Thursday, December 23, 2004

Where is Christmas?

Fear not, for I bring tidings of good news for all mankind!

First, it's Christmas! Second, I've decided to post my latest sermon (mutatis mutandis) from our outreach English service at Banner Church, the Shelter. I preached at the Shelter (cf. Psalm 91:1-2) nearly every single Sunday last year, but have cut back to about 1.43 sermons per month this year (doctor's orders, dontchaknow). I was antsy about this sermon, not only because it is "a little deep" for a bilingual outreach service (as my translator told me afterward!), but also because it's themes were painfully close to my heart. Christmas has been a bit of a dark season for me this year; and it ain't the first time. I'm jubilant to tell you, however, that Christ's light is, once again this year, breaking in upon my darkness. And I am just as happy to tell you I found His light exactly where I describe it in this sermon: outside my fullness, in the shadows, and, yes indeed, with Mary.

I wish you a merry Christmas and a happy new life in Christ! Adoring Him in (and in front of) the Eucharist has been miraculously "eucatastrophic" for me.

The Shelter
19 December 2004
Elliot Bougis

Where is Christmas?

Luke 2:1-19; Isaiah 11:1-6; Hebrews 13:10-14

Luke 2:1-19

[1] In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be enrolled. [2] This was the first enrollment, when Quirin'i-us was governor of Syria. [3] And all went to be enrolled, each to his own city. [4] And Joseph also went up from Galilee, from the city of Nazareth, to Judea, to the city of David, which is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and lineage of David, [5] to be enrolled with Mary, his betrothed, who was with child.

[6] And while they were there, the time came for her to be delivered. [7] And she gave birth to her first-born son and wrapped him in swaddling cloths, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.

[8] And in that region there were shepherds out in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. [9] And an angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were filled with fear. [10] And the angel said to them,

"Be not afraid; for behold, I bring you good news of a great joy which will come to all the people; [11] for to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. [12] And this will be a sign for you: you will find a babe wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger."

[13] And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying,

[14] "Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among men with whom he is pleased!"

[15] When the angels went away from them into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, "Let us go over to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has made known to us." [16] And they went with haste, and found Mary and Joseph, and the babe lying in a manger. [17] And when they saw it they made known the saying which had been told them concerning this child; [18] and all who heard it wondered at what the shepherds told them.

[19] But Mary kept all these things, pondering them in her heart.

Every year we ask similar questions: “What is Christmas?” “What is ‘the reason for the season.’?” “What does Christmas mean?” “In fact, WHY is Christmas?”

We ask these questions so we can “do” Christmas the right way. As I hope we all know, Jesus is “the reason for the season”, and unless we focus on Jesus each Christmas, we really aren’t “doing” Christmas the right way. Asking about the “what” and the “why” of Christmas is a good thing. But another important question we often overlook is, “WHERE is Christmas?”

This past week in my classes at Viator, I have been teaching about animals and geography. I’ve asked my students, “Why are we studying these two ideas together? Why not animals and plants? Or animals and humans? Or why not geography and history?”

We study animals with geography because geography and biology – life and location – go hand in hand. If you really study geography, you must also learn what lives in a certain place. And, if you know biology, you probably know where different species live. Knowing where a thing IS tells us a lot about its purpose or meaning. Books and libraries. Feet and shoes. Money and wallets. Bullets and guns. Location and meaning go together like hand and glove.

The same goes for us. What’s one of the first questions we ask when we meet new people? “Where are you from?” “你是哪國人?” As we say in English, “Home is where the heart is.” Asking WHAT a person is, or WHY she is doing something, usually requires asking WHERE she is or where she has been.

My point is that asking WHAT Christmas is today also requires asking WHERE Christmas comes from. We all know Christ was born in Bethlehem at Christmas – but we must also ask where Christmas was, so to speak, born in Christ. Where was the first Christmas?

The first Christmas was with Mary and Joseph in an animal pen with their baby – the Savior. Because the house was full of other people, Mary and Joseph had to sleep with the animals in a manger. Whether that was downstairs inside or literally outside the house is beside the point. The point is that at his birth, Christ the King was forced outside the central, comfortable life of the house. The point is that the first Christmas was below the vision of the emperors and rulers of the day. It was, in fact, springing up like a baby root of righteousness to overturn a whole empire of sin. Just as Isaiah prophesied (11:1-6):

[1] There shall come forth a shoot from the stump of Jesse,
and a branch shall grow out of his roots.
[2] And the Spirit of the LORD shall rest upon him,
the spirit of wisdom and understanding,
the spirit of counsel and might,
the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the LORD.
[3] And his delight shall be in the fear of the LORD.
He shall not judge by what his eyes see,
or decide by what his ears hear;
[4] but with righteousness he shall judge the poor,
and decide with equity for the meek of the earth;
and he shall smite the earth with the rod of his mouth,
and with the breath of his lips he shall slay the wicked.
[5] Righteousness shall be the girdle of his waist,
and faithfulness the girdle of his loins.
[6] The wolf shall dwell with the lamb,
and the leopard shall lie down with the kid,
and the calf and the lion and the fatling together,
and a little child shall lead them.

Where is Christmas? Where does the little Christ child lead us each Christmas? Christmas is STILL with Mary and Joseph outside the inn, and it is still outside the full, comfortable lives of most people. We may not like it or understand it, but God, “in the fullness of time,” planted his root of salvation at the lowest, darkest point on earth. Mary and Joseph had been traveling for many miles. They were exhausted. And then they found themselves, the parents of the Messiah, sleeping with animals. What a disappointing Christmas!

I can just imagine the shepherds’ reaction to the angelic vision:

ANGELS: “Be not afraid; for behold, I bring you good news of a great joy which will come to all the people.”

SHEPHERDS: “Okay, good – no fear is good. Great joy for everyone is nice too.”

A: “For to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.”

S: “Yes, yes! The Messiah, at last!”

A: “And this will be a sign for you…”

S: “Yes, yes, tell us! We want to see his glory!”

A: “You will find a baby wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger.”

S: [PAUSE, GAPING JAW] “Um, I’m sorry, could you repeat that? Is this some kind of weird angel-joke?”

Christ came to us in a way few politicians or celebrities would choose. As G.K. Chesterton said, “Christ was not only born on the level of the world, but even lower than the world” (_The Everlasting Man_).

The first Christmas – when a cosmic king was born as a beggar baby – is as bizarre as the Cross – when total victory was won by total defeat. Even in His birth, Jesus denied Himself. His life began and ended in weakness. His birth, in fact, was really just the first step He took towards the Cross. At Christmas we don’t celebrate the birth of our Savior; we celebrate the birth of our CRUCIFIED Savior.

Like it or not, we never lose this “crucified” feeling at Christmas. No matter how many lights we put up, no matter how much turkey we eat, no matter how many gifts we get, no matter how much commercial hype we hear, no matter how many Santas we hug, many people find the Christmas holidays one of the most confusing, draining and depressing times of the year. It’s cold. It’s busy. For at least two weeks, we obsess about what gifts to buy (and, of course, what to ask for). Even then, some poor (可憐的) people don’t even get gifts. At Christmas, another year of our lives, full of the usual failures and disappointments, slips away forever. Bing Crosby may be “dreaming of a white Christmas,” but the sad fact is, most people experience a very dark Christmas.

But why? Why is there so much darkness in this season of light? Christmas is and always will be a dark time full of light because every Christmas imitates the first Christmas. Where is Christmas? It is in our world, the valley of darkness, the house of sin, the home of Golgotha. At Christmas, Christ was not merely born under the power of the Roman Empire. He was born under the satanic powers of darkness.

When King Herod massacred all those babies to exterminate the Messiah, he was actually serving the powers of darkness. When Caesar Augustus decreed a census that tore Mary and Joseph from their home and put them on the run, he was actually just a pawn in the hands of the prince of darkness, trying desperately to terrorize Jesus the Messiah from the first moments of His life. The birth of Christ was an act of war by God against the armies of sin and death.

And every Christmas we re-enter this cosmic battle. Every Christmas carol is a battle song. At every Christmas the powers of darkness use the power of consumerism and anxiety and family feuds to exterminate the light of Christ in our starving, broken world.

And yet–! And yet, this dark, broken world of ours is exactly the world into which Christ CHOSE to be born! Christ chose to enter the darkness with us two thousand years ago and He wants to enter our darkness NOW! We must not fear the darkness and emptiness of Christmas time. We must face them with the light of Christ our crucified baby King. We must look OUTSIDE the inn. We must humbly step OUTSIDE the fullness of our own lives and look OUTSIDE for the needy and the lonely and the scared in the manger. As Hebrews 13:10-14 says,

[10] We have an altar from which those who serve the tent have no right to eat. [11] For the bodies of those animals whose blood is brought into the sanctuary by the high priest as a sacrifice for sin are burned outside the camp. [12] So Jesus also suffered outside the gate in order to sanctify the people through his own blood. [13] Therefore let us go forth to him outside the camp and bear the abuse he endured. [14] For here we have no lasting city, but we seek the city which is to come.

We must make room in our hearts, or we cannot receive Mary and her son, the Lord Jesus. Just like the shepherds, we must FIND Mary and Joseph outside the hustle and bustle with their son, the Savior. We must “ponder these things” with Mary as she adored her son, her Savior. Only there, with the shepherds, with Joseph, with Mary, with Christ, in the shadows, outside the inn – only there will we find Christmas.

Jesus was born in the shadow of the empire of man; but he brought the light of God’s love into it. Jesus was born under the boot of the powers of darkness; but He rose again so that someday every knee shall bow at His feet. The first Christmas was in the dirt and darkness of the manger; but it became the light and life of the Resurrection. The best Christmas gift has already come to us in Bethlehem, in a manger, without glory. And He will come to us again, someday – this time on the clouds, with glory.

[19] But Mary kept all these things, pondering them in her heart.

No comments: