all that they had seen and heard, they then proceeded back to their fields, back to their sheep, back to their regular responsibilities- glorifying and praising God all along the way.
One of the more neglected details of this story is how after their encounter with the angel and the heavenly choir followed by the confirmation of their announcement with the child in the manger, they don’t contact The National Enquirer to sell their story, nor do they head off to the local CNN affiliate to publicize all they had just seen and heard. Rather than capitalizing on it, rather than trying to convert it into some measure of fame and fortune as most people would do nowadays, they instead return to their fields, back to their job which was tending a flock of sheep. It was back to the same, dull, monotonous routine from which they had been trained at an early age, and which they would CONTINUE to perform until the day they died. These were no more than poor, illiterate herdsmen who knew how to do one thing, and one thing well which was tend sheep. Through that humblest and simplest of occupations, they would earn just enough to put food on the table and clothes on their backs and little more. They really had no hope for anything ELSE!
But not EVERYTHING would remain status quo. Where their daily lives would remain the same, they THEMSELVES had been changed forever by the experience. God had revealed this event NOT to the Chief Rabbis in Jerusalem, NOT to King Herod and the rest of his royal court, and NOT to the generals on the army’s Joint Chief of Staff but to a small group of poor and illiterate field workers. As meagre as their standard of living was, as lowly as their class status may have been, and as dull and monotonous as their daily duties would continue to be, God had made THEM of all people the recipients of this- the GREATEST of all annunciations and the answer to all Israel’s longings. Just as Mary, the unworthy mother of our Lord, would spend the rest of her life thanking God for the babe that lay within her womb, so would these shepherds spend the rest of THEIR lives praising God and rejoicing that he would regard persons as lowly and as humble as themselves.
During World War II, my father served in the Pacific theater. He spent time in Okinawa, the Marshall Islands, and in the Philippines. He told me many times of how he was present on Gold Beach the day Gen. Douglas MacArthur got out of his landing craft and strode through the waves to make his long-awaited announcement, “I have returned to Leyte!” He took great pride in relating to me this and OTHER stories about his war experiences. When the war ended and my father returned home to New Jersey, he was hired on as a passenger conductor for the Pennsylvania Railroad. He was a faithful employee and I don’t think he ever missed a day of work over the next thirty years. He’d get up at five o’clock each morning to drive to South Amboy where he’d punch tickets on the local train into New York City. During his layover there, he’d make a few extra dollars as a filer for a local bank and then work his way back home in the evening. Around seven o’clock each night, he’d haul his tired body through the kitchen door only to have to repeat the same routine once again the following day. In fact, he had put in a full day of work the night he died, almost forty-three years ago now.
Despite the daily drudgery, I always knew that that brief interlude in his life, those years between 1941 and 1945, would always remain sacred to him. It was a very special period in world history, and for him as well as for millions of OTHER men and women it became a once in a lifetime experience. Over the years, I’ve heard parents express much the same thing when they speak of the birth of their first child. They felt fortunate to participate in an event unlike any other that would always be with them and could never be repeated. Such experiences serve as a reminder of how life, in spite of all its dull and numbing routine, can really be quite special, that it is often punctuated with unique and unrepeatable moments which change us to the extent that we can never again be the same persons we once were. So it was for this small group of shepherds, there on the hillsides of Bethlehem, tending their flocks that night.
When you think of it, so much of our lives seem to consist of dull, numbing routines. Life for many is often a stream of repetitive tasks and meaningless activity. Depending upon what day of the week it is, we get up in the morning; we clean ourselves; we eat breakfast, go to work, come home, watch a little TV, and then go to bed only to begin the process all over again the following day. As Woody Allen once quipped, “Ninety percent of life is just showing up.” Approximately a third of our lives is spent asleep, a third at work, and a third at recreation, and if we are to believe the data, the percentage of time sleeping and at recreating is shrinking while the time we spend working is continuing to expand. Add to that the findings of many social analysts who say that the overwhelming majority of persons hate what it is they do for a living, and you must come to the conclusion that growing numbers of people are becoming increasingly disenchanted with their lives.
But sch disenchantment is not just limited to those who work on assembly lines or flip burgers for a living. I have a friend who is a lawyer on Wall St. with two degrees from Yale University. He has a little secret though- he absolutely HATES his profession and says he was never happier than the couple of years he spent teaching Irish literature at UCLA. The majority of people now entering seminary are second and sometimes third-career persons who were feeling unfulfilled by their chosen profession and who now want to accomplish something much more rewarding with their lives. However, the problem often resides, not in the WORK we do, but in OURSELVES, that our basic dissatisfaction with who we are and the growing sense of meaninglessness we experience spills over into the REST of our lives so that we would be miserable at ANYTHING we put our time and energy into. Thus it’s not our vocation or our work that is at fault as it is our own HEARTS encumbered as it is with all its emptiness and anxieties.
What our text shows us this morning is that without the in-breaking of God into our ordinary lives, without experiencing a bit of the awe and wonder and beauty which we discover in an encounter with divinity, in other words, without “the singing of the angels” in the midst of our daily routines, life would be hardly worth living. Without finding inspiration in a higher world, it would be agonizing drudgery and little more- it would be life without joy, life without hope, life without MUSIC! As that great spiritual teacher Howard Thurman wrote many years ago:
There must be always remaining in every person’s life some place for the singing of angels–some place for that which is itself is breathlessly beautiful and by an inherent prerogative, throwing all the rest of life into a new and creative relatedness–something that gathers up in itself all the freshets of experience from drab and commonplace areas of living and glows in one bright white light of penetrating beauty and meaning–then passes. The commonplace is shot through with new glory–old burdens become lighter, deep and ancient wounds lose much of their old, old hurting. A crown is placed over our heads that for the rest of our lives we are trying to grow tall enough to wear. Despite all the crassness of life, despite all the hardness of life, despite all the harsh discords of life, life is saved by the singing of angels.
To quote another great teacher, the Anglican scholar Kenneth Cragg:
Christian faith is fact, but not bare fact; it is poetry, but not imagination. Like the arch which grows stronger precisely by dint of the weight you place upon it, so the story of the Gospels bears, with reassuring strength, the devotion of the centuries to Jesus as the Christ. ‘What is music,’ asked Walt Whitman, ‘but what awakes within you when you listen to the instrument?’ And Jesus is the music of the reality of God and faith is what awakens when we hearken.
We all need to be reminded that amidst all the tedium and routine that passes for life, there are intermixed with it moments of magic and wonder and high drama which continue to make it special. A hundred and twenty Christmases have passed since Virginia O’Hanlon sent her letter to The New York Sun inquiring as to whether there really WAS a Santa or not. In his now-famous reply, Francis Church wrote, “Yes, Virginia, there IS a Santa Claus. He exists as certainly as love and generosity and devotion exist, and you know that they abound and give to your life its highest beauty and joy. Alas! how dreary would be the world if there were no Santa Claus! It would be as dreary as if there were no Virginias.” Church ended his editorial with this further reassurance:
“No Santa Claus! Thank God! he lives, and he lives forever. A thousand years from now, Virginia, nay, ten times ten thousand years from now, he will continue to make glad the heart of childhood.”
Yes, how dreary the world WOULD be if there was no Santa Claus, if there was no magic or wonder to help us forget some of the loneliness and pain we have to endure the rest of the year. This is why we cherish books like Treasure Island or Alice In Wonderland, why there is so much anticipation over the next Harry Potter novel or Star Wars movie. It’s not so much that people are looking for ways to ESCAPE the daily drudgery of their lives as it is to remind them how amid their usual tasks and mundane responsibilities—as important as these are--life is punctuated with moments of miracle and wonder and that it is IN such moments that we find our hearts stirred with a new and profound sense of meaning, with a fresh injection of joy and of hope.
However much we might enjoy songs about Santa this time of year, how much GREATER do we as God’s children love hearing about that baby in that manger. This story about a child born to be the savior of the world and shepherds seeing angels on a hillside and Wise Men following a star to Bethlehem introduces us to the greatest gift in all the world- a gift that comes directly from God’s heart. In Jesus Christ ALONE do we see God experiencing every facet of our lives beginning by being born into it. Then for the next thirty-three years, he would laugh with us, cry with us, and ultimately suffer and die for us. The truth is that anyone who has ever known the presence of SIN or FEAR or GUILT or SORROW or LONELINESS in his or her life will NEVER find a gift from Santa that will help ease THOSE burdens. Jolly Old Saint Nicholas might deliver toys and presents all over the world to good little girls and boys but the day after, those same toys often wind up in the fix-it box while those shirts and sweaters find themselves exchanged for being too small or too ugly. JESUS, on the other hand, doesn't come on a sleigh, but in a MANGER and he remains the one gift who is eternal, who is unbreakable, and who fits EVERY size heart.
My friends, I began my sermon by sharing with you the Christmas Eve I spent attending the midnight showing of Carnal Knowledge. Now, let me tell you as Paul Harvey liked to say, “the REST of the story.” Exactly one year later--Christmas Eve of 1973--I wasn’t in any movie theater but in a WORSHIP SERVICE in Elizabeth, N.J. singing carols and praising God over the birth of a child. You see, between December 24th, 1972 and December 24th, 1973, I had made a great discovery. I learned there was a God who loved me with an everlasting love, one who was constantly reassuring me that NOTHING would ever separate me from either his presence or his love. I found out that this story of a child born in a manger was no foolish message or fairy tale, but THE POWER OF GOD UNTO SALVATION TO EVERYONE WHO BELIEVES. He sent his Son that our fear may be changed into joy, our despondency into confidence, and our dull drudgery, our monotonous routines which often pass for life, into REAL life. As Jesus said, “I came that you may have life, and have it more abundantly.”
In the more than forty years since, I have continued to spend EVERY Christmas Eve in the company of God’s saints, giving thanks and praising him for what that child has come to mean to me and to the rest of the world. He has filled my life with music, he has filled my soul with the SINGING OF ANGELS, and I can never again be the same. I have heard his song so very clearly throughout this morning’s worship service. You TOO might hear it- in our carols or our scripture text or perhaps even between the lines of this morning’s sermon. And if you take the time YOURSELVES to pause from all your busy labors and listen closely, then like me and like those SHEPHERDS so many years ago, YOUR life will never again have to be the same! Amen and amen.