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Monday, December 24, 2012

Hope on Christmas Eve: God Will Not Be Kept Out

Michael Card renders the story of the incarnation in the following manner: A sign shall be given. A virgin will conceive. A human baby bearing, Undiminished deity. The glory of the nations. A light for all to see. That hope for all who will embrace, His warm reality. For all those who live in the shadow of death, A glorious light has dawned. For all those who stumble in the darkness, Behold your light has come. Immanuel, Our God is with us. And if God is with us, Who could stand against us? Our God is with us, Immanuel.

When I lived in Medellin, Colombia, city wide power outages were a regular part of our life there. We'd be sitting in our apartment, chatting, reading, or watching TV when in an instant, the lights would flicker and seconds later, all would go dark. We'd stumble around, searching for candles to light, seeking to illuminate our dark surroundings. It's really, really dark when every power source in an entire city is cut. You can barely see the hand in front of your face. And in those cases, when the darkness fell, it was up to us to find some light.
In many ways, the incarnation of Christ is the exact opposite of what happens during a power outage. I suppose we could say that spiritually speaking, we started in the dark and through the power of God's desire to bring light into our world, Jesus came and chased away the darkness. But that source of light came on its own merits, ordained by God. We are not the ones who have to go and find a source to illuminate our spiritual darkness. God has taken the initiative and brought the light to us.
For me, at Christmas, the core of the gospel revolves around God coming to us. The light that shines in our spiritual darkness is a light that is given to us, not one that we have to search endlessly for. It is given to us because God never tires of bringing it. At Christmas, we must never forget that Jesus came to us. Not because we deserved it or because we even knew that we needed it. He came to us because he knew that, on our own, we couldn't come to him. It is God's initiative in our lives and in our world that allows the light of Christ to shine. And that is why it can never be snuffed out...no one has the power to stop God's initiative to bring light to our lives through the person of Jesus Christ. No one can impede the love of God in Christ from reaching us. God's love can and will overcome all obstacles. And what is really quite amazing is that God creatively seeks out ways to reveal himself to us. He adjusts and changes the manner in which we might see him, so deep is his desire for us to have an abiding relationship with him. This image of God coming to us, of entering our world, of adjusting his appearance so that we might more easily meet him is beautifully illustrated by Soren Kierkegaard, a wise, Danish theologian. It's the story of a king and a maiden. “The king was the wealthiest, most powerful respected king in all the land. No one dared oppose him or speak a word against him. Now, as powerful and as respected as he was, he had one problem. He had fallen in love with a maiden who was a peasant. How could he show her his love? The fact that he was rich and powerful and famous was actually a barrier. He thought about allowing his knights to escort him to her humble cottage and demand by his authority that she marry him. But that wouldn't do. He wanted a wife, not a slave. He wanted someone to love him and share her life with him, someone who was happy and eager to be along his side. He also thought he could shower her with gifts and jewels and robes, but no, he didn't want to buy her either. He wanted her to know that his love was free. And well, like anyone else, he also wanted to know that her love for him was freely given back. So how was the king going to find a way that his love could grow between him and this peasant woman? Well here's the amazing thing. He didn't disguise himself as a poor man, he actually became poor. He loved her so much that he denounced his throne, stepped aside from his wealth and his kingly power and came adorned in the clothes of humility and of love. And so it is for us, that this is how we know that God loves us as he does. What we celebrate in the incarnation of Jesus is that our great king also set aside his power and his authority and came to us in the person of Jesus Christ, as a tiny little baby, lying in a manger, that we might know his great love for us.”
The key for me is that God comes to us. And he comes to us on our terms, so that we might choose to love him and accept him as our lord and savior, not because we have to, but rather because we can and want to. God does not want to enslave us or lure us to him with riches and wealth. Likewise, He will not demand that we follow him and prioritize him. He will allow us to walk away, to choose another, to reject his presence and his lordship. He will allow us to choose a pathway of destruction, perhaps even evil at times. But those are our choices, not his. And our choices do not ever stop his choice to come after us. That is why when God chose to send his son into the world he did so by stooping low so that no matter our situation in life, we will always be able to meet him face to face. The light that is Christ is a hovering light. It follows our darkness with a longing to burst forth at any moment. So while there are many things in life that we perhaps chase, the light of Christ is the one thing that perpetually chases us. We do not have to search for the light that is Christ. It is constantly present because God has taken the initiative to send his light to our world and no one nor no thing can thwart that mission.
I suppose for me, that is why, the conversation about keeping Christ in Christmas is one that I am not overly fond of. The very language of keep implies that somehow God could actually be excluded from the event. If we buy into this notion that if somehow by saying Happy Holidays instead of Merry Christmas, we're kicking God out of his own event, we've given ourselves far too much power. Are we really so shallow to believe that God is so fragile that his very presence can be blocked by our actions? Have we forgotten what God overcame 2000 years ago when Jesus came into our world? Remember, it was virgin who bore a son. It was a Jew who showed up in the Roman empire. It was a barn where the king of the universe was born. It was shepherds who saw the light and ran to pay homage and a powerful king who saw a star and took measures to start a slaughter. And even so, the incarnate Christ lived on. Why do we think we can actually keep Christ out of Christmas through our puny actions?
Of course, we wonder a bit, don't we, where the light of Christ shines when country-men kill one another in civil wars, when angry young men shoot innocent children, when “acts of God” pillage and rampage poor communities with fire, flood, and earthquake. But in the midst of tragedy do we not always see acts of kindness and love, graces abounding even in the most gruesome situations? To decide that the darkness that tragedy casts on our earth is a reason to claim that God is absent is to miss the fullness of why he sent his light into the darkness in the first place. God saw the darkness of humankind and knew that we needed a savior. God saw the hopelessness embedded in tragedy and thus decided to come into this world to provide a way of peace, a thread of hope, the promise of joy, and a love that lasts to break the dark monotony of the things this world continually produces. So perhaps instead of asking where God is in the midst of human tragedy, why not cry out with a loud voice of Thanksgiving to God that he choose to leave his throne above and enter this dark world with the light of lights so that we don't have to stumble around in the darkness of this world without his peace, joy, hope and love to accompany us? Imagine how tragic the world would be without the hope of the incarnation.
And that is why I believe with my whole heart that God cannot be kept out. God cannot be left out. God will find a way, as he has always found a way, to take the initiative, to be the bearer of light, to chase us with his unrelenting love, to show up in the most unexpected places of our world. One of the most moving accounts of Christmas I have ever read was a rendering of a prisoner of war's experience in an enemy prison where he had been tortured and where the future of his life was uncertain every single day. He began, “On Christmas night we held our simple, moving service. We began with the Lord's Prayer, after which a choir sang carols. We all joined in the singing, nervous and furtive at first, fearing the guards would disrupt the service if we sang too loudly. With each hymn, however, we grew bolder, and our voices rose with emotion. Between each hymn, I read a portion of the story of Christ's birth from the pages of the Bible I had copied. "'And the Angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day, in the city of David, a Savior, which is Christ the Lord.'" The night air was cold, and we shivered from its effect and from the fever that still plagued some of us. The sickest among us, unable to stand, sat on the raised concrete sleeping platform in the middle of the room, blankets around their quivering shoulders. Many others, stooped by years of torture, or crippled from injuries sustained during their shoot down, stood, some on makeshift crutches, as the service proceeded. The light bulbs hanging from the ceiling illuminated our gaunt, unshaven, dirty, and generally wretched congregation. But for a moment we all had the absolutely exquisite feeling that our burdens had been lifted. This was our service, the only one we had ever been allowed to hold. It was more sacred to me than any service I had attended in the past, or any service I have attended since. We gave prayers of thanks for the Christ child, for our families and homes, for our country. We half expected the guards to barge in and force us to conclude the service. Every now and then we glanced up at the windows to see if they were watching us. But when I looked up at the bars that evening, I actually wished the guards had been looking in. I wanted them to see us-- faithful, joyful, triumphant. The last hymn sung was "Silent Night." Many of us wept.” 
God cannot be kept out. Not by the evil action of humanity, not by prison walls, not by sorrow, not by death. His coming means that these things do not get the last word. His light will relentlessly break the darkness because it is central to his identity to reach for us. God cannot NOT love us and therefore there is nothing we can ultimately do to prevent God from dwelling among us for if God's presence is dependent upon our righteous actions, he would've left the earth long ago...in fact, it is likely that he would never have come at all. We are not righteous. We are in need of a Savior. We all stumble in the darkness whether it be from a wrong doing we have committed or a wrong doing done to us...it matters not, we cannot overcome the darkness of humanity by the power of our own will...only God can and thank God he does!
Author Rachel Held shared this good news last week. “God can be wherever God wants to be. God needs no formal invitation. We couldn’t “systematically remove” God if we tried. If the incarnation teaches us anything, it’s that God can be found everywhere: in a cattle trough, on a throne, among the poor, with the sick, on a donkey, in a fishing boat, with the junkie, with the prostitute, with the hypocrite, with the forgotten, in places of power, in places of oppression, in poverty, in wealth, where God’s name is known, where it is unknown, with our friends, with our enemies, in our convictions, in our doubts, in life, in death, at the table, on the cross, and in every kindergarten classroom from Sandy Hook to Shanghai.  God cannot be kept out.”
So this Christmas let's celebrate the reality that the Christ of Christmas is here to stay. Let's rejoice that the Christ of Christmas came into this world and dwells among us. Let us praise our loving and gracious God who always relentlessly pursues us and our world. Let us give thanks that the light of Christ will always find a way.
Friends, as we prepare to light our Christmas candles from the Christ candle, as symbol of our desire to join God in his desire to see his world flooded with his light, let us remember that the very name of our church, Immanuel, it means God with Us. And let us remember that there's not a thing that we or anyone else on this earth can do to alter that reality. God is with us. Today. Tomorrow. And always. Amen.