"The Sign was a Sign"

Date Monday December 24, 2018
Service Christmas Eve
Text Text: Luke 2:1-20
Author Pastor Jean M. Hansen
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     Many of us have Nativity Sets (or Scenes) in our homes, or we’ve seen them in Christmas displays at churches or even in stores. I have the remaining six pieces of the Nativity Set from my childhood: Joseph, a sheep, and Jesus who settles so comfortably into the manger are in good shape despite their advanced age. Poor Mary and the donkey are worse for the wear, which is only natural since they did all the work that first Christmas Eve.

     It may be that Nativity Scenes will be less and less common as more and more people have no faith connections. Yet, those who celebrate the birth of Jesus on December 24 and 25 will grasp the significance of the Nativity Scene which re-creates the setting of Jesus’ birth complete with the animals and people who welcomed him. Of course, what that looked like is complete conjecture since there were no I-phones to record the sacred event.

     It’s thought that St. Francis of Assisi was among the first creators of a Nativity Scene in the early 1200’s. His display was outside his church in Italy and over time transformed from a simple exhibit with people playing Mary, Joseph, Jesus and the shepherds to a drama with hymns, which St. Francis viewed as a teaching tool.

     Perhaps that’s what Christ Church had in mind when they started putting on a live nativity about two weeks before Christmas in a story told by John E. Sumwalt (and revised by me.).

     He describes Christ Church as a downtown congregation situated on a town square just blocks away from subsidized housing and a park where homeless people slept. The nativity was set up on the church lawn on designated evenings after dark and flooded with carefully placed spotlights. It was a lovely sight for those driving around the town square.

     When this ministry began, it was just a few bales of hay stacked up to give some semblance of a stable, a couple of sheep and two sets of parents with small babies who took turns portraying the Holy Family. But, as more people were driving by, it became a bigger and bigger production with an innkeeper, shepherds, King Herod and wisemen and a small flock of sheep, a donkey, a cow, with a few chickens thrown in for good measure. This is hard to believe, but through the local Shriners they were able to acquire a camel to accompany the wisemen.

     The last addition was the choir depicting the angelic chorus; they sang from an elevated stage at the far edge of the lawn and gave a 30-minute performance that ended with, “Joy to the World.” It’s rumored that the choir director was dressed like the angel Gabriel, but like the camels, that’s hard to believe.

     This project had become so big that planning began in the summer, and one year it was determined that they needed a sign – not the heavenly kind – but a big billboard somewhere downtown, visible from the freeway, with a depiction of the nativity scene and an invitation for everyone to come and see it at Christ Church. So it was that a church member, a retired sign painter - an artist, really - was asked to create the sign and donations were sought to pay for it.

      The sign painter was thrilled; it had been his dream to paint a sign that would be a witness to his faith. And, because the planning committee was familiar with his work, and had given him an abundance of photos to draw from and liked the idea of a surprise unveiling, no one saw the sign before the big day.

     It was to be unveiled on the First Sunday of Advent. The excitement had been building for weeks; so many people were volunteering to be a part of the live nativity that new roles had to be created – a family for the Innkeeper, shepherd boys and girls, servants for the Wisemen and an army of angels. The church was overflowing on the day of the unveiling; people wondered if their images would be the ones the painter chose to put on the sign.

     After the last hymn there was a procession to where the billboard could be seen; it was located near the downtown off ramp, next to the freeway. The local press had been invited, and surprisingly were there. After a prayer of consecration, the cloth that was covering the sign was pulled down and the crowd craned their necks upward in unison. Then, the murmuring began, but it wasn’t the excited type; they could not believe what they were seeing!

     Instead of themselves in costume, reproduced for all to see, the artist had painted a simple cardboard shelter with a contemporary Joseph and Mary who looked very much like the street people who lived around the corner. Baby Jesus was wrapped in rags and laying in a tattered disposable diaper box. There were no shepherds or wisemen or angels. There was only a bag lady and a cop who kneeled in front of the box. Underneath the picture, these words were painted: “This will be a sign for you; you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.”

     People walked away, quickly, shaking their heads in dismay, wanting to get away before anyone from the press could ask them about it. They left the sign painter to explain, and he was beginning to wonder if he had made a HUGE mistake.

     No one expected what happened next. On Monday, the phone at the church rang off the hook; there were calls from all over – including reporters, radio talk show hosts – who wanted to know about the unusual sign. On Sunday, the church was full once again, and the Pastor found herself unable to preach the sermon she had prepared, but instead spoke about the miracle, that is, the sign. She suggested that while the nativity was a wonderful ministry, perhaps God was calling them to a new ministry with the poor and homeless people right outside their front door. (1) It seemed that the sign was a SIGN.

     How appropriate, don’t you think, since Jesus came as a sign of God’s unconditional love? Everything about his birth was a sign – a humble stable, a feed trough for a bed, poor parents, outcasts as the first witnesses. Later, he was honored by foreigners who facilitated the Holy Family’s escape to become refugees. All of it a sign that God’s grace surprises us and that God is on the side of the oppressed and distressed.

     The Nativity Scene is a sign too ... a sign of unparalleled grace. AMEN


(1)   Lectionary Stories: 40 Tellable Tales for Cycle C by John E. Sumwalt, C.S.S. Publishing 1991, pgs. 18-23