Message for Christmas Day, Saint James UM Church, 2011
When l look back in history I think of people I wish I could have known. I wish I had known Walter the Shepherd. One of those shepherds had to be named Walter. Walter is an ordinary name and the shepherds were ordinary, common people like me and you. I would have asked him to tell me again what it was like when that angel suddenly appeared and scared the daylights out of him.
I wish I had known Luke, the good doctor. It was Luke who took his pen and wrote down the immortal story of those shepherds in the fields near Bethlehem. I would have asked Luke if knew Walter the Shepherd. I bet it was Walter who told Luke about that night when the angels inspired them to go to Bethlehem and find the baby boy born in a manger.
I wish I had known John, the beloved disciple. I would have asked him what it was like to stand near the cross upon which Jesus died and hear him cry, “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.” I think he would have said, “Walter, I still cannot talk about that moment.” And I would have thanked John for penning what may be the most magnificent 28 words in the New Testament: “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth; we have beheld his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father” (John 1:14).
In more recent times I wish I had known Henry Van Dyke, the Presbyterian minister born in Germantown, PA in 1852. You may have read some of Van Dyke’s stories. He wrote The Other Wise Man and The First Christmas Tree. He also wrote my wife’s favorite hymn that we sing to the tune of Beethoven’s Ode to Joy. You remember it goes like this, “Joyful, joyful, we adore thee, God of glory, Lord of love; hearts unfold like flowers before thee, opening to the sun above. Melt the clouds of sin and sadness; drive the dark of doubt away. Giver of immortal gladness, fill us with the light of day!” What beautiful words! What a beautiful song!
But what I would really like to thank Henry for is the wonderful piece he wrote titled “Keeping Christmas.” It is only about 100 years old but it has become a Christmas classic. I try to read it every Christmas because it speaks to my heart. You remember he says that keeping Christmas is more important than the observance of Christmas. He says if you can forget what you have done for others and give thanks for what others have done for you, then you can keep Christmas. He says if are willing to stoop down and care about the needs and desires of little children, then you can keep Christmas. And I like this part: if you can remember the loneliness of the people who are growing old, then you can keep Christmas.
I am especially touched by Van Dyke’s idea that we need to make a grave for our ugly thoughts and a garden for our kindly feelings. I need to do that. We all need to do that. And if we do it, then we will be keeping Christmas all year long.
Well, the truth is I have no way of getting to know Walter the Shepherd, or Luke the Doctor, or John the beloved Disciple, or Henry van Dyke the writer. But the good news is I can get to know Jesus! He is alive! He is here! He is Emmanuel, our God who is with us! I know he is here because just this morning I heard him say to me, “Walter, come to me and I will give you rest.” I went to him on bended knees and confessed my sins to him. I heard him say, “Your sins are forgiven, Walter; now rise, and follow me!” That is what I intend to do for the rest of my life. Will you go with me? We can follow Him as a church. We can follow him as families. We can follow him as individuals. And we can enjoy the journey together! Hallelujah! Glory! Amen. + + +