The Christmas Eve Sermon

Sermon by Bill Chadwick | December 15, 2019

There were only two wise men left.

I sat slumped back in my chair, far from the typewriter, arms crossed, legs outstretched: the universal body language for writer’s block. I gazed out the window of my second-floor study onto the scene below. A fresh blanket of snow covered some of the shabbiness of the ancient plaster-of-Paris crèche set arranged in the side yard of the church. About half life-sized, the Nativity scene contained the usual cast of characters: Baby Jesus in the manger; a seated Mary in her traditional blue dress; a nondescript Joseph standing stoically in the background; a few shepherds scattered about the edges, in the standing-room-only section; and a pair of wise men in royal regalia, kneeling close in adoration. A rough-hewn wooden backdrop framed the scene and a mature elm cast an avuncular arm over the entire tableaux.

Six inches of feather-light snow sparkling in the morning sunlight would normally fill me with joy, both for its innate beauty and for the anticipation of gliding through it on cross-country skis. But there’d be no skiing and certainly no joy until I got my Christmas Eve sermon written. It was December 22nd . On Sunday afternoon, the deacons had festooned the sanctuary with aromatic pine boughs and placed ribboned candles on the sill of each stained-glass window. Yesterday the church office manager had typed up the worship service and run off 250 copies of the thick, carol-laden bulletin, on its cover a Nativity scene in muted colors. Last evening the choir director had put the small but faithful choir through its final rehearsals, with our new soprano ready to thrill us with “O Holy Night.” Everyone was prepared…except the preacher.

I wondered how long the church had owned this crèche set. Nobody I’d talked to could remember a time before its existence. The figures were all covered with webworks of cracks, scuffs, and chips. When the deacons had hauled them out of storage at the beginning of this December, they’d determined that one of the wise men, the one in the red robe, was simply too damaged to be repaired one more time. He had succumbed to the effects of decades of silent vigil in Minnesota winters. A gaping hole had somehow been punched in his backside and his left arm had come off. Even copious amounts of duct tape failed to secure it. The deacons had no choice but to retire him.

Since the Nativity scene was set back about thirty feet from the road—precisely to hide its condition—the deacons had decided that the rest of the crèche set was still “good enough” for now. The church members who were frantically searching for a new figure to replace the dearly departed Wise Man were having no success.

This did not break my heart. Despite being a pastor—okay, because of being a pastor—I have never been much of a fan of outdoor Nativity scenes. Here in Minnesota, the live ones are simply ridiculous—and thankfully rare—because the costumes never fully conceal the snowmobile suits underneath. And the still life scenes have always seemed too reverential, too antiseptic, and . . . well, still, to accurately depict what must have been earthy, chaotic, and confusing. Birth is exciting and loud and messy. Throw in the dazzle of some terrifying angels (every time an angel shows up in the Bible the first thing he has to say is, “Don’t be afraid!”), and a few scruffy, smelly shepherds. Then some weird astrologers from a strange, far-off land bringing bizarre gifts that were, in fact, symbols of tribute as a vassal might bring to a king . . . toss in assorted goats, chickens, donkeys, cows . . . top it all off with a heavenly lighthouse beam showing the way, and you’ve got quite a party! My problem with typical Nativity scenes is that they offer a sense of the original events about as well as a postcard does justice to Mardi Gras.

Take into account the deteriorating condition of this particular crèche, and the irritating fact that the figures had Norwegian complexions, and I was not a big fan. But nobody asked my opinion, and I kept it to myself.

I wondered if Nativity scenes aren’t always attempting the impossible, anyway. Incarnation is such a sweet mystery: the idea that God—God!— was somehow embodied in a baby born long ago in Bethlehem. How can anything do justice to that?

Precisely my problem.

As a pastor I had always found the “High Holy Days” of Christmas and Easter to be the hardest to preach. Everyone knows the stories so well. What can one say that is fresh and insightful?

And brief? For it’s a daunting crowd on Christmas Eve. The early service, four o’clock, is full of antsy children who understandably can’t wait to get home and open presents. At the ten o’clock candlelight service, it’s pretty much all adults. They have just finished a month-long marathon of buying and baking and bustling, of wrapping and writing and wrangling, of hosting and toasting and Christmas-card-posting . . . a month-long marathon run at the pace of a sixty-yard dash. Now it’s Christmas Eve, and people truly want to be attentive and worshipful. But on top of the last month’s frenzied schedule, this evening they have consumed great quantities of food and, many of them, a libation or three. The sanctuary lights are low. The candles give off a drowsy scent. Forget moving or inspiring anyone; it’s a struggle just to keep them from snoring.

This was the challenge facing me. Fifty-four hours to go and I was desperate to think of something new to say.

I was drawing a blank.

It occurred to me, not for the first time, that Christmas is not about words. In fact, God chose to become flesh precisely because words didn’t cut it. For centuries, prophets and teachers had tried to tell people what God was like, using words like “righteousness,” “compassion,” and “justice.” But the people didn’t get it. They needed to be shown. And so that Bethlehem baby—born in a stable, cradled in a feedbox—grew to be a special man, a person that many people understood to be the very incarnation of God’s grace and love. Yes, Jesus talked about God with words. But he also, in some mysterious way, embodied God.

Still, the congregation would be expecting a sermon. In words.

Looking down on the Nativity scene, I tried to imagine myself joining that first motley collection of worshipers. If I were to journey to the manger, what symbol of love would I bring to the Christ Child? What eloquent words of adoration would I say? Perhaps such an exercise would jump-start my brain . . .

Or not.

Minutes passed. I took off my glasses, rubbed my eyes, and massaged my temples. When I opened my eyes, I spotted a lone pedestrian coming down the main street sidewalk. That sidewalk was the city’s responsibility and it had not yet been cleared of the snow that fell the previous night. As I replaced my glasses, the figure came into focus. With a jolt of recognition I leaned sideways for a better view around the leafless birch shivering outside my window.

Wool pants, several layers of grimy wool sweaters, woolen stocking cap, woolen gloves, a long woolen scarf trailing behind him. All drab brown and olive. A complexion that epitomized the word “swarthy.” A bit on the short side, but with the neck and shoulders of a prizefighter, and carrying a billy club. He shuffled in a semi-jog through the snow.


I was delighted to see him, I realized with amazement—delighted from the security of my second-floor study. It had been years since I had last spotted him around town. I was grateful to discover that he was still alive and out and about.

The first time I had seen him, shortly after I moved to town a dozen years earlier, I was driving near our little downtown. He was jogging along the sidewalk in an irregular sort of shuffling, forward-leaning-gait. Wearing nearly the identical get-up he had on today—wool pants, sweaters, and cap.

But it wasn’t December then; it was August.

Not one of those surprisingly cool late August evenings, either, but a typical August noonday: eighty-eight degrees and humid. In all that wool. He was talking loudly to himself, continually swiveling his head and looking around, jogging backwards and sideways to take in his surroundings and, not infrequently, to scowl and yell at people passing by. He also shook his nightstick at them.

After that I would see him once or twice a year, always jogging along the downtown sidewalks, always in the same attire, and always carrying the club.

In talking with folks around town, I learned a little about this man for whom life seemed so tortured. Buster hadn’t been born with a problem, but had lived a perfectly normal childhood, starring in sports. Turns out my first impression had been right. Not only was he built like a prizefighter; he had, in fact, been one. And that was his problem now: his brain had been injured, and he was permanently “punch drunk.”

I had great compassion for this poor soul. I’m not ashamed to say I was also very grateful I had only encountered him while in the safety of my car. Now here he was in that familiar shuffle-jog, plowing a meandering furrow through the half-foot of fluffy snow. He hadn’t changed a bit in the last several years.

I was grateful for the distraction. For a moment, I forgot about my sermon entirely and just watched him. As usual, Buster was muttering to himself and swiveling his body to take in everything around him—a passing pickup, the new red-brick City Hall building across the street, a flock of sparrows chittering past, our quaint stone church building.

Then he spotted the crèche figures. The Holy Family in aging plaster-of-Paris. He veered off the sidewalk and started tromping through the snow toward them, gripping his billy club in his right hand.

I sucked air audibly through my teeth and bit my lower lip. Leaning so close to the window that I felt the cold on my forehead—my breath would have fogged the pane had I remembered to breathe—I silently pleaded, “Buster—don’t touch anything!” As much as I disliked that crèche set, I realized I hated the thought of it being attacked. It had a lot of problems but it was still a symbol of holiness.

As Buster neared the Nativity scene, his pace slowed. He almost tiptoed the last few steps. Then he stopped, front and center. He turned his head slowly to look from one figure to another—a smattering of shepherds . . . two wise men . . . Joseph . . . Mary . . . this little congregation, with all its scrapes and dents, gathering around the central mystery of our faith. All of them so vulnerable and exposed.

Buster dropped to his knees. He set down his club, removed his gloves. Gently, oh-so-gently, with his bare fingers he brushed the snow off the baby Jesus.

I took a deep breath in and out. My shoulders relaxed. I swallowed and leaned back, away from the window. There was my sermon. Almost all of my parishioners knew Buster. Knew him in the same superficial way that I had known him, until a few moments ago. They had watched him from the safety of their cars or homes. Felt sorry for him; feared him.

I would simply tell our parishioners what I had just witnessed. Show them the story of Love Incarnate.

The Third Wise Man had arrived.

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