How many of you have seen the movie Christmas Vacation starring Chevy Chase? The movie has become a holiday favorite. It’s a parody about the false expectations that we often build up around the traditional family Christmas experience. Many of us can probably identify with the character Clark Griswold, who does everything within his control to give his family the gift of a “perfect” Christmas.
The movie starts with Clark taking his family into the wilderness in search of the “perfect Christmas tree.” After a road rage accident, that ends with the family station wagon crashing into a snow bank, the Griswolds set off into the wilderness on foot. After a long march in the snow, Clark finds the perfect tree, only to realize that he forgot to bring a saw. From wrestling with strands of Christmas lights that don’t work, to suffering extended visits from difficult relatives, the Griswolds continue to face experiences that cause many to think: “Been there, done that.”
How many of you have had the yuletide experience of trying to assemble a bicycle at 2 a.m. on Christmas morning, only to learn that you probably should have paid the assembly fee?Like Clark, our intentions to plan a “good, old-fashioned family Christmas” may not always live up to what the consumer-focused marketing companies have made it out to be. And then, after weeks of preparation, all for the purpose of creating one perfect day in an imperfect year, someone probably will be upset because they didn’t get the present they wanted, a toy is already broken, Grandpa drank too much, and Grandma got run over by a reindeer!
We want everything to be perfect at Christmas, don’t we? We want everyone to love their gifts, to have their fill of food. We want to create the most wonderful memories that will last a lifetime. But here’s the thing about our “typical” Christmas celebrations; the joy they bring is relatively shallow, it’s only temporary, and it’s all but forgotten within a few weeks’ time.
Each of us has within us a longing for something great, something to bring us overwhelming joy, something to satisfy our greatest hopes and deepest longings. Yet, I am certain that there is nothing you or your family members will open on Christmas morning that will satisfy the deepest desires of your hearts. That’s why we are gathered here tonight, though, isn’t it? We know there is more to Christmas than just giving and receiving gifts. We know that in the birth of that Christ child, there came an answer to our deepest prayers. And so we celebrate. But what is it, exactly, that we celebrate? Who is it?
We heard just a few moments ago Luke’s telling of the Christmas story. Immediately following the birth of Jesus, an angel appears not too far away from Bethlehem in the midst of some shepherds. Now, we need to keep in mind that the word translated as “angel” here means messenger. It’s very likely that, as in other angelic appearances in the Bible, this angel looked just like any other person; no wings or halo, just a messenger bringing some noteworthy news from Bethlehem. When we consider that, it’s no wonder the shepherds were afraid. How would you feel if you were approached by the stranger in the middle of the night? But that’s the way angels work sometimes, isn’t it? Strangers who appear at the most unexpected time, but just when we need them the most.
So this angel, sensing the fear of the shepherds, tells them not to be afraid, just as Gabriel told Mary not to be afraid. Then the messenger proceeds to explain what has just happened in the little town of Bethlehem. The messenger says, “I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord. This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.” Just a few moments after Christ is born, we have the first gospel proclamation! This angel tells this shepherds that if they go to Bethlehem, they will find there a baby who is Savior, Christ, and Lord!
Indeed, there is in Christmas an answer to the great longings of our hearts because the one whose birth we celebrate is Savior, Christ, and Lord! Caesar called himself savior and lord. Herod called himself the christ. When the angel told the shepherds about the baby in the manger, they were probably expecting to find an heroic king. But how many caesars have brought true salvation? What Herod ever transformed lives or offered life in the kingdom of God? No, Jesus was not a heroic king like Caesar or Herod. He did not come with military might, just an invitation to follow him. He did not build an army or levy taxes; he had only one command, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, and mind. And love your neighbor as yourself.” And in the end, this King laid down his life for his subjects, so that they might have life abundant.
Tonight we celebrate the birth, the new life, of the one who brings new life for his people! And the angels said to the shepherds, “This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.” It seems so strange, doesn’t it, the sign of salvation, the sign of new life is a baby in a feeding trough?!? But Luke tells us three times that Jesus was in a manger; there’s something important about the fact that Jesus was born in a stable and spent his first night in a manger. Why would Luke repeat this fact over and over and over again? Certainly, the manger reminds us of God’s favor for the humble and lowly. But there’s more to it than that. What happens at the manger? It is the feeding trough. Within the humble walls of the stable, the manger is where the hungry are fed.
Do you begin to see the significance of this night, this birth, in a new way? Moses told the Israelites as they were preparing to enter the Promised Land, “Man does not live by bread alone.” The prophet Isaiah asked the people, “Why spend money on bread that won’t satisfy?” And early in his ministry, just after feeding the 5,000, Jesus said to the people, “I am the bread of life.”
My friends, we all have within us a deep hunger. We try every way we know how to satisfy those longings, even at Christmas-time. But we won’t find what we’re looking for at any mall. It’s not neatly wrapped under a tree or even in Santa’s sack. We won’t even find what we’re longing for on a holiday visit with family. No, we have to go to the feeding trough in Bethlehem. The only place we can find our hunger truly satisfied is here, at the manger. Here, in the presence of our Savior, Christ the Lord, we find meaning and purpose. Here we have value. Here we are not alone, but know that God is with us. Here we are loved and forgiven. Here we are offered life eternal.
On that Christmas night so long ago, a messenger came with good news, and the angel didn’t have to go far to find some people who were hoping and praying and longing. In the olive groves just outside of Bethlehem, there were some humble shepherds who were hungry for meaning and purpose, for love and forgiveness, for salvation. And so the messenger brought good news of great joy to these lowly shepherds keeping watch over their flock. It was an invitation, “What you hunger for is what this baby brings. And the way you will know what I say is true is that you will find Christ the Lord lying in a manger, a feeding trough.” So the shepherds came to the trough, and they went back rejoicing for all they saw and heard.
Tonight, the same invitation is extended to you, to all. Come to the manger. Come to the feeding trough. Come to the Lord’s Table. You are hungry, and what you are longing for is here. Take and eat of this bread of life. Find your fulfillment in God’s presence this Christmas. And then, like the shepherds, go from this place rejoicing! Telling of all you have seen and heard in Christ’s presence. Be a messenger in the world this Christmas and every day. To this world that is hungering and hoping, be the one who brings could news of great joy!