A sermon preached by Dr. Patrick H. Wrisley, December 25, 2022.
In the name of the One who is, who was, and is yet to come, good morning and merry Christmas! This is a day the Lord has made, beloved, what shall we do in it? Rejoice and be glad in it! Listen to the Word of the Lord!
2.1 In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. 2This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. 3All went to their own towns to be registered. 4Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. 5He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. 6While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. 7And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.
8In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. 9Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. 10But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: 11to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. 12This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.” 13And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying, 14“Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!” 15When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.” 16So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger. 17When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child; 18and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them. 19But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart. 20The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.
Years ago, when I lived outside of Disney World in Celebration, Florida, I remember one Sunday morning in the Fall soon after we moved there looking up and seeing an airplane writing messages in the sky with smoke. First, the pilot would patiently make a large circular pass and make the letter C. They then flew in from the other direction at a 90-degree angle and did a little dash across the C that made you stop and wonder what they were writing. Next, he would turn another 90 degrees and make another pass creating a vertical line attached first to the dash. Once the plan was gone, you could then make out the letter G. Living near Disney, you never knew what people would write in the sky so you were compelled to wait until the mystery sky-writer was spelling out. After about five minutes, you could see the message in the sky over the Land of the Mouse: God is Love. What I discovered was that there was some guy who took it upon himself to make a ministry of sky-writing Christian messages in the sky for the tourists at Disney. Every few days or so the guy would fly over Disney and write brief Christian messages for those of us below. It was quite entertaining and quaint for a while.
Time passed by when the skies over southern Orlando near Disney began to have so much sky-writing that it started to look like there was aerial combat going on in the skies of southern Orange County. Soon car dealers were scribbling their ads up there; then came the ads from Hooters along with Gentleman’s clubs vying for business. It got to the point where you saw writing in the sky, you just quit bothering to look up and see what it was saying. The skies became too crowded with conflicting and at times, contradictory messages.
This is what I fear is happening to the message of Christmas. The birth narratives have become too familiar to people in our culture. To others, they’ve become hackneyed – yes, Mary, Joseph, the angels and shepherds with cows lowing off in the distance are lovely quaint stories but they’ve really lost their meaning to me. Christmas is all about buying gifts…isn’t it? Are we really, really celebrating Christmas anymore?
A recent story in the Atlantic magazine indicated, “Americans still love Christmas if not quite as much as they used to. In 1995, 96 percent celebrated the holiday, per Gallup; by 2019, that had dipped slightly, to 93 percent. What has changed significantly is the way people mark it. From 2005 to 2019, the portion of Americans who say their Christmas celebrations are “strongly religious” dropped from 47 percent to 35 percent.” Gallup reports, “Conversely, among those who celebrate Christmas, 26% say their celebrations are “not too religious.” This represents an increase of 10 percentage points over the past decade and mirrors the percentage of Americans who say religion is “not very important” in their life.” So, if my math is correct, it means that of those in our country who are left, a rising percentage of roughly 40% of people polled are embracing the holiday season more than a true Christmas Season with that other 26% of the population who just don’t care at all about what Christmas is about. Let’s face it: The Bezos Cathedral of Amazon is racking up more than the Church is these days.
Consequently, beloved, I want us to focus on the angel’s word to the shepherds in our Story today. In the midst of their ordinary, mundane routine, the angel appears and says, “This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger” (Lk 2:12). The shepherds had a sign given that drove them to check out this wild, outlandish claim and assertion of the angel. It makes we want to us each of us: What’s YOUR sign?
Growing up in the 1970s the popular line people asked was, “What’s your sign?” as they tried to get to know the personality of the person being questioned. They wanted to know what astrological symbol each of us is aligned with. If I was asked, I would reply that my sign is an Aries because I was born in April. This tells the other person that because my sign is Aries, the Ram, I am courageous, bold, take initiative, and am spontaneous. The social convention would then dictate I turn it around and ask them what their sign is thus helping the two of us to know if we are compatible. The problem with astrological signs is they are always pointing to us. I don’t think this is what the angel had in mind.
This Christmas, it’s my prayer that each of us become students of semiotics, that is, disciples who are about learning to look for and read the signs pointing to Jesus. Jose Riera describes semiotics this way. He writes, “Have you wondered why black is used traditionally as the color of mourning in most Western countries? Or why the eagle symbolizes strength and power in various societies?” In other words, what is the meaning behind the signs we have in our culture? Semiotics is the science of studying the signs – whether written, imaged, or any other way – and how they derived their particular meaning. Signs always point to something else, something larger.
For people of faith, the child wrapped in swaddling clothes and placed in a manger points to the incredible news that God has bent the bow of time and has moved into the neighborhood to live among us, relate to and with us, provide opportunities for you and me to live and interact with him, and then are commissioned by the Lord to become living signs pointing to the real meaning of the baby and what Christmas is about. So when I as your preacher ask you, “What’s your sign?”, it is about you describing to me how are you ‘signing’ to those in your neighborhood that Christmas matters, that this baby in the straw means something. What’s your sign beloved? How are you pointing to Jesus?
This morning, we had the privilege to participate and be pointed to Jesus and the plan of God for each of us and the church. In Baptism, Caryl and Lauren invited you and me to the grace and gift of God given to us in our baptism. Bert and Liam’s baptism reminds us that their baptisms point beyond themselves and we recognize how in their innocence and total helplessness, baptism is a gift of love given to them by God. Neither of these brothers has done anything to earn their adoption into God’s family, the Church. Their adoption into the family of God is offered to them freely. Their baptism is a sign for each of us in the Church that we have a responsibility to walk alongside these boys, alongside their incredibly gifted and wonderful mommas, and teach them the faith of our Lord Jesus Christ.
On a deeper level, their baptisms are signs that point to the larger reality that if Christmas has lost its mojo to the people in the world, if Christmas has been replaced with shopping, and partying, and is now a reflection of culture rather than Jesus, then it’s a sign to us we need to be doing a better job of pointing the way to Jesus for others to follow. Liam and Bert’s baptisms are signs that point to God’s unfathomable love and desire for us to welcome Jesus into the neighborhoods where we live and work.
The baby in the manger is a sign of God’s incredible love and hope for you and for me. The question I want to haunt us in the coming days is what sign is my life, your life pointing to that we actually believe and hope in this Christmas miracle? Pray with me.
 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV). New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright © 1989 the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
 “The War on Christmas is Winning. The holiday is becoming a less religious occasion for millions of Americans”, by David A. Graham, The Atlantic Magazine, December 23, 2022, at 7:00 a.m. Accessed 12/23/ 2022 at https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2022/12/war-on-christmas-trump-happy-holidays/672548/.
 “More Americans Celebrating a Secular Christmas”, by Zach Hrynowski, December 20, 2022. See https://news.gallup.com/poll/272378/americans-celebrating-secular-christmas.aspx.
 José J. Riera, Semiotic Theory, PressBooks. Theoretical Models for Teaching and Research. Accessed on 12/23/2022 at https://opentext.wsu.edu/theoreticalmodelsforteachingandresearch/chapter/semiotic-theory/.