Sermon
December 24, 2004
First Congregational Church, 36 Main Street, New Milford, Ct  06776
Rev. Michael Moran
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Sermon:


It’s a great joy to gather with you here this Christmas Eve 2004. We especially welcome our students who are home from school and family members who have traveled here for the holiday. But we are also mindful of families who are separated this Christmas, especially those standing guard across the globe in service to their country.

I remember when my older brother was on his first tour of duty in Vietnam for Christmas 1966. It was so strange to have that empty seat at the table and no one to argue with over the size of the steaks and the number of mushrooms. He was far away, a second lieutenant with the 173rd Airborne, a platoon leader for 38 paratroopers.

I called him this past week to ask what that was like. What he remembered was the great comfort he experienced going to a Christmas Eve service much like this – the familiar phrasing of the Christmas story, the singing of hymns and carols that united the soldiers in memories of quieter times. And he vividly remembers the adventure on Christmas day of his platoon climbing into three unarmored jeeps to drive 20 miles to Cu Chi to see Bob Hope. The line up for that show also included Phyllis Diller, Joey Heatherton, Vic Damone, Anita Bryant, Les Brown, and Reita Faria, who was Miss World at the time.

Like in the old west they had to check their rifles at the gate and then retrieve them before rushing out of there after the show to get back to their base before dark. He said that was the upside to Christmas in Vietnam, but the downside was the soldiers, the kids really, who were away from home for the first time. Christmas under those circumstances, he said, creates a bond you won’t find in many places.

My brother had a second tour in Vietnam over Christmas 1968. He laughed when I told him that I remembered which years he was over there by the cars he left behind. When he left for his first tour I was put in charge of his Volkswagen bug - one of the old models that didn’t even have a gas gauge – you opened a reserve tank when you started to sputter. But for the second tour he had a brand new Oldsmobile Cutlass, and I really enjoyed having that car for a year. I was in New Jersey at New Brunswick Seminary and working about 20 minutes away at a Methodist Church in Martinsville. New Brunswick is on the flat costal plain of New Jersey, but Martinsville is up over the first ridge of the Watchung Mountains, so the Cutlass was a big help getting up those hills in the winter.

I had almost discounted the idea of becoming a pastor in a local church and was considering going into the military as a chaplain, but the people I met in Martinsville were so friendly – and the meals they served so tasty - that I gave parish work a second look. One couple in particular, Hank and Jane Goodspeed, welcomed me into their home like the prodigal son. With their two daughters, Leslie and Kim, they were the kind of faithful family that keeps every church running. I remember how warm in spirit their home was, and I enjoyed more than one eggnog around their fireplace at Christmas.

One time while sitting by the fire Jane told me a story of when they first moved into their newly built home. I can’t say if it was at Christmas, but it was definitely during the winter when they got a fire going that they felt a ghostly presence come into the room with them. No one saw anything, it was just feeling - a chill as though a door was opened not only to the outside but also to the past. Simply a presence, drawing close to the fire as if to warm a soul that had suffered in the cruel cold of winter.

Hank and Jane were practical people, but they could not disregard what they experienced together. So Jane began some research into the history of the land where their house had been built. She soon became convinced that what she felt near the fire was the spiritual shadow of a soldier from the Revolutionary War.

In 1776 the British had driven the American army out of New York and New Jersey and it seemed like the revolution was on the verge of collapse. But on Christmas Eve that year George Washington made a bold move and crossed the Delaware River from Pennsylvania to attack the enemy troops stationed at Trenton. These were German mercenaries under British control; Washington knew how the Germans loved to celebrate Christmas and surprised them with an attack from three directions. After realizing they were surrounded, the Germans surrendered. It was an important military victory, and a great psychological boost for Independence.

From Trenton, Washington headed north towards Morristown. That route took him directly past Martinsville, and in that first valley of the Watchung Mountains he left an encampment of soldiers whose job was to keep the British from crossing New Jersey. So to attack Philadelphia the British had to move their troops by sea, and this delay meant fewer British soldiers were able to join the battles in upstate New York. As a result, Horatio Gates and Benedict Arnold defeated the British at Saratoga and the tide of the war turned in favor of the Americans.

It also meant that Revolutionary soldiers remained in Martinsville through the winter of 1777 and 1778, facing the same rugged conditions as their comrades a little farther south in Valley Forge. Many people know that over two thousand soldiers died from the cold at Valley Forge, but some have estimated that the deaths in New Jersey were even greater. These were the winter soldiers, a phrase drawn indirectly from the famous words of Thomas Paine:

These are the times that try men's souls; The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, In this crisis, Shrink from the service of his country; But he that stands it now, Deserves the love and thanks of man and woman.

Christmas in the trenches in Valley Forge, Morristown, and Martinsville was deathly cold, so the spirit of the winter solider returned to find warmth by the fire of a 20th century home built on the ground made sacred by their sacrifice.

Most stories of Christmas in the trenches are stories of hardship and danger. Just 60 years ago tonight the same American soldiers who had marched in triumph in the streets of Paris in August 1944 were pinned down in the Battle of the Bulge. German artillery was flattening the small French town of Bastogne where the American commander had replied to a German demand to surrender with a most famous one word answer: Do you know what that was - Nuts!

But on that same front a generation earlier in the war to end all wars, there emerged one amazing story of a Christmas miracle, a story that illustrates the unexpected power of Christmas and the universal hope for peace on earth, goodwill among God’s children.

Let me read you one account of the Christmas Truce of 1914-

The "great war" had been raging for nearly five months when Christmastime rolled around. For those on the front lines, their homes were deep trenches cut into the ground, filled with sticky mud. Soldiers had to keep their heads low, because at all times the enemy snipers would shoot at anything that appeared in their sights. On Christmas Eve, 1914, the first hard freeze settled over the ground, which was welcomed by the soldiers because at last the mud was solid. While the cold air blew around them, they turned their faces into their coats, and tried to sleep.

In the early morning hours of December 25, a thick mist settled - it was hard to see from one side of "No Man's Land" to the other. Suddenly a chorus of song broke the silence of the morning, and drifted up from the German trenches across the way. The startled allies were amazed to discover that the Germans had erected dozens of Christmas trees in their trenches, and had even decorated them. They listened in silence as the Germans sang "Silent Night." Stille nacht, heilige nacht…

When the voices concluded and echoed away, the allies began a song of their own, and back and forth the soldiers from either side of the battlefield sang together. As the morning mist cleared, the Germans called out to the allies, "Come over!" The allies responded, "You first!" and tentatively, officers from either side walked out over "No Man's Land," to greet each other. A ceasefire was called, and soldiers from both sides rose out of their trenches to meet these people whom they had just been trying to kill. They exchanged gave gifts of cigarettes, clothing, and food, shared photographs of their families, played soccer, and called each other "friend" for the rest of the day. They built bonfires which glowed well into the night. The next day they went back to the business of war.

The light of those fires, like the light of the candles we will carry outside, is a visible sign of God’s promise of peace on earth. We may fail and fail again, but God keeps the promise alive. Tonight as we celebrate the promise and the presence of God made flesh in Jesus Christ, let us pray for all who are in the trenches this Christmas and all who need the encouragement and consolation of faith. Let us celebrate a holy Christmas that is about God’s love, and commit to do our best in the year ahead to make that love visible in our lives and in our world.
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