Monday, December 24, 2012

The First Christmas Gift

The First Christmas Gift

The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness — on them light has shined. You have multiplied the nation, you have increased its joy; they rejoice before you as with joy at the harvest, as people exult when dividing plunder. For the yoke of their burden, and the bar across their shoulders, the rod of their oppressor, you have broken as on the day of Midian. For all the boots of the tramping warriors and all the garments rolled in blood shall be burned as fuel for the fire. For a child has been born for us, a son given to us; authority rests upon his shoulders; and he is named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. His authority shall grow continually, and there shall be endless peace for the throne of David and his kingdom. He will establish and uphold it with justice and with righteousness from this time onward and forevermore. The zeal of the LORD of hosts will do this. Isaiah 9:2-7

I suspect the whole experience wasn’t quite what she imagined the day the angel came to call. She’d never been pregnant. She’d never been married. And she’d probably never left Nazareth before. When she’d signed on for this tremendous task, she was scared but she figured God would take care of everything somehow. And God had, but not quite as miraculously and easily as he had placed the baby within her. Joseph did marry her, but not until after some discussion, thought and prayer. The neighbors hadn’t stoned her as an adulteress, but she knew they were still whispering behind closed doors. And then just as her time to give birth was near, the Roman government had demanded they travel to Bethlehem. If she’d ever dreamed of seeing the world, this was not the time to do it! Now here she was in the middle of the longest night of the year, in a stable in a strange town experiencing the greatest pain of her life.

Our Christmas carols and Christmas cards make it all look so tame, so easy, and so sweet. The innocent young woman, her doting husband, animals that don’t smell, a baby that doesn’t cry, and a star that gives off as much light as the sun. No smells, no harsh sounds, no pain, no fear, and no darkness. But that wasn’t how it was.

Jesus wasn’t born in some supernatural bubble. He was Emmanuel, God with us. So he was born into our very real and scary world. He wasn’t some baby doll that never cries but a flesh and blood baby whose parents took a deep sigh of relief when his lungs filled with air and he gave his first cry. He was not born in a castle surrounded by comfort and cared for by servants but in a stable surrounded by dirty, stinky animals and cared for by loving but inexperienced parents. Nor was he born in the bright light of day, but instead he was born in the middle of the longest night.

Perhaps that is why we try to clean the story up a bit. Because there is something very uncomfortable about acknowledging the darkness of the world around us and the darkness that exists within ourselves. Better to ignore the darkness. Better to pretend the world is a kind – if not good – place, and avoid watching the news, asking too many questions or looking too hard within. Better to turn the story of God breaking into the world into a sweet children’s story than to acknowledge that God took on flesh and came to dwell among us precisely because the world is a dark place.

But here is the good news of Jesus Christ: in the midst of darkness, in the midst of pain, in the most unexpected places and among the most unexpected people, God comes and the people who walk in darkness see a great light and the darkness cannot overcome it! This is what I so love about this story—not that God entered the world in some magically light, joyful and perfect place but that God entered into the reality of our dark, broken world and brought light, joy, and hope to it. God entered the world not when we needed him the least but when we needed him the most.

If Good Friday reminds us of the seriousness of our sin and rebellion, and Easter reminds us of the possibility of a new life beyond this one, then Christmas reminds us that this life, this world, this flesh are valued by God. The birth in Bethlehem grounds our faith. Christmas reminds us that God came for those of us who still live and struggle, who hunger and feast, who cry and laugh, who celebrate and mourn. In the midst of this present darkness—our pain, our sins, our grief, our fears – God came and his light shines in the darkness and the darkness cannot overcome it.

The first Christmas gift was a baby born to a poor couple in a stable: a candle lit in the midst of our darkness. The first Christmas gift was a single solitary flame but one which pierces our darkness.
 God, thank you for your gift of Christmas – a candle lit in the midst of our darkness. Jesus has come and the people who walk in darkness see a great light which the darkness will never overcome! Amen.

Rev. Sherill Clontz 
North Alabama UMC Cheaha District Superintendent 

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