First Lesson: Isaiah 9: 2-7
Responsive Reading: Psalm 96
Second Lesson: Titus 2: 11-14
Gospel Lesson: Luke 2: 1-20
Grace and Peace from Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ,
Author Barbara Robinson tells the tale of the Herdman children1. We all know kids like the Herdmans. The Herdmans were the type of kids that Mom didn’t want you to play with growing up. The Herdmans were unsupervised children who traveled all over town creating mischief. You think of something that a kid would do to get in trouble then the Herdmans probably did it. The Herdmans lied; they stole, they swore, and they even set fire to their neighbor’s’ tool shed. Teachers kept passing the Herdmans along in school, because no teacher would ever want to put up with two Herdmans at the same time.
One day though one of the Herdmans (Leroy Herdman) hears something that changes his life forever. Leroy hears from one of his classmates that they could get all the free desserts that they ever wanted if they went to church. The Herdmans begin to show up at church every Sunday. Church didn’t initially change the Herdmans though; their behavior remained as rough as ever. The Herdmans would take from the offering plate as it was passed in front of them, they stole and drank all the wine from the Communion jug, and they even smoked cigars in the church bathroom.
The troubles between the Herdmans and the church were just beginning though; soon casting would begin for the church’s annual Christmas pageant. Most of the kids were bored by this, figuring it was the same story with the same people in the same parts every year. This year would be different though as the Herdmans wanted to take part. The Herdmans landed all the parts through the only ways they knew how in bullying and intimidation. All the characters from Joseph to the Wise Men to Angels were going to be played by Herdmans. The most interesting casting choice though was the meanest Herdman of them all in Imogene Herdman was going to be playing Mary.
The whole church gets in an uproar upon hearing this news. No one was going to dare to let their infant play Jesus so that he could be taken care of by the rough and tumble Herdmans. Everyone in the church assumes that the Christmas pageant starring the Herdmans will be a disaster.
The evening started off according to predictions as the Herdmans went off script, not knowing the Christmas story all that well. The Wise Men thought the gifts of Frankincense and Myrrh were stupid, so they decided to bring the Baby Jesus a “Ham” instead they received from the church’s welfare basket. Mary starts burping a “baby doll” just like it a real baby. The Wise Men fail to exit the stage at the proper time. The Angel gets mad at the audience so to get them to quiet down starts yelling “Unto to you a child is born.”
Something happened though over the course of the pageant, and it was the most unlikely of outcomes. The Herdmans begin to get the meaning of the Christmas story. The Herdmans begin to realize that this birth about which they knew nothing was special. Mary shocks the audience when she begins to cry on stage. Mary played by Imogene Herdman had dealt with years of feeling broken not quite right with the world. It was on stage that Imogene became overwhelmed by the depths of God’s love for her. The meanest of girls had come to realize the meaning of grace. The meaning of grace is that God forgives even when we might be unable to forgive ourselves.
The Herdmans story is a humorous portrayal of the Christmas season, the idea of the rough and tumble being at the center of God’s story has some basis in reality.
Let’s look at the main characters in our Christmas story for tonight as we see how they’re not that different from the rough and tumble Herdmans.
Let’s start with the Shepherds. Shepherds did not possess high esteem in the days that Luke wrote his gospel. Shepherds were considered to be one step above the sheep that they took care. No one desired to be a shepherd. Shepherds spent their nights lying in the field, where food was often lacking. The role of shepherd tended to fall to the youngest and weakest son. The shepherd was the son who wasn’t going to receive any land out of the father’s inheritance. Being a shepherd was a job that tended only to appeal to the anti-social. Being a shepherd only made sense if you had no desire to have children on your own. Shepherds were the type of family members that every year, you hoped would finally get their act together.
Let’s look at Joseph. Joseph was a mere common laborer, a carpenter more of a grunt than a master builder. Joseph’s bank account probably had very little in it. Joseph’s contributions to the synagogue were probably quite meager. Joseph was such a sub-standard provider for Mary that he didn’t even have a safe place for her to give birth.
Finally, we get to Mary. Mary was merely a girl about the age of thirteen. Mary didn’t stand out from the crowd in that she was no great beauty, no great talent, or didn’t even possess extraordinary piety. Mary even lacked any sort of socially acceptable explanation for her pregnancy2.
These were the people that were the cast of characters at the scene of the Lord’s birth. If you took a photo of this scene to put on Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter, people might have pictured this baby’s birth as evidence of all that is wrong with society.
Perhaps there is something to say for Jesus being born amongst the people who most desperately need him.
What we can take from our message tonight is that we know the Shepherds, we know Mary and Joseph, and we know the Herdmans. To all these people a savior has been born on this evening.
The thing about the Herdmans is their role had a genuine skepticism attached to it by people who had experienced them before, people who couldn’t believe that the future could be different3.
The future is different. At the center of our story tonight is a helpless baby. Tonight, we hear a story of how God became powerless, how the word became flesh to dwell among us4.
Martin Luther one time gave a sermon on Christmas and the Shepherds roles within it when he explained the Holiday quite well. I read Luther’s words on this evening.
“The Christian faith is foolishness. It says that God can do anything and yet makes himself so weak that either his Son had no power or wisdom or else the whole story is made up.”… “If I had come to Bethlehem and seen it, I would have said: ‘This does not make sense. Can this be the Messiah? This is sheer nonsense.’ I would not have let myself be found inside the stable5.”
What we hear tonight is that God came into the world amongst those living at the bottom of it. The Angel announced Christ’s birth to the very people you wouldn’t have expected to hear it.
What this background says as we gather here on this night is that some force is bringing us together here. I believe that the Lord has led you here: whether you were nagged or attended out of “family obligations”. The Lord led you here tonight so you may see that Christmas matters because The Cross and Resurrection matter. Christmas matters because “New Life” has been breathed into an old and dying world at a manager in Bethlehem. Amen
1 Robinson in 1971 wrote The Best Christmas Pageant Ever published by Harper& Row. The Best Christmas Pageant ever serves as the motivation for this evening’s sermon. H/T to my mom Joan Carlson a retired middle school English teacher from North Branch, Minnesota for giving me this sermon idea.
2 This description of the Holy Family was inspired by an article written by Matt Fitzgerald published over at The Christian Century on December 19, 2014 entitled “God among the imperfect”.
3 An excellent faith-based commentary on The Best Christmas Pageant Ever can be found at classbookworm.wordpress.com published on December 24,2012.
4 John 1:1-18
5 These quotes were found in an article published by David Zahl at mbird.com (Mockingbird) in an article entitled “Martin Luther on Christmas” published on December 14th, 2010. These Luther quotes come from a Christmas sermon on The Shepherds.