[I preached this sermon 39 years ago, when Christmas Day likewise fell on a Sunday, at the United Church of Hyde Park in Chicago. It prompted a number of appreciative responses. One was from the historian of religions, Wendy Doniger, who happened to be attending with her son that morning. Another was from the hymnist Brian Wren, who after reading it wrote a hymn in response (appended below).]

Luke 2:(1-7)8-20

Christmas Day for me and maybe all of us has always been a mixture of delight and disappointment.  Delight at seeing family and friends, at the arrival of a day we can’t help waiting for.  Even though department stores and catalogues bring out the greed in all of us, they still make us look on this day as somehow different from any other, and we need that.  We need a day that feels special.  That’s part of the delight.

But disappointment seems to follow close behind.  You may get the gift you asked for.  But it seldom quite lives up to what you imagined.  Friends and family don’t quite measure up either.  Their politics are too different.  They like all the Christmas carols you can’t stand.  The ways they have of showing love are either so obvious you’re embarrassed or played down so much as to make you wonder if there’s any love at all.  And of course there’s the day itself.  Is it really any different from all the other days, or do we just pretend it’s different to make up for all the day-after-day routine we fear to be our real fate?

Maybe this question is behind that whole mixture of feelings: On a day too much like other days we are looking for something more than we can expect to happen, while what we get is only too familiar.  It’s either exactly what we asked for or it’s less than we asked for, but where can we find something that shows us more than our tied-down imagination can make up on its own?  When Christmas falls on a Sunday the question rings even louder in our ears, because every Sunday we bring that same question with us to worship:  Will there be more than we can expect, or will it be less, or, maybe worst of all, just the expected?

Now there is something odd going on here, because all the time we’re looking for something more, we’re doing things so familiar we can almost do them in our sleep-the same hymns, the same readings, the same responses.  Sure, there’s some variety, but if it’s too unfamiliar we tend to find it distracting.

And don’t think it’s just the closet-Episcopalians who do this—it’s all of us.  You can claim to like “informal” worship—whatever that is—and be even more in a rut than the most rabid Anglican.  I know, I grew up a Baptist.

So this is what’s odd: We want something more than what’s familiar, but we like the familiar more than we sometimes admit.  That describes us every Sunday.  It goes double for Christmas, when you almost don’t have to open a hymnal or even a Bible.  Who couldn’t recite a good portion of the gospel reading today?  So what’s odd is that we’re looking for something totally new but we don’t want to be too distracted from what’s already familiar.

But it’s really not odd at all—not when you realize that what we’re looking for is not something more apart from our everyday lives.  If it were that we’d have to leave it behind on Monday or on December 26th, when we get back to what’s wrongly called the real world.

Whatever that something more is, it has to be something with us exactly when everything seems most routine: right here as you struggle to pay attention to this sermon—or do whatever it is you do when sermons begin; right now while I try to make something I wrote down last week sound as fresh as it seemed when the idea first dawned.  None of this is any less a routine than the rest of the week or year.  But if a routine is all this is, if that’s all we can expect, then what are we doing here now?  Why didn’t we stay home?  We had a close enough idea of what this service would be like.  But we’re here, and maybe that says that here is exactly where we do look to find something more-in the middle of hymns and lessons we know almost by heart.

Now all I’ve been leading up to is what the Gospel lesson already told us.  The shepherds were doing what shepherds do.  Granted, the story throws in some special effects, but just remember that multitudes of the heavenly host are a dime a dozen in the Bible.  If you’re prone to visions they’re exactly what you’d expect to see, and that makes them just as routine as “Silent Night.”

Something spectacular may have caught the shepherds’ attention, but what kept them interested was the promise of a sign that surely would have disappointed a Stephen Spielberg or a George Lucas.  Nothing more than a baby in diapers, lying in the kind of makeshift crib that parents often used in those days.  But that was the sign—hardly something to wonder at.

For all that’s been said about the miracle of birth, babies and diapers are about as close to drudgery as you can get, as any parent just home from the hospital can attest.  And don’t think Jesus was any different.  When the cattle started lowing you can be sure he didn’t take it as calmly as the carol says.  But this not-always-peaceful infant was supposed to be the sign of God’s peace on earth.

Martin Luther said that the real miracle was that the shepherds believed something that absurd.  “This is sheer nonsense,” he said.  “Why does [God] do such preposterous things?”  He was right—it is preposterous.  But Luther knew, as we know, that what looks like sheer nonsense is really the only thing that can show us what we keep looking for: a God whose greatest act was to become powerless—a victim of the same routines that fill our own lives.  A victim but at the same time the victor, who comes to us in our delights and our disappointments, so that, if we will, we can, even at this moment, catch a glimpse of something extraordinary on this most familiar day.

Who can say how it happens for each of us?  Maybe when your arguing at the top of your lungs with one of your kin about what’s really going on in Lebanon and suddenly you realize what a good time you two are having, that, though the issue is deadly serious, maybe the most helpful thing that can happen right now is for both of you to love each other.  Or maybe you get a present so unlike anything you might conceivably want, that even while you snort with amused disbelief you catch a glimpse of what makes a present truly a gift.

However it happens, it is moments like these that are signs of God’s promise, just like the sign the angels announced.  For all we know, how we respond to these fleeting moments may make all the difference between whether our lives are really lived or whether they’re just frittered away.

And if that sounds like a threat, read Luke’s story again.  What the angel said first of all was “Fear not.”  The good news that night was for all people, they said, for shepherds and innkeepers and emperors.  That didn’t mean that some shaking up in social rank wasn’t in order, for that’s eventually happened and still does happen.  But it did mean that in Christ God came so near in love that nothing now can prevent you from being touched by that love no matter what you’re up to at the moment.

Without that infant whose life was God’s life, we might never have known this.  But we do know it, because we’ve heard the story again and again, and because again and again we’ve seen dim reflections of it happening right here among us.  Don’t be surprised, then, if for you it happens again today.