This December, my elder daughter and I are slowly finishing the last book in the Harry Potter series. The process has taken us several years, since we usually only finish a few pages each night. But each time we pick the book up, I can never tell who is more excited – her or me. You see, I have read the series at least three times – once during a summer interning at a hospital, when I needed a brain break from the emotional labor, and twice while spending lots of time nursing, when I needed a brain break from a different kind of labor. But reading the books with my daughter has been different. Although I know what will happen, there have been parts of the seven books I forgot entirely. As I have watched through her eyes, I had forgotten the range of emotions the books evoke, the anticipation the author builds, and the slew of questions that take ages to answer. In rereading them with her, I have also seen bigger truths – some allegories and religious parallels that only sink in after multiple readings. The whole experience has been so fun, I cannot wait to start all over again with our younger daughter!
I have been thinking about how our favorite books are often like that. Though we have endless options of books to read, sometimes we will pick an old favorite to read again. I think many of us will reread favorite books because we like the familiarity, like cozying up with old friend. Some of us enjoy rereading books because we enjoy catching new tidbits we never caught before. While others of us enjoy rereading books because there is some comfort in knowing how the story ends – of being certain about what will happen. The same can be true for small children too. I cannot tell you how many times I read Goodnight Moon over the years. But I never minded because I totally understood the comfort my kids found in the familiarity of a known book; the comfort they sought in Goodnight Moon was the same comfort I sought in familiar books too.
In a lot of ways, that is what we are doing tonight. We are telling a story we have heard over and over again – although tonight’s New Revised Standard Version may not sound as familiar as the old King James Version; even Charlie Brown’s friends knew that version. Every year, every single Christmas Eve, we make our way to church – sometimes having fought over what to wear, when, where, and what to eat, or whether or not to open any gifts beforehand. But we make our way here tonight because we know the ultimate reward is sitting here, in the quiet of night, listening to the story we hear every year of a powerful emperor imposing a tax; of a very pregnant Mary making her way to Bethlehem with her betrothed, Joseph; of Mary giving birth and putting the Christ Child in a manger because there is no room in the inn; of shepherds minding their business in the dark of night; of angels appearing announcing glorious news; and of a chorus of angels singing magnificent truth. And our reactions are much like they are with any favorite book. We find comfort in the story’s familiarity, we look for and sometimes hear tiny details we forgot or had not thought about before, and we find comfort in knowing how the story will end. Glory to God in the highest, indeed!
But the main reason we tell this story year after year after year is not simply for the familiarity and comfort – though the Church wants us to experience that goodness too. The main reason we tell this familiar story again tonight is because we need to remember who we are and who God is. You see, what happened on that beautiful, special night, is God came in human form among us – came as Jesus Christ incarnate – because God loves us so very much. God saw we were struggling to be good, to live as loving people made in God’s image, and God knew we needed Jesus to help us. We learn in this story that God is awesome, God loves us and is faithful to God’s covenant even when we are not, and God does unimaginably incredible things for us. This beloved, almost quaint, story is full of good news about who God is.
But this beloved, familiar story also tells us something about who we are. This story tells us that whatever baggage we came in here with tonight, whatever we are struggling with on a weekly basis, whatever self-doubts we might have, we learn in this story that we are worthy of God’s love. We learn in this story that no matter who we are – an esteemed king, feared among the people and wielding great power; a couple with nowhere to go, feeling unsure about the future; everyday workers going about their daily jobs, just trying to pay the bills; or a vulnerable baby, unaware of the dangers all around – no matter who we are, we are loved by God, and given the opportunity to have a relationship with God. We also learn in this story a bit harder reality. We learn in this story that being loved by God means sharing God’s love – of going to visit people who need visiting and need to know the love of God in their isolation and loneliness, of caring for people who have no place to go no matter what we judgments we make about how they got into their current situation, of taking on tasks that seem insurmountable but will help more people experience the love of God. We find out a lot about ourselves tonight in this familiar story too.
I know each of us who has gathered here tonight came for a different reason. Maybe you just like the music, or maybe someone made you come, or maybe you came out of habit, or maybe you came because you wanted some sense of comfort and familiarity. Regardless of how you got here, the Church tonight tells us a story full of meaning. We certainly tell this story tonight because this is safe place we can cozy up to the story and feel comforted in familiarity. We tell this story because we need reminding who God is and who we are. But we especially tell this story tonight because God wants us to go from this place and do something with all the love and comfort we receive tonight. God wants us to share God’s love with those who need love the most – even to the people we sometimes do not like (actually, especially to the people we do not like). God wants us tonight to remember who we are, and who God is, and then go out into the world, rejoicing, sharing the love of Christ, retelling the Christ Child’s story, and bringing Jesus’ story to life for others. Who knows? Maybe this will become your new favorite story you want to read over and over again! Amen.