Remember telegrams? They were the tweets, twitters, and text messages of an earlier generation.
For reasons that were never plain to me, the word STOP was used instead of a period at the end of a sentence. So, a lady telegrammed her husband:
Have found wonderful bracelet STOP 25,000 dollars STOP May I buy it STOP.
Her husband promptly replied:
No STOP Price too high STOP.
Unfortunately, the telegram was sent containing an omission. One STOP was omitted and his reply mistakenly read, “No price too high.” She bought the bracelet. He sued Western Union, and the lady got her bracelet.
Keep that little story in mind; remember the telegram.
The Nativity of Our Lord is a declaration of the way God works and the manner and means by which he does his work. It is told as a story. I am going to look at those story elements tonight.
A central element in all of the Gospels—Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John—is God’s initiative.
From the way the gospels tell it, we are expected to know there is no human hand in this business. St. John’s Gospel sweeps us back to the beginning of time when the Word, the Christ, preexisted with God. St. Mark runs along lickety-split; everything happens Zap! Pow! Zing! Right Now! So Mark doesn’t mess around. He jumps right into the Jordan River and begins the story with Jesus being baptized.
But I like best St. Matthew and St. Luke. In these Gospels God does his work through people, ordinary people, common people, and unlikely people. God uses a country girl from Nazareth, a befuddled foster dad, some scraggly shepherds, and, a bit later, some Persian astrologers.
God uses these people—even the three guys who cast horoscopes—so it is always clear God is at the center of this business and nobody and nothing else is. God intrudes into human life, into your life, my life, into the life of creation itself.
That’s the first story element: this is God’s work and not our own. He gives to us his life, as a child laid in a feed trough, a child who already carries the birthmarks of crucifixion.
Second element is awe—dreadful, fearful awe.
I don’t mean spooky awe, like that stupid ghost-hunters show on cable, people hanging out in dark basements waiting to be frightened so they can say, “Wow, that was awesome, huh?”
And I don’t mean awe like a movie review. “The special effects were awesome.”
And I don’t mean like me on pain medication for an abscessed tooth. I took that pill and, honest, a little while later I was counting all the individual pixels on the computer screen, one pretty little pixel by pixel. I did not know they could be so charming. “It was awesome, dude.”
When a word is overused, we forget what it really means.
I do mean awe in the sense of being completely overwhelmed and besieged by the presence and power of a confrontation no one sought and which is altogether exceptionally unordinary.
The angel Gabriel appears to Zechariah, father of John the Baptizer, and the first words spoken are “Fear not.”
Gabriel appears to Mary and the first words are “Fear not.”
An angel disrupts Joseph’s sleep and the first words are “Fear not.”
Angels flap overhead the shepherds and the first words are “Fear not.”
I visit a website dedicated to telling us how really sweet angels are, just so nice, called I believe in angels. It is filled with warm and cuddly stories about angels. Angels there are pals, angels are friends. There’s a story posted titled “The angel that blew the car horn that saved my mother’s life.”
But in the Bible, angels are a whole different animal. Why do you think Gabriel must say, “Fear not”? Because in all of recorded scripture, no one ever looks at an angel and says, “Oh, how cute.”
And if one of them ever honks my car horn, I’m getting in a different car.
When the people in the bible realize whom they are dealing with—and more, who is dealing with them—the reaction is always fear, dread fear, awe-filled fear.
How come? Because it means the world is more than we thought. Because in the middle of all this human stuff we deal with daily—getting up, getting to work, getting supper, getting through the day, getting chemo, getting along with our worry, thinking about the poverty in this neighborhood and the cost of gasoline—into all of that and more, God has hallowed our human living and nothing is the same anymore and we are left in awe.
We now have hope that we may believe with confidence it is possible to live as the angel declared: “Fear not.”
The next story element is free will. This is the privilege of consent, the gift of receiving, of saying thank you—or not. It’s your choice; it’s that or it isn’t free will.
The angel Gabriel bounces up to Mary, happy as a puppy, frightens the wadding out of her, and says to her she is the one chosen to give birth to the Son of the Most High God of Israel. This is after he’s told her to “fear not.”
And then Gabriel awaits a reply—and, well, scripture doesn’t say how long the angel waited. We don’t know how long Mary took to answer. Could it have been some little while? I like to think so. After all, this is no small thing being announced to Mary, no little thing she is being asked.
After all, the son to whom she eventually gave birth as an adult will tell his associates to “count the cost” before joining him; don’t jump into this thing with your eyes closed.
So Gabriel waits a little bit as Mary thinks it over. Waits. Impatiently, I imagine. Taps his foot. Sighs. Looks at his watch.
Gabriel waits for an answer. Does the redemption of all creation hinge on this one moment with Mary?
I have speculated—idly time to time and really to no good purpose—how many young women the angel Gabriel visited before he found the one who said “yes,” before he found Mary.
What? I know, I know. Scripture puts it that God sent Gabriel specifically to Mary. And so God did. But maybe God specifically tried out a few others beforehand, too?
So maybe Gabriel tried Jane first, and then encountered Margaret, who went shirking down the hallway yelling “Noooo!” and after her he approached Fredricka. Maybe he tried out some street-smart girl in Jerusalem who just said, “Back off, Bozo.”
I don’t know. I just like to speculate.
Point is, we don’t read about the people who say no, do we? But that’s part of free will, saying no.
We do read of the people who encounter God, receive their assignments and say “yes,” people who receive his love—which is often a burden—and say thank you.
To receive God’s gift is to put your life in his hand—which, by the standards of this world and even by the standards of the biblical world of scripture—is not always the safest place to put it. There are risks when you say yes to God.
Mary could have said no. Joseph could have said no; almost did. The shepherds could have decided that sheep were more important. The magi could have looked at a map and said, Whoa, too far.
But for those who receive, those who say thank you, “It is,” as St. Paul wrote, “no longer I who lives, but Christ who lives in me.”
Make no mistake, now, the savior would have been born. God will do as he wants; God’s Word will fulfill its own purpose. The only question for congregations and for people is will he do it with you—or with somebody else?
These, then, are three story elements in the Nativity of Our Lord:
(1) This is God’s initiative for us, it is God’s work.
(2) It is awe-filled.
(3) And all you have to do is receive and say thank you.
These story elements all add up to something.
We want to know what we are worth in this world. We want to know if there is any value to our lives beyond this moment, if there’s more than just eighty-something years and then on to the shuffle pallbearers do when pulling your casket off the hearse.
We want to know if in this huge mind-numbing universe we count for something. And if we do, what is it?
God’s story at Christmas is a message with no mistakes, and no omissions.
For you, God says, no price too high.
The Rev. Russell E. Saltzman is a dean of the North American Lutheran Church and mission development pastor of Trinity Lutheran Church, Gothenburg, Nebraska.