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Sunday, December 30, 2007

Sermon: What If Christmas Never Came

Some of my friends who blog their sermons have encouraged me to do the same. Here is the text of a sermon I preached on December 23 at the Stroudsburg Wesleyan Church where I serve as the lead pastor. I hope you come away inspired by the reality of a God who made Himself small to make you larger than life! Here's the sermon...


Familiarity tends to breed apathy. Things that start off with great joy can sometimes become old hat, if we’re not careful. How many of you have kids who are now teenagers? Do you have the same joyous zeal now that you had when they were born? How many of you have been working in your profession for more than 10 years? Do you have the same level of excitement now as when you first began or has it gotten old? Do you remember the time when you were dating the person who is now your spouse? You would brush your teeth several times and carry a life time supply of tic-tacs in your pockets or purse to ensure fresh breath on your dates. Now you don’t even brush your teeth before bed, even after eating garlic bread for dinner. When you were dating the person who is now your spouse you applied meticulous effort to smelling good. You carefully chose the best smelling deodorant, cologne, perfume, hair gell, hair spray, lotion and lip balm. You were a walking, talking Bath and Body Works. Then you get married and familiarity breeds apathy. Smelling good for the love of your life doesn’t concern you anymore which is why you come to bed after an evening jog without even taking a shower. You used up all of your Polo, Drakar, Eternity, or Old Spice cologne back in June and since the budget is tight you waited until this Christmas to smell good again for your spouse. Familiarity breeds apathy.


At this point in the Christmas season, the last Sunday of Advent, we feel some apathy. We have sung Christmas songs so many times we start making up words just to keep it fresh… “Jingle bells Pastor Jason smells fifty miles away, O what fun it is to eat some more fruitcake today, hey!... Dashing through the snow in our van that is filthy, fries and cookies stuck in places we can’t even see…I’m dreaming of a” (well you get the idea). We have heard the Christmas story so many times by now this season and seasons past that it sort of loses its flavor. A virgin, a carpenter, some shepherds, three magi, some farm animals in a stable with a baby who just happens to be God…“enough already, I get it!” Do you? Do I?


In order to overcome my own tendency of apathy toward this very familiar but extraordinary story, I began to reflect upon the question “what if Christmas never came”? What if John 1:14 never happened? John’s gospel does not describe the Christmas story like Matthew, Mark and Luke do with a mention of shepherds and magi, Mary and Joseph. John, who likes to cut to the chase, tells the Christmas story in one incredible meaning-saturated verse when he writes, “The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the One and Only, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth” (John 1:14).

If Christmas never came we would have no idea that God is for us: “The Word became flesh.” This is called the incarnation, God becoming one of us. You may or may not know this but there was a huge debate in the first few centuries of Christianity over the doctrine of the incarnation. People during that time were heavily influenced by Greek philosophical thought which basically held that anything that was material, or flesh, was evil or at least inferior and anything that was non-material, or spirit, was good and superior. This resulted in a huge debate. Some Christian leaders felt there was no way that God could ever stoop down to take on human flesh, blood and bone. In their minds, that would totally diminish the nature, wisdom, power and majesty of God. In order to make the incarnation work, some said that Jesus really wasn’t fully God; he was a lesser god. Basically they said Jesus was fully human and only partially God. Others said that Jesus was fully God and only appeared to be human. They believed Jesus was sort of like a ghost, fully God in the spirit but not really human at all. These two views were branded heresy because there were, thankfully, some who were more influenced by the biblical story than cultural philosophy and realized that Jesus, in order to redeem this messed up and chaotic world, had to be fully God to pull it off and fully human to represent the human race. And this is why every Christian creed that is “Christian” stresses the full divinity and the full humanity of Jesus. Both divinity and humanity are equally and fully wrapped up in Jesus, a gift through which God says to us loud and clear “I am so for you because I love you that I will actually become one of you.”


My son, Zach, is four years old and has a wild imagination that sometimes frightens me. Every time I get on my hands and knees to play with Zach and enter into his imaginary world of knights and dragons, Peter Pan and Captain Hook, I validate his existence and where he is in his development. This is exactly what God does when he, the Word becomes flesh; he validates our human existence, he stoops to our level to accommodate where we are in the process of our development. What a courageous, sacrificial act on the part of God.


Sometimes life gets a little crazy in our house. There have been a few times when all three kids at the same time are each adding a bit of chaos. Lia has a cheerio stuck up her nose, Zach is whining because he wants to go outside and play, and Sam has, well, messed his diaper and if hell has a smell this is surely it. Amy is trying to get dinner on the table for our guests who are arriving in just about 10 minutes. I’m upstairs, at a safe distance, getting ready to get in the shower and relax as the hot water hits my back. But I know full well what’s going on down there. If I put the exhaust fan on I can keep my ears from hearing anything that is happening outside of the heaven called my shower. I could do that and Amy would never know otherwise. I could avoid getting my hands dirty from jumping into the chaos or I could do the courageous, loving, and sacrificial thing and run to the chaos helping to bring some peace and order to the situation.


This is purely hypothetical since most of you know what I would do in that situation, I hope. I would, of course, get in the hot shower, wouldn’t you? The Father, Son and Spirit were observing the messiness, chaos, pain, disorder and peacelessness of the human condition. No one would have noticed if God simply hid away and enjoyed a hot heavenly shower. God could have played it safe. But here is the character of our God that makes him so worthy of the best of our worship and love. He didn’t have to do a thing but, as if it were a no-brainer, God decides in a heartbeat, “I’ll go into this mess and experience the messiness. I’ll roll up my sleeves. I’ll take on the limits of an embodied human existence. I, the creator, will stoop to the level of my human creation in the hopes that I might raise them to my level of living.” Talk about sacrifice! And that’s not all folks…


Here’s the most incredible part that I often miss and most of us, I think, fail to grasp. Most of us are pretty sacrificial people. But who among us would make a sacrifice that had no end in sight, an eternal sacrifice that would cost us forever. This is exactly what the Word, the son of God who is God, did when he became flesh. It was not just a sacrifice that entailed a 33 year commitment. The sacrifice of the Word becoming flesh, the Son becoming human, was an eternal sacrifice. The Son is still to this day embodied in the form of a first century Jew. This is what the angels in Acts 1 mean when, as Jesus is ascending into heaven with his glorified body, they say to the disciples “this Jesus will come back in the same way you have seen him go into heaven.” When the eternal son of God became human, it wasn’t just a 33 year commitment. In some way, which I don’t fully understand, it forever changed his existence. He is still living with the consequences of that Word to flesh sacrifice. He knew his sacrifice was an eternal one and he did it anyway. Some of the limits he imposed upon himself when he came 2000 years ago, he is still living with today.


You may say, at this point, “Wait a second are you telling me my God is a weakling, encapsulated still in a body, even a glorified body? That seems like a weak view of Jesus that I just don’t buy.” And I want to say, “Haven’t we discovered by now about our God that his greatest, most pronounced and profound strength is revealed by apparently weak things like a bunch of poor and uneducated Hebrew slaves, an infant born to peasant parents in the Podunk, backwoods region of Galilee, an infant who would grow up and be nailed to something as apparently weak as a cross, and whose legacy would be perpetuated by something as weak, frail and imperfect as this entity called the church.” It seems to me that God’s modus operandi is through seeming weakness, “my grace is sufficient,” Jesus says, “for my power is made perfect through weakness.” This is a hard pill for us to swallow in a world where power is made perfect through, well, power.

When God the Son, the word, the logos, became one of us he took a demotion of cosmic proportions. Imagine that you have worked your way up the corporate ladder. You’ve gone through every level of the organization and now you are at the top. You make almost as much money as the CEO and you are a partner in the company. What would you do if the CEO comes and says he needs you to go back to sorting mail in the mail room and back to that pay grade as well? Unthinkable! Career suicide! Well, that’s essentially what God did; he took a demotion. He limited himself by love to liberate us from life’s limits. And, please, please, please make no mistake about it, this thing called the incarnation through which God becomes one of us cost him greatly, in ways we cannot imagine and in ways that I suspect are still costing him greatly.

This is why I get my boxers in a bunch at Christmas time. My wife will tell you I can be a bit of a scrooge and she’s right. But there is a reason for my scrooginess. We are bombarded with all the nice sentimentality of the Christmas season so that we find ourselves “dreaming of a white Christmas” and “rockin around the Christmas tree” often times clueless that Christmas would not be Christmas unless the eternal God proved he was for us by coming to us as one of us in a way that cost him greatly. We get so caught up, in my estimation, in the consumeristic wrapping paper of Christmas that we too easily forget the gift, the Son of God who loves us so much that he is still embodied in the flesh of a first century Jew from Nazareth.

If Christmas never came we would have no idea that God is with us: “and made his dwelling among us.” What is the incarnation really about? It is the one and only God finding someway somehow to once and for all prove his infinite love for us by becoming one of us and taking on all the junk that is a part of our human existence. Sometimes we forget that the very same things that cause us to cry out “why God why” are among the very same things that Jesus Christ himself experienced. It wasn’t enough for God to look down upon our human dilemma and say, “Hello down there, I’m with you in spirit!” No, he dwelt among us so that we could look up and see the “Word of the Father, now in flesh appearing. O come let us adore him, Christ the Lord”!


September 11, 2001 is a tragic day that will forever be imbedded in our memories. It was, in the opinion of many, the most horrific day in American history. There are lots of vivid pictures in my mind from that tragedy, buildings burning, people running down streets and jumping out of skyscrapers. There is another picture in my mind that I will never forget. It is the picture of President George W. Bush amid the ruin and rubble of that 9/11 tragedy standing on a mound of destruction with his arm around a firefighter. Regardless of what you and I may think of the President and his politics, take a good look at this picture. Here is the president of the United States surrounded by destruction, standing vulnerably upon a pile of junk that looks like it could cave in at any moment. He could have said, “Hey, I’m with you in spirit.” Instead he is, by his very presence, trying to say to a nation in pain and fear “I am with you in this mess.”

This is exactly what God is saying to the entire human race through his incarnation at Christmas. With the Advent of Christ born 2000 year ago, God picked up his cosmic bullhorn and promised, “I am with you always even to the end of the age, in your brightest moments as well as your darkest days, if you place your Christmas hope in me you will look up and find beyond the blur of life’s tears that I am standing up for you.” For “the Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us.”


As most of you know I grew up in South Philadelphia, not the kindest, gentlest place to live. It was a tough environment full of bullies who wanted to prove their toughness by pummeling me. There was a bully in my neighborhood named Michael Powells. He was tough, the kind of kid who is born with his hands up ready for a fight. We were friends on most days, unless he was in a bad mood. One day, when I was about 10 years old, Mike was in a bad mood so he picked a fight with me. I tried to walk away but he was determined to provoke me into a fight which he would surely win. He pushed me to the ground, I got up and threw a punch that I really didn’t want to land and so it missed badly. But that was enough for this bully to jump on top of me and start punching my face and body. Tears were flowing and I was convinced I was not going to see my 11th birthday.

Then I looked up and saw through the blur of my tears, my dad walking over toward us. He broke us up but did not stop the fight. He knew I had to battle this bully and would rather it happen when he was home to help me than when he was at work. Dad didn’t take me out of the fight, but I knew he wasn’t going to let me die before my 11th birthday. Every time, Mike had me on the ground about to get the best of me, my dad would walk over and kindly break it up. Eventually, Mike got everything out if his system and after the fight came over my house to play some Atari and have dinner with us. But I will never forget the image of my dad surfacing through my tears; he was larger than life. Knowing my dad was there didn’t take away the pain or make me supernaturally strong so that I got up and right hooked this bully to the ground. But I had peace knowing my dad was with me. Knowing my dad was with me on that day in that moment gave me the strength to finish the fight, to see the trial through.

Some of you may be getting beat up by one of life’s bullies. You feel trapped, hopeless and desperate. If you can turn in the right direction and look long enough to see past the punches and beyond the tears, I think you will find a being who is larger than life and absolutely devoted to you in love. His name is Jesus and he, at least while you journey on earth, will not always shelter you from life’s bullies but he will walk through the fight with you and he has already taken the hardest punches for you. "The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel"--which means, "God with us" (Matt. 1:23).


There have been a few times in my life when I would say I was pretty desperate and heartbroken. Some of you have dealt with those kinds of times more often than I ever will, but every single one of us will experience those times when life is just beating us to a pulp. There is no end in sight. Hope seems to be on the verge of extinction. You feel dead in the water, stuck in a sea of circumstances that you absolutely cannot escape or change. An illness won’t go away, a marriage won’t survive, the bills can’t get paid, depression seems to be your closest holiday companion, and you weep with the tears of bitter loneliness. There are people all around you but nobody really understands what you’re going through. But if you can just look up with the faith of a mustard seed you will, I’m confident, find that you are not alone. There is at least one friend who really does understand and feel your pain, because he “made his dwelling among us,” among all the pain, torment, and struggle that is wrapped up in the human condition. This is really good news since that one friend just happens to be the Savior of the world.

The reality of “God with us” may not change our circumstances but it changes us and, in some miraculously supernatural way, enables us to face the kind of junk that would be too much for us to bear alone. If Christmas never came we would look up and see nothing but the reflection of our own painful faces in life’s mirror; but Christmas has come and if we look we will find this first century Jew named Jesus looking back at us with eyes of grace and truth, love and power, and somehow, someway we will find the strength to face the day like Stephen who in Acts 7 in the midst of hostile crowd ready to stone him to death “looked up to heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. ‘Look,’ he said, ‘I see heaven open and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God’" (Acts 7:55b-56).


I’m not really a scrooge; I like singing “Deck the Halls” as much as, if not more, than the next guy. I still cry when I watch Frosty the Snowman. (Don’t tell anybody.) But, if we can get beyond the cute sentimentality that comes and goes with December days, we just might find something priceless, the God who dwells among us in a way that makes every day seem like Christmas.

If Christmas never came we would have no idea that God is through us. This last reflection is a reality that seems too often to allude our recognition. God desires to come to human flesh through human flesh. Jesus, God the Son, came to us through the flesh of Mary. His divinity bursts through our humanity! This is the way God wants it. God desires to be incarnated through not only Mary but through us, everyday and in every way.

This is exactly what Martin Luther suggests when he writes, “[A]s our heavenly Father has in Christ freely come to our aid, we also ought freely to help our neighbor through our body and its works, and each one should become as it were a Christ to the other that we may be Christs to one another and Christ may be the same in all, that is, that we may be truly Christians....But alas in our day this life is unknown throughout the world; it is neither preached about nor sought after; we are altogether ignorant of our own name and do not know why we are Christians or bear the name of Christians. Surely we are named after Christ, not because he is absent from us, but because he dwells in us, that is, because we believe in him and are Christs one to another and do to our neighbors as Christ does to us.”


When we really take this Christmas story to heart, when we really get it, receive it and embrace it, when we realize that, through Christ’s incarnation, God is for us and God is with us something happens to us- we become pregnant with “Christ in us the hope glory.” What begins to happen over time is that Christ becomes incarnate, made known, through our lives. I’m not suggesting that we become divine. Even those who think you’re all that and a gallon of eggnog know that you are not divine and never will be. But in the way that Christ, the eternal son of God, was given birth through a human being like Mary, when we live our lives like Mary “I am the Lord’s servant may it be to me as you have said” we, in essence, experience Christ being birthed through our lives so that his divinity, which is his alone, becomes flesh through our hands and our feet, our hearts and our heads, our words and our deeds. We have been called to know the Word who became flesh (salvation) but we have also been called to make known the Word who became flesh as he becomes incarnate through the way we live our lives. When we live for him, his life comes through our life so that he becomes even more prominent than us.

The best gift we could ever give to our children, our spouse, our friends, our neighbors, our world is a life lived that allows the Christ to come through us, so that the Word becomes flesh and makes his dwelling among us through you, through me, through us! “O holy Child of Bethlehem, descend to us, we pray; Cast out our sin, and enter in, be born in us today.”

Prayerful Reflection: What Christmas reality do you hunger for the most right now? Is it to experience God for you, God with you, or God through you?

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