(Modified 2022-12-28: Added audio recording of this sermon)
St. Mary the Virgin Anglican Church, Christmas Eve, December 24,2022 Canon Claude Schroeder
I think that we all owe a huge debt of gratitude to Charles Schulz, the author of the Peanuts comic strip, because if you ever you were looking for evidence in our time for the existence of a good and gracious God, I think you need look no further than “Charlie Brown Christmas.”
When the executives at CBS sat down to watch it, they were convinced it would be a flop. It was too slow. There was no action. The kids voices weren’t polished. The vocabulary was exaggerated. The jazz piano didn’t belong, and to top it all off, Charles Schultz, who for many years taught Sunday School, had Linus reciting St. Luke’s Christmas story verbatim from the King James Bible.
Were it not for the fact that Coca-Cola had bankrolled the project, and that it was already listed in the TV guide, the show would have been yanked. But it went ahead, and the rest, as they say, is history.The story, music, the animation struck a deep chord with the viewing public, and was a runaway success, and has been aired on American network television every year for the last 57 years since it’sdebut on December 9, 1965. Mind you, now that Apple TV has bought the copywrite, there’s no watching Charlie Brown Christmas this year without a subscription, and it’s not available on U -Tube either, which is all the more reason to beat a path to the local parish church for the Christmas Eve service.
Thank you so all so much for coming tonight. It’s really good to see you.
The making of Charlie Brown Christmas serves as a kind of parable of how it is that the supernatural and the natural interact, how it is that God acts and works in the world. This is where what is happening or going on in the natural order, which typically isn’t very good, is one thing, but what is happening in the spiritual or the supernatural order is another, and is just fantastic, but we don’t see it until much later.
This is exactly what we find the Gospel itself. In order to fund the military of his ever expanding Empire, Caesar Augustus issues a decree that the whole world should be taxed. Not good. But all the while the Virgin Mary is giving Birth to the Son of God. How beautiful!
Later Pontius Pilate, seeing in Jesus a threat to the Empire, will hand Him over to be crucified. Not good. But all the while, this same Jesus on the Cross is conquering Satan, sin, and death. How wonderful! What a story!
And at the beginning of Charlie Brown Christmas, as you may recall, Charlie Brown is having trouble getting into “the Christmas spirit”, and is feeling, well, rather depressed. Sound familiar? It’s not good. Charlie Brown goes to see his psychiatrist, Lucy, to talk about his problems. She advises him to do something, to get involved, and get busy. A common but ultimately inadequate therapy. Charlie Brown ends up taking upon himself the appalling task of trying organize the Christmas pageant. But nobody is co-operating, and pretty much everything goes wrong, at which point Charlie Brown has a kind of nervous breakdown.
I recall a mentor of mine in the pastoral ministry who once said, “If at all possible try and have your breakdown early in life, like in your early 20s when the collateral damage is, relatively speaking, low. If you wait until mid-life, mid-career, when you are married with children to have your breakdown, the collateral damage will be quite extensive.”
He was talking about the fact that life resists all our attempts to manage or control it, and the sooner you realize this the better. It was just three years into my so-called career as an Anglican priest that I discovered and experienced this for myself. Painful at the time, but oh so necessary.
And so it was that Charlie Brown in the midst of his breakdown cried out with great anguish of soul, “Will somebody please tell me what Christmas is all about?” You don’t have to be the director of a Christmas pageant or the rector of an Anglican parish to experience this anguish. You just need to be human being, trying to survive, struggling to hold it all together in the face of huge obstacles and insurmountable odds.
Then came the magic moment. Linus appears, playing the part of the evangelist, the bearer of Good News.
“I’ll tell you what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown… Lights please!”
Then came those unforgettable lines from Luke’s Gospel, “And there were shepherds in the field watching over their flocks by night…” And in that moment when the angel tells the shepherds not to be afraid, Linus, if you were watching closely, does something that has never done before… He drops his security blanket.
That was a stroke of pure genius! And it is the power of the Gospel that as St. John tells us, “perfect love casts out fear” ( 1 John 4.18), but it’s something we experience only in the hearing and in the telling of the story.
In the church we have a word to describe this tendency that we have to manage, manipulate and control other people and circumstances around us. It’s called “sin.” That’s not a word you hear much outside the church.
The word that you do hear used outside the church is “stress,” which properly understood is how sin expresses itself psychologically. That pop song by Andy Williams, “It’s the most wonderful time of the year” was seriously misnamed. Truth is, “It’s the most stressful time of the year.”
There are all kinds of psychological strategies and techniques you can adopt to reduce stress in your life, but they will always be just band aid solution covering the deeper wound of sin.
So what do we do? Where can we find the therapy, the deep healing we so desperately need? In the church we have a word for this. It’s called “repentance.” In repentance you surrender to God in the loss of control and trust in His promises, and take your place in the story that He is telling and that He is directing. It’s what Charlie Brown did, and it’s what we come to the church tonight to do.
In repentance you make room in your life for Jesus Christ, as your Savior, as the One who forgives and rescues you from sin and death, and you confess him as you Lord, as the One to whom you owe your total and utter allegiance, loyalty, and obedience.
Why is that? Because He is the One who truly loves you. Jesus Christ was born for you. He was crucified for you. He descended into hell for you. He rose again for you. He ascended into heaven for you. He intercedes at the right hand of the Father for you. He has sent his Holy Spirit for you. And He is coming again for you.
This is what we have come to celebrate together at the church tonight.
Last Sunday in Morning Prayer I was listening to the Parable of the Wise and Foolish Virgins from Matthew’s Gospel. In that parable we have 10 virgins who are waiting for the bridegroom to arrive, when they will form a procession with their torches to accompany Him into the banquet hall for the wedding feast. Five of the virgins are wise and have brought extra oil for their lamps. Five are foolish and have brought their lamps but no extra oil. Now the bridegroom was delayed, so much so that they all dozed off and fell asleep. But then it says, “At midnight there was a cry, “Behold! The bridegroom is coming! Come out to meet him!” But the foolish virgins went off to buy more oil for their lamps, and by the time they returned, the bridegroom had arrived and the doors to the hall were closed , and they were locked out from the banquet.
As I listened to that story it hit me. This is why we have Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve. When does the Bridegroom come? The Bridegroom comes at Midnight. But there is also a spiritual lesson here. We see that Christ whose coming we await, and who always comes for our good, never comes early, or even on time, or at the time that we expect. He comes at Midnight, in the dead of night, way past any normal person’s bedtime. It’s the time when we are asleep. Sleep, in the Bible is an image of death. We believe that at His Coming, Jesus Christ will raise us from the dead, at which point the party will really begin.
Question is, When He comes and wakes us, will we be ready and prepared to meet Him?
I suspect it was sometime around midnight when the angel of the Lord announced to the frightened shepherds, “Be not afraid; for behold, I bring you good news of great joy which shall be for all the people; for to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. And this will be a sign for you: you will find a babe wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger.”
The Birth of Jesus Christ was accompanied by a sign. Signs, as we know are things which point us to something else. Whether it a stop sign or a danger sign, we ignore the signs at our peril.
A baby wrapped in clothes lying in a manger? What kind of a sign is this? It is a sign of weakness, of helplessness, and of vulnerability.
What is this sign pointing us to? The sign points us to a wonder and a miracle: the presence and power of God manifesting itself in the weakness, helplessness and vulnerability of human flesh, our human flesh, to raise that flesh, to lift us up so that we might share and participate in the life of God that is beyond the reach of death because it has been entered into through death.
Charles Wesley put it so well, when he wrote,
Hail the heav’nly Prince of Peace!
Hail the Sun of Righteousness!
Light and life to all He brings,
Ris’n with healing in His wings.
Mild He lays His glory by,
Born that man no more may die;
Born to raise the sons of earth,
Born to give them second birth.
Tonight in this Midnight Mass, we are not just celebrating the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ at His Birth. We who once were “foolish, disobedient, led astray, slaves to various passions and pleasures, passing our days in malice and envy, hated by men and hating one another;” ( Titus 3.3) now through baptism, and repentance and faith in Jesus Christ, have experienced the “washing of regeneration and renewal by the Holy Spirit”, are celebrating our re-birth in Him. He took what is ours and gave us what is His.
In the Nicene Creed, which is our love song to God, we confess that Jesus Christ who is the Eternal Word and Son of God took flesh from the Virgin Mary and was made man, which is to say that in the person of Christ, heaven and earth, the human and divine natures were united, never to be divided.
The Gospel, you see, is a marriage proposal. Just as in marriage a man and a woman are united and become one flesh, so it is that in the Incarnation, God has wedded himself to us, and we have become one flesh with Him in the Body of His Son Jesus Christ, never to be divided. We have become “bone of His bone, and flesh of his flesh.” (Genesis 2.23). Jesus Christ has come for us, and in us, that with us in Him, He might live, die and live again and we as well.
In our service tonight, it has been given to us, who have longed and looked for His coming, like the wise virgins, to form a procession and follow the Bridegroom into the banquet hall for the wedding feast – to sing and to celebrate in the sure knowledge that just as we will crawl into beds tonight and lay ourselves down to sleep, so too at the end of our lives when we crawl into our death beds and lay ourselves down to sleep, our God will not abandon us, but will come, and wake us up, to a resurrection joy in the life of the world to come. Amen.