Christmas: Feeble Sweetness or the Power of God?

The angel said to the shepherds, “Do not be afraid, for behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy which will be to all people.  For there is born to you this day in the city of David a Savior, Who is Christ the Lord.  And this will be the sign to you: You will find a Baby wrapped in swaddling cloths, lying in a manger.”   [Luke 2:10-12]

There are three events that have a great deal to do with Christmas, two of them are current, and the third is ancient.  The first one was the predicted end of the world on December 21 by the ancient Mayan calendar.  There was a mock weather report being circulated during that week in which everything was fairly usual until you got to Friday.  The day would start out normal enough but then there would be a 100% chance of fireballs, with the expected high temperature of 999.9 degrees.  Saturday, of course, was blank.  However, after Friday passed uneventfully, the ancient Mayans issued a news release that said that they had made a miscalculation and the end of the world would be three months later, (which would fall on or about Good Friday).

Now before I start a rumor, please think about it: “ancient Mayans” just now issuing “a news release” …

However the other two events are much more sobering: the one is the 26 deaths in Newtown, Connecticut a couple of weeks ago; the other occurs two days after Christmas in the Church calendar, it is the Commemoration of the Holy Innocents, the day set aside to honor the children two years and under who died as Herod sought to destroy Jesus, He Who was born the King of the Jews, the Savior of the world.

Judgment, destruction, death particularly of innocent children – what an intrusion into the festivities of Christmas!  This is not what we want Christmas to be about, is it?  We want Christmas to be nice, sentimental, sweet, comfortable and peaceful.  And yet as much as we would like to ignore it, the world around us does not give us a break, and such events keep hanging around in the background.

Unfortunately that is the problem we have with Christmas – we want it to have a warm fuzzy glow around it, as we “oo” and “ah” over a cute baby, but in so doing we have gutted out of this event the ability to deal with all those other events.  What happens is that as we face the judgment, destruction and death that do surround us and surround this day, we are left helpless and hopeless, raging against the injustice but left defenseless against such brutality.

Yet when we try to make Christmas as if it were unrelated to the terrible things of life, we have forgotten that it has everything to do with precisely those kinds of events.  Christmas was never meant to be a time of feeble sweetness.  It was never meant to a time of vague sentimental feelings.  There is a power that is being proclaimed here – and because it has power, now there is a joy, a strong joy to be had, a joy that can literally overcome these intrusions by the world.

But this power is not comfortable.  Even as the Child is being born in that stable we already know what awaits Him: it is a Cross, there is agony and death, there is abandonment from those He loved, and there is forsakenness from the One Who loved Him.  But this birth is also God stepping into this world to confront and to answer the judgment, destruction, death, and to answer them forever.

These events remind as to why this birth happened, why it had to happen.  Not to put it glibly, but realistically, it is because of sin, that rebellion against God and what He is and stands for, which has caused these other events to have happened.  There are many who have looked at such tragedies of this world and have shaken their fist at God demanding, “How could You?  How could You allow such things to happen?!”

What is forgotten is that it is not God Who holds the bloody knife, it is not God with the finger on the trigger, it is not God Who stabs in the back, it is not God Who cheats others, it is not God Who disregards other people – it is us. Walt Kelly’s comic strip “Pogo” once made the famous comment, “we have met the enemy and they is us.”  How hypocritical it is of us to blame God for the evils of the world, which are done by our mouths, our actions, our attitudes.

Why does the Lord allow such things to happen?  God knew that if humanity is to love at all, not just between each other but also to love Him, there has to be the ability to choose to not love.  Just imagine what it must have been like for God, Who saw what would happen in Newtown, what would happen in millions and millions of other such events throughout history, knowing that this would be the result if He allowed humans to choose to not love.
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I wonder if it made Him hesitate.  Yet He just would not have humans be merely puppets.  He would be satisfied with nothing less than genuine love.  Still He knew that if He went ahead and gave humanity the ability to not love, Christmas would have to happen, a Christmas that would have to end in a Cross for creatures who would barely, if ever, stop to acknowledge Him, much less to honor Him, much less to even love Him in return.  That would be the most costly result of them all.  That is where it would hit the closest to home – this would take the life of His own Child.  This is where He knew He would stand alongside the grieving parents as He Himself would come to understand grief.  If ever there was a reason for Him to hesitate on giving humans the ability to choose, it would be now.

Yet He didn’t step away from the cost, even when He knew that in giving humans the ability to rebel He was signing the death warrant for His own Son.  And yet that Son willingly came.  He knew what would await Him.  He knew …  when He was twelve years old and was ready to be “about His Father’s business.”  He knew … as He passed crucifixions every year of His life, because that was one of Rome’s favorite methods of execution and they always did it at the gates of cities; He knew … that one day He would be on one of those crosses.  Yet He bowed His head and became a human, and He walked every step that brought Him closer to that Cross, not even attracted to Satan’s temptation to take the easy way out.

He knew, and yet, as Paul put it, “for the joy that was set before Him endured the Cross, despising the shame” [Hebrew 12:2].  He did it for love.  He had given humans the ability to choose not to love, but for God there would be no such choice.  He had to love, He is love.  His love would allow no other way but that He would personally become involved and do what nothing else in the universe could do in His place.  He would come and experience the suffering which humans had brought on themselves, He would come to carry the burden of all of humanity’s sins, He would come as the only One Who could pay the death that the Law demands of every single human being – for every single one of us here.  He would come and do this out of love.

This is not the warm fuzzies that the world wants Christmas to have.  But there is power here.  There is power here to face and handle the tragedies which we encounter.  There is power here which includes greater than just this world, a power which wraps its arms around eternity.  There is power here which tells us that God stands with us no matter what the circumstances may be.  There is power here in which God did not insulate even Himself from the realities that surround us even at a time like this.  There is a power here which proclaims to us that there will come a time when “the dwelling of God is with men, and He will wipe away every tear from their eyes; and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning nor crying nor pain any more” [Revelation 21:3-4]   There is a power here which declares the confidence that all who are in Christ will meet again, here in Holy Communion and then eternally at the throne of Jesus.

There is power here at the manger in Bethlehem.  This is not a mere sentimental “spirit of Christmas.”  St Paul said to the Romans, “I am not ashamed of the Gospel of Christ, for it is the power of God unto salvation, to everyone who believes” [1:16].

This is Christmas.  This is what we find in the manger of that stable.  Only now do we begin to understand the message of the angels.  Yes, there is genuine joy which they declare, but it is also with a deep understanding of what would be the cost of the “peace and good will.”  No … no, these are not merely empty well-wishing on the part of the angels, but rather their joy and astonishment that God is actually now starting the process that would lead to a Cross … but then to a resurrection, and to life for all who would receive it.

Come, let us gather around this new-born King, this Savior in the manger, this God the Son come to share our humanity.  Let us come with repentance, as we realize that this – this is what it has come to – the beginning of the path to the Cross, in order to deal with what our rebellion has cost God Himself.  But this is also the power by which we can face whatever the events may be that the world will throw at us, and we will have an answer, an answer that has grit and agony, but also an answer that conquers and gives eternal life.

Let us gather around this God the Son wrapped in human Flesh and Blood, found wrapped in here in Holy Communion, as He has literally withheld nothing from us; as He shares everything He is and has so that we now have that power of which Christmas speaks.  Come and meet here the presence of the God Who has “great joy which shall be to all the people,” a joy which cannot be defeated or overwhelmed by any of the events that happen in this world, because it stands on the solid rock of eternity and on the steadfast love of God.

Come, discover the extraordinary power that is here, right now, in our presence, because God did not hesitate to bring Christmas into our world.  But don’t stop at the cradle.  This is what God has for us every day, every week.  This is a power that comes only because we see it in action, as Jesus comes every week to remind us, to rebuild us, to give us again that power, to give us again the joy, to give us again that love which even a Cross could not stop.

Come and see what Christmas is really all about.

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