Richard Maxwell

Christmas Eve 2013
Grace Episcopal Church

In the Name of God:  Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  Amen.

The church looks great, doesn’t it?  And it smells good, too . . . I love the smell of pine . . . .

We have a fake Christmas tree at home . . . I suppose the more refined word would be artificial.  We have an artificial Christmas tree at home.  There are many advantages to an artificial tree . . . it saves a real tree from being cut down, it’s reusable, it doesn’t drop needles everywhere, and, in our case, it was free . . . our neighbors gave us their fake tree – excuse me, their artificial tree – when they upgraded and got a better tree themselves.  There are, of course, a few DISadvantages to an artificial tree . . . it doesn’t fill the house with that wonderful smell of pine, and . . . ya have to put the thing together.

It takes quite a while to put our tree together . . . each branch has to be inserted into the “trunk” of the tree.  And before you attach each branch, if you want the tree to look any good at all, ya have to do some “fluffing” . . . some arranging of all those little “twig thingies” that hold the needles on each branch.  Furthermore, each level of branches is a different size . . . to achieve the proper conical shape when the whole thing is put together . . . and if the bundles of branches have come apart in the box, ya have to sort all the branches into separate them into piles before you even begin the process of assembly.  If you can’t tell, assembling the Christmas tree is NOT my favorite chore of the season.

At least it came with instructions.  While the process IS pretty self-evident, it was still helpful, the first time I put the tree together, to have a diagram to refer to.  Of course, even diagrams can be confusing.  I’ve tried to put together a few things in my life that have come with instructions and diagrams that were translated – BADLY – from a foreign language . . . and which I SWEAR were missing a step or two.  I can tell that some of you have had similar experiences . . . ever buy anything from Ikea?  It’s a common problem . . . this is the season, after all, when lots of us are trying to put things together.  In fact, just the other day I read a something about this problem in the little book of meditations for Advent.

The book is called From Holidays to Holy Days and it’s written by a Benedictine monk named Albert Holtz.[1]  His meditation for Christmas Eve is called “Some Assembly Required” and is the inspiration for this sermon . . . it’s all about the challenge of putting things together.  Br. Albert describes taking a walk one Christmas Eve afternoon and encountering a man coming out of a discount store.  The fella’s carrying a box about four feet long, which – given the way he’s carrying it – appears to be pretty heavy.  On the front of the box is a charming, large full-color picture of a little girl kneeling in front of a beautiful, three-foot tall dollhouse . . . which is clearly in the box.  As the fella stops to readjust his grip on this awkward and heavy package, Br. Albert notices – in rather small print at the bottom of the picture – the ominous words:  “some assembly required.”

Bring back any memories? 

I can remember, when I was a teenager, helping one of my sisters get ready for Christmas when her sons were quite young . . . on one particular Christmas Eve I think we were up until four in the morning “assembling” Christmas presents.  When the kids woke us all up, only a couple of hours later, I did not greet Christmas morning with my usual enthusiasm.  I won’t claim that this is the primary reason why I don’t have children myself . . . but it did give me a new perspective on the meaning of Christmas for the parents of young children.  I STILL regard that phrase, “some assembly required” with dread.

Br. Albert, mulling on similar memories of assembling Christmas presents, realizes that life is something like this:  In one way or another, we all have to assemble our lives.  God gives us all the pieces we need . . . and then expects us to make something beautiful out of them.  We have to fashion our lives from our talents and our tastes, from our experiences and our abilities – or our disabilities – from all of the pieces and parts that are ours.  But, unfortunately, we don’t have detailed diagrams and instructions to help us.

We have some general guidelines, like “Love God” “Love your neighbor as yourself” “Do Justice and love mercy” – ya know, the Ten Commandments, that sort of thing – but it’s up to us to fill in the details . . . to figure out how all the pieces and parts we’re given can work together in some meaningful way.

And ya know what?  Mary and Joseph and even Jesus had the same problem.  They each had a lot of work to do to make sense out of the events in their lives.  Think about Mary . . . when the angel Gabriel appeared to her.  I would think that an angel walking into your living room – or maybe even FLYING into your living room – would in itself be enough to try to deal with . . . to make some sense out of.  But what about the MESSAGE that Gabriel gave to Mary . . . you’re gonna get pregnant . . . by the Holy Spirit.  Right.  YOU imagine trying to make sense out of that . . . and out of everything else that happens in her life from this point forward.

And what about Joseph?  First he hears from Mary, his fiancée, that she’s pregnant . . . and not by him.  That’s pretty bad news.  But HOW did she get pregnant?  By the Holy Spirit!  Right.  And then angels start showing up, pestering him, bossing him around, telling him what to do and what not to do.  If you think about this period of his life, it sounds like angels are flappin’ in and out of the house all the time . . . “go here” “don’t go there” “do this” “don’t do that.”  How long do you think it took him to figure out what was goin’ on . . . to put the pieces together?  “Some assembly required,” indeed.

And even Jesus was not immune from this problem.  In recent years, some theologians have been reminding us that, if Jesus was not only fully divine, but fully human – as we claim – then he could not have been born with a fully developed understanding of who he was and what his life would be like.  He would have had to be like all the rest of us humans . . . trying to grow into self-knowledge . . . trying to put all the parts and pieces of his life together as he went along . . . just like us.  Luke, in fact, tells us this . . . describing the young Jesus he writes, “and Jesus increased in wisdom and in years” (Luke 2:52).  It’s a short little verse, easy to pass by, but it indicates just what I’ve been talking about.  As Jesus grew up, he also struggled to “put it all together.”  In this light, Jesus’ baptism in the Jordan and the temptations in the desert were pivotal moments of self-discovery for him.

Br. Albert, in the meditation I’ve been talking about, points out that even in the Gospel of John – in which Jesus is usually portrayed as all-knowing and in complete control – there is an intriguing verse that seems to imply that Jesus was nevertheless putting things together bit by bit.  In the third chapter of John, Jesus seems to be using a process of trial and error, experimenting with a ministry of baptism for a short time; perhaps wondering if he is supposed to imitate his cousin John the Baptist.  John tells us simply, “After this Jesus and his disciples went into the Judean countryside, and he spent some time there with them and baptized” (John 3:22).

Perhaps this verse, and the picture of Jesus trying to figure out his ministry, could be a comfort to those of us who are wondering what God is up to in our life.  Aren’t we all still trying to put the pieces together . . . trying to figure out what’s goin’ on in our lives?  It doesn’t matter how old we are . . . it ain’t over ‘til it’s over . . . and there continue to be surprises.  We don’t have detailed instructions or clearly drawn diagrams to follow as we continue to assemble our lives.  Like Mary and Joseph and even Jesus . . . we simply do the best we can.

But, ya know what?  If you think about it, in human terms, we have an advantage over Mary and Joseph . . . and even over the human Jesus.  Depending on how you read some of the Gospels, it seems that Jesus was trying to figure it out . . . trying to put the pieces together . . . right up to the moment of his death.  But you and I . . . we know the rest of the story.  We know about the Resurrection and the Ascension.  Because of the WHOLE story – the Good News of Jesus Christ – WE know that God’s love is reliable.  We KNOW that God keeps God’s promises.  We know that forgiveness is real . . . that salvation is ours . . . that the life of the world to come is a certainty.

And all because God deigned to come to us as one of us.  God saw how bad we are at putting the pieces of our lives together without a diagram.  And so God came to us as a little baby . . . as a human being . . . who grew and matured and lived his life as best he could . . . and, in the story of his life, left behind a model for us to follow.  No, Jesus didn’t leave a complete set of instructions . . . there are gaps in the diagram that each of us has to fill in as best we can . . . but still, considering Jesus’ story, we can be assured that in the end  . . . it’ll all work out.  All will be well . . . all manner of things will be well . . . all will be well.

And all because of the beautiful – and very human story – that begins tonight.  Merry Christmas!


[1] Published by Morehouse Publishing in 2008, pp. 99-101.

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