For years I stood before congregations on Christmas Eve, and spoke of subjects like giving and receiving — the sorts of topics that often characterize the words preachers want to say at services like this — until one time twenty years ago, when I found myself in the position of needy receiver during a month-long period. I remember clearly the day I awoke with feet so sore I could barely stand on them. I thought I must have pulled a tendon or something, so I hobbled around for a few days. Ultimately, things did not get better with my regimen of benign neglect, they got progressively worse. My ankles began to swell, all my joints ached. At first my doctor was as puzzled as I was until he referred me to a specialist who began looking into my problem and eventually solved it. In the meantime, I degenerated rather quickly from a racquetball-playing, slightly overweight, but otherwise healthy specimen, to a pathetic, hobbling creature on crutches whose doctor told him to keep his feet elevated at least 20 hours a day.
How do you keep your feet in the air 20 hours a day when you have work to do, hospital calls to make, meetings to attend, a session and committees to lead? It was difficult to ask for help, even humiliating for me, I confess. But when I got tired of limping my way around, I relented and began to ask. And lo and behold, from family, the church staff, and the wonderful members of that church, much like this wonderful church I discovered that people were eager to help, wanted to help, but before they could offer this gift to me, I had to be ready to ask for it and especially to receive it.
I think the occasion we celebrate tonight is something like that on a much grander scale. The child born in a stable in Bethlehem is the greatest gift God has ever sent the world. Isaiah refers to us as “the people who walked in darkness,” because that’s what we are without the light of Christ. But to leave the darkness, there is the necessity to recognize that there is more to this Christmas business than a sort of national gift day. Isaiah went on to say, “On them has light shined.” And we can make one of two responses to this gift of light. We can hold up our hands, like some night creature suddenly brought into daylight, we can shield ourselves from this gift of God, we can perpetually limit Jesus in our imaginations to a helpless baby in a feedbox in a pretty crêche scene, we can refuse to let him grow into a savior. In our pride we can assure ourselves that we are good enough, that there is nothing in our lives that particularly needs saving. We would not be alone. Some people have been making this decision concerning Jesus for two thousand years.
But if there lives in us even a distant awareness that not everything in our lives is just the way it ought to be, if there exists even in the remotest stretches of our self-awareness the recognition that we need help, that not all is well with our souls, that we stand in need, that we are powerless in the face of some things to be the good people we try to be, then we become people who are ready to receive the child in the way God has intended. We become the people who finally admit to ourselves our desire to know him not only as a baby in a manger...or as I heard one person say last week, a flashlight in a blanket in a children’s play...but as a man who lived, who gathered disciples, who taught, who died, and who was raised again from death, all in order to help us. All we have to do is receive that help. It is there already. When we open ourselves to it, the people who walked in darkness, upon us a light will shine. The saving light of Christ. No other gift so characterizes Christmas. I pray for this gift for you this joyous season. Merry Christmas!