Silent Night, Holy Night
A sermon by
Dr. Gorman Houston
Before 9:00 there was already a line waiting to come into the bank, and the line would continue uninterrupted until the bank closed at noon. It was Christmas Eve. I was a college student, home for the holidays, and I was a teller at the little bank in Eufaula. It was a wonderful job. In a day before automatic teller machines and electronic funds transfers, the bank was a regular stop for almost everyone, particularly during the holidays.
On this Christmas Eve, we could not have been busier – cashing checks for those who were travelling out of town and for those who wanted crisp new 5, 10, 20, even 100 dollar bills to be given as presents. A few people wanted to purchase savings bonds to give to grandchildren. Several people were buying travelers checks to take with them on their holiday journeys. The lines seemed endless.
And of course, for the tellers I worked beside noon could not come quickly enough. Their real work would begin when the work day at the bank ended – grocery shopping, present wrapping, meal preparing. Between customers, we conversed about what everyone would be doing when we left the bank.
As noon approached, the lines grew even longer – lots of people stopping by at the last minute. About 5 minutes ‘til 12, an unknown man stepped up to my teller window. He presented a $100 check and asked me if I could cash it for him. It was a personal check, written on his bank in Kearney, Nebraska. I asked him for identification. He had none. He told me that he was on his way from Kearney to visit his family in Jacksonville, Florida, and when he stopped for gas outside Tupelo, Mississippi, his wallet had either been lost or stolen. He had driven as far as he could, but now he was almost of gas and had no money.
There was a sign clearly posted on the teller window which stated that two forms of identification were required to cash checks for anyone who did not have an account with the bank. So, why couldn’t I just turn him away? Instead, I told him that if he would have a seat in one of the chairs across the lobby until the bank closed, we would see if we could help him.
When the lines of customers finally came to an end and the door was locked, I asked the teller next to me to come over with me to talk to our Nebraska visitor. Perhaps out of curiosity, the whole line of tellers joined us as we talked to the stranger. We asked again about identification. He told us his story. We asked him if he had a credit card – back then we called them Mastercharge and Bankamericard. The card he had was in his missing wallet. We asked him if he knew anyone in Eufaula – we knew that was unlikely, but it was worth a try. One teller took his check and went to call his bank in Kearney, Nebraska. There was no answer… only a holiday greeting.
The bank policy was clear. We were not to cash his check. So why could none of us tell him no? Was it because it was Christmas Eve? Finally, one teller said, “Let’s cash the check.” As we walked back to our teller windows, I took the check, put my teller stamp on it, counted out $100 in twenties, gave the stranger his money, wished him merry Christmas, and the weary but relieved traveler was on his way. As soon as he left and the lobby door was again locked, the other tellers came over. “We all want to initial the check,” they said. “If it is returned, we want it clear that we all approved it.”
Something strange was happening that Christmas Eve day. We all felt it. We were simply caught up in it, and even though we were not following the strict rules, we felt that we were doing exactly the right thing.
And Luke the evangelist writes, “There were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night.”
Sometimes the images on Christmas Cards can cause us to think of shepherds as being sweet little boys or upstanding men of status, perhaps like farmers in our day. But most scholars tell us that these men were most likely hired hands working the late shift. At least that’s what Jesus calls them in John’s Gospel (John 10:12). We might call them minimum wage workers, unskilled labor. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with that. That was just who they were. These shepherds had little influence; they could bring little bargaining power to the table. They were men who most likely lived on the margins of life. They were working late night on Christmas Eve, for crying out loud. Who works late night on Christmas Eve but convenience store clerks and Waffle House servers and shepherd hirelings?
And in the midst of the shift, they were interrupted by a complete stranger – someone not from their village. Luke tells us plainly that it was “an angel of the Lord (who) stood before them,” and not only that, “the glory of the Lord shone around them.” It must have been an understatement for Luke to write, “they were sore afraid.”
The scriptures do not tell us if the shepherds were frightened by the sight of angels or if they were frightened simply by the idea that someone of stature and importance had come to them. Maybe they had learned to be fearful of people with power, that almost always when someone of wealth or importance wanted to talk with them, it was bad news. Either way, the Bible is clear that they were terrified.
But the angel assured them they had nothing to fear and everything to celebrate. “”Do not be afraid;” the angel said, “I am bringing you good news of great joy for all people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.” And perhaps what was most incredible for the shepherds was that the angel told them, this King was born, not as nobility to rule over and against them, but as one of them. He was a baby, diapered and lying in a cow’s manger. We don’t know if the Shepherds were particularly devout people, but it did not matter. They were naturally excited by such supernatural events, delivered in such a personal and powerful way. Music was heard over those lonely fields outside Bethlehem, the voices of angels singing to God’s glory.
Their long work night had been interrupted by God’s grace. I guess none of us is the same after we experience God’s grace. The Shepherds decided right then and there that they would leave their flock in the field and go to Bethlehem and see this thing, which the Lord had made known to them. Of course, doing so would violate their work rules. The shepherds knew they were not to leave their sheep. The flock owners were clear about their instructions. They knew the rules, so why were they willing to take a risk and break them? Why did everything within them want to ignore the rules and hurry into Bethlehem? And Luke tells us that they all “went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger.”
I think those shepherds left their flocks in the fleld and hastened to Bethlehem, because they had experienced God’s surprising grace in a most-surprising place, and they were simply caught up in it. They were nobodies, caught up in the mighty movement of God, of the only one who matters. And they went with haste.
It was that same grace, of course, in which Mary was caught up that caused her to abandon reason and violate societal norms, and give up her carefully scripted plans to become a maidservant of the Lord, the same grace in which Joseph was caught up that caused him not to abandon Mary but to risk ridicule and rejection to serve as the provider for our Lord. And it’s not just in the Christmas story – not just in the nativity account that we find this grace. It was that same grace in which years later Simon Peter and James and John were caught up which caused them to leave their boats and nets and fish and lives and follow the Nazarene. It was that same grace in which Mary Magdalene was caught up which freed her from her past and opened to her a new life of acceptance and love. It was that same grace in which a thief on a cross was caught up and in his dying moments found an offer of life with Christ Jesus in paradise. It was that same grace in which the Apostle Paul was caught up which caused him to turn away from his pursuit of persecution and join this mighty movement to share God’s grace with all the world.
And as preposterous as it sounds, I think that’s exactly why a group of tellers simply could not follow the bank guidelines and turn away a wearied, poor traveler who showed up at closing time on Christmas Eve nearly forty years ago. In that homely event, we did experience a form of grace – God’s grace – which simply caused us to want to risk reprimands and offer aid.
When we experience the grace of God, it seems we find ourselves wanting to take risks, to do what we otherwise would never do. It is as if we come under a higher law, a greater law, a law which binds us to God’s very movement of grace and peace, which transcends our lowly estate, our sense of propriety, our natural inclinations to play it safe. We want to sing, we want to dance, we want to embrace, we want to love, we want to give, we want to believe the world can be a better place, and we suddenly want to do all we can do to make it so.
Don’t we see it? I mean who ever thought up paying off the Christmas lay away for a total stranger who could not afford to pay the balance? Who ever thought up going out in the cold dark night to sing a carol to a lonely person on Christmas Eve? Who ever thought up greeting strangers with a blessing, “The Lord be with you,” and the reply, “And also with you.”
Perhaps you have experienced that same grace – not in a predictable place or a choreographed moment, but maybe in the midst of your perfectly planned life, when you have known exactly what the next thing to do would be. Then, someone uninvited or something unwelcomed interrupted your plans and you just got caught up in God’s grace. It simply changed everything…. But more than that, it simply changed you.
Isn’t that what we find when we experience God’s grace in such a personal way, when “for you is born a savior which is Christ the Lord?” And isn’t that why we continue to look to a rustic feeding trough in an overlooked part of the little town of Bethlehem? Isn’t that really why we are here tonight? Tonight we long not so much for the order and constancy of life as for that grace which captures us and causes us to do things we never even thought about before – little things through which the kingdom of God breaks into our hearts and into the world.
It is nothing short of the grace of God which we long to experience, which we celebrate at Christmas, and through which we find faith and hope and love.
Perhaps you read in last Sunday’s Tuscaloosa News the events that transpired 100 years ago tonight on a bleak battlefield in Belgium, during the first winter of the First World War. The battle had been raging, with German and British soldiers in muddy trenches on opposite sides of Flanders Fields, famous for its poppies and poem. In December 1914 there were no poppies, just hard, cruel warfare. Hundreds of men had been killed in the incessant trench fighting, and there was gunfire 100 years ago tonight, soldiers brave but also fearful held watch through the night. Around midnight the gunfire was silenced. And the British soldiers heard an unexpected sound coming from across the field, across what had become no-man’s land.
What they heard was singing. They recognized it as a song written almost exactly 100 years before, and first performed on Christmas Eve. If you know the story, you know these men heard the German soldiers singing:
Stille Nacht! Heil’ge Nacht!
Alles schläft; einsam wach
And the British soldiers replied by singing the familiar song in their own language, “Silent night, holy night, all is calm, all is bright.” The singing of carols continued, replacing gunfire throughout the night. And not just at Flanders field, but up and down the front lines for an estimated 50 miles. Then at dawn on Christmas Day, something even more amazing happened, a German called out, “All good. We no shoot.” And the soldier, held up his hands to show he was unarmed and walked out onto “no-mans land.” His brave act, inspired other soldiers from both sides to follow. It was completely against orders, a total violation of both armies’ rules of engagement. But from both sides, soldiers emerged from the muddy trenches – apprehensive at first – then excitedly. On the battlefield in the midst of World War, enemy soldiers greeted each other on Christmas morning and there was a truce – an unofficial Christmas truce. As Private Henry Williamson of the London Rifle Brigade wrote, “Yes, all day Christmas Day (the truce lasted) and as I write. Marvelous, isn’t it?” The cease-fire allowed the soldiers to reclaim the bodies of their soldiers who had been killed in the fierce fighting so they could be buried. It also allowed opportunity for goodwill, the soldiers from opposing armies showed each other pictures of their families, girlfriends, children – they even exchanged some small gifts with their enemies, and a monument attests to this day, a friendly game of football – of soccer – was played on the battlefield that day.
Oh, it was strictly against orders. When British officers heard about the informal Christmas truce, they were furious, according to Captain Robert Hamilton’s report, but as he added the officers “were powerless to stop it.” The soldiers were simply caught up in something bigger than they were. They simply got caught up in God’s grace and, of all places, on a battlefield during war. And when they experienced that grace, they simply could not fight; gosh, I bet they could not even hate. That’s what happens when we experience pure grace like that. So, like the angels of yore, they sang songs to the glory of God over the battlefield, and as the light bathed the field at dawn, they joyously extended hospitality, and they lived and played in peace.
They got caught up in the grace of God, and they stopped the horrid war – oh just for a day – just for Christmas Day, but don’t you imagine the angels sang that day. “Glory to God in the Highest! And on earth peace, goodwill to men.” Absolutely – and I bet over that field the angel’s song was heard in both German and English.
Oh, the grace of God – birthed in a manger in Bethlehem. Experienced and celebrated through lives it touches, producing over and again risky expressions of peace on earth and goodwill.
The message never loses its power. Grace never loses its effect. So on this Christmas Eve we hear it again, “For you is born this day in the City of David a babe, who is Christ the Lord.”
Let us pray:
Silent night, holy night!
Son of God love’s pure light.
Radiant beams from Thy holy face
With dawn of redeeming grace,
Jesus Lord, at Thy birth
Jesus Lord, at Thy birth
See the story dramatized in this link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NWF2JBb1bvM
Read about the story in The Tuscaloosa News article, December 21, 2014: http://www.tuscaloosanews.com/article/20141220/WIRE/141229971/0/search