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Note: This sermon was broadcast on December 24, 1956, as part of the "Faith and Life" radio devotional series sponsored by the General Conference Mennonite Church. Transcribed by James C. Juhnke from the original reel-to-reel tape at the Mennonite Library and Archives.
Tonight is Christmas Eve. Just think. It is actually here at last. Is there any day of the year more exciting than this? Don’t you look forward to your birthday? But you don’t look forward to that, or any other day, with as much thrill as Christmas Eve, do you? Grownups try year after year to recapture the thrill of their early Christmases.
Mainly, right now, the emphasis is on gifts. What are you going to get tonight? For weeks you’ve been spending your time and money on gifts for other people. But now that the night has arrived, almost, you can hardly wait to see what you are getting. Isn’t that right? And isn’t that all right?
Maybe. I remember one year when I came to the conclusion that God really wanted us to enjoy our gifts and not to feel guilty about getting so much when there were so many poor people in the world who probably wouldn’t be getting anything--as long as we had not ourselves squandered money irresponsibly on extravagant presents. But this year I have thought differently. This year the thought has come that people are trying to cover up their lack of the real Christmas spirit by trying to get all the thrill possible out of presents.
We all want a thrill. We want what we call “the Christmas spirit.” Some people wait for a certain musical program that comes on each year to put them into the Christmas spirit. Other people say, “I just couldn’t seem to get into the spirit of Christmas at all this year, with those street decorations put up right after Thanksgiving and all the stores displaying Christmas things so far in advance. And there wasn’t even much snow.” And so they bemoan their lack of ability to get into the mood. But whether they achieve it or not, everybody longs for some imagined old-time thrill connected with Christmas.
Now the thrill of opening the gifts was not the original thrill of Christmas. And unless we get back to that, we are going to fail just as hopelessly as an old man tying to get back the thrill he had when he was a little boy blowing out his first birthday candles.
The original thrill of Christmas Eve was an awareness by common people, shepherds, of something of great historic importance having happened. It had nothing to do with gifts or decorations or snow. It was such an important thing that had happened before their very eyes, and it could not be argued. The shepherds were realistic men. They could debate all night long among themselves on topics of interest to them, and they probably did. They probably were as good thinkers as we develop today because they had more time and didn’t live the strenuous pace that we do, and because they spent more time looking at the sky, which always leads to thought.
But the shepherds could not debate the facts happening before their eyes and ears. So when the angels had gone away from them into heaven, after the stunned silence, they didn’t take up the old arguments. They looked at each other and said, “Let’s go see this thing that has happened.” And far from embarrassment over what people might think was hallucinations, they were sure enough of what they had seen and heard, and they had enough numbers to check and double-check on the report, that they told everybody what had happened. When they came into the stable and saw the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes actually lying in a manger, just as those unbelievable angels had said, they went out and told everybody. And all that heard it were filled with awe and wonder.
That was the original Christmas thrill, the real spirit of Christmas.
Sensible men, who themselves had not seen the angels, could not help but see that the shepherds were convinced the thing actually happened. They must have been convinced too, because they didn’t dismiss it as idle tales. Candid men with fleshly eyes had seen a sight uncommon to men and heard a message uncommon to men’s ears. The very God of very Gods had broken in upon the human scene to make himself understood. If you believe the testimony of history in any event whatever, you believe that this event really happened. That the sky opened and showed to men’s eyes, what could only be described as angels. And that they told these mortal men, these shepherds, that God himself had sent a Savior, in the form of that tiny babe wrapped in swaddling clothes lying in a manger. And then that wave upon wave of glorious praise to God flooded the sky.
Step out under the stars tonight and think about this. Step out of the warmth of the house, into the freshness of the night air, out of the noise and confusion, into the stillness and peace of the out of doors. Not in a car. I mean on your own two feet. And then stand still and look up. Get out of the closeness and littleness of the house into the vastness of the horizon and the dome of the universe. If the sky is clear tonight, look up at the stars and fill you eyes with as many as you can see. I am glad that so much of the Christmas story took place out of doors. It seems to me symbolic of the breadth and scope of the message of God to the world. Pettiness goes on in the house. Expansiveness grows out of doors in God’s free air.
There is so much that is temporary about things indoors. The Christmas wrapping. Don’t you have a great big empty waste basket all ready for them? What a stack there is going to be to burn. And the gifts themselves—how temporary. You wear them out or eat them up, or grow out of them, or they turn old fashioned. The children break up their toys. Nothing lasts.
But outdoors, there are those stars. And that sweep of sky. And beyond them, that God, and that Son, Jesus Christ, who liveth and reigneth forever. And His Word, who said, “Heaven and Earth shall pass away, but my word shall not pass away.
Yes, even those stars are comparatively temporary. They will pass away. But the Word of God abides forever. God is forever. And we are in touch with Him. That is, He has stooped down to touch us. Out of the vastness of his creation, He has stooped down to speak to us. That is the original thrill of Christmas. That is the real Christmas Spirit.