19-Dec-21 (26 Dec 21 snow date)
Fourth Sunday in Advent
Most of us would probably be willing to admit that we get just a little bit sentimental at this time of year. And while this is definitely a time of year to be thinking about birth and new birth and new life, it is also a time of year when we tend to think also of death; particularly the deaths of those loved ones who have already departed this world. And who have gone on before us. As important as all of life is, birth stories and death stories seem to be the most important to us. Births and deaths seem to be the most monumental events in our lives. This truth is witnessed by our own faith. The two most significant festivals that we observe as followers of Jesus, are Christmas and Easter. That’s where the bulk of our energy goes.
Most of us here this morning were probably well received into this world. When we were born, there were tears of joy that flowed freely, and completely without reserve. There were prayers of thanksgiving offered. It was a joyous time for all. It was the culmination of nine months of prayers, hopes and anticipation.
But even if we were not well received into this world by those responsible for our births, our births, and our first howls of objection to our new environment were a monumental event to God. God always rejoices when a new child comes into the world. It is good to remember that we human beings are the crowning glory of God’s ongoing creative work. Each of us has intrinsic worth and value. No child comes into this world without the blessing and love and affirmation of our heavenly Father. And that is because God is ultimately the source and the father of every child who has ever been born. The world would be a more loving place if we believed this.
This is now our second coronavirus Christmas. Our worship services remain altered, and a long-time tradition has been lost, perhaps forever. For the most part, we have been remarkably resilient when adapting to these changes, but they do not come to us without a measure of grief. And in the Christmas story, there is some resilience, but there is also no small amount of grief that Mary and Joseph endured in their struggle to be obedient to God. Stuff went wrong, and it went terribly and tragically wrong, at almost every step of the way.
On a grand and cosmic scale, the powers of darkness had no intention of allowing the light of the world to enter this planet. There is always a battle raging between the powers of darkness and the powers of light. The Christmas story is an account of all-out war between the forces of evil and the forces of good. And the battle is not won until Jesus cries out from the cross, in unimaginable and in inconceivable agony, and says, “It is finished.” The writer of the Gospel of John sums it up in this way: “All things came into being through him, and without him, not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.”
John is very clearly telling us that the darkness did not win. God won. And this is how God won: when the shepherds received the story of Jesus’ birth from the angels, the angels told them that the birth of the Messiah would bring them peace. At the time of Jesus’ birth there was a kind of peace in the world, but it was not a real peace by any stretch of the imagination. It was a tenuous peace, an artificial and contrived peace. This was not a peace of the heart or of the soul, but rather, it was something manufactured and contrived by the Roman Government. The Romans were taking over the world. Some nations were conquered by the devastating power of the Roman military machine, while other nations, like Israel, simply leaned over backwards and allowed themselves to be occupied, out of fear of being utterly destroyed. This was a peace born out of fear and of submission.
Israel, which had once been a mighty and glorious nation, empowered by God, had been reduced by the Romans to a tiny, insignificant provincial state. Her people lived daily in absolute intimidation. There was grief, not peace in Israel; grief over what had been lost, and might never be regained. This is the deepest kind of grief of all. We know this, because we have, ourselves, experienced this kind of grief.
And that grief must have been magnified when the great emperor Augustus decreed that all the world should be registered. It is clear from the Scriptures that this invasion of darkness represented a genuine hardship for the people of Israel. It was nothing at all to the Romans, who had the power to decree anything that they wanted, if only for the sake of decreeing something. This registration was a victory for the powers of darkness.
For Mary and Joseph, this registration represented a severe hardship, because it came at the height of Mary’s pregnancy. In Mary’s delicate condition, traveling all that distance from Nazareth to Bethlehem, might very well have resulted in the loss of the baby along the way. This is not something that we would even consider doing today, even with our modern and comfortable methods of transportation. The fact that Mary did not lose her baby was a victory for the powers of light and life.
But, of course, Mary and Joseph were no strangers to hardship. Much had gone wrong in their lives. Their relationship nearly ended in a divorce. They had endured the scorn and the ridicule of friends and loved ones. And now, upon arriving in Bethlehem, the two of them discovered that there is no lodging available in the town, and perhaps not even any sympathy for a couple obviously in deep distress.
We would, perhaps, have liked it better if the story of our Lord’s birth had been picture perfect. We seem to prefer a fairy tale. And over the years, much has been done to recreate the Christmas story into a beautiful, lovely, warm and inviting tale that completely ignores the utter chaos and disaster, and artificially disarms it. And perhaps most of all, the fairy tale that we have created takes away all of the power that the truth has to dispel the powers of darkness. In making a fairy tale out of the story of Christmas, we lose what is most important about Christmas. We lose what is real; but more than that, we lose what is true. Christmas is powerless over us if we cannot allow it to be as real and as messy as our own lives. We are sinful, broken people and we make messes. And sometimes we make those messes wittingly or unwittingly with the cooperation of the powers of darkness.
Christmas is the story of our redemption. Redemption is when God takes something that is perfectly awful and turns it into something that is wonderfully good. Christmas is one of God’s stories of how God works in the midst of all of the messes of this world and the messes of our lives. It is a story of human beings participating together, with God, to overcome and to vanquish the powers of darkness. Christmas is much, much more than the story of a misbegotten little boy who grew up to become a great man. That is the version of Christmas that the powers of darkness have concocted, and it is what they would have us to believe.
Christmas is, instead, the story of God who became a little boy. This little boy is known as God’s only begotten Son. This little boy grew up, almost anonymously, in an obscure corner of the world. He lived and died having known only a handful of people. He was never a great man, at least not by our definition of greatness. And yet, because he is the Savior of the world, billions of people all over the world have come to know him and to be known by him. Through his life, death and resurrection, he has forever defeated the powers of darkness.
I want to wrap things up this morning by going back to Mary and Joseph. In the midst of their mess, at every step of the way, both Mary and Joseph received constant assurances that this was the way that it was supposed to be for them. Now, these assurances did not always come at the moment when they would have been the most convenient, but they did always come at the right moments, even if they came after the fact, as some of them did. In all of this, Mary and Joseph learned to cultivate a sensitivity to, and a watchfulness for, these divine assurances.
This too, we must learn to do as the stories of our own lives unfold. And this is where we must declare our own spiritual solidarity with Mary and Joseph. It is unlikely that we will ever have to face the same difficulties and trials that Mary and Joseph faced, but we will face difficulties that are unique to us. The nature of difficulty is that it is rarely a stranger. It is never far from us; always ready to complicate our lives. We wish for fairy tale lives for ourselves, but we know that we live real lives. We live in the wide space between “Once upon a time”, and “They lived happily ever after.” Even in in a fairy tale, the space between those two things is messy. We must learn to depend upon God as we travel in the in-between spaces.
It was not easy for Mary and Joseph to always acknowledge that God was at work in their lives, especially during their times of hopelessness and despair, and I know this because it is not aleays easy to see God at work in the midst of our own times of confusion and fear, and hopelessness.
But by cultivating a sensitivity to, and even an anticipation of God’s abundant assurances, we will hear God’s voice of comfort and strength. We will find peace even in the midst of our messes. We will know that God is at work in our lives. But more importantly, we will know that we are participating together with God, in God’s work of redemption and salvation. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not, has not, and will not ever overcome it. Not ever. The darkness is vanquished.