Sermon: Where Are You Christmas?: At The Intersection Of Hope And Fear
Scripture: Galatians 4:4-7
Date: December 9, 2018
Have you ever gotten a question running through your head, that no matter what, you just can’t let it go. That’s how it has been with this question “Where Are You Christmas?”. And quite frankly, the farther we move into December and this Advent Season, the more the question bothers me. I think we continue to struggle to find Christmas this year, perhaps more than any other year in my lifetime. So last week we thought about it in terms of geography, and said that when the people of Isaiah’s day searched for the Messiah it was more of a geographical question. Because they were looking to the East where the Kings and armies always came from. But Isaiah told them that the Messiah would not come from the East, but instead would come from within. Not from the world, but rather sent by God into the world. A child is born who is the long awaited Messiah. But the more I have thought about it, the more I realize that Where Are You Christmas? May not be as much of a geographical question even for the ancient people, as it is a time question. Perhaps the question should really be “When are you Christmas?” Even for the Jewish people in the centuries before Christ, the question was most often when the Messiah would come, or if he would come now, more so then where He would come from. And when Isaiah prophesied about the coming of the Messiah, he was most concerned about when more than where. In fact, many scholars believe that Isaiah was telling the people that the Messiah had already come in the person of King Hezekiah, who was the king whose reign incorporated the prophetic ministry of Isaiah. Hezekiah was considered to be a great king who invited the refugees from the conquered north to come to Jerusalem and in fact prepared Jerusalem to receive them by nearly doubling the size of the walled city, and constructing a water tunnel that led from a spring on the Mt. of Olives outside of the city to the Pool of Siloam inside the city walls so that if the Assyrians lay siege to the city there would always be a fresh water source for the people inside. And in fact, the Assyrians did start a siege of Jerusalem but it didn’t last long. For some reason the Assyrians retreated in the middle of the night, after evidently hearing rumors of the preparations that Hezekiah had made to prepare and fortify the city. But this was not the only time, of course, that God had raised up a savior in difficult times. King David defeated the Philistines when all seemed lost. Moses led the people out of Egypt and eventually to the promised land. Nehemiah led the people back from exile in Babylon and rebuilt Jerusalem. In the 3rd century B.C., it was Judas Maccabees who led the people to revolt against the Greeks and reclaim the Holy land and the Temple. The bottom line is that every time the fears of the people overwhelmed them and they were in need of renewed hope and assurance, God had acted. He lifted up great leaders, and sent prophets and teachers to lead the people forward. And in the fullness of time, Paul says, a child was born, God sent His Son to save us forever. Where are you Christmas? It is there, when the time has fully come, because in truth Christmas is beyond time. It is timeless. We will find Christmas in God’s time.
In one of his writings, Thomas Aquinas said this about God’s time: In the beginning when God first created heaven and earth, God also created time. Because God created time, He exists outside of time. He is timeless. He is eternal.
And so the problem with finding Christmas has always been in part a problem of time. We would like to be able to pin Christmas down to it’s arrival on December 25 every year, but because Christmas is timeless, that is very hard to do.
Humanity has always struggled to place the birth of Christ into the context of human time. In fact, for more than 300 years after the birth of Christ, the church did not celebrate the birth of Christ at all. And then around 300 A.D. the Roman Emperor Constantine was converted to Christianity and he wanted to convert the entire empire, and he thought to himself what we need to do is to celebrate Jesus’ birth. Kings needed to be celebrated on their birthdays but all they really knew about Jesus was when He died, and even that was a shifting date dependent on the moon and stars and the Jewish feast of Passover. But nobody even knew for certain when he was born. The only clues we have in scripture are that the Shepherds had their sheep in the fields which actually places Christmas more in the Fall after the harvest when the sheep would be turned loose in the harvested fields to eat away the leftover chaff and fertilize the field. And the Gospels tell us that Mary and Joseph went to Bethlehem for the census when Quirinius was governor but historians say that there were actually three censuses that took place during the time of Quirinius. One as early as 6 BC and one as late as 10 AD. Finally Matthew talks about the flight to Egypt to avoid the murderous intentions of King Herod and traditions say that they were in Egypt for three years before learning of Herod’s death and returning to Nazareth. Since most historians believe that Herod died in 4 B.C., that would mean that Jesus could have been born as early as 7 B.C. Here’s the problem. In those days there were not any real historians as we would define them today. Those who kept track of history were usually in the court of the King, and so chronicled history in a way that was always favorable towards that King whom they served. Some people say the fact that there is no mention of the Exodus in Egyptian history, proves that it never happened. But the truth is that it wouldn’t have become a part of the history of the Pharoah, because it put him in such a bad light. So because the birth of Jesus was not a positive reflection of either the reign of King Herod or the Roman Emperor, it would not have been given much consideration. Most of the history of the early church was written three or more centuries after the fact, when Emperor Constantine moved the empire towards Christianity. By that time many details were lost or so tied up with legend that it was hard to determine which was which. So without any definitive date for Jesus’s birth from any reliable sources, at Constantine’s insistence, the church picked the arbitrary date of December 25 because of it’s association with a Pagan feast that celebrated the winter solstice or the return of the light following the longest night of the year. And the year was set at 0 AD in the Roman calendar because the church divided history into two eras, with the birth of Jesus being the linchpin upon which the eras were divided. But the really important thing that we need to take away as we ask Where are you Christmas? Is that for the disciples and the early church when Jesus was born was not a major concern. In fact, in the first century birthdays were not a concern at all. The Disciples believed after the resurrection and ascension of Jesus that His return was imminent, certainly during their lifetime. And the early church adopted a sense of urgency, and anticipation and expectation based on that belief. Late in the first century of the church, apocalyptic writings like the book of Revelation were popular because they talked of the end times and the immediate return of Jesus. And it was certainly evident in Paul’s writings. But the longer they waited for Jesus, the more focus was placed on the historical Jesus. And they began to search for Christmas. The longer they waited for Jesus to come again, the more important it became to place the birth of Christ in the context of human time. But the first Disciples were much more concerned with God’s time rather than human time. In fact, for them faith was timeless. So they preached that the Kingdom of God had come, was here and would come again. Impossible to understand in human time but not in God’s time. Jesus talked to Nicodemus about being reborn in faith, and when Nicodemus tried to place that in the context of human time by replying “How can I be born again when I am already old?” Jesus says, I am not talking about birth into this world, I’m talking about being born in Spirit. So when Paul proclaims to the Galatians that in “the fullness of time, God sent His son to be born into the world”, he is not talking about human time. He uses the word Kairos when talking of time, which in the Greek literally means God’s time. When he says, “in the fullness of time”, He was really saying to the Galatians and all the generations that Christmas, the birth of the Son, the coming of the Messiah, the Savior, on earth, transcends time as we understand it, is timeless and then he goes on to say that what happened at Christmas is that, when He was and is ready, God “sends the Spirit of His own Son to be born into our hearts and we cry out ABBA, Father.” What Paul is saying is that we can’t confine Christmas, the coming of Christ, to one day or place in time. That Christmas happens whenever God sends His Spirit into the heart of even one Disciple. And so that makes the birth of Christ timeless.
I think that we often struggle to really find Christmas because we have arbitrarily decided that Christmas came on one day, December 25, and so for weeks we point to that day, as a day to celebrate, often without a real understanding of what or who it is we are celebrating. In fact, it sometimes seems as if we go to great extremes to disinvite Jesus from the celebration. Because we are trying to place a timeless event into the context of human time. And so every year the sales start earlier, and the decorations go up sooner, and we move forward with the anticipation and expectation that somehow on December 25 everything will be better. Though most don’t really have any understanding why that day will be a better day then every other day of the year.
I grew up in the time of the Viet Nam war and every night on the nightly news we were transported to the jungles and swamps of Vietnam and exposed to the horrors of war. It was the first war that was fought on the TV screens in the living rooms of America. And we didn’t like it. It was a very unpopular war. And I can remember in the weeks and days leading up to Christmas the great question that was debated was whether or not the sides could agree to a cease fire on Christmas Day. And it seemed as though there was always a last minute agreement and we all rejoiced that for one day there would be peace. And we’d talk about the Spirit of Christmas and peace on earth. But on December 26 the war resumed, often with renewed fervor. And we would wonder, Where are you Christmas? Do we really have to wait another year for peace to come again? This year, as we are moving towards December 25 many are wondering Where are you Christmas? In the midst of all of the strife and conflict in our world and nation, where are you? Where are you Christmas, for those whose families are divided? Where are you Christmas for those who will spend the days leading up to it receiving treatment for debilitating illness, when sometimes the treatments seem worse than the disease? Where are you Christmas in the midst of our grief and sorrow? Where are you Christmas in our troubled lives and nation and world? And it seems that every year we start preparing for Christmas Day earlier then the year before. The sales begin earlier and earlier. The last few years we have lamented about the stores that were open on Thanksgiving Day to get the jump on the Black Friday sales, but this year we seemed to forget Thanksgiving completely and the Black Friday sales began in October. Decorations become more elaborate and go up earlier every year. And the Christmas music starts filling up the stores and radios weeks ahead of Christmas. And the anticipation and excitement builds. Where are you Christmas? Where are you Messiah? You see, we struggle to find Christmas because we try to place it in the midst of our world, our time. All of our elaborate preparations have more to do with welcoming Jesus into our world, rather than our heart. And so we fail to understand that Christmas doesn’t just come one day of the year. We can’t locate it on a calendar or a clock. Because Christmas comes every day in God’s time, whenever the Spirit of Christ is born in a heart. In fact, in spite of the fact that you haven’t finished the shopping, or gotten all the decorations up, or prepared the Christmas feast. In spite of the fact that there is no cease fire, no peace in our world, or our lives, Christmas can come today. For you. And for me. Christmas is timeless and happens whenever even one gives their hearts to Jesus. Christmas comes when the timeless hopes of God for us intersect with our worldly fears, and Jesus Christ is born – in us.
During the months leading up to Christmas of 1865, an Episcopalian pastor from Philadelphia was struggling to find his faith in the aftermath of the Civil War and the Assassination of President Lincoln. So he decided to make a pilgrimage to the Holy Land to try and find Christmas. And Christmas Eve found him on horseback, riding from Jerusalem to Bethlehem, past the Shepherds fields, to be at Christmas Eve services. And it was there on December 24, 1865 that he found Christmas. When he returned, he wrote of his spiritual journey in the words of a hymn that he first wrote for the children of his church. But his words didn’t reflect on Bethlehem on that first night long ago or even that one night that he had experienced there. Instead he wrote about the timelessness of Christmas as that moment when the “hopes and fears of all our years” in his words intersect and Christ is born in each one of us. That’s where he found Christmas. And that can happen at anytime and in any place. Where are you Christmas? You are right there where you’ve always been, at that place where our hopes and fears meet, and Christ is born again and again and again and again. Did you know that there is an additional stanza of the song that was long ago omitted from the standard text we sing which is a shame because I think it fully captures the timeless nature of Christmas. Brooks wrote this:
Where children pure and happy
Pray to the blessed Child,
Where misery cries out to thee,
Son of the undefiled;
Where charity stands watching
And faith holds wide the door,
The dark night wakes, the glory breaks,
And Christmas comes once more.