Tonight I would like to share a story with you all, a story of Christmas Pageants past.
You see there was a small Presbyterian Church where the pageant had “always been done that way.” It had always been done that way because Alvina Johnson had directed the pageant for nearly half a century…47 years to be exact. There were always 9 people cast for the pageant, Mary & Joseph, three wise men, an angel, two shepherds, and a narrator. After all, it was hard enough getting 9 children to learn their parts, let alone any more. The script was the story of Christ’s birth from the King James Version of the Bible. And Alvina was so strict and stubborn that if you weren’t good enough you weren’t getting a part, and it always had to be done her way. That was until the CE Committee at the church, complete with the young mothers of three of the rejected actors, decided that all children of the church if they wanted a part should have one. “Be it resolved: All children who wish to be in the Christmas Pageant may do so. Parts will be found.”
Needless to say that Alvina caught wind of this little victory in the eyes of the young mothers and marched into the pastor’s office. “What’s the matter, Alvina?” the pastor asked. “Young mothers…Young mothers who have no knowledge of or experience in proper direction of a Christmas Pageant! If these young mothers know so much, let them try to do it.”
Well, the Christmas pageant happened without the direction of Alvina Johnson, although not without a few wrinkles. There must have been a dozen shepherds and ten angels (a veritable heavenly host). Then there were sheep, a couple dozen 3-, 4-, and 5- year-olds who had on woolly vests, woolly hoods, and their dads’ black socks pulled up over their arms and legs. The pageant was a lot of things, but smooth it wasn’t. You see, in suburban Christmas pageants most of the children have never seen a real sheep, let alone know what one really acts like. But this pageant took place in the country, where kids lived on farms and saw sheep everyday of their lives…not the quietly grazing ones that show up on bulletin and book covers, but the real thing. They know that sheep don’t just stand there. They know that sheep don’t often follow directions. They know that all sheep want to do is eat. So, when the young mothers casually instructed the two dozen sheep to act like sheep, they really should have known better. Some of the sheep started to do a remarkable imitation of grazing behind the communion table and in the aisles, some complete with the donuts they had found in the other room. They bleated and baa-ed, and when one of the shepherds tried to rally them with his crook, they spooked and scattered just like real sheep do.
Now, Alvina Johnson was watching all of this from the back pew of the church. And you could just imagine her saying to herself, “Ha…I told you so. Young mothers.”
The real wrinkle came though when Mary and Joseph entered the scene. Mary was remarkable in her likeness to what we can imagine the real Mary looking like, intent on seeing the face of the real Christ in the babydoll she was carrying in her arms. Joseph, however, was given his role…not because of the likeness he had to the real Joseph, but because he was the child who had been rejected the most times at Alvina Johnson’s pageant tryouts. Anyway, Mary and Joseph were to walk on as the Narrator read, “And Joseph also went up from Galilee, into Judea, unto the City of David, which is called Bethlehem…to be taxed with Mary, his espoused wife, being great with child.” Well, in their grand plan, the Young Mothers decided that no child knew what half of those words meant, and so minutes before the pageant they decided to use the Good News Translation of the Bible instead. The Good News Tranlsation is much more direct at this point in the story. So, as Mary and Joseph entered, the Narrator read, “Joseph went to register with Mary who was promised in marriage to him. She was pregnant.”
As that last word echoed through the PA system, Joseph stopped in his tracks, gave Mary an incredulous look, peered out into the congregation and said, “Pregnant? What do you mean, pregnant?” One could have been thinking… “You know, that may well be just what Joseph actually said!” And you can only imagine what Alvina Johnson was thinking…
But as the pageant wound down, as the lights dimmed, and as the congregation sang “Silent Night” a couple of miraculous things happened. The sheep, who when they were done with their part had bleated their way down the aisle, now surrounded Alvina Johnson in the last pew. The church was warm, and they were drowsy. The sheep fell asleep, right on Alvina’s shoulders and lap. When everyone looked out the windows they could see that the first real snow had fallen, covering everything with uniform perfection. It was as if flakes of grace were falling, falling free out of heaven and blessing the muddy earth with purity, a whiteness covering the dirt and shoddiness with perfection. When the carol was finished everyone just sat still and silent for a moment that seemed like a wonderful eternity.
After a few minutes, Minnie MacDowell broke the spell…unintentionally. You see, Minnie was hard of hearing. She leaned over to say something to her husband sitting next to her, and everyone heard the words, “Perfect…just perfect.”
And so it was – not perfect in the way Alvina’s pageants tried to make things perfect, but perfect in the way God makes things perfect. God accepts our fumbling attempts at performance, at love and fairness, and covers them with grace. Even Alvina volunteered to make some more sheep costumes for next year…
I share this story with you, not because I know the pastor of the church or Alvina for that matter, but rather because I think it tells us a bit about why it is that we sit here together tonight. We sit here together tonight because long ago in a land many of us may never see in our lifetimes, a baby was born. He wasn’t born in a house or even a real building. He was born in a stable, a place where animals were kept and fed while their owners and caretakers spent time at an inn. We sit here together tonight because the word spread about this baby. The angels sang and shared the news with the shepherds. “Do not be afraid; for see – I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.” And the shepherds led their real sheep, complete with noisy stubbornness, to the place where the baby was born to see for themselves if what the angels had told them was true. We sit here together tonight because those shepherds told Mary the truth about her own son and then told others…spread the good news about the baby born in the manger. We sit here together tonight because the story of it all fills our hearts with joy and longing for the knowledge that God sent someone here to earth to be with us, to teach us, to lead us by example, to make us as perfect as possible through grace.
We sit here together tonight because even when things change in our own lives…things that have “always been done that way” suddenly aren’t anymore, we know that God is with us. We sit here together tonight because even when we don’t always behave the way we should or follow the directions that others give us, we know that God cares for us. And we sit here together tonight because even when we question things that should seem obvious to us or that we should know in faith, like little Joseph did in the pageant, we know that God forgives us.
We know now that the baby born in the manger was God with us, was a teacher and healer, was the means for our forgiveness. You see, hindsight seems as if it is always 20/20. Perhaps the people of the time did not know all that Jesus would do in his ministry on the earth, but we do. We know because people spread the word and continue to spread it today in communities through worship and education and yes, even Christmas Pageants that take on a life of their own. We know that the baby in the manger will grow from this night forward into a man who teaches us, even today, how to live with one another in peace and kindness, to ask for forgiveness when we know we need it, to care for one another and the people and world around us.
As we sit here together tonight, on this Christmas Eve, may God grace us with the feelings of hope, peace, joy, and love that were meant for us in the coming of the baby Jesus. May we know the truth and meaning of this night. May we be able to say, “Perfect…just perfect.” Amen.
**The story in this sermon (found in italics) is quoted and adapted from The Good News From North Haven: “The Christmas Pageant” by Michael Lindvall, Guideposts, 1991.