Do you remember that time when it broke right before Christmas?
Probably a lot of people do.
Maybe it was the oven that stopped working when you had a turkey to roast.
Or perhaps it was the furnace that went out—that happened one Christmas Eve at the church I served in Connecticut.
Maybe it was a relationship that fell apart or health that seemed to “break.”
This morning you might even be thinking of the delicate balance of the nations of the world or our own national government. “Shutdown?” One editorial asked and continued: “More Like Breakdown.”
I want to tell you a story about what happened two hundred years ago tomorrow—on Christmas Eve in 1818. It was that time when the organ broke right before Christmas.
In the Austrian village of Oberndorf, the people were getting ready to celebrate.
Father Joseph Mohr, the priest at the village Church of St. Nicholas—and that’s a wonderful name for a church in a Christmas story, isn’t it?—had a problem. The organ was out of commission. And you know how stories like this go. The details are a little fuzzy. Some say mice caused the organ to break. Some say rust, some say the flooding of the river caused the problem. Whatever the cause, it was a problem.
Mohr thought he might have a solution—oh, not a way to fix the organ, that was out of the question. But he had a little poem that he’d written a couple of years earlier.
He took the words to the church organist, Franz Gruber. Mohr obviously wasn’t looking for a choral masterwork to be sung accompanied by many instruments. He wondered if Gruber could just come up with a simple melody that could be sung with a guitar accompaniment.
Time was short. There were only a couple of hours before the Christmas Eve worship service.
Gruber was up to the task.
He put the words to music.
And that evening—Christmas Eve 200 years ago—Gruber and Mohr stood before the congregation and for the first time sang, in German of course, “Stille nacht, Heilege nacht.
A few weeks later when someone came to repair the broken organ, Franz Gruber played the tune for him. He took the words and music back to his own village and the song began to spread, although no one seemed to remember the names of the author and composer.
After some fifty years, the carol was brought to the United States, translated, and printed. It started showing up in hymnals such as the one found in your pew this morning. And tomorrow night—200 years after the organ broke—we’ll sing those very familiar words: “Silent night, holy night, all is calm all is bright.”
Two people took the brokenness of Christmas and from it brought forth something new, something beloved by many. It like to think it was in a sense the first “Jazz Christmas”—an improvisation, something new, something delightfully unexpected arising from what first looked like brokenness and an insurmountable difficulty.
At the beginning of this month, I started asking people what they needed on this last Sunday before Christmas. You know December is always filled with good things here. We begin the month lighting the first Advent candle and celebrating the sacrament of communion together. We have a big meal together. The choir sings glorious music and leads us in caroling. The children share the story of the birth of Jesus in their own way.
And then we come to this morning. Nothing special was planned with our big celebration of Christmas Eve coming tomorrow night.
“What do you need on this day? What is this Sunday like for you?” I asked.
“Carols,” people replied. We need carols. So we’re singing more than we usually do today—and we’re singing carols. And if we’re not singing enough of them, join us tomorrow night—there will be more.
But after saying they needed carols, people started talking about what this Sunday before Christmas is like. And you know what it’s like.
The kids are eager and excited, maybe finding it a little hard to sit still in worship.
The adults are frayed and frazzled with minds wandering to what still needs to be done.
Or maybe there’s a growing sense of loneliness, of regret, of sorrow as Christmas approaches.
It’s generally that time when it breaks—when we break—right before Christmas.
We often meet Christmas a little frayed around the edges.
Many college students spend December writing through the night, cramming for exams, living on pizza. Along with other young adults they join in the homeward pilgrimage by strange routes, getting rides from friends of friends. And often those rides only get them half way home so that parents end up driving someplace to meet their children and bring them home.
Workloads often increase in December. Faculty members have to read all those papers and grade the exams. For others there are end of the year reports and projects.
Family life can become a frantic time of phone calls and scheduling—and that’s when things are going well.
Our lives become searches for parking spaces, toys and ties, and we wonder if we’re spending, giving, and doing enough or if we’re spending, giving or doing too much.
It’s kind of amazing that so many of us made it here this morning! But you are hear, I think, because you want to hear some good news—or because you have heard good news and want to be reminded of it once more in these days.
Are we ready for Christmas?
Of course not.
We’re never really ready for Christmas. That’s part of the good news of Christmas.
There are too few “silent nights” in our lives at any time of the year. God does not wait for our lives to be perfect—or even very good—before coming to us, before embracing us.
When we are busy, when that thing breaks right before Christmas, we discover once more “Emmanuel”—God is with us.
Which brings us around to Joseph, who also was not ready for Christmas.
When we meet Joseph in Matthew’s Gospel, he has just made up his mind. He is unwilling to put Mary to shame. Even so, he plans to “dismiss her quietly.”
At this point that an angel appears to Joseph in a dream. You can tell that this angel is the real thing by the first words spoken: “Do not be afraid.” You’ve listened to enough of my sermons to know that the main advice of angels is always “Do not be afraid.”
This advice leaves us, well, suspicious. When that thing breaks and someone tells us, “Don’t be afraid,” well, our guard is up. We start looking around for danger.
Maybe angels know something we—with all our fears—don't know. Maybe they have a sense that God in fact does love us, does care about us and this creation. Maybe they have a sense that God's purposes are being worked out even in the most difficult and broken of circumstances.
“Do not be afraid.”
And this child of Mary’s—you shall name him Jesus—a form of the Hebrew name Joshua which means “God saves.”
Remember Joshua? He was the successor to Moses’s authority. The repeated refrain in the story of Joshua is “I, God, will be with you.”
This refrain is echoed by the title from Isaiah—Emmanuel—which means God with us.
We are not alone—God is with us in a way that we would never have come up with on our own.
The God who is with us is a God who understands what it is to be human, what is it to break and to be broken, what it is to live in the midst of brokenness. And understanding, God forgives and empowers and calls us into the future.
“You shall name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.”
In a strange way, those words are quite specific. That is, Jesus does not make everything go our way or quickly repair that thing when it breaks right before Christmas. Jesus does not save us from our mistakes or our foibles or our bad choices. Jesus does not save us from our wise decisions or prudent courses of action—for they too can result in unforeseen and unwanted consequences. Jesus does not save us from prosperity or adversity. In some sense we must work out our salvation with fear and trembling.
But Jesus saves us from our sins.
That is Jesus saves us from all that would separate us from God and from other human beings—and from all that separates us from our true selves: from rigid certainty, self-righteousness, self-deprecation, and all our attempts to save ourselves. And certainly there are times when our mistakes and our wise decisions lead to that estrangement.
Joseph’s sense of right and wrong breaks right before Christmas. He was ready to “dismiss” Mary. Instead he does something new, something unexpected. As Matthew puts it: “He did as the angel of the LORD commanded him, he took Mary as his wife…and named her son Jesus.”
When that thing breaks—improvise, work with others, do the unexpected, sing a new song.
Even in the worst of times—and, yes, sometimes it can feel like we’re approaching such times—God is giving birth to a new possibility—the reconciliation of God and humankind. This creative birth, like all births, can be long and difficult. Christmas is not for children alone. It also comes to the often weary and jaded adults that we have become. It comes to us when that thing breaks, when everything around us is shattered. We hear the good news that God is still at work in the world, so that the world that is more and more becomes the world as it might be.