Some of you will remember a strange hit by Simon & Garfunkel from their 1966 Album, “Parsley, Sage, Rosemary, and Thyme.” It was a rendition of the Christmas carol Silent Night played in all of its soft beauty, with the 7 O’clock news from August 3, 1966. They read clips about the Richard Speck murders, Martin Luther King’s civil rights works, former vice-president Nixon speaking about the Vietnam War, and the death of Lenny Bruce from a drug overdose. The song powerfully juxtaposed the ideal of a beautiful, quiet Christmas that we all have cast as the ideal in our minds and the reality that so often exists in the world today.
What a beautiful, sweet story it is. A woman giving birth to a baby, a love-gift from God. Shepherds on a lonely hillside enlightened by angels and gathering around the manger to glorify God and rejoice at the birth of the Savior, who is Christ the Lord, who lay there quietly wrapped in swaddling clothes. The wise men came to worship and bring gifts and join in the scene – it was a grand and joyous party, the first great Christmas party in history. I’m sure there was fruitcake and eggnog, chestnuts roasting by an open fire, and without a doubt it was a silent night.
That is why it is so hard to get in the “Christmas Spirit” when you watch the news today. Another shooting or terrorist attack. Refugees fleeing brutality and craven political shenanigans taking place on both sides of the aisle – every solution they provide just creates new problems. Life today is noisy, violent, fearful, terrifying, difficult. It’s like day and night, black and white. The Silent Night of Christmas and the blaring noise of this world. How can we celebrate the birth of the Savior in an environment like this? Where is the peace on earth and the goodwill to men? What has happened to the promise and beauty of the night Jesus was born?
It is not my purpose to be unkind or to burst anyone’s bubble, but if you identify with what I’ve just said, it is largely because you have bought into the myths of Christmas that have become so common. We’ve turned the birth of Christ into a sappy, sanitized and sentimental version of the real thing, a caricature of Christ-event that actually took place. And in that process we have lost the proverbial real meaning of Christmas. The real Christmas story is gritty, real, even ugly. It is a story that speaks loudly and clearly to us where we live today. We need not retreat from the real world to celebrate Christmas in our imaginations. The true Christmas, the real Christmas – it is a story that speaks to us right where we are today, in a world where terrorists kill innocent people, where families live on the edge, where sin abounds and darkness grows. Christmas, properly understood, is a message to hurting, harassed, and harried people weighed down by the cares of life. It has a word of hope for the abused and mistreated, for those in pain and sorrow. It has a word for those the world has forgotten, whose dreams have been dashed and who live in pain. If we properly understand Christmas, it is a real-world message for real-world people.
I’d like to share that message with you today and help you see the truth behind the story of Christmas.
- Christmas is not sanitary
This week I worked with a tour company to put together a possible trip to Israel in about a year. I’ve been twice now and I’ve discovered something. Every single person I’ve talked to agrees. When you go to Israel for the first time, you always want to go to Bethlehem. It’s such an important place in the biblical story. But once you’ve been there, you never care about going back again. The first time, we stood in line at the Church of the Nativity and went down into the grotto, which is a church built over the place of the manger. In the grotto is a spot, a star where Jesus was supposedly born and another place where the manger supposedly rested. It’s a beautiful place.
But it is so unreal. Not to burst your bubble, but it I could go back in time there would be nothing about that scene that would be cute or clean. The shepherds on the hillside? These were not the kind of people you would want to hang out with. I can almost guarantee you that the conversation around the fire that night was not uplifting. They were not sharing passages from the Psalms to edify one another. These were rough men. Crude and crass. And I they likely stunk. They didn’t bathe and they lived and worked with sheep! I’m sure Mary was just thrilled when a passel of stinky, dirty shepherds showed up to hold her newborn baby!
But this gets to the heart of the story of Christmas, the heart that has been cut out of it by the veneration and mythologizing of Mary and Joseph and the sentimentalizing of others. These were not superheroes or super-holy saints. Mary was normal, average peasant girl from Nazareth. Joseph was just a carpenter. The shepherds were just shepherds, like hundreds of others, sitting in the darkness like every other night. But to them God sent the angel to announce the birth of Son of God.
That is the way of God. He is not a talent scout looking for the best and brightest to stock his kingdom. He’s not a hipster looking to surround himself with the cool kids. God calls to himself those the world rejects. When the church seeks to be cool, when it wants status and worldly influence, it is actually running away from its divine nature, its divine calling, from the divine purpose. Paul could not be any clearer about this in 1 Corinthians 1:26-31.
For consider your calling, brothers: not many of you were wise according to worldly standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth.27 But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; 28 God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, 29 so that no human being might boast in the presence of God. 30 And because of him you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, righteousness and sanctification and redemption, 31 so that, as it is written, “Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.
- Christmas is not sentimental
It was one of the most thoughtful things that took place on the night Jesus was born. While the star still shone, as all the cute little animals still encircled the manger, as the shepherds and magi were still kneeling around the baby, with Mary holding him tenderly, they posed for several pictures so that we would have Christmas cards to send to each other for 2000 years. We’ve taken that scene and make a painting out of it.
Reality was not nearly so cute; it was anything but sentimental. The first Christmas was dirty, ugly, smelly, gritty – you fill in the adjective. Have you ever driven past a hog confinement lot? Now, imagine giving birth inside! Was it that bad? Maybe not, but it probably wasn’t a lot better. It was certainly not a place of starlit beauty. It was a stable for animals. Dirty and smelly. And, as I already said, the shepherds did not improve the general ambience.
We often rail against the Scrooges who refuse to make merry or who get sidetracked by the “false and commercial festival” side of Christmas. But those who do so are only acting in line with the best traditions of first Christmas. Bethlehem was full of people – it was bustling and busy with the census. That is why Mary and Joseph had to take a room in the stable. But think about it. For centuries the people of Israel had awaited the Messiah’s birth and that night he was born right there in their little village. Perhaps they heard Mary and Joseph entering the village or heard her screams as she gave birth. But they had no idea what God was doing. The great work of God was beginning that night and they just went to bed. God’s light was breaking through the darkness and they just simply blew out their lamps and slept. The messiah was born and they were oblivious.
That is precisely how we live our lives in this world. God is at work. God has done his work. He sent his Son to live and die and rise again and he calls us to live our lives for him. And yet, like the people of Bethlehem we go about our lives oblivious to the great work that God is doing in our backyards. We have turned Christianity into a sentimental substitute for the real thing. What is the real thing? It is dying to self. It is denying self. It is what Paul said to the Romans in 12:1-2.
I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. 2 Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.
- Christmas is not safe.
It was some time later, maybe a year or more, that strange visitors appeared in Bethlehem. Jesus was living in a home now, not in a stable, and was described as a young boy. Why they did not return to Nazareth I do not know, but they did not. This pack of strangers, magi from the east, had followed a star that appeared the night he was born and finally arrived. They came to the home Jesus lived in. They bowed before this child and gave him gifts, honoring him as the king of the Jews, the one the prophets foretold. It is one of the great moments, as they bow before him and give him gold, frankincense and myrrh. They left after a dream and went home without telling the evil king Herod that they had found the baby.
Herod. Herod the Great. A man of evil whose name stands in history alongside the worst of villain. A great builder and a powerful man, but he was insecure. He knew he was not the rightful king. He was a usurper. He had not been born king, he had taken control. Now, here come these magi announcing the birth of one “born king” – and he was not going to let that stand. When he realized he’d been double-crossed by the magi, he sent his soldiers the six miles down to Jerusalem and they committed one of the great crimes of history. Every baby in Bethlehem was a victim and the town became a place of weeping, wailing and grief.
People, the first Christmas ended with an act of terror! A brutal, awful, despicable act of terror as bad as anything ISIS has done. The people of Bethlehem lived through what we fear. Christmas isn’t about chestnuts roasting on an open fire. It’s not just about silent nights or cooing babies, or angel choirs. It’s about God working in spite of the ugliest of human ugliness.
And that is exactly what God did. He warned Joseph and Mary in a dream and sent them to Egypt to protect the baby. When it was time, they returned to Nazareth where Jesus grew up. He grew to be a man, walked in perfection, sinless in thought, word and deed every second of his life. Satan brought every force of darkness against him from his birth to his death. When Jesus died he thought he had won, but he had only sealed his doom. No matter how great the work of the devil God’s power is greater. Herod did great evil but in spite of that God did greater good.
Please understand this. Whatever evil is happening in your life, whatever struggles or trials are happening, whatever victories Satan or his emissaries seem to be winning, God will eventually work them to his glory and your good. God will stand in victory. All of the Herods in history have failed to stop the work of God among his people and they are doomed to continue to fail. The enemy will send Herods against you to try to stop the purposes of God, and perhaps they will work great evil, but the work of God will go forward. God will do his work.
What is the message of Christmas? Please, it’s not about a reindeer or fat guys in red suits. It’s not even about cute little sanitized sentimental manger scenes. It is about a God who chooses average ordinary folks, losers, people with BO and bad breath, people everyone else thinks will never amount to anything, and he calls them to die to self, to give their bodies to him as living sacrifices, to be conformed to him instead of to the world. He then takes those people and uses them to do his work, no matter what in this wicked world. No force of hell, no scheme of man can pluck them from God’s hand or derail the work of God in them.
Never fear Herod and his armies when the power of the living God dwells in you.
My friend, you live in a terrible, scary, sinful, intimidating world. But the message of Christmas is the message you need to hear. Jesus was born in a dark world and terror surrounded him. But he overcame it and so can you! Jesus is Lord. The real meaning of Christmas?
The real Jesus uses real people to make a real difference in a real world like this!