As I sit in the quiet on the night before Christmas, I am recalling the most memorable Christmas Eve of my ministry. It happened at Advent Lutheran Church in Uniontown, Ohio. We had an early worship service that was geared for families with young children. It had grown in popularity through the years, along with my creativity as a preacher. One year I had two people dress up in a donkey outfit and I had a little dialogue with them about the first Christmas. Well, it was more a dialogue with the one in the front end, but you get what I mean.
Every year I tried to do something different to bring the Christmas story alive for the kids. And, yes, also to top whatever it was I had done the year before. So, after the Christmas donkey who had carried Mary to Bethlehem, I was wracking my brain to come up with another idea. And then I had a flash of inspiration. Why settle for an animal costume when we could bring a real live animal into the church?
It was a perfect plan. I wrote a simple dialogue between myself and a shepherd, who would retell the Christmas story while holding a little lamb. So, I called a local farm and made all the arrangements. At a designated time, after worship had begun, the farmer would bring the lamb to the church parking lot and my shepherd, Sam, would pick up the lamb and make his entrance. It was going to cost $100 for the use of the lamb, which I paid for out of my own pocket as a gift to the kids. I couldn’t wait to see the excitement in their faces and knew they would remember this for the rest of their lives.
The church was packed. Candles in glass globes lined the pews. Poinsettias and lit trees decorated the chancel. It was a magical Christmas Eve. And then the moment came. I invited the children to come forward for the message and they surrounded me on the steps in front of the altar. I engaged them in some friendly banter so that the shepherd could make an entrance and interrupt us. Well, we bantered and bantered and bantered and I didn’t see the shepherd at the back of the church. Where was he? It became comical as I rambled on and the adults realized I was expecting someone who wasn’t appearing.
Finally, I saw Sam making his way down the hallway at the back of the church. He was walking backwards and struggling. I gave him his cue and he was still struggling to move. What on earth? Then I saw the problem. This wasn’t a lamb. This was a full-grown, big ol’ fluffy sheep. And he wasn’t happy. He had his legs tucked up under him so that he was this giant fuzz ball on the floor. A very heavy one at that. And Sam was dragging him with a leash.
All of a sudden, the sheep was on his feet. He and Sam started down the center aisle and I breathed a sigh of relief, thinking everything was going to be okay. I thought wrong. When the sheep saw the candles and the people, he tried to run away. He leapt up into the air, flipped over and landed on his back. Then, scrambling to his feet, he did it again. Again and again as Sam pulled him down the aisle, the sheep did acrobatics and I held my breath. Each time he did this the kids squealed with delight. And, of course, that made the sheep flip out even more. I kept praying, “God, please don’t let that sheep break its neck and die here right in front of all these kids on Christmas Eve and I promise I’ll never do anything this stupid again.”
By the time they had reached the front of the church, I don’t know who was more frazzled, Sam or the sheep. Both of them had the same terrified look in their eyes. When I launched into the dialogue we had worked on, Sam just stared at me. He couldn’t speak. So, I worked both sides of the story as he stood there with his mouth open, nodding every so often. It didn’t matter what I said anyway. No one was listening. They were all watching the sheep to see what crazy thing he’d do next.
You probably know where this is going, because you’re a lot smarter than I was. The sheep left a Christmas present for us on the rug, right there in front of God and everybody. The kids thought this was the funniest thing they had ever seen. And I knew that it was time to wrap this up before he did it again. We had to get this wooly bag of shit out of church and send him back to the farm where he belonged.
Sam went to make his exit. But the sheep had other ideas. He tucked all four legs up under himself and made like a footstool. (A legless footstool.) Sam slid the stubborn animal down the aisle, to the delight of all who were present. Kids were squealing and adults were howling. Some had tears streaming down their cheeks. The only one who failed to see the humor in this was poor, dazed Sam.
It turned out to be a moment none of those children will ever forget. But not for the reasons I had hoped. I’ll never forget it either. It will probably be one of those scenes that flashes before my eyes on my deathbed. As I think of it tonight, I still chuckle.
And what did I learn from this? Well, never bring farm animals into church, of course. Since that night I haven’t. And I won’t ever again. Trust me. There will be no farm animals at Holy Trinity in Charlotte tonight.
But, I also learned that no special effects are necessary at Christmas. The story itself is enough. That’s why we will gather together tonight. To hear the story again. It’s more than enough.
Merry Christmas y'all!