There is a lot of Christmas going around. Some speak of a “war on Christmas,” but, as Jon Stewart pointed out, it sure seems like Christmas has won this war. Christmas seems to be everywhere, and, as most people understand it, Christmas stretches all the way back to Thanksgiving, or even earlier. Many public places still have nativity scenes and no one has stopped you from being here tonight, just as no one will stop you from celebrating your Savior’s birth tomorrow. On the other hand, maybe if there were a war on Christmas, we could once and for all separate out “the real meaning of Christmas.” If you don’t know what that is, you have any number of “Christmas specials” ready and willing to tell you: the real meaning of Christmas is love; or the real meaning of Christmas is giving, rather than receiving; or the real meaning of Christmas is family and being together. And those are all good things. But none of those are the real meaning of Christmas, any more than “going into debt to buy lots of things that will be broken, returned, or forgotten on December 26” is the real meaning.
The children are going to tell you a story tonight, an old story, and that story contains the “real meaning of Christmas.” But sometimes, the essence of Christmas is even hid by the stories we tell and the pictures we paint. There is a reality in the words you are going to hear that is not so easily seen.
Once we strip away all the fictional add-ons such as talking animals, snowy fields, warm stables, and wise men at the manger, we’re left with a Christmas that is much more terrifying than we often think. Knowing what we know now about germs and childbirth, it’s a wonder that both Mary and the infant Jesus didn’t die that night. No hospital bed, no doctor, no sterile instruments. From our perspective, God almost didn’t make it out of there alive. And with our social media and 24/7 news cycle, it is hard for us to imagine that the only people in the whole wide world who knew about the birth of God’s Son were a man, a woman, and some shepherds, and the shepherds had to be told by some creatures not from this world. Even today, Mary would be just another unwed mother giving birth to her first-born.
And we still haven’t gotten to the main point: the God who created everything that exists, including babies, mothers, trees, snow, angels, sheep, and shepherds, is the one who is conceived in a virgin’s womb in the midst of the mess we’ve made of the world. Not in some idealized world, where everyone is home for Christmas; not in a world where Santa brings gifts for all the good little girls and boys; not in a world where everyone’s Christmas is happy and bright, and has enough food, and gets along with all the other family members. Not in any of those worlds, but in this world is where the eternal Son was born. This world, where tyrants systematically execute dozens of children, whether in Bethlehem or Sandy Hook, or abortion clinics every day. This world, where mothers, fathers, and children are broken and hurting. This world, where sin and death are covered up as badly as I wrap presents. This world, where you and I live. This world, from which you and I will not get out alive.
And that is the mystery underneath the words that you will hear from these children: that God loves them, and you, and me, not because we’re good, but in spite of our badness. He loves, not in general, but in the specific form of Jesus Christ given for particular sinners. We do not have a Santa Claus god, who rewards those who live up to His standards of goodness and badness, but a baby God, who would not make it out of this world alive, but would be crucified for us and for our sin. We have a God who, in flesh as real as yours or mine, died and rose from the dead. We have a God who, in that same flesh, is going to come back and raise all the dead and give eternal life to you and all believers in Christ. We have a God who is going to make all things right in His creation, where so much has gone wrong. Behold, He is making all things new. O come, let us adore Him!
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
– Pr. Timothy Winterstein, 12/18/12