The Nativity of the Lord (Christmas) – December 25th, 2021
St. Paul – Lyons, KS
What are we celebrating? Why is everything still so messed up? Is there any hope? These are the questions I have on this Christmas.
“What are we celebrating?”
First, what are we celebrating? This should be obvious! We’ve been coming to celebrate Christmas our whole life. We know how it goes. We can all sum up the Christmas story fairly well, I’m guessing. “There was an angel, and Mary was on a donkey looking for a place to stay, and then Jesus was born and they put him in a manger…” We all know that part of the story. But I’m always surprised that we don’t usually know the story. I didn’t know the story! What are we celebrating? Let me offer you an image which has been very helpful for me.
Imagine that you and I are not Americans, that we’re French. And it’s not 2018, it’s 1944. And since June 14 of 1940, our country has been occupied by a tyrannical, demonic regime. Our life has been totally overturned. Our army has capitulated. Deportations, executions, concentration camps. Our parents have been killed, family members imprisoned. There’s no hope. No help is coming. That’s our life now.
And then one day—June 7, 1944 to be exact—as you and I are sitting at our kitchen table drinking our morning coffee (and it’s bad coffee, you know, the war)—as we’re sitting there the newspaper boy excitedly throws a newspaper through the window. And as you open the paper, you read this simple headline: “Allied Armies Land at Normandy.”
If that’s you and me, sitting there reading the newspaper, do we just go, “Huh…wonder what else happened yesterday. Do the Chiefs still play? Maybe the weather will get colder. Maybe we’ll get some snow…” Is that what we would do? No! Would that be ordinary news? Or would that be extraordinary, life-changing news? We don’t even need to answer that.
When you see pictures of the allies storming the beaches of Normandy, do you have to think very hard about why they’re there? When you watched Saving Private Ryan, when you watched Band of Brothers—why were they there? Was it because they heard the beaches in France are second to none? Was visiting the Louvre on their bucket list? Did they want to eat croissants and drink coffee in Paris? No. Obviously.
They’re there to fight, to rescue, to liberate, to save a people in the grip of a tyrant. Something has gone wrong in Europe. The people of France and all the rest of the continent have been captured, enslaved, killed by this tyrannical, demonic regime; suffering, isolation, hopeless abound. And they have come to put an end to it.
So why is He there [in the manger]? Why did God become man? Why did He “land”? The answer to that question is supposed to be as easy to answer as “Why did the Allies land at Normandy?” But it’s not…not anymore, anyway.
Somehow, someway, Jesus has become some figure who came to teach us to be kind and to love. Somehow, someway, Jesus has become some figure who told stories and taught with parables. Somehow someway, Jesus has been reduced to someone who did miracles. Now, to be sure, Jesus did teach us to be kind, and to love! And he did do miracles, and he did teach with stories (because that’s an effective way to teach). But those reasons are not the reason why He came. God became man to fight, to liberate, to rescue—to rescue a people in a situation infinitely worse than occupied France in the 1940’s.
People in Europe woke up on June 7, 1944 and everything was different! The people were filled with great hope! The landing, the Allies, was the message that changed everything. And this is precisely what God wants to leave us with today, on Christmas! The confidence, the joy, the hope, the peace—this change in our lives from this news, this announcement: “Do not be afraid; for behold, I proclaim to you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. For today in the city of David a savior has been born for you who is Christ and Lord. And this will be a sign for you: you will find an infant wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger” (Luke 2:10-12). This is what God wants to give to us. You matter. You are worth the trouble. You are worth fighting for.
“Why is everything (still) so messed up?”
“A savior has been born.” “Well, great. Things still seem pretty messed up.” This is my second question: “Why is everything (still) so messed up?” We read it in the newspaper, see it on the news, on our phones every single day. It’s like looking up at the night sky, the beautiful Kansas night sky: beautiful stars, but it sure appears that the dark has a lot more territory.
The analogy continues, though. On June 7th, 1944 the war was essentially over, but it hadn’t ended. The war wouldn’t end for another year. The occupation was still going on, shots still being fired, lives still being lost. Everyone knew it was only a matter of time—but the war raged on. And it’s no different now. Things are still messed up! To be sure! I don’t think anyone of us has been spared the very real, very tangible experience of how messed up things still are. Many of you have lost loved ones this past year: parents, spouses, children, cousins. Many of us hold in our hearts stories of hurt, and betrayal and violence and suffering that would shock everyone. Many of us feel so desperately alone and forgotten and isolated that we wonder if we’re going to make it to next Christmas. It would be ridiculous for me to stand up here and say, “Merry Christmas! It’s all good now! Be happy!”
But the problem isn’t that the world is still messed up—not really. The problem is that we start to live without hope. We stop expecting anything to change. We start to dampen that expectation and longing inside of us. Remember: “Jesus is just a guy that told us to be kind, to love, taught us some stories, did some miracles a couple thousand years ago—and now we’re just celebrating his birthday. That’s nice.”
And we become so accustomed to this hopelessness that one day (maybe long ago, maybe very recently) we began to set-up our lives in such a way that if something we “hope in” fails, we’ll still be ok. We take care of ourselves. We provide everything for ourself. “Jesus Christ is born” is nice—but he’s just one more thing, one more nice thing, one other thing that might help—and if it doesn’t, that’s ok, we have plenty of others. Our “hope” isn’t really hope at all, because we’re not really waiting for anything, we’re not hoping for anything, we don’t expect anything.
Here in the United States, we’re “afflicted with the world’s highest standard of living and what is probably the world’s most bewilderingly empty way of life” (James Baldwin, “Mass Culture and the Creative Artist: Some Personal Notes”). We have “everything”: we live in the most amazing and prosperous time in the history of the world, we have more technology and money and food and shelter and clothing and comfort and health and safety than ever before in the history of the world! Everything should be perfect! But then we step back and look at our life, look at the lives of our children, at our experience each day—and we don’t see it.
Even during Christmas time. What happens in three days when the sentimentality wears off? What happens when the decorations come down? What happens when the screen breaks on my new phone? What happens when my Christmas money runs out? What happens when life, real life, daily life happens again? What happens when the problems with your spouse are still there? What happens when you go back to school and nothing has changed? What happens then? Why is everything still so messed up?
“Is there any hope?”
Last question: “Is there any hope?” Spoiler alert: yes. But maybe not-so-spoiler-alert: hope doesn’t come from a predictable or a controllable place. Remember, so easily we fill our lives with stuff to quiet the hope inside of us. We tell ourselves, “I need a million dollars, the iPhone 25, and free Chik-fil-a for life and I’ll be happy!” We go get ourselves as much as we can so that the actual longing in our heart, that longing deep down—we can’t hear it anymore. We try to pretend that we don’t live in occupied France—that we live in neutral Switzerland.
But who among us can deny that we’re waiting, that we’re expecting, that we’re hoping—for something? What are we hoping for is the the real question. And that’s where we have to return to the story. “Do not be afraid; for behold, I proclaim to you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. For today in the city of David a savior has been born for you who is Christ and Lord. And this will be a sign for you: you will find an infant wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger” (Luke 2:10-12). If all that is is the announcement of the cutest little baby being born—we’re in a pickle. But that’s not what’s going on.
Into the story and the experiences you have of death—you spouse, your brother, your sister, your friend—into that experience comes the announcement, “Death has been swallowed up in victory” (1 Corinthians 15:54). Into the story and the experience of suffering and hurt and evil and betrayal and anxiety—into that experience comes the announcement, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace” (Luke 2:14). Into the story of our isolation and loneliness—comes the announcement, “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light” (Isaiah 9:1).
My friends, if the darkness of night overwhelms you, if you feel surrounded by cold indifference, if the hurt you carry inside cries out—tonight God answers back. The battle is not over, but the one who can rescue you, who will fight for you, who loves you has landed.
There’s just one story. Light versus dark. When you look up at the sky, at first glance, it appears that the dark has a lot more territory. But that would be looking at it all wrong. Once there was only dark. If you ask me, the Light’s winning.