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Knoxville, TN, United States
Interim Pastor of Evergreen Presbyterian Church (USA), Dothan, AL.

Wednesday, December 22, 2004

Date: 12/26/2004
Feast: 1st s a Chr Day
Church: Lake Hills Presbyterian Church
James McTyre
Bible text: Matt. 2:13-23

What a horrible passage to be reading the day after Christmas. The Lectionary of scriptures read around the world whisks us up quickly – very quickly, too quickly – from the glory and peace of the manger to the rush to escape the evil king Herod. But events in the Bible move fast. Almost too fast. The glory of Christmas ought to last longer. It’s as if not even God can make the world slow down. But then, maybe God’s not trying to.

Some photographer ought to do a photo essay on before and after Christmas pictures of peoples’ living rooms. Have a picture from about 6PM on Christmas Eve, with the children pressed and dressed, the packages wrapped and arranged in a three-quarters circle around the tree, the stockings all hung by the chimney with care. And then have a picture from about 10AM on Christmas day, after Santa’s Rapid Assault Sleigh has exploded. Toys, boxes, paper everywhere. Two thousand of those little attachments that hold toys so tightly in their boxes that only a Tennessee Titan with wire cutters can liberate the toy for the crying child. How quickly our homes go from Currier & Ives to National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation. You know the guys who work the garbage trucks for BFI have to dread this coming week. So much for their vacation.

Is it just me, or does it seem as though Christmas comes earlier and leaves faster every year? The birth of Heaven’s King gets vacuumed away by other kings who won’t let our attention go for more than a few sublime minutes. The decorations come down. The schools start back. Work keeps going and going like the Energizer Bunny. Christmas is just a momentary pause button before the Herods of our day start gobbling up our time and energy all over again. Wouldn’t a really great Christmas present be a real, honest-to-goodness break? A gap? A time of absolutely nothing? There’s something compulsive, or paranoid about human nature, though, that is deeply afraid of gaps. Maybe with reason. And maybe because we just don’t know what to do with them.

Like today’s scripture. For a lot of us, the whole story of Mary, Joseph and the Baby Jesus’ flight to Egypt is an awkward gap, a horrible bump, in the otherwise smoothly unfolding story of the singing angels, glorious star, and obedient boy Jesus growing in wisdom and stature. Today’s scripture is like CNN breaking into the middle of the Bing Crosby Christmas Special. It’s bad news. An ugly gap. Why can’t the Bible just be nice? Why doesn’t God make things stay happy?

I think this gap is inserted into scripture to remind us that without due diligence on our part, Christmas will be taken away. I think this gap is here to tell us that we have to protect the child Jesus, that WE have to protect the baby, because there are kings, earthly lords of treasure and trash, consumers of time and space, whose only purpose is to steal him away. And, I think this gap is here to prove to us that even in the Bible, especially in the Bible, the Christmas story isn’t a fairy tale; it’s real life. Real life is messy. Real life has holes in it. Even the perfection of Christmas can have holes, and still be perfect.

I think most of us have the idea that somehow, somewhere out there is a perfect Christmas, and if we can just get our hands on it, we have made it. We each have our own ideas of what the perfect Christmas would be, and unfortunately sometimes people – maybe people in our own families – have different ideas than we do. That’s probably one of the big reasons families get into, er, discussions at Christmas. Thoughts that maybe packing somebody off to Egypt might not such a bad idea. It’s not that we don’t want to stand in the kitchen cooking all day, or that we don’t want to get up at 5AM and open presents – it’s just that our ideas of Christmas perfection are different, and everyone has to lobby for their vote for perfection in their own particular way. And so there are gaps in Christmas joy and cheer. That’s life. Right?

Michael Williams, the storyteller and Methodist minister who we had here at Enrichment Dinner a couple of years ago, tells a story of a Christmas tree – how it fit into the story of the flight to Egypt, and how gaps are gifts. It goes like this…

When I was young, I used to come home every Christmas. My dad and I would go out looking for a Christmas tree. It was part of our family’s Christmas ritual. We would go across the hill and down through the field behind our house. Into some property that belonged to some friends of ours who said we could cut the trees there.

As we would walk, we would talk. My dad would tell me about his great-grandfather, and his grandfather. The people of our family who had lived in that part of the country. Sometimes we would walk by a house that his grandfather, my great-grandfather, had lived in as a child. The house was ramshackle and broken-down now, but I could just imagine what it was like, Christmas a hundred or more years ago when they would go out searching for a Christmas tree.

It was one of the most special parts of my young life. When I would get home from college, my father would usually wait until I arrived to go get the Christmas tree. And on a cold, frosty day we would walk down across the hill and through the woods. We were looking for one, very special tree. Not just any tree, but the perfect Christmas tree. You know what they look like – full, all the way around, without a gap, or a limb missing, or a hole somewhere.

We walked for miles. We looked at what seemed to be hundreds of trees – and there was never a perfect one. We would get one that was pretty good. We would cut it and bring it home. One of us carrying the stump end where it had been cut. The other reaching through the branches, usually through the gap or the hole that was there, to hold the other end of the trunk. And we would carry it home. We would set it up at home and we would try to turn the gap toward the corner so no one could see it. If there were two gaps we would try to fill the other one up with various kinds of decorations. Sometimes we did pretty well at that, and sometimes you could still tell that there was a branch missing. If neighbors were rude enough to mention it, we would be a bit embarrassed. But usually they didn’t. They simply celebrated with us around our tree.

Here’s a story about the Christmas tree. It may be one you already know. I wish I had known it when I was young and going searching for trees with my dad.

It seems that as Joseph and Mary and the baby Jesus were running to escape the soldiers of Herod – running to save the child’s life – running toward Egypt – the hoofbeats of the soldiers came closer… and closer… and closer…

… and when danger was immanent, when they knew there was no chance for them to get away… they looked for a place to hide. There was a grove of trees, of cedar trees. Now, in those days, the cedars didn’t stay green the year long. They were like other trees and dropped their needles. But there was enough greenery left for this man and this woman and this child…

…to move back in among the branches of this tree and hide there, hoping that the soldiers wouldn’t be able to see them.

There they waited. The hoofbeats grew louder… and louder… and louder… coming closer… and closer… and closer…

…until finally they could see the soldiers on their horses pass by. They sat, with breaths held, until the soldiers were gone. It was almost as if the branches of the tree moved to enclose them… to hide there.

After the soldiers were gone, Joseph and Mary and the baby slipped out from the tree. As Joseph prepared for the rest of the trip, Mary turned back. She looked at the tree, at the gap where it had closed its branches… and said, “Tree, thank you for the kindness you’ve shown. From now on you will not drop your needles as other trees drop their leaves. You will be ever-green. And when people see the gaps in your limbs, they will know that they are there because of the kindness you showed to a poor family running from soldiers to protect their child. That you enclosed us in your limbs and saved our lives.

Williams ends the story by saying, “I wish I had known that story when I was young and looking for trees. I don’t think I would have been so concerned about looking for the perfect one. When we got it home, I don’t think I would have cared if we put the gap to the corner. In fact, I think I might have wanted that gap right out front where everyone could see. And when neighbors came by, and when they said, “Look! There’s a gap in your tree!” I would say, “Yes. Indeed there is. Let me tell you a story of how that gap came to be.”

Maybe your Christmas was just perfect. I hope it was. I hope your Christmas was just the most beautiful, seamless, unblemished celebration you’ve ever had. I really do.

But if, for whatever reason, there were gaps in the rejoicing, gaps in the perfection – maybe you can let those gaps become a reminder of salvation. Salvation for you, or someone else.