And in despair I bowed my head;
"There is no peace on earth," I said.
"For hate is strong
And mocks the song
Of peace on earth, good will to men!"
Some years Christmas seems out of place. This is such a year. Nations are looking down their respective gun barrels at one mother. The whole world is a lighted firecracker we are holdng in our hands, wondering when it will go off. The jingle bells sound like funeral bells, tolling the knell of our dead hopes.
For some personally, Christmas seems out of place. Death, or illness, or some tragic turn of events has robbed them of the joy of Christmas. They feel like taking the wreath from the door nd pinning it to the grave of their hopes. An Iowa minister was asked to write a Christmas sermon for his church's periodial. Just before he sat down to write it, his wife died. He said he was forced to view Christmas in a new and different light.
I hear two voices today: the voice of angels and the voice of anguish. The angels cry, "Glory to God in the highest." The voice of anguish is that of Rachel weeping for her children. Rachel died in childbirth and was buried at Bethlehem. So Then the Babylonians began oppressing the children of Israel, the prophet Jeremiah thought he could see Rachel coming up from the grave weeping. When Herod slew the infants at Bethlehem, the gospel writer thought he could hear that voice again--Rachel weeping for her children. Sometimes the voice of anguish drowns out the voice of angels.
Is there really any reason to believe that God "rules the world with truth and grace"? Doesn't Christmas belong to children, to a world we've outgrown? In a world infinitely large, can we still turn to a tiny village for our faith? In a world infinitely old, can we still believe the birth of a baby is the watershed of history? In a closed world of cause and effect, can we still believe that God entered history?
Our text assures us that we can. It is John 1:5: "The light shines in the darkness and the darkness has never put it out." There will always be a Christmas. The light is better seen in the dark. Were I to light a candle here today, it would not attract much attention. It would have to compete with the electric lights and with the sunlight coming through the windows. Should we come back tonight at midnight and light the same candle, its beams would reach the farthest and darkest corners.
Not only is it true that we keep Christmas today in an incompatible world. Christ came to an inhospitable empire. "It came to pass in those days..." What were those days like? Who was Caesar Augustus? Augustus had waded to his throne through a sea of blood. Three men shared the throne--and agreed to murder 300 senators and 2,000 knights to consolidate their position. Then two of the three were eliminated, and one man alone reigned. He changed his name to Augustus, "Majestic." He declared that he was God. This is the man whose long arm reached across the Great Sea and touched a carpenter at Nazareth and forced him and his wife to go to Bethlehem for the census. Over against Christ's manger we must see Caesar's throne. How great the power that baby challenged! Then Rome was a large place and Bethlehem small. Rome made the headlines while Bethlehem could not make the back page. Today that s reversed. Why? Because of the invincible Christ.
A cartoon showed Santa in jail, looking out through the bars. A boy on the street stares in dismay. It's true! St. Nicholas spent nine years in jail. He was metropolitan bishop of Myra. He was the special friend of children, kind and generous. He fell into disfavor with the emperor, and Diocletian arrested him. He tortured him and then imprisoned him, where he remained until Constantine released him in 312. But Christianity could not be imprisoned. There will always be a Christmas because there will always be a Christ.
Christ was introduced to the world by the name Emmanuel, "God with us." He is not just with us on one day. December 25 may not even have been the birthday of Christ. Others have been observed: November 18, January 6, March 25, and March 28. December 25 was chosen because it was the day pagans worshiped the sun. Christians deliberately chose that as the day to observe Christ s birth saying, "We worship not the sun but the One who made the sun." So Christmas means "God with us" every day of the year.
Christmas also declares that God is for us. We would not want Him with us if we did not know He was for us. Ancient peoples thought that sickness, misfortune, and tragedy were signs that God was angry. They lived in fear. They did not know that God is for us. Christopher Morley once wrote a poem, "To a Telephone Directory." He thought of all the people represented by those phone numbers. He thought of all the bad news they had received over the phone. He wished that he might call every one of them and give them some good news. It is possible to do that. The best of all good news is that God is for us. "Unto you is born this day, a Savior."
It is staggering to think
that God is with us. More staggering still is to think He was born
of a woman in a stable. Most staggering of all, God is in us.
A man was in Hungary one December helping the refugees from Soviet oppression. He was arrested and jailed. Making a mark each day, he knew when Christmas came. After his release, someone said, "Somebody owes you a Christmas." He disagreed. He said that on Christmas day he had had one wish, had wanted one gift. His diet had been a bowl of thin soup or a bowl of rice. He wanted desperately a piece of meat. When the guard came that day, he had two bowls. One held his thin soup, the other rice. On top of the bowl of rice was a big, fat pork knuckle. It was the first meat he'd seen in three weeks. To himself he said, "Somewhere hidden in this monstrous world in the heart of one cook, one warden, or one guard, the spirit of Christmas still lives."
Someone said that at Christmas,
man is almost what God meant him to be. Christmas proclaims the high
promise: "God in us."