We have all heard the Christmas story before.
The Christmas story is the story of a baby born miraculously and mysteriously to a virgin mother.
About a nobody girl named Mary, who saw the announcement that she would be the mother of the messiah to be the greatest privilege of her life, despite its meaning she would be ostracized perhaps the rest of her life, since she was not married
It is the story about a good and merciful man, named joseph, who when he heard that his fiancé was pregnant and he was not the father, he could have subjected her to disgrace and even had her stoned in the culture, but moved with compassion, simple was going to dissolve the marriage quietly.
A man that was reassured by an angel to marry the woman, and that he would be the legal father of the savior of the world.
It is a story set to the back drop of God’s people conquered and oppressed by a massive empire, ruled a tyranny Emperor who claimed himself to be the Son of God.
It about this little unlikely family having to travel miles through storm and sand to the town of Bethlehem to be counted by order of the Emperor Augustus.
It is a story about this family who upon returning to their own hometown found that no one wanted to give them shelter for the night. No family wanted them.
It is a story about the king of heaven being born in the muck and mire of a barn.
It is a story about good news announced by angelic hosts to lowly shepherds, forgotten in the wilderness, tending their sheep.
It is a story about wisemen following stars, fooling a local corrupt ruler and coming to worship the messiah child with gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.
It is a story about an escape in the night as Herod sent out guards to kill the children of Jesus’ age, trying to stop the potential usurper.
And so, this is a story about miracles and the messiah, about faithful servants and faithful spouses, unplanned pregnancies and ancient prophecies; it is about shepherds and tyrants, about journey and escape, about humility and royalty, oppression and hope.
This story is the first Christmas. It is the story. It is the most important story. It is the story of all our salvation. Our salvation began to be accomplished in history on that day, in that stable, in that dirty manger, to that poor Middle-eastern couple, two thousand years ago.
It is the truth that God is now with us: the incarnation. The infinite God dwelling with us mortals.
It is the truth about God’s rule. The messiah Jesus shows how God rules: he chooses the lowly; he chooses the poor; he chooses the unworthy, the forgotten, the unlikely. He prefers them to the powerful, the rich, the proud, and the oppressor.
It is the truth about forgiveness. Jesus wasn’t just the king of the righteous. He didn’t just love the deserving. He also loved sinners. In fact, he died for the people trying to kill him. He died for Emperor just as much as the shepherds. He died for King Herod just as much as the wise men. He died for the criminal and the terrorist just as much as he died for you and me.
The Christmas story is the truth about God’s fundamental character of love and compassion, about God being born in our form, identifying with our plight, binding himself to our fate, all to say that nothing can separate us from his love.
Immanuel: God is with us. He is not against us, he is for us. He gave us his son. He gave us himself.
It is also a difficult story to believe, too isn’t it? We live in a world of skepticism. It seems that usually about this time every year someone publishes an article, proclaiming their modern brilliance at just how unbelievable the Christmas story is.
Angels don’t exist. Miracles don’t happen. Virgins don’t have babies. Stars don’t give travelers directions. Gods don’t reveal themselves. It is simply an unbelievable story.
It’s preposterous; it’s impractical; it’s too spectacular; it’s too amazing. Things like this just don’t happen.
But our culture’s skepticism over the things of God – whether it is the possibly of miracles or the fact that God could indeed reveal himself – pays a high price.
Skepticism against the Christmas story is skepticism against hope itself.
We live in an apathetic age.
Wars can’t be stopped. Poverty can’t be solved. Politicians always lie. Life is always unfair. Marriages never work. Churches never help. God isn’t there.
There is no life after death, and ultimate no reason for life before it.
Right and wrong, good and evil, hope and tragedy, these are just creations of the human imagination with no real anchor in reality.
The world is not getting better. In fact, it is getting worse and to be honest, most people would think we are not worth saving.
Forgiveness? Hope? Love? Goodness? It’s preposterous; it’s impractical; it’s too spectacular; it’s too amazing.
It is unbelievable.
Perhaps the Apostles passed along this story not because they were primitive, but because they were just like us.
They lived in a skeptical age. Tyrants stayed powerful; peasants stayed poor; lepers stayed sick; women and slaves stayed property; the dead stayed in the grave; and there is nothing new under the sun.
…Until Jesus showed up. Perhaps the reason the Apostles passed along this Christmas story is precisely because it was unbelievable. Unbelievable yet true.
This is a watershed moment in history, a game-changer, a paradigm-shifter, an epiphany, an event.
God showed up. Hope showed up. Goodness and mercy and forgiveness showed up. Nothing like this had ever happened in their time. Nothing like it before or after. Prophets had foretold this, but who could expect it happening in this way?
Perhaps this story is true in all its remarkable, exceptional, unbelievable, beauty.
We can ask, just like Mary, “How is this possible?” And the angel’s words are just as true today as they were two thousand years ago: With God all things are possible.
With God all things are possible.
If we grant that, this story starts making sense.
Good does triumph over evil. Love does triumph over hate. Forgiveness does triumph over hurt. Peace does triumph over violence. Faith does triumph over idolatry. Hope does triumph over despair.
These truths are not the delusions of us human bi-pedal ape-species with an overgrown neo-cortex.
The deepest longings of the human heart, the groaning of the soul for a world without hunger, sickness, sin, death, and despair – as unrealistic as that sounds – that yearning knows this story is true the same way our thirsty tongues know that water exists.
Its real. Its possible. It is out there. It is here: in Jesus.
The only left to do with this story, when we are done pondering it and puzzling is to trust it.
Can you tonight trust this unbelievable story? Can you trust that with God all things are possible?
Can you trust that your life is not just there without value, but it is a gift, it was planned and made by a God that sees you as his child?
Can you trust that the wrong in your life, the sins we have committed that no excuse can defend has been forgiven by a God that knows you better than you know yourself and sees with eyes of perfect mercy?
Can you trust that God has come into history, has shown us the way, has died for our sins, and conquered the grave?
Can you trust that God can set right all that has gone wrong as we invite him to renew our hearts, our minds, our souls and strength, our relationships, our job and family, our past and future, our communities and our country?
Can you trust that this Christmas story about God’s miraculous power, his unlimited compassion, his surprising solidarity, can be shown to be true this night just as much as it did then? In you, in the person next to you, in this church, in this town.
We give gifts at Christmas time as a sign of God’s generosity, but do we look forward to God’s gifts to us each Christmas?
Do we look for the gift of renewed spirits?
Do we look for the gift of transformed hearts?
Do we look for the gift of forgiveness of past hurts?
Do we look for the gift of reconciled relationships?
Of new freedom from guilt and shame, from hurt and hatred, from addiction and despair, from materialism and apathy.
What gifts are we going to see given from God’s spirit this Christmas.
Perhaps it will be like what happened to Nelson Mandela (just one story I read about this week about how the truth of Christmas changed someone in remarkable ways). In South Africa where Blacks were segregated off from the privileged of White society, Mandela as a young man advocated armed uprising and was imprisoned for life in 1962.
In prison he faced all the things that would, by any worldly standard, destroy hope, love, joy and peace in any man’s soul. He was beaten by the guards. He recount one day being forced to dig a pit that the guards taunted him saying it would be his own grave. As he dug, they peed on him and spat on him. The prison was so dirty he contracted tuberculosis.
Conditions like that fester the heart not just the body, but the miracle of Christmas reached him. Mandela recovered his Christian faith in prison, and was moved with hope towards a better tomorrow, with love and forgiveness towards even his guards that beat him.
In a sermon he gave later in life, he spoke about the hope he gained knowing that the messiah was born an outcast like him. This unbelievable Christmas story, the story that we recite and remember till it we often take it for granted, restored a man’s heart in one of the darkest of places.
Christ’s name is Immanuel: God with us. God was with the shepherd, with Mary, with Joseph, with the oppressed Israeli people, and so, also with Nelson Mendela.
After 26 years in prison, campaigns to have him pardoned succeeded, and Mandela went from prison to the presidential campaign, running to become president and end apartheid, not through violence but through reconciliation.
He won and he even had the guard that beat him from prison, whom he reconnected with and forgave, at his inauguration, a guest of honor.
Its an unbelievable story isn’t it?
How will God work something unbelievable in you tonight?
We could say that our lives aren’t as fantastic as Mendel’s, but then again, if we say that, we would be selling ourselves and our God short.
You see, a story about angels and a virgin giving birth and about a God found in the form of a baby might be unbelievable, but we Christians take that as part and parcel of what our unbelievable God does.
There is a saying that goes if you are in for a pound, you might as well put in a penny.
If we know that God has done the miraculous, can we trust him now with the mundane?
If we know that God has given us life, can we trust him with our finances and family?
If we know that God has atoned for all sin, can we trust him with our fears and failures?
If we know that God has conquered the grave, can we trust him with the worries of tomorrow?
If we know our God is a God that can do all things, that he has already accomplished everything, perhaps can you trust him with something small now. Let’s do something small right now. Something small but still significant.
Let’s have a moment of silence and stillness. We don’t get enough of those in this busy season. Have a moment right now to say to God whatever you need to say or to listen to God and hear whatever he as been trying to tell you, then we will pray together…
Living God, Father of our lord Jesus Christ.
May the worship we have shared this Christmas lead ro acts of service which transform people’s lives
May the carols we have sung this Christmas help others to sing, even in times of sadness.
May the gifts we exchange this Christmas deepen our spirit of giving throughout the year.
May the candles we have lit this Christmas remind us that you intend no one to live in darkness.
May the new people we have met this Christmas remind us that we meet you in our neighbors.
May the gathering together of family and friends this Christmas make us appreciate anew the gift of love.
May these unbelievable stories we have told again this Christmas be good news of great joy to us and all people, proclaimed on our lips and embodied in our lives.
May the ways you have come close to us this Christmas not be forgotten.
May we remember your unbelievable love, mercy, grace, and forgiveness – that you are our life, our light, and our salvation, this season and always, because of Jesus Christ our Lord.
[End prayer modified from Gathering for Worship: Patterns and Prayers for a Community of Disciples by the Baptist Union of Great Britain]
What follows is a meditation/eulogy that I wrote after my best friend, Craig Simmons, was tragically killed in a bus accident in Korea in June of 2010. The meditation moves between a tribute to his life and a meditation on the problem of evil, pushing back the trite answers of others around me as I grieved. Reader should not that the courtyard above is the one mentioned in the reflection below.
Much of Craig and I’s friendship was built on the basis of our love of sharing deep thoughts about life, faith, culture, justice and everything in between. In the spirit of such meaningful conversations, (which often took place late at night over a cup of coffee while procrastinating from writing papers due), I would like to share some thoughts and reflections.
I have been reading a theologian that has made an acute observation about the nature of humanity. We are, what he calls, “exo-centric” beings. See, to be an “exo-centric” being means that we find our meaning in something outside of ourselves, in those around us. This quality is exemplified by our belief in God as a triune being who exists as he is love and is loved by Son and Spirit and is reflected in us as God’s children. This term reflects the meaning of Craig’s friendship on me, and the reason why Craig was such a cherished individual for so many. There are very few people that can seriously be considered life-long friends, much less ones that you can say have formed you, given your life meaning, and thus, have become apart of you. Craig was one such friend.
I first met Craig at Heritage College. He and I were taking a class on spiritual disciplines where both of us, without the other knowing, had given up meat for 40 days. Apparently, Craig had gotten wind of this fact and strolled into my dorm room one evening giving his customary greeting, “How the heck are ya?” (the equivalent of Spock’s “live long and prosper” greeting), which was followed by a trip to Crabby Joe’s all-you-can-eat pasta event. “Since we cannot eat meat and it is almost the end of the 40 days, let us celebrate by eating like vegetarian kings!” he announced. I don’t remember the conversation that night (I remember it being memorable, I just can’t remember what!), but I do remember him packing down nearly five plates of food as I sat there in awe. I don’t think either of us truly understood or applied the meaning of Lent that night. Nevertheless, this occasion was one of many great outings in which we sampled the many flavors Cambridge had to offer, and what was sure to become a great friendship.
The next year we were room mates, one of about three years that I had the privilege of living with Craig, leading up to both of us getting married last summer, both of us in each others’ wedding parties. That was a summer I will not forget, a summer spent enjoying life to the fullest.
Being around Craig was like being in a sit com sometimes. The goofy uncanny situations and adventures he would get into was simply a spectacle to behold. Everyone who knew Craig knows that he was fashionably late for everything because of the bizarre jams that he would get into. The tales were often so well told that people were rarely angry at him for being late. One time we were late for church as the door to his old Chevy Cavalier would not shut. Insistent on hearing Pastor Ian Campbell’s sermon that week, and to generally overcome adversity anyhow, we drove to church in the winter weather, down the icy 401 at some deadly speed. Craig driving with one hand on the wheel, one hand holding the door shut. I would have held the door also, but I was too busy praying. We got there just in time for the sermon. I must admit, I have never been so proud to be thirty minutes late for church. Of course, Craig strolled in like he always did, as if he owed the place.
Craig was also notoriously bad for getting into situations that involved him putting his foot in his mouth. One time at future shop he walked up to a person trying to lift a box and said, “Can I give you a hand?” only to realize that the person only had one arm. Another time, we were at a student conference in St. Louis, and we sat at a table with other random students. One guy turned to Craig and asked, “where do you go to school?” Craig replied, “Oh, I go to Harvard…no just kidding, I go to a school that has more to it than just prestige. Where do you go?” Can you guess where? Lo and behold, at the table, as we went around asking where everyone was studying, we found that the entire table was composed of students from Harvard, Chicago, Cornell, and Princeton. What are the odds? Obviously not that high for a guy like Craig.
He was also late for everything because he was irresistibly friendly. Yet the strange thing was that, unlike most social butterflies, Craig was not a people-pleaser nor was he a conformist to every new fad or trend, in fact, quite the opposite. He was bold-headed in the extreme. However, it was that kind of transparency and honesty that made Craig so gregarious. When you spoke to Craig, you got Craig, uncut and commercial-free. From his work boots and torn-up Faulk football jersey to his car that sported the proud “Farmers Feed Cities” sticker in its window, Craig was who he was, no apologies. And if you were daring enough to be as authentic as he was, there was virtually no limit to the energy he was willing to pour into that relationship. Now when I say “authenticity” and “energy” I don’t mean writing “hey bff” on each other’s facebook walls. I mean debates over coffee that would last well into the night; I mean dorm-room wrestling matches; I mean spontaneous “Whopper Wednesday” Burger King runs after watching Smallville; I mean road trips across the continent and back; I mean campfire night conversations over Cuban cigars talking about ways to change the world; I mean all-you-can-eat rib fests that involved the purchasing of over-the counter-edemas the next day. That is the kind of one-of-a-kind friendship, I had with Craig, a friendship that has constituted who I am as a person.
Of course, now, he is gone. Without cause or warning, rhyme or reason, Craig walked across the street at a crosswalk and was hit by a careless bus driver. Just as his friendship was a significant presence when he was alive, so also is his death a ineffable absence. It is a strange thing to feel the loss of a friend. When I feel this sad absence, I am reminded of all the joyful memories I had with him. When I think of all the good times I had, I am reminded of the tragic absence. It is the absence that my future has been deprived of this one unique influence that has been the root of so many of my past experiences of happiness and meaning. In such a way that our futures are apart of our being, now, I feel incomplete now, in need of healing.
Craig was planning on attending the same college in the University of Toronto I am now at for my doctorate. In fact, on the day before his accident, he spoke on the phone, as he wished me a happy birthday, we shared each others mutual excitement about next year. Every time next semester when I sit and read a deep book as I sip a coffee in one of the beautiful courtyards of the university, I will miss Craig. I will recognize that that moment will not have been as good without him.
What encouragement is there that can comfort the loss of a friend that you anticipated growing old with, a friend that one day you thought you would be playing chess with in a park somewhere, sharing stories about each others’ grandchildren, reminiscing about the good old days? While I appreciate the efforts of some to give encouragements, observing the “good that has come out of this situation,” I think in order to truly miss someone, to love them and remember them for all that they were and still are, to do the work of mourning well for someone who has impacted your life in this way, is to say that there is no good that has come out of this situation, only despite this situation. No future will ever be as good of a future as it could have been with Craig alive. In the end, there was no good reason for him to have died. An inexplicable tragedy as such, is beyond explanation; it defies explanation; the answer to the question “why?” escapes us. It cannot be answered. It should not have one. It should not even exist to have an answer.
I for one see a deep incompatibility with the tragedy of this age and the existence of a loving God. I say this as a Christian, like Craig was. As this present reality is marred with inexplicable evil, I say that, in so much as he is perfect love that heals all pain, God has yet to fully “exist.” He has yet to arrive in our existence in the way he promised. He is yet to be “all in all.” We know that he is there, that he has shown his goodness before, and that he promises to again. But, where is he here, now? Up in heaven, far off, aloof? No. If we take serious our claims that the Holy Spirit is within us, as he was in Christ, the death of one of God’s children, for God, is nothing less than what he bore on the cross: death. Death but not defeat. God feels death with us, as there is nothing we experience that he does not know perfectly. God was with Craig in his darkest moments. Christ bore those dark moments. That is our God Immanuel. God did not forsake him. God longs for healing of this broken world with us.
And so, perhaps the most appropriate, the most biblical response is not “God is good, all the time” (although that is true), but is “How long O Lord?” with the expectation that as the God that died on the cross, that suffered but later was restored in resurrection, will restore all things by the power of a love stronger than death, and so also, our friend.
What answer is there to this question to an event that should not have an answer, an event that should not have been? The only appropriate answer is Craig’s own answer. One time, during one of our many discussions, Craig voiced his displeasure with the corporate prayers during church for healing in one instance. He pointed out that often we become obsessed with wanting everything to be okay now. We pray for comfort now, happiness now, and healing now. He remarked that we often become so fixated on having comfort now, that we forget that to truly need God is to realize the emptiness and frailness of the present life that does not have God fully in it now. Instead of praying for the delaying of death, that this “cup would pass,” the most appropriate response is trust in the promise of a future beyond death, faith in a future that causes one to live in radical contradiction to the present, and loving people beyond and despite what the present deems possible.
In asking God “How long?” is the bold faith that Craig was speaking about, a faith that demands God’s answering, but does not permit an answer yet, a faith that mourns, remembers, trusts, and ultimately, waits. As we asked God to heal Craig when he was hit by that careless bus, we expected God to heal him as the only answer that is appropriate to God being a God that is powerful and good. There was even a blog entitled “Fortune Favors the Bold” set up in expectation of his healing. What was the boldness that Craig stood for? The boldness that fortune will favour him by? What healing is there that we should expect? It is in the bold trust of a future that offers healing that is more than physical, greater than the physical. This is in the strict sense impossible, but is the only possibility that God’s perfect love for it to be such is possible. As we ask God, “How Long?” God responds, “Wait and see.” The impossible will be made possible.
And so, I mourn the loss of a friend, feeling an absence of a future that will not be the same without the life of my friend. However, as I wait, I also feel a new presence. It is the presence of a future breaking into the present, manifested in the promise. The presence of a new future, an impossible made possible future, promised by what God did despite the tragedy of Christ’s death, a future where God died yet rose again, who appears absent now but will one day be “all in all.”
There I will see Craig again. There I will reminisce with him about adventures past and, perhaps, play chess with him in the gardens of the heavenly city. There the wounds of a friendship lost will be no more. There God’s love, God himself, will be fully manifested. In this future, there I will stand with him, with my friend and with Christ also (resurrected but with the scars of the cross), all of us will stand there on that day together, healed.