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Standing Room Only

December 26th, 2008

But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord.” (Luke 2:10-11)

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In Germany, one of the hottest tickets of the year is…well, actually, you don’t need a ticket at all. But if some German politicians have their way, that will change.

Christmas Eve midnight services are apparently popular all over Germany among young and old, Catholic and Protestant, religious and irreligious alike. That’s great, of course, but it causes a problem in that there isn’t enough space in many churches to accommodate all the worshippers on Christmas Eve. And several senior German politicians have proposed a novel solution: make people buy a seat at the service.

Now, it’s not as if they’re proposing that TicketMaster get involved. German churches get most of their funding from a national “church tax” paid by all church members. The only way to be exempt from the tax is to officially leave your church, which, predictably, many Germans have done. But then, on Christmas Eve, many of the folks who have left to dodge the church tax show up for services. So the plan, proposed by members of at least two political parties, would allow only those who pay the church tax to attend Christmas Eve services.

The truly cynical might expect German church leaders to be all for this idea, but in this case the truly cynical would be mistaken. I was thankful to read that most German church leaders seem very much against the idea – calling it, among other adjectives, “absurd.”

As much as you hear about how empty European churches are and how secular European society is, it gave me hope to think of churches overflowing at least one day out of the year. The story also suggested to me that it might be a mistake to connect church attendance with a tax. Unless maybe you levy the tax on those who don’t attend…

More than anything, though, the story made me question whether the politicians that proposed this idea really understand what Christmas is about. I think they have good intentions, but I think that maybe, through no fault of their own, they just don’t quite get it. For that matter, maybe the rest of us – including and even especially “church people” – need a little reminding. And for that reminding, I think we have to go back: back past the traditions and rituals that have accumulated in the 1500 years or so that Christmas has been celebrated, back past Santa Claus and Frosty, and caroling and Christmas trees and mistletoe, back even past midnight church services. Or rather, back to the first midnight Christmas service.

There was no church sanctuary, no choir anthems or Christmas pageants or congregational singing. There were no ministers or priests officiating. There were certainly no crowds elbowing to get a seat, and no candlelight or “Silent Night.” Just a silent night, with a congregation of sleeping sheep and sleepy shepherds under the open sky in the country outside Bethlehem.

The Bible paints a picture of less a choir than a company of soldiers shouting a battle cry: “heavenly host,” the armies of heaven, shouting about God’s glory and proclaiming “peace on earth.” The homily, such as it was, was less exhortation or inspiration as it was proclamation: “good news of great joy,” a Savior born right where generations of prophets and the promise of God himself always declared he would be born.

And that good news, said the angel, would be “for all the people.”

All the people? All the good people of Israel – that’s who the religious people of Israel thought the Messiah would bring good news for. Maybe some in Israel could have stretched and imagined that the Messianic good news would include everyone in Israel, or even everyone who embraced Israel’s God. But all the people? If he’s coming to save Israel, how could it be good news for Israel’s oppressors? If he’s coming to reward the good people, well, isn’t that bad news for the bad people? If he’s coming as the deliverer of those who give and pray and sacrifice and follow the Law – well, what about that would the prostitutes and tax collectors and folks like that see as good news?

It’s no easier today to take in, in Germany or America or anywhere else. We’re no more comfortable now, here, with the idea that Jesus’ birth was “good news for all the people” than they were there and then. What’s that? You disagree? OK, then let me pose a few questions.

Who shares our church services? I don’t mean just around Christmas time: who are our services planned for, whose preferences do they take into account, whose egos do they stroke and to whom do they provide reassurance? What do our neighbors know of our churches? And if our buildings were to disappear overnight and replaced with a Starbuck’s or Borders or new homes, would our neighborhoods be better or worse for the change?

Who shares our wealth? When we open our wallets, slap down our credit cards, who is blessed? It’s great to buy for family and friends, but do our kids really need every new video game when there are kids in our city who won’t have anything to eat – much less anything to open – on Christmas? And wouldn’t it be wonderful to spend some time on Christmas with family and friends giving away food or gifts to those who are really in need, instead of just tearing into wrapping paper and Christmas ham in reckless self-indulgence?

Who shares our lives? Our tables? Who do we invite around our Christmas trees? Is access to our lives and our living rooms reserved only for those who wear the “family” or “friend” tags? Is admittance to the party only for those who can bring a gift or pay their own way?

The first announcement of Christmas, to shepherds keeping watch over their sheep, was that God was bringing good news to life for people who desperately needed some. He promised to people who couldn’t dig themselves out of despair and hopelessness that a Savior was coming, and he said that Savior was coming for all of them. Two millennia and change later, that’s still the message. “Good news of great joy for all the people.” How are we doing at proclaiming it?

As Christmas ends for another year, may our circles of influence widen. May we let the angel’s words push us farther onto limbs and deeper into relationships with people who need to hear that good news – whoever they may be. May the message of good news take us into real relationships with people who might be outside our comfort zones racially, economically, religiously, morally, or whatever. And may they hear from our lips the good news of great joy that Jesus has come – and that he’s come for all the people.

Maybe next Christmas, you’ll have trouble finding a seat in your church.

Wouldn’t that be great?


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