It all started with Montgomery Ward Department Store, which in 1939 was looking for a marketing gimmick and prevailed on one of its bright young men in the advertising department to compose a Christmas poem. Robert May produced a little ditty that Montgomery Ward then mailed to thousands of potential customers. This little ploy would have quickly and quietly passed from popular memory had not Robert May in 1946 asked his brother-in-law, a trained musician, to put his little poem to music. Johnny Marks, a radio producer, had studied music in Paris, and would go on to compose some of the most heinous Christmas music ever inflicted on the human ear. Such Burl Ives’ barbarities as “Holly Jolly Christmas,” “When Santa Claus Gets Your Letter,” and “Silver and Gold,” can point to Johnny Marks as their composer. To give the man his due, he also produced the barely tolerable “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree,” and, amazingly, set the powerful poetry of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow to music in “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day.” So he had his good days and his bad. But Johnny Marks’s first attempt at Christmas music was recorded by cowboy singer Gene Autry in 1949 and turned into a million-copy seller. The legend of “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” became a permanent addition to the world’s celebration of Christmas.
Of course, despite the many lawn decorations across America depicting Rudolph and the other reindeer pulling Santa’s sleigh over Mary’s and Joseph’s heads as they huddle around the manger, the story of Rudolph is not in the Bible. Yet there’s something profoundly Biblical about Rudolph. Though Johnny Marks’s music tends to glorify the tinsel and trappings of the season without ever drawing nigh to the holy core that gives this celebration its eternal frame of reference, “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” roots subtly in themes that lie at the heart of the Christian Gospel. An ostracized reindeer not allowed to play any reindeer games shares much with a manger Messiah of whom the Scriptures said, “The stone which the builders rejected has become the head of the corner. This is the Lord’s doing and it is marvelous in our eyes.” Rudolph is a misfit. The theme of his song is that old Saint Nick, the patron saint of children and sailors, finds a way to make use of this misfit to further a grand purpose. The God and Author of the Christmas story does exactly the same thing!
Our well-worn familiarity with the story of Jesus’ birth blinds us to the wondrous fact that the God of the universe is teaching us something profound about God’s extraordinarily strange nature, namely, that God’s ways are not our ways, that God’s values are not our values, that the God of this universe operates in a manner contrary to our common sense, in accordance with a divine principle of wisdom hidden to our eyes. Reflect upon this point: when the general manager for the Atlanta Falcons engages in the NFL draft of players, he supposedly (at least in theory) selects the best athletes available, the fastest, quickest, tallest, strongest players he can find. If the name of a Georgia Tech cornerback comes up on the draft board, and the general manger asks his scout, “What about this player?” and the scout responds, “Well, he’s small, but he’s slow,” the general manager knows that he best pass on this fellow and opt for a more obviously-gifted choice. We operate on the same principle, whether we are choosing sides for basketball or selecting people for our businesses or committees: we gravitate toward those people whose obvious giftedness and commitment seem to best guarantee success.
God operates differently. In the Christmas story, God makes use of a whole host of Rudolphs, a confederation of misfits. An obscure, unwed Galilean peasant girl would be nobody’s obvious choice for the title “mother of God.” Even Mary knows it. The very song of praise she offers in response to her election reveals her awareness of how strange and revolutionary are the values of the divine. Through the birth of this child, says Mary, “God has scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts, he has put down the mighty from their thrones and exalted those of low degree; he has filled the hungry with good things and the rich he has sent empty away.” She understands that her recruitment runs contrary to all human logic. The shepherds are ritually unclean and ceremonially defiled in the eyes of their own religious community. They are nobody’s idea of spokesmen for the divine. But God selects them as Christ’s first ambassadors! Bethlehem, an insignificant suburb of a third-rate capital in a tiny conquered country in an obscure corner of the world, was nobody’s idea of a media center. Yet God selects it as the perfect place to birth the Savior of the world. If Tiffany’s announced a plan to hawk its high-priced jewelry at Dollar General, industry analysts would howl at the incongruity, and rightly so. But the God of this story relishes incongruity! God relishes the thought of locating the center of the universe in a horse stall and letting the King of Kings, his own beloved Son, sleep first in a feed trough. God’s ways are not our ways! God employs all manner of misfits, the humble, the obscure, the lowly, to produce the birth of the Savior of the world!
Through the Nativity story God is not only trying to teach us something wondrous about God, but is also trying to teach us something wondrous about ourselves. There is more than a smidgen of symbolism in the Nativity narrative: the shepherds represent us. The shepherds represent us! The powerful Presence of God intersects our lives, however lowly and obscure we might regard ourselves. We feel the divine summons to take part in God’s story. We feel the divine holiness, the divine radiance of our God, coming into contact with our lives. Yet, like the shepherds, we are not instantly filled with joy. Rather, we are filled with fear, with dread. Rather than focus upon the fathomless graciousness of God, our first impulse is to focus upon our unworthiness. As we ponder the spiritual gifts of Advent, we must admit that so often we allow these spiritual gifts to remain unopened, or we open them without joy. Many of us open God’s spiritual gifts with a certain spirit of anxiety.
Some of us perhaps have been blessed with a wonderful spouse. Perhaps we have been blessed with children and grandchildren. Many of us have been blessed with supportive, nurturing friends. Many of us have been blessed with a rewarding job, a vocation that provides us with fulfillment. All of these profound blessings are God’s gifts. Yet many of us open those gifts with more dread than enjoyment because we focus more upon our unworthiness than we do the graciousness of God. We don’t relish the goodness of God because we are too busy sifting through the wrapping paper of life trying to find the price tags. We don’t truly receive God’s gifts with joy, with enthusiasm, with laughter, with courage, because we are too busy wondering when the bill comes due – when will God swoop in and take these gifts away? We are the shepherds, in our uncleanliness, in our own misfit nature, tending to our little lives. God’s Spirit intersects us, and we cower. But we need to hear the words of God’s angelic messenger: “Be not afraid! Behold, I bring you good news of a great joy!” Be not afraid! Open God’s gifts with joy and enthusiasm rather than terror and dread. Be not afraid!” In the heart of our being some of us need to let those angelic words pierce us to the marrow. For the love of God casts out fear!
Not to open the gifts of God is a very dangerous act. I offer you a real-life parable demonstrating this point. One of the most famous paintings in American history is that of General George Washington, the colonists’ commander-in-chief, standing in his boat as he crossed the Delaware on the frigid Christmas night of 1776, poised to spring a surprise on the Hessian troops occupying Trenton, New Jersey. I should note, however, that Washington’s glide across the Delaware was not as smooth as the artist would have us believe: Washington found himself traveling in a boat with his three-hundred pound Colonel, Henry Knox. The father of our country ordered, “Harry, shift your fat, uh, ‘back end’ (or something like that), but slowly, or you’ll swamp the whole boat.” Washington’s comment sent twitters of laughter throughout his nervous ranks and warmed their chilled spirits. But their Christmas surprise was detected by a British sympathizer, who ran to find Hessian commander Johann Rall, who was happily enjoying a Christmas party. Rall’s servant intercepted this messenger and reduced this spy’s urgent information to a note, which he then duly handed to his commander. Colonel Rall refused to open his gift! Not wishing to disturb his card game, Rall rolled the note up and stuck it in his pocket. At daybreak, Washington’s men fell upon the Hessian troops and quickly overwhelmed them, capturing 900 men and dealing Colonel Rall a fatal wound. As he lay on the operating table, the note fell out of his pocket when the doctor cut away his clothes. Then the colonel read it, telling the surgeon mournfully, “If I had read this earlier, I would not be here.” So, too, how many of us sentence our lives to tragedy because we refuse to open God’s good gifts!
What if Santa Claus had said, “Rudolph, with your nose so bright, won’t you guide my sleigh tonight?,” and Rudolph had responded, “No; I’m too inadequate, I’m too different from the other reindeer to be of use to you”? Rudolph’s “differentness” is precisely what makes him useful on that foggy night! What if the shepherds, upon hearing that transcendent angelic serenade had said, “Those heavenly beings are so holy, so pure. But we are too defiled, too unrighteous, too unclean to deliver any message from God. We had better not act on their invitation”? Could it be that our misfit nature is precisely what God desires to accomplish God’s purpose? Could it be that we don’t take advantage of the second and third chances that God gives us because we think we are not worthy of such divine grace? How many of us are like the servant in the parable of the talents who receives a gift of grace, but rather than invest that gift and double our joy, we bury the talent instead, refusing to take the risk of failing! How many of us leave God’s gifts unopened because we don’t respect the graciousness of the Giver? We need to hear afresh the angel’s counsel: “Be not afraid.”
When I ponder the Christmas story, what comes to mind is the sheer incongruity of the images: Messiah and manger. Angels and shepherds. Baby in a food trough, receiving gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. This multiplicity of incongruous images brings us to the inescapable conclusion that God delights in bringing together different kinds of misfits to accomplish the divine purpose. Could it be that it is our very differentness that makes us useful to God? In truth, while we share some things in common, we are all very different people. We may not share the same politics, or like the same books or movies or music. We may not share the same perspective on the controversial issues of our day. All of us are considered misfits by somebody else. But God doesn’t care! God summons us all, and creates out of our differentness a mosaic of misfits who together further the story of the glory of God. Manger – Messiah. Stable – Savior. Shepherds – Angels. Prior to the birth of Christ these concepts were never linked! But they are now eternally wedded together by the Spirit of God – just as we are wedded together by the Spirit of God. These disparate concepts remind us that God calls together different kinds of people to unite in the purpose of celebrating the Light of the world, inviting people to hear the angel’s invitation, “Be not afraid!” The church must be a place where people lose their fear.
Rudolph’s alleged handicap serves ultimately as an instrument of deliverance. Might not that be our story, too? Might not God use our “differentness” in a similar fashion? Maybe the lessons we’ve learned in battling our flaws and failures are the very truths that somebody else needs to learn. Maybe the manner in which we handle our cross of adversity is the medium God will use to articulate a redemptive message to someone else. All of us need to open our hearts to the angel’s message: “Be not afraid!” Because perfect love casts out fear, and that is the gift that Christ offers us. For the family of God is a place where people lose their fear. The people of God are meant to live as those who have lost their fear. I don’t know what part of your own heart needs to hear the angel’s message, “Be not afraid!” I don’t know what part of your own witness needs to be touched by that angel’s message, “Be not afraid!” But you might be the very shepherd who walks into the darkness of somebody else’s life and says, “Unto you this day is born in the city of David a Savior who is Christ the Lord.” Come, let us adore Him. Have a holly, jolly Christmas!