Sermon by the Rev. Benjamin Shambaugh
St. Luke’s, Portland
December 25, 2017; Christmas Day: John 1:1-14
It happened about five minutes to nine on a Wednesday night in November. It was the end of a very long day and a two-hour band rehearsal at Scarborough High School. I was tired, hungry, a bit frustrated, and feeling a little down. My fellow band members were getting ready to pack things up when the conductor asked us to pull out “On this Day Earth Shall Ring” from the Christmas Suite by Gustav Holst. My part looked simple and I rolled my eyes and glanced at the clock. As we started to play, however, something changed. The piece begins with trumpets and builds to include the whole band. The tuba part was inscribed with accents and comments like “bell tones” and “fortissimo.” Backed up cymbals and tympani, I found myself laying the foundation for stunningly beautiful chords. The music not only filled my ears, I could feel its vibrations filling my body. When on the top of it all, chimes began to sound, I felt chills, found myself carried to a whole different place, and playing like I have rarely played before. I know it wasn’t just me, because when we stopped, the band was uncharacteristically quiet, and the conductor smiled, nodded, and said “yes.” We knew that something special, something glorious, had happened. We knew that in that moment Christmas had come.
The same thing happened to the shepherds that first Christmas night. They had been out in the fields for a very long time. They worked long hours. They were cold, tired, hungry, perhaps a bit frustrated, and possibly a little depressed. Suddenly, there was an angel, and a multitude of the heavenly host praising God… and everything changed. Like our own day, theirs was filled with darkness. When those angels came, the light shined through it, their hearts were filled with joy, and they know they were in the presence of God.
Shepherds were used to looking up into the starry sky and wondering at the vastness of the universe. That night they learned that the God who created that light cared enough to come and be with them. That night they learned that the God of the universe can use things like little babies and bread and wine to bring holy and human together and help us experience something glorious. As I have said before, Christmas is not about presents; it is about presence, God’s presence, and our connection something – someone – far greater than ourselves, the source of light and life and love itself. The Gospel of John tells us that the baby in the manger was no ordinary baby — that the baby in the manger was God, the word made flesh — and that makes all the difference. It is what makes Christmas, Christmas.
That November rehearsal was a special moment. The amazing thing is that just a few weeks later it happened again. Like the first time we were at the end of a long rehearsal after a long day. This time the conductor asked us to read through “Go Tell it on the Mountain.” It was an arrangement I hadn’t seen before, which began in the style of Kansas City blues and ended with Dixieland jazz. I don’t know what those genres mean to you, but for a tuba player they are lots of fun to play. It’s mixing metaphors to say so, but that piece rocked… and when it ended, everyone had a smile on their face. As we left that evening you could hear people humming the tune. “Go tell it on the Mountain” is about what happened after the shepherds went to the manger. It is a wonderful reminder that God didn’t become human to sit still or be bored, but rather to be filled with fun and joy… with his followers on their feet, clapping their hands, singing along, and sharing the Good News.
With these experiences in mind, our conductor made sure that Christmas concert we did at St. Luke’s opened with “On this day Earth Shall Ring” and closed with “Go Tell it On the Mountain..” By transporting people with majestic beauty and then making them tap their toes and clap their hands, the goal was to help them experience both the jubilation and the joy of Christmas. It worked. That’s what happened to the audience. That’s what happened to the shepherds. That’s what I pray also happens to you. Merry Christmas.