She was a member of the first parish I served as a pastor. She had been seriously ill for several years. Now, in the waning days of Advent, while the Church awaited the coming of Christmas and the return of Jesus, she took a turn for the worst. "It will be her Advent soon, Pastor," her husband told me. "In a short while, she'll see Jesus coming to be with her in heaven."
Before I left his wife's room that night, we shared a prayer. We asked God to ease her pain and to allow her to see the Lord's coming, His Advent, soon.
Just before Christmas, as I prepared for worship, I got the telephone call. She would soon die. I drove quickly to be with her and her family. I got there just after she passed from this life to be with Christ. With tears in his eyes and a smile on his face, her husband told me, "It is her Advent, Pastor."
You know, there's a lot of sentimentality and silliness attached to Christmas. Hawkers of everything from jewelry to flannel underwear call it a magical time, especially if you buy what they're selling. Every year, hundreds of people, disappointed by the false promises made by the Christmas industry, take their own lives, unable to cope with the realities of a world in which wars rage, arguments go unresolved, and illness and death refuse to take holidays.
Christians aren't immune to the message of the fake Christmas touted by the movies, television commercials, and popular songs. They look at their own sometimes painful lives and wonder what good the baby in the manger does.
But it's important to remember that when Jesus calls us to follow Him, the same Jesus Whose birth we celebrate tonight, He doesn't call us into a kingdom of sugar plum fairies. Heavenly perfection belongs only to those who have followed Him through life in this world. Christmas is a signpost of coming attractions. In the meantime, you and I live here.
A devotion in the most recent issue of Our Daily Bread reminds us, "Let us at all costs avoid the temptation to make our Christmas worship a withdrawal from the stress and sorrow of life into a realm of unreal beauty. It was into the real world that Christ came, into the city where there was no room for Him, and into a country where Herod, the murderer of innocents, was king.
“He comes to us, not to shield us from the harshness of the world but to give us the courage and strength to bear it; not to snatch us away by some miracle from the conflict of life, but to give us peace—His peace—in our hearts, by which we may be calmly steadfast while the conflict rages, and be able to bring to the torn world the healing that is peace.”
God is the author of miracles, of course. And we should never forget that or cease to pray for them. But the greatest Christmas miracle of all is the one described by the evangelist John in the prologue to his Gospel, which we'll hear in its entirety in just a few moments:
"In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God...And the Word became flesh and lived among us…"God came to the world in the person of Jesus and through His death and resurrection can make the same promise to us that He made to the sister of His friend, Lazarus:
“I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die."What that promise meant for that man in my first parish is that even amid the sorrows and the grief of this world, he could be filled with joy, the joy of Christmas. He had the confidence, the hope, and the serenity that belongs to all believers in Jesus Christ.
The promise of Immanuel, of God with us, can also have an impact on how we live each day on this imperfect planet. I once knew a man named George (not his real name). George was a veteran of World War II. A soldier, he had fought and trudged across Europe through one battle after another. He had seen and experienced the death, disease, and privation visited on humanity by human evil. “I promised God,” he once told me, “that, with His help, if I could do anything to prevent a child from going hungry or a family being without heat or running water, I would do it. I didn’t want to kill any more.”
George came home, went to college, became an engineer, married, and started a family. But he never forgot his promise. Until he died in his late-seventies about five years ago, he headed the outreach ministries of his congregation, a Lutheran church in the Cincinnati area. I’ve known George to go out to remote rural households on blustery nights just to deliver a bag of groceries to a family in need. When his church ran out of budgeted funds in November, I knew that George would call me. “Pastor,” he’d say, “there’s a family that needs help. Could your church help them?” “Yes, George,” I’d say.
Some who saw the things George saw during the war spent their lives trying to forget them. That’s understandable. I might have reacted in the same way. But George looked at war’s horrors from a different perspective. His vow to use what he saw and experienced as a springboard for living life differently shows us that you and I need not be overwhelmed by the sorrow or difficulties of life. We can face them from the perspective of people who know that they belong to God forever and confident of our places in Christ’s kingdom, be empowered to love our neighbors and to bring something of Christ’s kingdom of love to this needy world!
Christ came at Christmas and He comes to all who call on Him any day to give us the strength and peace to live each day, to let us know that, no matter what, in life or death, in happy times or sad, He is our God, He is our Savior, and He will never leave us or forsake us.
Latch onto that promise, the promise of the manger, made with the flesh and blood of Jesus Himself, as we celebrate Christmas tonight.