A Christmas message from Bishop Mark Lawrence; December 24, 2018
“Close the door!” shouted my mother as I dashed down the back steps—wild runnin’ with my dog. “Close the door” she shouted again, raising her volume sharply. But I had a can of worms, a bag of hooks and a fishing pole, and was three houses down the alley by the time her sentence concluded. “Close the door, you weren’t born in a barn.” She should know. I am told, and am inclined to believe, that I was born in Mercy Hospital, only a block away from the Church that sent me off to seminary, and which I served as rector for over a decade before coming here to South Carolina. It is a bit ironic that my mother spent the first 20 years of my life trying to get me to act like someone who wasn’t born in a barn, and I’ve spent almost fifty years since as a disciple of Someone who was.
It is on behalf of the One who was born in a barn that I write to you. I write as a messenger who is searching for a particular sort of person. The type of person I’m looking for is probably not all that numerous. I am not even sure a church E-news is the ideal place to find one. But this is where my soapbox is—so this is where I’m searching. The sort of person I am after is the seeker. It is not just the conscious seeker, however, for sometimes, people are seeking and they do not know it. G.K. Chesterton once said, “The man who knocks on the brothel door is really knocking for God.” Therefore, I’m not looking primarily for the believer or the skeptic, but for the seeker.
I suspect it was the same for him who had a message to deliver on that first Christmas night in Bethlehem. Messengers can show up anywhere. One showed up in a field near Bethlehem and found an unlikely audience in a bunch of sheepherders.
You know there were a lot of people there in Bethlehem on that first Christmas Eve—and different types too—with different reasons for being there, just as there will be in your parish church this Christmas Eve or Day.
Mary & Joseph were there. They were in Bethlehem right beside the Christ Child, as near to him as they could get. The Bible says, “Mary treasured all these things”—that is everything said about and happening around Jesus. She pondered these things in her heart—meditating upon them. It may be an alien experience for the typical seeker, but there are folk at church on Christmas for this same reason, to worship Jesus, to ponder his life and work, even to delight themselves in him—as Mary and Joseph must have delighted in him on the first Christmas Day. Pulling back the swaddling cloths and gazing at him. As Bishop Sheen noted years ago when Mary and Joseph looked down at the Baby Jesus—“It was the first time anyone had ever looked down into heaven.”
There were Innkeepers in Bethlehem too. Most likely they had lived there all their lives. If you had asked they would have told you that Bethlehem literally means “The House of Bread”. There is something beautifully fitting that he who referred to himself as the Bread of Life, and the Bread of Heaven should have been born in a village whose name means “The House of Bread.” The Innkeepers were in Bethlehem because it was their job—their duty. I suspect some of us will go to church for reasons not unlike this—because we see it as our duty. The real danger for us Churchgoers is that we can so easily make the Church a house of duty rather than a house of bread. Then we end up like the Innkeepers in Bethlehem doing our duty but never nourishing our souls on the Bread of life. It is sad when the Church becomes a lodge to run, an inn to manage, and not a House of Bread where we may feed our souls on the Bread of Heaven!
Citizens were also there in Bethlehem. Lots of them. Brought by Caesar’s decree. You might say it was a matter of economics as so many things are in last analysis. “Follow the money” as the saying goes. Citizens from Judea and Galilee came to Bethlehem because it was required of them, because it was the thing to do. How many citizens came and went from Bethlehem on that first Christmas evaluating their trip in the usual way. Were the roads safe? The weather good? The temperature to their liking? The scenery breathtaking? Did the census bureaucrats have things well organized? Many came and left as if it was just another trip, never knowing the hope of the world, the One who could change there lives was among them.
Finally, there were of course, the Shepherds. I confess they have always interested me the most at Christmas. They are representative of the seekers for whom I have a message. The first Shepherds came to the stable barn in Bethlehem seeking the Baby Jesus because an Angel had brought them. Perhaps someone reading this message is like some Bedouin shepherd drawn by an angel of inner need. One young, raw-boned, hardy and handsome. Another winded, toothless, crusty and smelling too much wine. To such as them I am commissioned to bring message—a message of hope and promise—“For to you is born a Savior who is Christ the Lord.”
“For to you is born”—Not to nameless, and faceless multitudes—but to you. Not to a battlefield in Afghanistan or Syria…but to a soldier. Not to cancer ward…but to the cancer patient. Not to a college… but to a student. Not to a congregation…but to you. Every child knows there is a world of difference between gifts under the tree and gift given to her.
Some years ago a story appeared in the newspaper of a two-year-old boy named Steven Selfridge. Six dogs ravaged him three months before Christmas. He spent several months in a hospital trauma unit. The night before he would undergo another marathon plastic surgery he made his way to a paper fireplace where stockings hung and a voice bellowed—“Ho! Ho! Ho! Christmas is coming Steven and I’ll have gifts for you.” The voice was that of Steven’s surgeon playing Santa. The gift the doctor had in mind was a reconstructed face. That was good news to read—but not nearly so good of news for me as it was for Steven and his parents. As I was saying, there is a difference between generic good news and good news to us. Jesus Christ is God’s indescribable gift, wondrously wrapped, mysteriously and personally delivered.
You may not need reconstructive surgery but perhaps you need a new heart. Jesus said that sin and evil have their origins in the heart of the individual. The kind of reconstructed heart each of us needs only a Savior can do. The prophets of Israel promised such a day when God would deal once-and-for-all with that which is our biggest problem: the human heart. We are after all a riddle to ourselves and to others, God’s problem children in need a Savior.
I think of those Shepherds out in the fields on that first Christmas night. It was not that they were miserable. Most likely they were not. At least not all the time. Much of that evening I’m sure passed in the usual way, as much of life is passes in the usual way. A few words; a little bread; a little cheese; a little wine; a conversation over firelight: but no one spoke of his fears; no one spoke of his guilt; no one spoke of his sins. But when the Angel spoke to these Shepherds—“To you is born…a Savior…” each knew the struggle in his heart being addressed. Each knew what part of him cried out for a Savior. Just as you, perhaps in your quieter moments, know what part of you cries out to be set free, to be forgiven, to be fulfilled. Maybe like these Shepherds you are a seeker. Some seekers wait in lonely rooms with the background noise of a television, disillusioned and weary of life but afraid to die—passively waiting for some good news. Others wonder why their lives feel so empty when their schedules are so full. Still others look for a deeper understanding of life’s meaning and purpose.
The truth is that at the essence of our lives we are made for God. Created for fellowship with him; designed for friendship with him. And when that is not pursued; when we ignore or deny it; when we hide from him because of something we do not want to give up or don’t want him to change; when we attempt to fill our inner emptiness with things or possessions; with adventures no matter how exciting; with entertainment no matter how sophisticated; when we fill every corner of our lives with people—even family, friends, or lovers—but not God, it all ends feeling rather empty and purposeless. There is no emptiness as empty as a full schedule empty of meaning. A long life with no future!
So, I come with a message; the message the angel gave to the shepherds, “To you is born a Savior” What they did not know is how costly this salvation would be for him and for God. The road from the manager to the cross was a journey of unspeakable suffering and immeasurable love. Still, the One who walked it has a message for us. Unlike my mother who called out to me, “Close the door, you weren’t born in a barn.” I say to you, “Open the door of your heart to One who was born in a barn and yet was the maker of all things; laid in a cattle trough yet was the Lord of heaven; rejected by men yet worshipped by Angels; small enough to hold yet great enough to adore; the One who was, and is and is to come! He humbles himself again even now to knock on the door of your heart. “Behold,” he says, “I stand at the door and knock and if anyone hears my voice, I will come in to him and sup with him and he with me.” Phillips Brooks lovely Christmas Carol eloquently witnesses to this:
How silently, how silently, the wondrous gift is given!
When God imparts to human hearts the blessings of his heaven.
No ear may hear his coming, but in this world of sin,
Where meek souls will receive him, still the dear Christ enters in.
Let him fill your life with meaning, cover your past with the blanket of forgiveness, your present with joy and peace, and give you a future filled with the hope of eternal life.