A Sermon from the Church of
Bethesda-by-the-Sea in Palm Beach, Florida
Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck on December 24, 2022 (Christmas Eve)
When I was a young rector serving at a parish outside of New York City, we held an annual Christmas tree sale on the first two weekends of December. I always spent some time working at it for several reasons: it was a lot of fun — the camaraderie was great as we greeted people and tied trees onto the tops of cars; it raised some good money for the church — we always undercut the Methodists; and I got to use a chain saw. Parish ministry is many things but it affords few opportunities to lose a limb.
While most people were incredibly gracious and families were filled with joy as they poured out of their mini-vans to select their tree, there were always several exceptions. Invariably a few people would come looking for “the perfect tree.” They would be incredibly insistent about this. As if their entire Christmas depended upon finding the perfect Douglass fir.
And of course no tree was ever good enough. They’d spend an hour looking through every single tree on the lot, treating our volunteers like the hired help at a high-end boutique on Worth Avenue. “No, that one’s not right. Show me that one. Turn it around. This one’s too full; that one’s not full enough. Don’t you have anything that smells better?” And there was nothing you could do but grit your teeth and keep a smile plastered on your face as they tested the limits of Christian charity.
Sometimes they’d leave with a tree; sometimes they’d go away disappointed. But I was always saddened when I encountered this because these folks were truly seeking something, trying to fill a void in their lives that can only be satisfied by relationship with Jesus Christ. The irony, of course, was that they were standing 25 feet from a church a few weeks before Christmas. And yet they were blind to Jesus’ offer of perfect salvation.
The reality is that the picture perfect Christmas doesn’t exist. Not when we try to achieve it through human means like the perfect tree, the perfect gift, the perfect dinner. And that’s okay. Because Jesus is most often met in the very messiness of our lives. In the imperfections and failures, in the foibles and flaws of the human condition. This is precisely why God entered the world amid the mud and muck of that stable in Bethlehem. God doesn’t ignore our shortcomings and weaknesses; God is present with us both in spite of and because of them. And that is the good news of Christmas. No matter what hardships or grief or pain we bring to the manger this night, Jesus opens his heart to us and loves us unconditionally.
In tonight’s familiar Christmas gospel from Luke, the Angel of the Lord tells the shepherds to “Fear not.” And these are words to ponder in your heart. Because the need for perfection, which we all pursue to some degree, is really fueled by fear. Fear of fully trusting God, fear of letting go of the control to which we so desperately cling, fear of failure, fear of death. But we’re not left to wallow in fear and darkness. The Incarnation of Jesus Christ banishes fear; it scatters the darkness from before our path; and it allows us to walk in the light of faith without fear. “Fear not,” says the Angel, “For, behold, I bring you tidings of great joy.” Which doesn’t mean that life is always easy or perfect, but it does mean that God in Christ is with us at every step of the journey. And that is something in which to rejoice; that is something in which to cry out “Glory to God in the highest!”
After the Angel departs, the shepherds say to one another, “Let us go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place.” In other words, they continue the journey. They set aside their fear of the unknown, they suspend their disbelief. And they continue to move ever closer to Jesus. Which is precisely what you are called upon to do this Christmas – to continue the journey of faith that has been set before you. To continue the journey towards Jesus.
Now, we’re not asked to do this alone – there was more than one shepherd after all. But rather to walk in community. I invite you to take this journey with this particular community of faith. You won’t find perfection here — though this place looks and sounds pretty good tonight — but you will find a group of people seeking to serve Jesus as best they can. A group of people who know at their very core that they are loved by God, despite their imperfections. A group of people who want to share that love with everyone they encounter. And that’s the essence of the Christian faith; it’s what gives life meaning and purpose, which is something we all so desperately seek.
Perhaps we sanitize and sentimentalize Christmas with our hand-painted decorations neatly arranged throughout our homes. And we’re certainly good at ignoring the messiness of the stable. But it is to the brokenness of our lives that God entered the world in human form. God sent his only Son both because of and despite the fact that we are not perfect. That’s the Christmas miracle. If God wanted the “perfect” Christmas, Jesus would have been born in a palace, not a stable. He would have been born to a princess, not a poor, unwed teenage mother. But Christmas is about genuine relationship with the divine rather than superficial perfection. If that’s your goal, you’re better off buying a perfectly shaped fake tree at Target.
So, may you experience the perfection of Jesus Christ this night. May it envelop you and shine brightly upon you. And may you all have a very merry Christmas.