"A Christmas Message"
Sermon Preached by Gregory Knox Jones
Thursday, December 24, 2015

Neither of Brian Ragen's parents told him many stories as he was growing up, but one story his father told him haunted him for years. This was his father's story: Once upon a time there was a little boy who was very poor. He and his siblings lived with their widowed mother, and she was barely able to feed them. He worked in a store every day after school and on the weekends. His clothes were badly worn and he had only one toy – a little car.

Even his toy was broken: the roof was smashed, all but one of the windows was gone, and two of the wheels were missing. The little boy loved it very much and since he had nothing else to play with, it became everything: a race-car when he was a sportsman, a tank when he was a soldier, an ambulance when he was a doctor.

Christmas was approaching, but the family was so poor that there would be no presents. All the same, the little boy was excited. He had always wanted to go to midnight Mass at his Catholic church on Christmas Eve. This year, for the first time, he would be allowed to stay up for it. Everyone had told him how splendid it was, and before the Mass itself began, there would be the blessing of the crèche. It was very large. There were plaster figures of Joseph and Mary, wise men with their camels, shepherds with their sheep, and angels hovering overhead. In the center of it all, a plaster figure of the baby Jesus, with a glorious halo.

The custom of this congregation was for everyone who came to the service to bring a gift for the Christ Child. Before taking their place in the pews, everyone would lay an offering at the plaster child's crib. People would bring beautiful chalices for the altar or new clothes for the poor or envelopes full of money. The little boy wanted to give the Christ Child a present, but what could he give? He gave all the money from his after-school job to his mother.

He had decided that he would find a second job and save enough to buy a present for the Baby Jesus. Throughout Advent, he got up before dawn and worked at another store until it was time to go to school. By the time Christmas Eve arrived, he had enough to buy a nice present to leave at the crèche. He sat at the kitchen table and counted the money he had earned.

While he was trying to decide whether he had time to buy a present or should simply leave the money at the crèche, his mother returned home. "Oh son," she said. "What a good boy you are! Now we can have a real Christmas dinner." She scooped up the money, and hurried off to shop before all the stores closed.

The little boy was heartbroken. Now he had nothing to leave at the manger. He went to his room, trying not to be angry at his mother. He thought of what he had been taught to do whenever he was hurt or disappointed: "Offer it up to Jesus."

On the dresser, he saw his one toy, the broken car and he realized what he had to offer. He dressed in his best clothes and set off for the service with his broken car in his pocket. He went alone, because his mother had to stay with the younger children. He felt very much alone, for almost everyone else seemed to be with their family and friends. He walked up to the crèche where the gifts were piling up. Some splendidly wrapped. The little boy was embarrassed when he laid his broken toy car amid all the treasures.

He squeezed into a pew close to the front, and moments before the service began, an usher took a last look at the crèche to see that everything was ready. What the usher saw made him angry. He said, "Who would leave a piece of trash like this at Our Lord's crib?" He picked up the broken toy car, and threw it across the church where it came to rest on its roof.

The service began and the little boy was crying. The priest walked forward in the processional, but came to a dead stop when he reached the crèche. The singing died away into silence. The Baby Jesus had come to life and was crawling across the stone floor. He crawled over to the broken car, tucked it under his arm, and crawled back to the manger. The priest walked over to it and just as before, a plaster child with a bright halo was lying in the straw. However, now his smile was the smile of a happy child, and his arms were folded tightly around a broken toy car.

Ragen resented his father's story. First, because he felt his father was saying, "You are not a good little boy like the boy in the story." Later, because he realized that his father was presenting himself as the good little boy. Nothing could have been further from the truth. His father often became drunk and abusive. Ragen was afraid of his father and despised him.

As he grew older, Ragen left the church for many years, but when his own life seemed empty, he found his way back. Over time, his faith began to mature and one day it hit him. He realized that he had cast his father in the wrong role. His father was not the good little boy who gave his last toy to the Lord. His father was the smashed car with a couple of wheels missing. He had failed in his public life and he knew that his family thought of him as an enemy.

Ragen wished he could untangle what was his father's fault and what was the result of his experience in war and his other misfortunes. Whatever had darkened his life, it had been enough to break him: He was a wreck. As a result, his father desperately longed to be cradled in his savior's loving arms.1

All of us have times when we need the assurance that God's loving arms will embrace us. Whether it is when we make a mess of things, or when life is harsh to us, we need the promise that nothing in life or in death can separate us from the love of God.

Tonight, as we peer into the manger to ponder and to celebrate the birth of Mary's child, we remember that this child was God's one-of-a-kind gift. The babe of Bethlehem was God's gift of love. He was a gift of love unlike the presents you and I give at Christmas. Many of the gifts we give are certainly given in a spirit of love. We truly care about certain people and Christmas provides us with the perfect opportunity to give them a gift. It is a tangible way for us to say, "My life is richer because of you. I wish and pray for you a life that is deep and full."

However, God's gift of love was a child; a gift not only for his parents, but for the whole world. This child would grow up to become a window into the heart of God. He would reveal that God is not a short-tempered parent who thrives on punishment, but a God of forgiveness; which is to say a God of second chances; a God who is eager to transform us into our better selves – people of joy, people of goodwill, people who are at peace with themselves and at peace with others; people of hope.

The birth of Christ declares God's never ending love for us. There is nothing we can do to earn it. There is nothing we can do to reject it. And, there is nothing we can do to repay it. So we must learn to receive this gift, to be transformed by it and to pass it along to others.


  1. Brian Abel Ragen, "The Baby Jesus and the Angel of Light."


Prayers of the People ~ Jill Getty

Holy God of Bethlehem, Nazareth, Israel, and the whole world,

We come to you in prayer in the name of Jesus and in the power of Your Holy Spirit on this Christmas Eve.

Caesar Augustus took a census of the entire Roman Empire during his reign 2000 years ago. We are grateful dear God that You are greater than all rulers of the world, then and now. We are in awe that you know the census of all the people of the world from the past and in the present as You are the Creator of all humans; know us by name; love us and have a mission and purpose for our lives.

And no matter what that mission or purpose is, we believe and trust in our hearts that it is from You and that You will be guiding us and leading us in it and through it – no matter what joys we encounter and no matter what difficulties we face.

We trust You will walk with us in the valley of the shadow of death all the way up the hill of Calvary and beyond that we may be transfigured into something of your grace that is new, authentic and filled with holy vision.

We pray that Your presence may be revealed to the world through us; that we might be Your vessels molded for good works in our community; that we may be visions of love and peace in the midst of chaos and cruelty.

We thank you for the faith of Mary and Joseph that led them to be obedient to Your call in their lives so long ago. We ask for faith like they had – that gave them courage to listen to Your voice in spite of a culture that would have degraded them in the face of unwedded pregnancy.

We ask for faith like they had that gave them a vision for a future that was bigger than anything they could imagine; that led them to bring Your Son into the world.

Mighty God, we thank you for the faith of Mary and Joseph that kept them committed to each other and to You in the midst of living in a world of occupation, terror, poverty, and injustice.

We ask for faith that would keep up committed to You; and for faith that would keep us committed to love, hope, peace, and joy in the face of the present evil in our world today.

We read our Christmas story with astonishment, realizing that You, O Lord, break into and intervene in human affairs just as you did with Mary, Joseph, the Shepherds and the Wise People.

Your intervention in their lives gives us hope that you will intervene in our lives as well.

Dear God, enable us to welcome the new birth experiences that you want to bring into our lives.

Develop qualities in our hearts that we may be made into leaders who know how to truly serve with generosity and love. Grow willingness, enthusiasm, and energy in us that we may be made into people who follow You faithfully.

Let the light of your glory shine all around us that we may be filled with your Holy Spirit and given spiritual insight and anointing for all the various aspects of our lives.

Holy Christ, may all of life be filled with Your Spirit and Your Essence – so that we may know we are Your people, the sheep of Your pasture; and that you have laid Your life down for us that we might have meaningful and abundant lives.

We pray this prayer in the name of Jesus, The Christ, who has taught us to pray:

Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread. Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors. And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil. For thine is the kingdom, the power, and the glory forever. Amen.