Some of you will recall a very memorable Christmas away from home. It may be that you were in college or on a vacation trip. It may be that you were in service, and you remember a Christmas when you ate C rations in Korea or Viet Nam. I want to share with you three memorable Christmases away from home. There is a thread that ties the three together.
Hanns Lilje recalls the Christmas he spent in a Nazi prison cell. The commandant took him from his place of solitary confinement to Cell 212, and there he joined two other prisoners. One had a violin, and he played "Silent Night." One had a Bible, and he read the Christmas story. Lilje spoke to them and recalled the sermon he had preached the previous year at Christmas. The text was:
"The people that walked in darkness have seen a great light. They
that dwell in the shadow of death, upon them
hath the light shined."
He pointed out that this year when they had none of the decorations, none of the festivities, none of the feasts associated with Christmas, all that they had left was Christmas itself. That, he said, was a promise to which they must cling.
After the Civil War, Phillips Brooks, tired and weary, went to the Holy Land to try to refresh his spirit. On Christmas Eve, he rode by horseback from Jerusalem out to Bethlehem. The sight of that Palestinian village that night made an indelible impression upon him. Later he was to put it into the form of a poem:
"O little town of Bethlehem, how still we see thee lie!
Above thy deep and dreamless sleep the silent stars go by;
Yet in thy dark streets shineth the everlasting Light;
The hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight."
Can we believe that today? A hundred years later, can modern man believe that? Now that we have been to the moon and back--I suppose for those astronauts, orbiting the moon was a most memorable Christmas--can we believe that the hopes and fears of all the years are met in a little Palestinian village in an obscure corner of the world? The answer to that depends upon whether or not we subscribe to the last verse of Phillips Brooks' poem:
"O holy Child of Bethlehem, descend to us, we pray;
Cast out our sin and enter in, be born in us today."
The promise is fulfilled only if Christ is born in us. The announcement of the angels was, "unto you is born this day ... a Savior, which is Christ the Lord."
Leonard J. Brummett recalls a Christmas he spent in the Philippine Islands. For four or five nights before Christmas, carolers would come to sing at a person's door. They came in groups of three, five, eight, and ten. They sang, and then they expected the homeowner to give them money or candy. If one were a little late in getting to the door, they shouted out impatiently, "Our Christmas, sir. Our Christmas, sir." Brummett said that this "trick or treat" at Christmas bothered him. It seemed to him as if they had turned Christmas upside-down. The next year, he spent Christmas in the United States. When he saw our commercialization of it, he wondered if maybe we had not turned Christmas upside-down, too. If we forget the promise, then all the presents in the world are meaningless.
All these Christmases away from home set the stage. Our text shows the first Christmas occurred away from home.
"And Joseph also went up from Galilee, out of the city of Nazareth, into
Judea, unto the city of David, which is
called Bethlehem, (because he was of the house and lineage of David,) to be taxed with Mary his espoused wife,
being great with child. And so it was, that, while they were there, the days were accomplished that she should be
delivered" (Luke 2:4-6).
It was a Christmas away from home for Mary and Joseph. The distance from Nazareth to Bethlehem does not seem far to us. To them, it may as well have been the other side of the world. They left their home province with which they were familiar, passed through another, and at last came to Judea. The scenes and streets were unfamiliar to them. They were forced to go. In Bethlehem they knew no one. Had there been friends or relatives there, they surely would have partaken of their hospitality. With very limited funds, they searched for a place to stay. The signs said, "No Vacancy." With what desperation they must have tried to find some accommodation for the night. Have you ever been sick away from home? Perhaps some of you have even had the experience of giving birth to a child far from home. You have some idea of how Mary and Joseph felt. They had little money, no job, no friends, and no home.
For Christ, the first Christmas occurred away from home. He was used to the company of angels. Now He was in the company of cattle. He was used to walking golden streets. Now He would be carried down dusty roads. Even the finest that earth could have offered would have been a poor comparison to Heaven. If Christ had been in a palace or a mansion amid pomp and ceremony with wealth and comfort, even then it would have been a tremendous come-down from Heaven. As it was, He was born amid the poorest earth offered. Yet in His homelessness, we have our home.
"To an open house in the evening
Home shall men come;
To an older place than Eden
And a taller town than Rome;
To the end of the way of the wandering star,
To the things that cannot be, and are;
To the place where God Himself was homeless,
And all men are at home."
--G. K. Chesterton
Why is it that at this time of year so many people go to Bethlehem? Tourists by the thousands will make pilgrimages there this Christmas. Is it not because Bethlehem seems in some sense to be the home of the soul? In His homelessness, we find our home.
For the Wise-men, the first Christmas occurred away from home. They were separated from their families by many miles. They were probably misunderstood and thought fools by family and friends back home. They were in a distant and strange place where they had to ask directions. Never did men come so far to do so little. After weeks of journeying, what did they do? They presented their gifts, they stood in a few moments of worship and adoration. Then there was nothing left to do but go home. Never did men come so far to do so little--and have it mean so much to future generations.
There is a sense in which all of us have always kept Christmas away from home. This world is not our home. I thank God for that. This world with its loneliness, its heartaches, its pain, its sickness, its hate, its trials, and its death is not our home. God did not make us for these clay houses, for this little planet stuck off in a tiny corner of the universe. God made us for himself.
Always at Christmas, we think of home. Each of us has a little different picture. I want to share with you the picture in my heart. It's of a little farm house. There is snow on the ground. Inside there is a tree, but no lights; a few presents, none expensive. There is always enough to eat and rarely enough of anything else. There is a roaring fire to offset the cold wind that finds every crack in that old house. The signs of poverty are there. The unmistakable signs of love are there. Some of you have a memory like that. For others it is far different.
But I have another picture
in my heart today. It's of a mansion on a golden street. There's
no poverty there. There's no hardship there. There's no uncertainty
there. There is boundless and eternal love. Someday, I'm going
to celebrate Christmas at home. I'm thinking of a long list of people,
members of this church whom we have known and loved, who last year celebrated
Christmas with us and who this year will keep Christmas at home.
Do you have a hope like that?