Pastor Becca Ehrlich
Christmas Eve 2015; Luke 2:1-20
Have you ever seen a TV show or movie with a dream sequence? Sometimes they make that part look like it’s real so you think it’s real-- until a character wakes up and you realize it was all a dream. I always hate that, because then I feel like I was duped. Not cool, Wizard of Oz, not cool.
But most of the time, a dream sequence looks UNreal. There’s a sort of haze around everyone and everything. Things happen that are larger than life. People do things they wouldn’t normally do, things happen that wouldn’t normally happen. It’s clear that what’s going on isn’t real-- it’s in someone’s head.
It reminds me of a video that went viral about a kid named David who had just had surgery at the dentist. He’s a bit out of it from the anesthesia afterwards. And he asks his Dad, “Is this real life??” Anyone see that video…?? Everything seemed hazy and different to him, so he wasn’t sure if he was in real life or in a dream!
And I think we have this tendency to think of the Christmas story as a sort of dream sequence, not part of real life. When we picture the birth of Jesus, everything looks hazy and unreal, like a dream. All the stable animals are around, perfectly placed, and Mary and Joseph are looking down, smiling at a calm and quiet baby Jesus, who’s asleep. Oh yeah, and Jesus has a glowy halo around his head. Can’t forget the halo.
But reality is much messier than the dream. This is REAL LIFE. We’ve got an unwed pregnant teenager, Mary, whose fiancé Joseph was going to break up with her when he found out she was pregnant (and NOT by him). When she’s so pregnant she’s about to pop, they have to travel many miles to Bethlehem, so they can be counted for an official census. And when they get there, everywhere is packed because everyone ELSE and their mother had to travel for the census too. So they have to stay in a messy stable with no heat and smelly animals.
And, oh yeah, Mary gives birth in this foreign place, with no one to help but Joseph. I don’t have to tell you that the miracle of birth is ANYTHING but peaceful and perfect and clean, even under the best of circumstances. Now imagine a woman having to give birth in a barn, where animals have done their business and there’s that and dirt and hay everywhere. Wait, on second thought don’t imagine it. That’s incredibly gross. What a great image to give you tonight. Merry Christmas, everyone!
Here’s the thing. Our tendency to airbrush the Christmas story as a dream sequence means that we think of it as perfect, which I can tell you it was not. But even more than that, airbrushing the Christmas story means that we think of it as unreal, a dream, not actually happening.
And I’m here to tell you tonight that Jesus’ birth, God coming to us, was the most REAL thing that has ever happened to the world.
It was real to Mary and Joseph, who were scared and far away from home. Yet they trusted God and knew that this baby was someone special, because this baby’s dad was God.
It was real to those shepherds, who were outsiders in society. Forced to stay with their sheep at all times, they were dirty, and they were kept from entering most places in town. Yet, a messenger of God, an angel, and all of the angel’s friends show up to tell them that the Messiah, the one who would save them, had been born. And so they rush into the town, where they were hardly ever welcomed, and see Jesus, and praise God for this amazing thing that had happened.
It was real to Simeon and Anna, two prophets hanging out in the temple who realized who Jesus was and what he would eventually do—and told people so.
It was real to the magi, the Wise men, who we hear about in Matthew’s Gospel. These men traveled many miles later in the story to follow a star. They see Jesus, bring him presents and honor him, and then leave a different way to protect him.
It was real to King Herod-- so real, in fact, that he had all the male children born in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or younger killed, because he didn’t want to lose his power to the real King.
But the story doesn’t end there. The story becomes even more real.
Jesus grows up. And this story of Jesus is real to his disciples, his students, who follow him and learn from him as he serves people, about God and what it means to be a Jesus follower.
It is real to the people who Jesus heals from their illnesses. It is real to the thousands upon thousands of people he teaches about God’s love and acceptance. It is real to the little children who come to Jesus and are blessed by him.
It is real to the religious officials who start planning his death because he threatens their power.
And it is real to those who watched him die on the cross, when his only crime was loving people and wanting them to know God more.
The Christmas story we celebrate today isn’t just the story of Jesus’ birthday that we remember once a year. It is the very real story of God coming to us in human form, of Jesus bringing forgiveness and salvation to us.
It is the real story of Jesus coming to us, loving us so much that he was ready to die for us. It is the real moment of his death, when everything we have done wrong, our sins, died with him. It is the real moment when, three days later, Jesus rose from the dead so that we could share in his resurrection and have him as our living God with us, forever.
It is the reality that we are loved by Jesus, beyond anything we could imagine, and we are offered this salvation, this eternal life with him, no questions asked. Jesus was born, and died, for you.
There is an old story about two little trees on a mountaintop. They stood and dreamed of what they wanted to become when they grew up. The first little tree looked up at the stars and said: “I want to hold treasure. I want to be covered with gold and filled with precious stones. I’ll be the most beautiful treasure chest in the world!”
The second little tree looked down into the valley below where men and women were busy in the town. “I don’t want to leave the mountain top at all. I want to grow so tall that when people stop to look at me, they’ll raise their eyes to heaven, and I’ll point to God. I’ll be the tallest tree in the whole world.”
Years passed. The rain came, the sun shone, and the little trees grew tall. One day two woodcutters climbed the mountain.
The first woodcutter looked at the first tree and said, “This tree is beautiful. It is perfect for me.” With a swoop of his shining axe, the first tree fell.
“Now I shall be made into a beautiful chest. I shall hold wonderful treasure!” the first tree said.
The second tree felt her heart sink when the second woodcutter looked her way. She stood straight and tall and pointed bravely to heaven.
But the woodcutter never even looked up. “Any kind of tree will do for me,” he muttered. With a swoop of his shining axe, the second tree fell.
The first tree rejoiced when the woodcutter brought him to a carpenter’s shop. But the carpenter fashioned the tree into a feedbox for animals. The once beautiful tree was not covered with gold, or with treasure. He was coated with sawdust and filled with hay for hungry farm animals.
The second tree was confused when the woodcutter cut her into strong beams and left her in a lumberyard. “What happened?” the once tall tree wondered. “All I ever wanted was to stay on the mountain top and point to God.” Many, many days and night passed. The two trees nearly forgot their dreams. But one night, golden starlight poured over the first tree as a young woman placed her newborn baby in the feedbox. “I wish I could make a cradle for him,” her husband whispered. The mother squeezed his hand and smiled as the starlight shone on the smooth and the sturdy wood. “This manger is beautiful,” she said.
And suddenly the first tree knew he was holding the greatest treasure in the world, Jesus.
One Friday morning years later, the second tree was startled when her beams were yanked from the forgotten woodpile. She flinched as she was carried through an angry jeering crowd. She shuddered when soldiers nailed a man’s hands to her. She felt ugly and harsh and cruel. But on Sunday morning, when the sun rose and the earth tremble with joy beneath her, the second tree knew that God’s love had changed everything. It had made the second tree strong. And every time people thought of the second tree, the one that Jesus was nailed to, they would think of God, and know that God loved them. She pointed to what God had done for all of humanity.
And that was WAY better than being the tallest tree in the whole world.
When we celebrate Christmas, we celebrate not only Jesus’ birth, but we celebrate his death and resurrection, because THAT’S the full and real story. Those two trees had a role in the greatest story ever told. Jesus’ birth is just the beginning. It is the beginning of the salvation of our world, of Jesus loving and saving YOU.
THAT is why we celebrate Christmas. It’s not just about the birth of a little baby boy. It’s about what this boy, God in human flesh, will grow up to do. Today we celebrate Jesus’ birth-- AND we also celebrate what Jesus has done for us— he died and rose for you, so that you could be with him forever. And that’s the most amazing gift of all.
Is this gift of salvation real? You bet it is. Is this real life? You bet it is! Jesus, our real and amazing Savior, was born and died for you. And that, my friends, is the most real gift of all. Amen.