Where Heaven Meets Earth

When I think of Christmas, I often think of car trips.  I think of packing up suitcases and sleeping bags.  I think of laundry baskets full of Christmas presents for the cousins, that go into the station wagon.  I think of my brothers and I, loading into the back, rear-facing seat of the Ford Country Squire (complete with wood paneling on the sides), and I think of the drive to Grandma and Grandpas house, on the shores of Kansas Lake, on the family farm between St. James and Butterfield.  

We’d almost always make the trip after Dad got home from work.  So, we’d be driving at night, in the dark. It was just a little over 2 hours to get there…not long.  But when you’re 7 or 8 years old, and you’re stuck in the back of the wagon, driving at night…facing backwards…it just seemed like that. Trip. Took. Forever.

Once we got past St. James and turned left onto Highway 4, we entered the zone of darkness. There was hardly anything out there.  And it was dark.  Just dark.  Pitch dark.  As far as far as the eye could see.  Dark.  Until we crossed a little rise on the county road, and there, way off in the distance, we could see a glow…a glow that became a light…light that became windows.  And glowing windows that became a home.  And we’d turn down Grandma and Grandpa’s quarter-mile long gravel driveway, and we’d pull up in front of the garage.  And I remember that Dad would put the station wagon into park, turn off the keys, and then he’d turn and say “we’re here!”  

Those were welcome words.  And we’d pile out, and we’d already be halfway up the sidewalk to the door when Dad would call us back.  “Come carry something!”  Ok.  And then it was three days of playing with cousins, and eating, and laughter, and eating, and presents, and eating, and…well, you get the idea.  It was a time of wonder.  A time of joy.  It was a time of love.

This was how the joy of Christmas would begin for me:  with a journey.  

Mary and Joseph’s journey was longer and more difficult.  With Mary so close to giving birth, it would be safe to assume that they were not excited to travel.  But because of the census, they were required to load up and to make their way to Bethlehem, Joseph’s hometown.  Theologians speculate that Joseph probably had family in Bethlehem, and maybe he’d hoped to stay with them.  But because Mary and Joseph were not married, and she was extremely pregnant, and there was a strong social stigma attached with that, it is likely that Joseph’s family would have rejected them and said “no” to their request for shelter.

So then, when they found their way to an inn, they had to be pretty devastated to find that it was full.  But the innkeeper apparently showed pity, and let them stay in the stable.  I imagine them getting to the stable gate, exhausted from their journey, saddened by not being welcomed…anywhere…and nervous about the upcoming birth, and Joseph turning to Mary before he carried in their stuff, and saying, “we’re here.”

And of course, tonight, 2,000 years after the events of our story, over 3 billion people all around the world will gather to celebrate what happened next.  In that stable, Jesus was born.  Surrounded by the chaos, the uncertainty and the fear, a miracle happened.  Jesus was born.  And light came into the darkness, and in that little stable, right there…heaven and earth met.  For the very first time, heaven and earth met.

The theologian, Saran Henrich, has written, “Let it be said clearly this night.  Heaven and earth meet in obscure places.”  Not in the places you would expect.  Not in the halls of power.  Not in the lives of the rich and famous.  Not in palaces and castles.  On this night, heaven and earth met, in darkness.  In a stable.  In a little, out of the way town called Bethlehem.

Heaven and earth meet in obscure places.  Usually places that surprise us.  Almost always, places that change us.  

Where heaven and earth meet.  Humans had been trying to bridge that relationship with God, to find that space where heaven and earth meet, for literally thousands of years.  Because of the condition we call sin, our relationship with God was broken…and we simply could not do it on our own.

No, it was not until that night, that first Christmas, and the birth of Jesus, that God’s people were able to find the place where heaven and earth meet.  Remember the shepherds? This was their journey.  And they followed a light.  A star.  And tonight, like those shepherds, we seek the place where heaven and earth meet.  And the real surprise of the story is that heaven meets earth not because of anything that Mary, or Joseph, or the shepherds, or you and I do.  No, heaven and earth met that night because God chose to come incarnate…as a human…and was born, as a baby boy named Jesus.  God made flesh.  God with us.

And ever since that night, because of what God has done, heaven and earth have continued to meet…to touch.  When we look, we can see it.

On Christmas Eve, 1944, a German family, the Vinckens, had taken refuge in a remote hunting cabin on the edge of the Ardennes Forest to escape bombing by US and British forces.  The family did not know that they had actually gone the wrong direction, and they had escaped gone deeper into the battlefield for what would come to be known as the Battle of the Bulge.  

Late in the evening, Elisabeth, the wife and mother, and their son, Fritz, were waiting for the husband and father to arrive when there was a knock on the door.  

Elisabeth found three young American soldiers standing respectfully outside her door.  They had been separated from their unit, and they looked worn out…cold, and exhausted.  One was badly wounded. They had traveled far on foot, looking for shelter, and they were lost.  Their youth and politeness, coupled with the deadly weather outside, prompted Elizabeth Vinckens to do the unthinkable. She invited them in, enemy soldiers, to escape the cold and to share in their humble Christmas Eve dinner.

A short time later there was another knock at the door. This time there were four young German soldiers, also lost, seeking a refuge from the frigid weather outside. Elisabeth was terrified. The Nazi penalty for harboring enemy soldiers was execution. Shaking with fear, she told the Germans that there were others inside whom they would not consider friends, but who were also lost and hungry.

The senior German, a corporal, paused while staring sternly and then said, “It is the Holy Night and there will be no shooting here.” Americans and Germans stacked their guns outside and eyed each other suspisciously. As Elisabeth prepared a meal, the tension in the room slowly dissipated.  One of the Germans, a medic, even examined and treated the wounded American.

The next morning, although limited by language barriers, the two groups bid each other farewell, actually shaking hands as they parted. The Germans even gave the Americans a map and a compass, while directing them as to how to make their way back to the U.S. lines.

Years later, in 1996, Elisabeth Vinckens son, Fritz, who had immigrated to the United States and become a baker, was able to locate one of these soldiers, who was living in a veteran’s home in Maryland.  When they met, the soldier, still had the map and the compass given to them by the Germans.  He told Fritz, “your Mother saved my life.  Your Mother restored my hope.”  Oh, holy night.

Heaven and earth meet in obscure and unexpected places:

  • In a farmhouse, somewhere between St. James and Butterfield, Minnesota.
  • After seeking shelter from war in a hunting cabin in the Ardennes forest. 
  • In a stable, in a little town called Bethlehem.

Heaven and earth meet.

And, in the Sanctuary at Trinity Lutheran Church, in a small community called Owatonna.  Here tonight, and in churches and homes around the world, people gather to hear the Words of the promise fulfilled:  “Do not be afraid,” the angel said, “for see, I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.” 

Here tonight, heaven, and earth, shall meet.  

  • Heaven and earth meet wherever we hear this beautiful story.  
  • Heaven and earth meet wherever we experience God’s great love.  
  • Heaven and earth meet whenever we taste the bread and the wine.
  • Heaven and earth meet wherever we see people acting kindly in the name of Jesus.  
  • Heaven and earth meet wherever we are welcomed, unconditionally.
  • Heaven and earth meet whenever we are reminded that we are never alone.  That Jesus, our Savior, walks with us.

There, where you experience these things, is where heaven meets earth, and where the beauty of the incarnation, God made flesh…God born for you, becomes real.

We arrive at these places, and we are reminded.  “We’re here.”  We’re here where heaven meets earth.

On this most holy night, wherever your journeys take you, may you be blessed with the gift of Jesus, and the confidence that you are where heaven meets earth.

Thanks be to God!  Merry Christmas!
Amen.

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