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December 30, 2001

The Peril and Promise Christmas Brings

John H. Boyle
Parish Associate, Fourth Presbyterian Church

Isaiah 63:7-9
Matthew 2:13-23
Philippians 2:1-5


 

It’s a bit of a downer, isn’t it, this Sunday after Christmas? At least for some of us it may be. Maybe it is because we are so exhausted from all the scurrying about of the last few weeks, the parties, the shopping, the church services, the anxiety and sometimes frantic concern about getting it all done in time. Then, of course, there are those for whom little of this mattered because they were trying just to survive on meager fare and a cardboard shelter from the cold in some back alley or on some side street or in some doorway. And hovering over all of this has been the lingering specter of the events of September 11.

In any event, now that Christmas Day is behind us and a new year is staring us in the face, in this in-between time, perhaps this is a good time to take a break and pay some reflective attention to the peril and the promise that Christmas brings.

The promise we’ve been hearing about all through Advent, and we’ll get to it again in a few minutes. But the peril is not something we readily are inclined to give any thought to. Yet Christmas always comes at a time that is perilous for somebody somewhere in the world. After the events of September 11 and the weeks and months since, we are better able to appreciate that. In fact, I find myself more aware at Christmas of how perilous life can be for so many people. A fourteen-year-old girl is struck down and dragged two blocks by a car that speeds off to leave her dying on the street. Another youngster is shot in the head by gang members. Children are killed in fires in homes left unattended by adults. People facing economic meltdown, little children dying of starvation in the Congo and the Sudan in Africa, men and women in harm’s way in a farway place called Afghanistan, and the Palestinians and the Israelis still at each others’ throats in a place called the Holy Land.

Well, it was a perilous time in that same region of the world when the birth of Christ took place there some 2000 years ago, as well. Imperial Rome had its booted foot on the neck of a captive people, for those were crude and cruel days, and human flesh was cheap. It has always been so. Thomas Hardy, in his poem "Christmas: 1924" summed it up this way:

"Peace upon earth" was said.
We sing it,
and pay a million priests to bring it.
After two thousand years of mass
we’ve got as far as poison-gas.

But there is also not only the peril into which Christmas comes, but the peril Christmas brings with it. When Love walked down the steps of heaven with a baby in its arms, peril entered the world as well. I submit that the most threatening force in the world is not hate but love. Herod found that out, as scripture tells the story. We are told that he was troubled and all Jerusalem with him when he found out from the wise men that a child had been born who was to become king of the Jews. He pretended to want to pay homage to the child and pumped the wise men for information about where to find him. But the wise men were on to him and never got back to Herod with that information, a fact that infuriated Herod.

Herod had perceived the coming of Jesus to the world as a threat to Herod’s sovereignty, which of course it was. God’s love does threaten our sovereignty or the illusion we have of our sovereignty, for love coming our way reminds us that we are not ultimately self-sufficient, that we really can’t love ourselves in other than an unhealthy and essentially narcissistic way until we are first loved and accepted by someone other than ourselves. And we certainly can’t love others in any way other than self-serving ones until we are first loved.

The peril Christmas brings with it in the birth of Christ is the threat to and collision with the values often held in the highest esteem in our society: power and push, shoving our way to the front of the line, elbowing others out of the way, going for the jugular to subdue the competition, sneak attacks when others are not looking, eye-for-eye and tooth-for-tooth retribution and revenge, wheeling and dealing regardless of who gets hurt, and, above all, looking out for number one, a.k.a. me, and to hell with anyone or everyone else.

No wonder Herod became enraged. He was scared to death, so he saw to it that anyone who resembled the one he perceived to be the threat, namely all infants, would be the first to die so as to rid himself of the threat. Or so he thought. He was wrong. You see the threat that came to Herod was not so much to his reign, his rule, as it was to his ruthlessness, which now was exposed in its most heinous form for all the world to see. The peril that Christmas brings is not to our power but to our misuse and abuse of our power, whatever power or however much of it we have. Make no mistake about it, there is a peril that Christmas brings to any of us who think a human life is so cheap that it can be traded for a tract of land, a few minutes of time, or, for that matter, thirty pieces of silver. Incarnate Love says that won’t do. It won’t ever do.

But, thank God, there is not only peril but promise that Christmas brings. And the promise is tucked away in those eight words with which the apostle Paul began the second chapter of his letter to the church in a place called Philippi: "If then there is any encouragement in Christ." The message of Christmas is that Jesus Christ is God’s encouragement to us and to all people everywhere. Jesus is not only the "sun of righteousness," as the Christmas carol declares. He is also the son of encouragement.

In her 1946 novel, The Member of the Wedding, Carson McCuller describes Frankie Addams, a thirteen-year-old motherless girl, as "an unjoined person who hung around in doorways, and she was afraid." Although we and others may not hang around in doorways, a good many of us are feeling a bit unjoined these days, and certainly we are more afraid than even we may want to let on. If there is anything we need this Christmastide, I suspect it’s a good dose of encouragement. "If then there is any encouragement in Christ." And there is, in two ways at least.

First, there is the promise of encouragement that comes in the knowledge that God in Christ has chosen to participate with us in the mundaneness of life, in the ordinary, humdrumness of life. As one self-acknowledged agnostic once put it, "I need a God who puts value on my life here and now, not just in some hereafter. I need a God who trudges with me through my mundane existence." That’s the God of Christmastide. Not a God who waits around while we try frantically to figure out how to connect with him, but one who reaches us first by coming to us where we are and as we are. It’s not our reaching but our responding to God’s reaching us that is the promise Christmas brings.

Then there is the promise of encouragement that comes in the awareness that God not only participates with us in the mundaneness of life, but invites us, indeed calls us, to partake of the magnificence of life as well. Indeed that magnificence is more often than not found in the midst of the mundaneness of life and in the often quiet and sometimes unheralded acts of compassion and kindness that ordinary people provide to other ordinary people in the common ventures of life. Christ’s coming to the world was God’s way of reminding us that we were not made for or to be cheap, crass, cruel, or crude, fit only for a pigsty existence on the husks of life, concerned only with ourselves. And Christ’s coming to the world was God’s way of showing us that life’s magnificence does not always consist in banner headlines, loud trumpet blasts, celebrity status, or the pomp and circumstance of political or religious pageantry. Rather it happens whenever deeds of love and kindness and acts of mercy and compassion are brought to bear upon the hurts of people and upon the woundedness of the world.

I am not in the habit of listening to the broadcasts of news commentator Paul Harvey, a much-awarded radio figure who has been at if for several decades now. But sometime ago he told a story on one of his broadcasts, a copy of which he graciously sent me when I requested it. It was a story originally prepared for United Press International by Louis Cassels about a kind, decent, mostly good man, generous to his family, upright in his dealings with others, who did not believe in the Christmas story and all that incarnation stuff, the God-born-a-man-in-a-manger nonsense that churches proclaimed at Christmastime. It just didn’t make sense, and he was too honest to pretend otherwise.

He decided not to go with his family to church on Christmas Eve. He said he would feel like a hypocrite, that he would rather stay home. But that he would wait up for them. He stayed. They went. To the midnight service.

Shortly after the family drove away in the car, snow began to fall. He went to the window to watch the flurries getting heavier and heavier. Then he went back to his fireside chair and began to read his newspaper.

Minutes later he was startled by a thudding sound, then another, and another. At first he thought someone must be throwing snowballs against his living room window. But when he went to the front door to investigate, he found a flock of birds huddled miserably in the snow. They had been caught in the storm, and in a desperate search for shelter had tried to fly through his large landscape window.

Well, he couldn’t let the poor creatures lie there and freeze. So he remembered the barn where his children stabled their pony. That would provide shelter if he could direct the birds to it. He tramped through the deepening snow to the barn, threw open the doors wide, and turned on a light.

But the birds did not come in. He sprinkled breadcrumbs on the snow to entice them. He tried catching them. He tried shooing them into the barn by walking around and waving his arms. All to no avail. They either flopped helplessly in the snow or scattered in every direction except into the warm, lighted barn.

Then the man realized that they were afraid of him. To them he was a strange and terrifying creature. If only he could find some way to let them know they could trust him, that he was not trying to hurt them but to help them. But how?

Then the man thought, "If only I could be a bird and mingle with them and speak their language and tell them not to be afraid and show them the way to the safe, warm barn. But I’d have to be one of them . . . so they could see . . . and hear and understand."

At that moment the church bells began to ring. The sound reached his ears above the sounds of the wind. And he stood there listening to the bells.

O come let us adore him.

Listening to the bells telling once again the good news of Christmas. And he sank to his knees in the snow. Suddenly he saw the reality of what earlier he thought was nonsense.

There it is—the mundaneness, the magnificence, the encouragement, the promise—that Christmas brings.

Amen.