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A few years ago, I caught an episode of the cable TV show “Inside The Actor’s Studio,” with James Lipton. If you’ve seen it, you know the basic idea: Lipton invites celebrities – famous actors, writers and directors – to talk about their careers and how they do what they do. And he always ends each episode the same way, with one particular question: “If you believe that God exists, what do you think He will say to you when you finally see Him?”
It’s a good question, by the way, to ask ourselves periodically. It can make for an interesting examination of conscience.
Anyway: on this episode, the person James Lipton was interviewing was Steven Spielberg.
Lipton asked him that final question:
What do you hope God will say to you when you finally see Him?
And Spielberg thought for a moment and smiled. He replied:
“’Thanks for listening.’”
Thanks for listening.
That wonderful answer popped into my mind as I read over this gospel that we just heard, the greatest beginning of the greatest story ever told. So much of the Christmas story is, truly, about listening.
When Gabriel arrives to bring Mary the news that she will bear a child…she listens.
When the angel tells Joseph in his dreams what is about to happen…he listens.
The shepherds listen when the angel announces the “good news of great joy.”
In the passage immediately following this, they go out and tell the world what they have seen.
And the world listens.
Two thousand years later, we confront this stunning message – “tidings of comfort and joy,” as the carol describes it – and our hearts swell with the sentiment of the season.
We hear. But are we paying attention? Are we listening?
Christmas invites us to listen.
To listen for God’s messengers. To listen for His good news.
And what good news it is: that God is with us! That we are no longer alone. That He has come into our lives, and into our world. “The grace of God has appeared,” Paul writes. Or as Isaiah puts it so beautifully: “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light.”
This is the news we have been waiting for.
The news all of humanity has been listening for.
Think of how Christmas comes to us – if only we listen for it.
It comes to us with angels singing and a baby crying.
It comes to us with the clang of bells, a blare of trumpets. The rip of wrapping paper. The laughter of loved ones around the table.
It comes in unexpected sounds, too. A soft voice that a soldier hears on the other end of a telephone line, a voice that says “I miss you.”
It comes on Christmas Eve, when a recovering alcoholic walks by a bar, and hears the laughter inside – but keeps on walking.
It is also there in the silence, when the one who used to share your life and your home is no longer there, and you find your heart full of sorrow and longing and memory – and into that, unexpectedly, comes Christmas. Quietly. Gently. Whispering with the angels: “Rejoice. Rejoice, because we are not alone. God is with us. Emmanuel.”
Not long ago, I heard the story of a man who had lost his job right before Christmas. It’s a story we’re hearing a lot these days. The man was a salesman with two young children. His wife was beside herself with worry, and didn’t know what they would tell the kids. How would they celebrate Christmas? She was also a very proud woman, and hated to ask for any kind of help. But she swallowed her pride, and called her brother in another state and asked if there was anything he could do.
Well, there was. He drove down with his family and he helped create Christmas that year – the tree, the dinner, gifts, the spirit, the memories that would last a lifetime. It happened because when he heard someone in need, he listened. And his heart was moved by love.
That Christmas happened over 40 years ago. The salesman who lost his job was my father.
I never heard what had happened, or the real story about that Christmas, until after my parents had died.
But I’ll always remember that my uncle did more than hear a need. He listened. And he loved.
My friends, on this miraculous night, the message I want to leave with you is so simple: Listen. With your ears. And with your heart. Our salvation has been announced. What will we do with it?
Twenty centuries ago, shepherds listened, and told the world what they heard. But God has no shepherds now but us. We are the ones chosen to hear His good news – and to pass it on. It is news of wonder and hope. Of light breaking through darkness.
It is the sound of music filling the heavens. Of Hallalujahs in our hearts.
Listen for it. Surrender to the joy. Carry it with you out into the night.
And if we do, maybe one day we might hear God say, in gratitude and in joy:
“Thanks for listening.”
Thank YOU for listening.
And Merry Christmas!
Image: The Nativity by Frederico Barocci, 1597.