Are you afraid of the dark? There’s something disquieting about it. I know as a kid I didn’t like to go into our basement by myself. My family made a joke about the three men who lived there (real funny, right?) and somehow, realizing how ridiculous it was for there to be people living in our little house and for me to not know it, I got over being scared of going in the basement.
But I still don’t like being in the dark much. The dark is different – other- we can’t see where we’re going and sometimes we run into things!
There’s a joke my kids like: “Where was Goofy when the lights went out?” The answer, of course, is “in the dark.” That’s pretty much where the people of the world were before Jesus – and not just because electricity hadn’t been harnessed yet.
Where were Mary and Joseph in an occupied country before Jesus was born? In the dark.
Where were the shepherds before the angels appeared to them? In the dark.
Where were the wise men/people/kings before they followed the star? In the dark.
Without Jesus, we’re in the dark. John 1:5 states, “the light (and by that he means Jesus) shines in the darkness and the darkness did not overcome it.” Martin Luther King Jr. made it practical for us: “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”
God sent Jesus to earth to live with us, to show us what light and love look like. Unfortunately, not everyone ‘got’ it, that Jesus was the light. They were too used to the dark, and too comfortable stumbling around blind. Unfortunately, the church and church people have not always taught people about how much God cares about love first.
Sometimes, the church shows up and says, “you’re getting this all wrong.”
Sometimes, church people show up and say, “the way we do things is better than yours.”
Do you like being told you’re wrong or that someone else does things better? I know I don’t!
But the truth is that the gospel of John says that Jesus focused on something different when he explained his purpose: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”
Jesus’ purpose was to show love. Jesus’ birth was about setting up God’s greatest display of compassion. It’s not that Jesus came near but Jesus came with. He didn’t come close to us, but to be us, to be with us, to teach, to heal, to love, and to save.
That is the good news of Christmas: that’s the good news of great joy for all people.
God loves you. God wants what’s best for you. God wants you to know that his way is full of grace and freedom and love that will give you a way through, out, around, and over the problems at home, at work, with addiction, with pride, with broken relationships, self-doubts, and out-of-control emotions.
I’ve known that truth since I was a little kid. I was blessed to be raised in a Christian home, by a mother and father who had been raised to love God through Jesus Christ by their parents. It wasn’t a big decision, a “conversion experience” that changed my heart from disbelief to belief, but it’s instead been a gradual opening of my heart to understanding better what God wants from me. And I’m still growing.
But what if my parents weren’t raised in church? What if I didn’t grow up in church? I think sometimes that I’d be in the dark about what it meant to be loved by God.
I could sleep in on Sundays. I wouldn’t be a pastor. I probably wouldn’t have met my wife at a chapel service. I wouldn’t know a good number of my closest friends.
That’s the kind of alternative reality that reminds me of It’s A Wonderful Life, the Frank Capra story about George Bailey, who lives his whole life trying to be “good” and to do the right thing, but who continually bangs his head against the brick wall in town of the evil banker, Mr. Potter. Mr. Potter finally causes George’s whole life to unravel, all of the deals he’s made and all of the people he’s helped in the attempt to be ‘good,’ come undone. And George wishes he had never been born.
Because this a Christmas movie – there’s an angel named Clarence. Of course, Clarence takes George on a spin through memory lane, although this isn’t reality, this is reality where George doesn’t exist. George sees that his town is now Potterville, that the people he helped never received help, that all of the good he did thinking it was ‘just the right thing to do’ served a greater purpose. And when he repents of his wish, when he chooses to make a different life then the community wraps itself around him and he experiences grace again.
George realizes that it wasn’t about doing the right thing for praise or to feel good about it, but that there was a higher purpose, that he brought people together and inspired them, too. George realizes the grace of what it means to experience Christmas, to experience God-with-us, Immanuel, through the friendship and care of his angel, Clarence.
George experiences Christmas for real for the first time because he experiences life without Christmas. George experiences the grace of second chances. George experiences the grace of community.
But that’s a story you say. How does it relate to real life and death and all of that stuff in between like mortgages, and layoffs, and getting uninvited to Christmas dinner, and raising our kids, and dealing with our addictions?
How about a real life version?
I was recently told the story of the Knoxes who had planned out their vacation to travel overseas at Thanksgiving to see their grown son, his wife, and their three grandparents (two of whom they’d never met before). But the Tuesday of their visit, their son went to sleep and never woke up. So they grieved and tried to help their daughter-in-law, and had to return to the U.S. They consoled their two other children, and then went back home. Then they went back to church.
And everyone cried, and hugged them. DURING THE CHURCH SERVICE!
It’s been several weeks and they will be wrestling with the absence, the sadness for awhile. Being in church doesn’t make the real world go away. But they knew they were supposed to be back in the church they’d worshipped in for thirty years. Because that’s where their community was. That’s where they could be held, comforted; that’s where they could find people who would listen to them scream and cry, who would dry their tears and cry with them. That’s where they were reminded that death isn’t forever; that Jesus’ resurrection means resurrection for them and for their son, too.
So, I wonder, if we could see the world without Jesus and recognize that it’s not so wonderful. Without grace, life is cold and harsh. Without grace, where do the Knoxes go?
In another story shared with me this week, a young man named Bryan broke his C5 vertebrae by diving into shallow water here in Florida. As the family was swirling in this disaster, they connected with Alan Brown, who twenty-six years ago, suffered the same injury in the exact same way (diving in shallow water) and has been in a wheelchair since. Brown rushed to Bryan’s bedside to talk to him and his family. When Alan gets there, he sees that Bryan is in the same hospital, and in EXACT same hospital room that Alan had been lying in 26 years ago. When Alan was asked how it felt to be back there, he said, “I go back there a lot.” Of course he does, always helping others with their injuries. He then said, “I leave there crying. But it fuels me.” Brown was asked what he told Bryan’s family. Did he tell them their son would be okay? That their lives would change? Nope. He told them this, which I’m carrying with me everywhere today: “You’re not alone. You’re never alone.” (Brad Meltzer)
The story of Christmas is that we are not alone. Immanuel, God is with us. God wanted to be with you and with me so he came as a a baby. That’s a true story – and it shines for us to see in the month of December.
But in the story of Christmas, not everyone can see the story. We need people to point to the grace in Christmas. To point beyond doing the right things, whether it’s giving of our time, or our money, or our stuff, because it feels right, to doing good because we recognize that we were loved first. By God. In the story of Christmas, we need a reminder that the world has hope, that we have hope, that there is hope.
In the story of that first Christmas, it’s angels – maybe not quite like the wingless Clarence – but angels who announce the coming birth to Jesus, the coming birth to Joseph, the baby’s birth to the shepherds – who are in the dark themselves, and to the wise men- who follow the star through the dark.
So, who is it that bears the good news today? Who reminds people that their lives, whether everything is going well now or everything is going poorly, matter to God and that God has a plan? Who tells them what God is really hoping that they’ll get out of Christmas this year?
I think that’s our job.
A week ago, I found myself in an interesting conversation with a person of faith, who has some beliefs about God that are similar to mine, and then some that are… not. We talked about the importance of Christmas, the importance of generosity, and the importance of telling people about Jesus. And then the woman told me, “We need to grab onto as many people as we can because this world is going to hell in a hand basket – we know how this is going to end!”
And I thought, Um, maybe we’re not on the same page.
See, I do believe that everyone has a choice to make: will they accept Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross and recognize that the miracle of Christmas was God breaking through, or will they continue to move through life and figure that they can do it better on their own? But I don’t think the message of Christmas is about judgment, about hell, about the end of the world.
I think it’s about the beginning. I think it’s about the wonderful life that the angels proclaimed to Mary, Joseph, and the shepherds.
I think it’s about God saying to each and every one of us, together in community, that we are made in God’s image, that we are loved unconditionally, that we matter, that what we’ve done or what’s been done to us doesn’t have to be what we’re known for. That we can change and grow and be miracle workers, too, if we’d just accept the message.
The message that we’re not supposed to be afraid of the dark anymore.
The message that we’re forgiven even before we admit we’ve got a problem.
The message that says the message is for everyone, not just the good ones, or the privileged. Mike Slaughter even says that it’s not really the gospel if it’s not good news for the poor!
The message that this is all about what God is going to do, has done, and is doing- to bring peace on Earth.
That’s the message I want to share on Christmas. That’s the message that I want to shine like a bright light into our community, to highlight the divides we’re seeing in Ferguson and Staten Island, to reflect into the dark corners of homelessness and hunger, to remind people that they are not alone.
It’s the message our church is sending with coats for kids, and through Toys for Tots, and in turkey baskets. It’s spread through the dinners for homeless men like the one we’ll share on December 30, through the Empty Bowls program on Super Bowl Sunday, through the auction in May, through VBS.
The world wants us to believe that it is dark outside and it’s going to stay that way. The world wants us to be convinced that it’s dog-eat-dog, that only the strong survive, that every person is an island.
To which I say, not so fast.
I say that there’s a new day coming when the light will be all there is, when all of our pain, frustration, addiction, homelessness, hunger, not enough, all of our want will be no more- and everyone will have enough. Because everyone will have enough in the light, in the glory of the kingdom of God.
I recognize that everyone is communicating a message. We’re all shining or reflecting something. This Christmas, I want the lights of this church to announce that the gospel of Jesus Christ is to set free those in bondage to desperation and addiction, to free us from isolation and having to fight through the darkness on our own, to make love the way we act and speak and live.
I admit that we’re not there yet – but I believe we’re supposed to strive for it. To shine for it.
Because no one should be afraid of the dark.