December 29, 2019
“That, We Can Believe”
Mark Opgrand, preacher
It was just a few days ago when we gathered here on Christmas Eve to celebrate the glorious birth of Jesus Christ our Lord.
The church was filled, including many visitors; some were visiting relatives; others came because of our sign posted outside; some heard we had great music; some came because it was a Christmas tradition.
While people came for a variety of reasons… I imagine there were a few, (at least) who (while enjoying the services….) were personally quite skeptical … about the Christmas story itself.
Thinking this story may not be so much different than stories about Santa Claus … or Frosty the Snowman … or the Easter Bunny.
Actually, I imagine many people have a difficult time believing a young virgin girl actually became pregnant by the Holy Spirit and gave birth to the Son of the most high God.
Others would equally have a hard time…. imagining … real angels and a heavenly host singing “alleluia” before a bunch of raggedy shepherds, not to mention those Kings from the East (magi? astrologers?) following a so-called “star” across two countries to find this messianic baby king lying in a manger?
My point is … that a skeptic … would not be easily convinced to believe… by the way this Christmas story is told. So even … if we have:
the greatest choir in the world,
most polished instrumentalists,
most vibrant soloists,
most beautiful Crismon trees,
best delivered sermons,
there is a lot about the Christmas story that remains unconvincing … to many.
But here’s … the crazy part.
And really hate to admit… it, but do you realize the only part of the Christmas story that is completely convincing for everyone (and I ..mean.. everyone … from greatest skeptic … to truest believer) is the terrible part we just heard in our gospel reading.
The part … about a mad tyrant… named Herod.
No one will have difficulty believing that a paranoid dictator would kill all the infants and toddlers in Bethlehem because one of them just might be a threat to his power.
That…. everyone can believe.
So while it’s hard for some to imagine angelic heavenly hosts singing glory to God in the highest, no one doubts the record of a ruthless dictator slaughtering innocent men, women, and children.
We know these men exist.
Adolph Hitler, Joseph Stalin, Mao Zedong, Pol Pot, Idi Amin, Sadaam Hussein…Bashar al-Assad, Kim Jong-un.
We know these men.
So when … we hear Herod’s story, the story of a “puppet king” set up by the Romans, one who drowned his sixteen-year old brother-in-law, murdered his uncle, his aunt, his mother-in-law, several members of his brother-in-law’s family, his own two sons and some three hundred officials he accused … of siding with his sons…. We have no trouble accepting that part of the story!
Many dictators… many evil men have done just that. Therefore … when … scripture speaks of the magi from the east coming to Herod, following a star and looking for the king of the Jews, we can most certainly… imagine him ordering the death of all infants and toddlers under two years old.
I recently heard a podcast of several Lutheran seminary professors lamenting this lesson coming back into our rotation…. (it wasn’t always in the Sunday lectionary cycle) lamenting it’s inclusion…. because it does not fit well with the all the sweet touching, sentimental…. joyful parts of the Christmas story that we focus on just a few days before… on Christmas Eve.
There is nothing sweet or sentimental to be celebrated here. And even when (on this first Sunday after Christmas….) we try to keep the other parts of the Christmas spirit going…with songs and trees and flowers and wreath and star… here …. we can only cry … when we think of this terrible cruelty.
We also cry … because we know this same kind of cruelty exists today… whenever a child is abused….or a mass shooter … takes the lives of innocent people … or a terrorist blows up worshippers at a church or mosque or synagogue.
That’s why hearing this gospel (which hardly seems to mean “good news” today … we nevertheless feel with the parents of those dead children in Bethlehem two thousand years ago.
What this underscores… most definitely… is that … it is … into this … real world of sin and sadness and terror and tragedy that God came…. in Jesus.
And… it is not pretty.
But I tell you this: Unless we are able to see in this act of God a Savior who comes into a world where there is … so much evil … and who comes for us
and for our salvation … in the midst of cruelty and suffering, then everything else we celebrate about Christmas is for nothing.
Because… nothing … holds up.
Trees dry up.
Candles burn down.
People get sick.
Loved ones die.
Innocent people are murdered.
And the world looks … pretty bleak.
So the question is this… especially for the skeptic: Does this… birth of Jesus make a difference? Especially when, in the face of evil this story of Christmas can seem … just too much make believe…. too much… old fairy tale?
I suppose how you hear it… what you do with it…. may depend ….. on what you’ve been through (though that’s no guarantee.)
But I know there are many people …. in the world today who, by our standards, really lead terrible, depressing damaged… lives … with not enough food, water, clothes, or adequate shelter …
people who have suffered at the hands of evil people….
people with wretched chronic illnesses
or people who carry the burden of life affecting trauma all their lives.
And yet … among people in in these circumstances. we often see some .. of our strongest expressions of faith and hope.
So how does this happen?
I wonder … if maybe … those who suffer … are more open to God.
I wonder … if God may be more accessible to them because they are desperately seeking the mystery of God to be revealed to them …… through the one who will give them hope.
I can’t be sure, of course. But I always marvel whenever I see strong, vibrant faith coming from those who you think would have an impossible time… believing.
So here I wonder… and here I ponder.
I wonder if maybe the most complete Christmas story is not the one which climaxes around the manger with the angels, shepherds, wise men and beautiful baby Jesus.
Not the one with the appearance of a happy ending … like those depicted in popular religious art… but rather …. the other… in a family narrowly escaping to Egypt … seeking refuge from strangers.
Maybe … the story that finally most deeply touches the skeptic … is the one where God becomes completely vulnerable, where Jesus and his family narrowly averts an untimely death … that would permit … evil …. to triumph.
Maybe the most complete Christmas story is not the one which includes dreams of sugar plums dancing in Joseph’s head but rather a desperate angel coming to Joseph in a dream… with a nightmare warning… saying…. “GET OUT… GET AWAY… THEY’RE COMING!”
“If this little messiah is to save you,” the angel says, you … must first … save him. Baby Jesus needs to get the safety of Egypt, so he can become like Moses, and when it is time… come out of Egypt according to God’s plan… and in time…. lead all God’s people to the promised land … which is…a place of promise and hope.
While evil may have its day, it cannot win … forever.
I don’t know… if a skeptic … will finally be able to trust that… … or not. especially when there is still a lot of evil in the world. Without … a doubt…. it is far easier to recognize a Herod … than either an angel … or a baby Messiah lying in a manger.
But thankfully, by God’s grace, it is not impossible to believe …. either… because … even when this part of the story is not pretty, it is real. And as terrible as it is, we are reminded that this story of God’s love and faithfulness coming into this very real world….has withstood
the test of time
and every terrible act
that every evil person
has ever done to kill hope
or try to destroy …. our faith.
That’s why …. we continue… to gather with joy and confidence… on this first Sunday of Christmas… For it is not “make believe” that brings us together.
“Make believe” cannot stand up to real evil.
But “believe” can.
Because God can.
And God did.
And God does.
For God is.
And Jesus is his son, born on Christmas Day … who died for our sins on Good Friday … and who was raised on Easter Sunday
and who… according to God’s intent…. has triumphed over evil … and with that, has become Christ the Lord, and Lord of Life…
God bless you and Merry Christmas.