Pastor Joe Britton
St. Michael’s Church
Those who lived in a land of deep darkness—on them light has shined (Hebrews)
As a season, Christmas is an odd time for the way it moves in two completely different directions at once. On one hand, it heads in the direction of fantasy and make-believe, with such beguiling characters as Frosty the Snowman, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, the Grinch Who Stole Christmas, and all those others whose stories we enjoy so much in their telling.
Yet on the other hand, in the nativity story we hear tonight, the Christmas season takes a turn in a completely different direction toward the hard, cold reality of life as it really is. If you pay close attention to all the details, you can’t escape the fact that the birth of Jesus and all the surrounding events are a story about poverty, political oppression, homelessness, genocide, migration, and deception. You can leave all that out, and focus on the happier parts like the angels and idyllic shepherds, but then you haven’t got the real story at all—at least, not in the way the Bible tells it. Just think of some of the details that usually get left on the cutting room floor of the Christmas narrative: the burden of taxation, the jealousy of Herod, the slaughter of the innocents, the flight into Egypt, Joseph’s fear of returning home.
In December of 1940, as war was overtaking the continent of Europe, the German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote an Advent letter to his former seminary students, many of whom had already been conscripted to fight. “War,” he observed, “makes clear only in a particularly vivid and unconcealed form the true nature of the world. War isn’t the first thing to bring death, to reveal the sorrows and troubles of human bodies and souls, to unleash lies, unlawfulness, and violence. … But war makes all this which has already existed without it and before it, obvious to us all, however much we would still like to overlook it.”
When I read those words recently, I was struck by how applicable they would be to our own circumstances right now, if we were to substitute the word “pandemic” for “war.” Let’s try it: “Pandemic makes clear only in a particularly vivid and unconcealed form the true nature of the world. Pandemic isn’t the first thing to bring death, to reveal the sorrows and troubles of human bodies and souls, to unleash lies, unlawfulness, and violence. … But pandemic makes all this which has already existed without it and before it, obvious to us all, however much we would still like to overlook it.”
This pandemic is not the first time human fragility and sorrow and conflict have existed, but we have certainly been made aware of them in these days in a particularly heightened way. Going back to the Christmas story, we are, you might say, more keenly aware this year of the real nature of the world into which Jesus was born, than we may have been in times past.
So what did Bonhoeffer do with the darkness that he faced in those grim days of 1940? They turned him back to a verse in Ecclesiastes that I, for one, had never noticed before. It is a verse that comes just after that familiar section that reads, “For everything there is a season …” But then the text goes on: “That which is, already has been; that which is to be, already is; and God seeks out what has gone by.”
It’s a dense verse, especially that last phrase, “God seeks out what has gone by.” In fact, the underlying Hebrew is hard to translate into English at all. The New English Bible renders the last phrase as “God summons each event back in its turn”; the King James Bible puts it as “God requireth that which is past”; or the Inclusive Bible offers “God calls the past back into existence.” In any case, Bonhoeffer took that phrase to mean that in the end, nothing of life is irretrievably lost—not to death, nor to suffering, nor to sorrow, nor to anything else that can afflict us.
And that, for Bonhoeffer, as he was surveying a world crumbling all around him, was the meaning of Jesus’ birth: in him God places a hand on human life as it is, both its greatest beauty and its greatest suffering, and will not leave any part of it untouched by the mercy, acceptance and compassion that God extends to it. In Jesus, in other words, we discover that the life that concerns God, is this life. Not another one, but this one. Not life as it should be, but life as it is. There is simply no part of it that God will abandon.
And here’s the rub: the absolutely essential corollary to that discovery, is that the person whom God loves, is you. Not another, better version of you, but you, as you are. In Bonhoeffer’s exact words, at Christmas we receive the news that “God’s hand again rests upon the world and will no longer let it go!” And based on that conviction, Bonhoeffer further wrote, “This is what we do with the world that inflicts such suffering on us. We do not abandon it; we do not repudiate, despise or condemn it. Instead we call it back to God, we give it hope, we lay our hand upon it [as God has done] and say: May God’s blessing come upon you, may God renew you; be blessed, world created by God, you who belong to your Creator and Redeemer.”
That’s what makes it worth fighting for justice and freedom. It’s what makes it worth bearing the pains and disappointments that come our way. All of it belongs to God.
So the Christmas message is a complete and glorious “Yes!” to our human nature. Not that it doesn’t need to be reformed, renewed, and forgiven (we don’t have to belabor that point!)—but through Jesus we now know that we are valued and loved by the Holy One whose mercy working through us, has the power to accomplish all those things. To repeat: Jesus is none other than God’s “Yes” to us, to the world, and to our future in it. Amen.