God’s Christmas Present: Our New Birth in Christ, The First Advent German Christmas Eve Service, United Lutheran Church, Manteca, CA – December 2, 2012
The First Advent German Christmas Eve Service
United Lutheran Church, Manteca, CA – December 2, 2012
(translated from the German)
God’s Christmas Present: Our New Birth in Christ
The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with you all. Amen.
Everything in this service will be in German so that we can imagine that we are back in Germany for Christmas. When Mrs. Christine Jenkins called me this time for our German Christmas Eve service, it made me very happy. The time had come once again for me to prepare myself for this wonderful service in Manteca, to once again proclaim the Good News in German, our mother tongue. I took out my trumpet right away and played all the German Christmas carols, because I have to know the key and the very first note to be able to play them by ear. But I know it is far more important to beg God, to pray to God for the grace, for the gift, to proclaim God’s Word to you.
The last time the Christmas saying that was in my heart came from a German carol: “How the Christmas room shimmers and glistens!” as if the Christmas event could also make our hearts glisten and glow the same way. But to light up our hearts, it takes more than the glitter of a decorated Christmas room, the shimmering angel hair on the Christmas tree, more than the Christmas candles burning brightly on its branches, and the Christmas presents all around the tree, – because something inside us can be missing.
When I was about eleven or twelve years old, during the sharing of the Christmas presents, I smiled from ear to ear, but only to hide my disappointment. I only acted happy.
My father asked me, “Are you satisfied?”
Of course, I answered, “Yes.” Even though I felt that something was missing and somehow I could not come to terms with myself.
For Christmas my father usually received a few pairs of socks and a can of Half and Half tobacco for his pipe and he was satisfied with that. He was also a pastor and he felt that he received his real Christmas present from God, when God gave him new insights for his Christmas sermon. Those new insights were like revelations which made him very happy.
On Christmas Eve when everything was ready, he would sing “O Come Little Children, come one and come all” and as we entered the Christmas room, we children knew that we first had to have a Christmas service with the reading of the Christmas story. There would be long prayers and many a song before we could get to our Christmas presents. My childish selfishness and greed was intense and for me the Christmas presents were the main thing and the Christmas story and the long prayers, very much secondary. The service was overshadowed by the presents and my wrong-heartedness did not leave me in peace.
In a large family one can easily get lost, because there is often too little understanding and help for getting self-knowledge and instead an emphasis on obedience, where the sharing of mercy and grace would be more helpful.
As a young preacher I was still very immature. Sometimes I preached about the dark side of Christmas: that Christmas had been sold out to consumerism, business, and commercial interests and the hectic shopping for presents and finishing all the Christmas preparations hid a great loneliness and alienation. My sisters would actually run up thousands of dollars on their credit cards buying Christmas presents. Completely indebted that way it would take till the next Christmas before they had paid off the balance, and then they would go into debt all over again.
At the office where they worked they would have Christmas parties and everyone would drink way too much. Something was missing in their lives and that was the reality of Christmas, the sharing of the gifts of grace through the Good News, the glad tidings of great joy that will reach all people, because this birth in Bethlehem meant nothing else than that God came to be with us. So through faith God is among us, really present. In the birth of Jesus Christ from the Virgin Mary, we find that God was attracted to us and fell in love with us. God has struck up a friendship with us, the people of the earth, and through Jesus Christ, he wants to be our Father.
In those days even this pastor was on the dark side of Christmas, because the reality of Christmas was missing. It is much like for our society where Black Friday has even cut away part of Thanksgiving Day in a crazy frenzy of greedy consumerism. Hearts have not been and still need to be marvelously changed, because that brings boundless love into everyday life, fresh new hope, and an ever increasing strength of faith. The Christmas spirit over these days is only faint and temporary in comparison.
In Berlin when I ministered in St. Ann’s Church in Dahlem, I learned that Bishop Scharf always celebrated Christmas with the prisoners in jail. Separated from their families, the suffering there is the worst over Christmas. To spend Christmas Eve there requires great maturity and a strong faith.
I wanted to celebrate Christmas in a special way too. In the Western District of St. Ann’s Dahlem parish, there were many very rich people who lived in villas. But there was also an orphanage for boys. So I took myself over there on Christmas Eve and asked if there was anything I could do for them, for example, what present I could give them. The present that they wanted was to go to the movies. So on Christmas Eve I sat with them in a movie house and what’s worse, we watched a shocking horror film! That on Christmas Eve! I should not say, “On that Holy Night” but “that unholy night”! I was with them as their pastor, but that Christmas Eve was pathetic, bleak, and empty.
Then I thought about our Christmas at home, the prayers, the Christmas story, the Christmas sermon of my father; it suddenly seemed to me that the Christmas room was almost transfigured – glistening in a heavenly light. Because the birth of the Christ-Child in the cradle of my heart had not yet taken place, my representation of the Good News was too weak to help those boys from the orphanage experience the real Christmas.
For that one had to have experienced God’s grace, that means, to have received a new birth in Christ, because the birth of Jesus Christ in the cradle of our hearts is our real God-given Christmas present and after receiving it, we can say with St. Paul, “I live, but it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me!” (Gal 2:20) For we believers live in Christ, in the Son of God, who was born for us, so that we too could become children of God and as Jesus said, we could have a “dear Our Father in Heaven.” Through this birth, just like through our baptism, God our Father gives us gifts of grace, hope, faith, satisfaction, protection, and the blessing of having spiritual possessions. This kind of a “blessed having” is the direct opposite of being greedy, because God gives us wonderful gifts through faith. Like Luther said, “If you believe, you have them, if you don’t believe, you don’t have them.” More poetically, “If you believe, you receive; if you do not believe, you don’t receive.” You don’t “get” it.
Christmas as a mere festival on the church calendar won’t do. That we celebrate the birthday of Jesus Christ helps us, but it also won’t do. Through faith we receive a new birth in the birth of God’s Son. The Good News is that we ordinary, everyday, and even lowly people, who may not have room in the inn of our hearts, but do provide a stall and in it a cradle, so that the Christ Child, the Son of God can be born there – in our hearts. This new birth is like our baptism, because the experience includes suffering the contractions, until our new being is born into the world, a new person. This new birth takes place through the baptism of our faith, by which we are born children of God, marvelously changed and new.
At that point we have experienced the real Christmas. The Christmas story becomes our story and our life turns into a prayer, a Word of God, a loving and worshiping service of others. That is why it is also appropriate for us to celebrate Christmas Eve on the First Advent, because although we celebrate the birthday of Christ on December 25, our new birth can take place any time of year, we could even experience our Christmas birth in July. We celebrate the birthday of Jesus Christ, since God came to us in his birth so that, because of God’s love for us, we also are born anew and that also means that a new start from Heaven has come down to the earth.
As I matured further in faith, like a child, I relearned the Christmas story by heart and a few years ago, I presented it dramatically in a Christmas party in Philadelphia. The people were caught in the spell of the Gospel. Then one very smart and intellectual woman said, “You told the story as if you believe it! You are pretty naive. No one in our modern times today still believes it.”
If someone has already gone through that birth, that baptism of faith, in which Jesus Christ is born in the cradle of your heart, then you know that you have received a gift from God and someone taking that kind of a critical stand merely demonstrates that she is missing what’s real about Christmas. In these modern times one can also go to the movies and see a horror show on Christmas Eve! What is holy for these modern times?
As a child I had more greed than the blessed having of God’s gift. You become blessed when Christ is in your heart. “If you believe, you receive; if you don’t, you won’t.” In this birth in Bethlehem, the overwhelming friendship to us human beings by God, the Father of Jesus, was revealed to us, and now God is with us, among us, and in us through his dear Son.
Now my knowledge is certain: the main thing is God’s Word, prayer, loving worshipful service, the Christmas story, so that God our Father through love brings about our new birth as the children of God. This God-given Christmas gift is the main thing and then as having everything, lovingly, we can give and receive presents in sharing the gifts of grace.
The peace of God which surpasses human understanding, keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus our Lord. Amen.
A Blessed and Merry Christmas to everyone!
Pastor Peter Krey