A story sermon, a sequel to "Leftover Pieces," last year's Christmas sermon.

December 22 2019

Advent 4

Isaiah 7:10-14

10Again the Lord spoke to Ahaz, saying, 11Ask a sign of the Lord your God; let it be deep as Sheol or high as heaven. 12But Ahaz said, I will not ask, and I will not put the Lord to the test. 13Then Isaiah said: “Hear then, O house of David! Is it too little for you to weary mortals, that you weary my God also? 14Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel. 

Matthew 1:18-25

18Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. 19Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly. 20But just when he had resolved to do this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. 21She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.”22All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet: 23“Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel,” which means, “God is with us.” 24When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife, 25but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son; and he named him Jesus.

John 1:1-5

1In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2He was in the beginning with God. 3All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being 4in him was life, and the life was the light of all people.

5The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.

A Sign For You

The Reverend Luke Harris and his wife Sarah received some unexpected news in the late afternoon of the first Sunday of Advent in 1977.

While the phone call seemed to come with no warning, in retrospect they realized that Sarah’s subconscious had been working overtime to bring her signs of surprises about to spring forth, but neither she nor Luke understood them at the time.

Sarah awoke early on the morning of November 27, 1977, the first Sunday of Advent, with a dream still clinging to her, demanding to make the journey from her subconscious to her conscious mind. The same dream had visited her many times over the ten years since they received news of their son’s death, but recently it had become more vivid. It was her 60th birthday and she awoke from a dream that she and Luke were the parents of a newborn baby.

Sarah told Luke about her dream over breakfast. They had a good laugh.

“It makes no sense. Dreams are just crazy,” she said.

“Mm hmm,” Luke agreed. “Crazy.”

But they both knew that this dream emerged from something more than randomly firing neurons. Sarah’s sudden disappointment upon waking, upon realizing it was a dream, felt much like grief, the grief that had followed them from New York to Texas since that Christmas Eve ten years before when the two men had come to the door, the corporal and the chaplain, to tell them of their son David’s death in Vietnam.

“Another child. Crazy,” Sarah said. “What would Carl Jung say?”

“How about you?” Sarah asked Luke. “What did you dream?”

“Just the usual recurring nightmare,” he said. “In this dream I am no longer a seminary professor. I am a parish pastor again. I step into the pulpit before an expectant congregation and I have nothing. No manuscript, no notes, no idea what to say to the people gathered in front of me.”

Luke and Sarah went to church and then to her favorite restaurant for lunch and the waiter brought her birthday cake for dessert. Luke gave her some trinkets to unwrap, but his big birthday present for her was not a surprise because they had observed the same tradition for all 35 years of their marriage. On every birthday of Sarah’s that ended in a five or a zero, Luke brought home a new family car. They shared just one car, and Luke did most of the driving, and most of their big purchases they planned and executed together, but not the car. Sarah hated going through the car sales process. Luke’s present to her was to buy their family car without her.

He always asked for her opinion, and she always said the same thing, “another Chevrolet, I think. Just get the best bargain you can.”

Just to make sure, he asked, “Do you want to go with me this time?”

“I would rather pass a kidney stone.”

“I will take that as a ‘No.’”

“You’re quick on the uptake, Dear.”

So, he had bought the car on Saturday. It would be ready to pick up on Monday morning.

Church had been uplifting that first Sunday of Advent. Having preached for thirty years himself, Luke often had a hard time listening to sermons rather than judging them.

Not at Emmanuel Presbyterian, though.

Pastor Michelle was the first woman pastor this congregation had ever had, and the first that Luke had ever listened to over a long period of time.

He found he liked going to church again. 

Michelle brought such a different approach to the pulpit, but with solid Reformed theology, that Luke found he could simply worship and set aside the professorial part of him that rated sermons on a scale of 1 to 10 instead of listening for God’s Word to him.

And, this Advent was especially joyful for the Emmanuel congregation because the pastor was great with child. She and her husband Paul were expecting their first child shortly after the new year, so everyone in church had a constant visual reminder of the season of expectation.

The surprise of Sarah’s birthday was a long distance phone call late Sunday afternoon from a social worker in New York named Li.

Sarah answered.

“Mrs. Harris?” she asked.

“Yes.”

“I am looking for Sarah Harris and the Reverend Dr. Luke Harris, parents of the late U.S. Army Captain David James Harris.”

“You have found us.”

Sarah heard Li take a deep breath. “I am a social worker in a hospital in New York where you lived, I believe, until 1968. I have a very ill patient here, a recent refugee from Vietnam named Bian Nguyen. Did your son tell you about her?”

“No. Is there a reason he would have told us about her?”

“Mrs. Harris, Bian came to New York from Vietnam nearly two years ago as a refugee, to look for your son. She only recently learned that he had been killed in the war. Her English is limited, but she would like to see you. I could translate.”

“That would be very difficult now. We live more than a thousand miles away. Maybe she could visit when she gets healthy?”

“She will never be healthy, Mrs. Harris. She has perhaps a month to live, maybe less. But she wants you to have all that David left with her.”

Sarah felt an echo of the mix of disappointment, confusion, and expectation that had accompanied her all morning after she awoke from her dream.

“What does she want us to have?”

“A boy and a girl, ten year old twins. I believe they are your grandchildren.”

Luke called every airline that flew out of San Antonio and Austin, but at the end of the Thanksgiving holiday, every flight was full or involved so many connections it would take them more than 24 hours and a large portion of their savings.

As they packed their bags, Sarah fretted. “What if it’s not true? What if it’s a mistake? I mean, David! Our David! Surely he would have told us.”

Luke shook his head. “Not if he didn’t know. Not if he didn’t have everything figured out yet. I don’t know if it’s true, but it could be.”

“How will we know?” Sarah asked.

“I will know,” Luke said. “I’m sure I will know. I think if we pay attention, there will be a sign.”

“Could it be a sign that you can’t find a flight to get us there?”

“Yes. Combined with the fact that we have a brand new Chevrolet to pick up tomorrow morning, I think it’s a sign that we’re taking a road trip.”

Sarah said, “I have this feeling that our lives are about to change.”

Luke nodded. “I may need to live longer than I had planned.”

Monday morning Luke took the old Monte Carlo to the dealer and left it and brought the new Chevy home. And it was something of a surprise to Sarah after all.

It was not another Monte Carlo.

It was a Z28 Camaro, red, somewhere between blazing cherry and fire engine. With wide black racing stripes on the hood.

Sarah stepped out of the house with her suitcase, looked at the shiny red muscle car and asked, “They didn’t have one with flames painted on the side?”

“Not at the bargain price,” Luke said.

And so it came to pass that they drove to New York, back to their old home town, in a red Camaro. Luke soon realized the challenge of driving this car. The car wanted to go fast, but the speed limit was 55. Between the car’s big engine and Sarah and Luke’s desire to get to New York as soon as possible, 55 miles per hour felt like a tortoise’s pace.

With much prayer, fasting, restraint, and the grace of God, they managed to arrive at the New York hospital three days later without a speeding ticket. They found the social worker Li who took them to Bian Nguyen’s hospital room.

Bian lay still with her eyes closed, breathing slowly. She was a wisp, barely still substance at all, making her way steadily toward becoming spirit only.

Li said something in Vietnamese and Bian opened her eyes. She looked at Luke, looked at Sarah, and her eyes filled with tears.

“Yes,” she said. “David. You look like David.”

Luke took her hand and sat next to Bian. Bian reached out her other hand to Sarah who took her seat on the other side of Bian’s bed.

“You. Pray,” she said, and looked at Luke, then Sarah, then closed her eyes.

Luke prayed. Sarah prayed.

Li stepped out of the room.

After a few minutes of silence, Li returned with a child holding each hand. When Sarah and Luke saw the two children, they knew. These were their grandchildren.

The children came to the bed and kissed their mother and then turned to the strangers.

The girl reached out her hand. “My name is Hanh,” she said. “It means right behavior, but it is not always true,” she said, with a tiny mischievous smile.

The boy reached out his hand. “My name is Binh,” he said. “It means peaceful, but I, too, am ironically named according to my teachers.”

Bian reached out to her children, took them by the hand, and placed their hands in the hands of Luke and Sarah. And so began the two weeks of becoming grandparents and, at the same time, caring for Bian, the mother of their grandchildren, until she took her last breath.

Bian’s wishes were to be cremated and buried next to David, so Sarah and Luke let the children choose the urn, a beautiful porcelain urn that they sealed up tightly for the journey home to Texas. They packed the urn carefully between the suitcases in the trunk.

By the time they could leave New York, it was four days before Christmas.

Sarah said, “I don’t mean to encourage you to drive fast, but if we could make it home by Christmas Eve, the children could have their first real Christmas; they could go to the candlelight service, and we could hear Michelle’s last sermon before her maternity leave.”

So, Luke drove fast. Not too fast, but sometimes he exceeded the speed limit. And they stopped only when necessary. He decided shaving took too much time, so he let his beard grow and packed the kids into the car from the motel while they were still sleeping each morning.

When the children were awake, Luke turned on the radio and they listened to Christmas carols.

Hanh listened carefully and asked, “Why does the song say “Born that men no more may die? Is heaven just for men, not women?”

Sarah said, “It’s an old song. Sometimes people said ‘men’ to mean everybody, men, women, and children.”

Hanh looked doubtful. “If they mean everybody, they oughta say everybody, that’s what I think.”

They had made it as far as Hope, Arkansas, when the law of probability caught up to Luke and he saw the flashing lights in his rear view mirror. After Luke pulled over, the state trooper walked up to the bright red Camaro and looked in at the scuzzy looking white man in the driver’s seat who looked like he just stumbled off of skid row.

He saw a woman in the passenger seat so deeply asleep that she might have been drugged, and two Asian children, wide-eyed in the back seat. He looked at Luke Harris’s driver’s license. “Most people look better than their driver’s license picture,” he mused.

We can understand why all his instincts told him, “something is not right here.”

He asked the children, “Where are your parents?”

“They’re dead,” Binh said. “Both of them.”

Hanh said, “Mama’s in the trunk.”

Which explains why Luke and Sarah and their newly-discovered grandchildren nearly missed having their first Christmas together in 1977. By the time the swarm of Arkansas state police, lights flashing, converged on the spot on the highway where the Camaro had stopped, emptied the trunk of the car, and sorted everything out, Luke, Sarah, Hanh, and Binh were running several hours behind schedule.

Luke stuck to the speed limit, but drove through the night. They reached home on the morning of Christmas eve ready to sleep.

The phone was ringing when they walked in the house.

It was Paul, the pastor’s husband.

“Luke, I hate to impose, I know you just got back from a trip, but there’s nobody else available. Michelle is in labor. Will you preach tonight?”

Silence.

“Luke? Are you there? Can you do that?”

“Paul, it would be a dream come true.”

“Oh, thanks so much, that’s such a relief. I was going to say Michell has already written out a manuscript. I’ll give it to you if you want to come up to the hospital, and then you won’t have to write anything last minute.”

 “I’m on my way,” he said, and headed out the door.

 After his visit with Michelle and Paul, when it was clear that Michelle was still many hours away from giving birth, Luke headed home with Michelle’s manuscript in hand, feeling a bit more relaxed. He set an alarm and enjoyed a deep and dreamless sleep.

He awoke, showered, shaved, put on his suit with a festive red and green tie, drove with the family to church, stepped into Pastor Michelle’s office, and took a quick look at the sermon manuscript she had prepared.

It began, “Being nearly nine months pregnant on Christmas eve gives me a new appreciation for Mary and Joseph’s journey to Bethlehem.”

The whole sermon was Michelle’s and nobody else’s—clear and sympathetic descriptions of Mary’s first sensation of quickening, her back pain, her hopes and fears of all the years tied up in the vivid description of pregnancy. 

Luke realized in a moment of panic that he would never be able to pull this off. Worship was scheduled to begin in five minutes.

Sometimes dreams do come true, but not always in a good way.

He stepped into the pulpit with nothing prepared and read the promise of Isaiah:

“the Lord himself will give you a sign. Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel (God with us.)”

The congregation, anticipating Michelle giving birth this very night, smiled and nodded.

He read the Christmas story from Matthew, then from Luke. He said, “The Word of the Lord,” and the people responded, “Thanks be to God” with a bit more enthusiasm than usual.

Then they waited, expectantly, through the silence that followed.

When Luke found his voice, he recounted their Advent journey.

And he said, “We are quite a mess this Christmas. We are grieving the death of someone we hardly had the chance to know—but Bian Nguyen was someone our son loved.

“Every new grief brings with it our past grief, especially at Christmas time.

“At the same time, our hearts are full to overflowing with the joy of these grandchildren we never thought we would have. Our hearts are full with anticipation of Michelle and Paul’s new child. We weep and laugh, laugh and weep every day.

“And it occurs to me that this messy kind of life, this messy world that just will not conform to our attempts to put it in order, that is exactly the world into which God sent his son through Mary and Joseph. Can you imagine the mess Joseph and Mary were in? Unwed and pregnant, having to navigate all the judgment of their families, having to travel to Bethlehem because their government demanded it, then having to flee for their lives to Egypt as refugees?

“This darkness, this messy, chaotic darkness, has been invaded by light, God’s light, the light of Christ. When it may seem to have been extinguished, it comes back. It will not be conquered by darkness.

“Whenever a child is born, this is a sign.

“Light is stronger than darkness, love is stronger than death.

“This is the good news, this is the message that God sent to the world long ago, and it echoes in angel voices through the ages, and lands in our hearts tonight:

“You are loved.”

As Luke reached the end, he looked at Sarah who sat with a sleepy child leaning in on each side.

Luke and Sarah, Binh and Hanh went home and had their first Christmas together. Paul called to tell them Michelle had given birth to a healthy boy and they named him James.

It was close to midnight when the grandparents tucked in their grandchildren. Sarah asked them, “How are you feeling?”

“Still sad,” Binh said, “but loved. I do feel loved.”

Hanh stretched, closed her eyes, curled up, and said, “Merry Christmas.”