Here we are at last. After all of the shopping, the parties, the eggnog, the trips to the airport, the Christmas programs, it all comes down to this: our celebration of the baby born two millennia ago in Bethlehem whom we believe was God incarnate — the Word become flesh.
It may have been hard to keep that focus in recent weeks. I remember sitting in Christmas traffic at a stoplight, which stayed red so long that I was sure the mechanism was broken. I sat there squeezing my steering wheel until my knuckles went white. Finally the light changed, and somebody cut me off. I could almost hear the Spirit of God saying, "Okay Vic, turn the other fender."
2000 years later, that baby is still teaching us how to live as Christians and how to love one another. He is here in this room today, and we are here to worship him as King of Kings and Lord of Lords.
When Ted Turner purchased the Atlanta Braves years ago, he brought in a young man named Terry McGuirk to oversee the Braves organization. Terry is a friend of mine, and a part of the Peachtree family. But before Terry took over responsibility for all the people in the Braves organization, he wanted to know what it was like to be at the bottom, to be an ordinary player on the field. So that year Terry McGuirk appeared at spring training disguised as a rookie trying out for a position in left field on the team. Terry was a superb athlete who had played baseball in college. He was about 25 years old, and he experienced firsthand all the things you go through as a nobody rookie walk-on: sore muscles, getting yelled at by the coaches, suffering countless humiliations in the attempt to make the team. After that experience, Terry became the head of the Braves organization. One of the reasons the Braves have been so successful is that the leader at the top knows how it feels to start at the very bottom.
At Christmas the God who is up there came to join us down here. He played on our field, he perspired under our sun, and he even learned how it feels to strike out.
Now if that sounds like a fairy tale, that's because it is one.
Søren Kierkegaard told it this way. There once was a mighty king who from a distance fell in love with a humble maiden. He was a mighty king! Every statesman in the world trembled in awe of him. No one dared speak a word against this king, who could crush nations with his power. Yet the heart of this mighty ruler melted with love for a humble maiden. Oddly enough, it was his kingliness which tied his hands. If he brought her to the palace, crowned her head with costly jewels and bedecked her in royal robes, of course she would not resist, because no one dared resist him. But would she love him?
Of course, she would say she loved him, but would she truly? Or would she live with him in fear, privately grieving for the life she left behind? Would she be happy at his side? How could he know her true feelings? If he rode up to her cottage in the forest accompanied by an armed escort, with bright banners flying, that would overwhelm her. He did not want a cringing subject; he wanted a lover, an equal. He wanted her to forget that he was a king and she a humble maiden, and to let their shared love cross the gulf between them. For it is only in love that those who are unequal become equal. So the king clothed himself in beggar's rags and slipped unnoticed through the palace gates. He walked the roads. He tilled the fields. And later in a marketplace, still in his tattered clothes, his hands now calloused from rough work, he bumped into her and introduced himself. Then he wooed and won the hand of this servant girl. On their wedding day he whispered in her ear, "My dear beloved, you are now a queen." And they were wed in royal splendor, and lived blissfully ever after as King and Queen.
That is the fairy tale of Christmas. The King of Heaven fell in love with his bride, the church, and humbled himself so that he might win her love.
Christmas is a fairy tale. And like a fairy tale, it takes place in magical land of time beyond time. In a fairy tale, the first order of business is to find a gateway out of this world into that world. For Alice it was her looking glass; in stories about Santa Claus, it is the chimney.
For our story of the Christ child, there isn't a chimney, or even a looking glass. What could be the magical gateway of this story? Oh wait . . . there's a manger. Perhaps if we focus on the manger, God will wrap his hand around this sanctuary like the cyclone wrapped itself around Dorothy's Kansas farmhouse and carry us back to that time of a stable and a star, and turn us into wise men and shepherds and disciples, just as if we were in the greatest fairy tale of all.
The best fairy tales take place at night; in the church we usually meet in the bright light of day. But that baby was born at night. The angels serenaded from heaven at night. Joseph had his dream at night. So John wrote in his gospel that the Christ boy came as a light into our darkness. As Simon Tugwell has pointed out, in Jesus God was pursuing us in our night, so when we tried to run away we ran right into his arms.
That seems like such a fairy tale. But what brings us and millions of other people together this season is not make-believe. The incarnation of God in human flesh — in the birth, life, death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth — was an historical event as real as the pews on which you're sitting. The eternal God entered this world as a microscopic human embryo, grew within Mary, and was born in a simple manger, having set aside all his divine attributes save one: love.
Years ago I took a year off from seminary and worked as a youth minister at a La Jolla, California church. I literally operated a ministry to surfers. My job description was, in one phrase, "to relate creatively to the beach culture." And did I ever take my work seriously. It was a fairy tale. Becky and I were just married. Instead of living in our own home, we spent that year house-sitting for wealthy people who traveled. While they were away, we'd stay in their opulent homes and keep an eye on their things. Often we would find ourselves in a palatial home overlooking the Pacific Ocean. To give you an idea of our surroundings, two weeks ago the Wall Street Journal featured a home in one of the neighborhoods we stayed in. It was selling for forty-one million dollars . . .
One day I took the youth group from my church in La Jolla down to a mission in Tijuana. The mission had been begun by an American dentist who had moved to Tijuana in order to minister not to the poor, but to the poorest of the poor. So he started a mission adjacent to the Tijuana dump. Hundreds and hundreds of families live in the Tijuana dump amid the mounds of trash, and every day they send their children out to find garbage to eat. So we went down during the Christmas season with sacks of groceries and wrapped Christmas toys, not really knowing what to expect. We got to the mission, then piled in our vans and followed Dr. Limon's beat-up pickup truck which had big loudspeakers mounted on the back playing Christmas carols. When we got to the dump, the scene reminded me of the movie Ben Hur when the lepers came up out of the valley of the lepers. Whole families came out from behind piles of trash. Most of them had rotted teeth and wore mismatching shoes of different sizes and colors. As Dr. Limon's speakers played Christmas music, they stood around clapping their hands, unselfconsciously grinning and showing those ghastly teeth which Dr. Limon had dedicated his life to fixing, along with delivering their babies and stitching their wounds and telling them of a God who loved them so much that He too was born in a place where no human should have to live. That day we bathed the children in disinfectant, which they hated, and then gave them toys, which they loved.
On the advice of Dr. Limon, I did something that day that I had not done before and have not done since. I wore a clerical collar, so that in that Mexican culture I would be clearly recognized as a pastor. Sure enough, that led to instant rapport with the people I met.
One man came up to me and took me by the hand. He led me through the piles of garbage out into the wilds of the Tijuana dump, to a large plywood lean-to. This ramshackle hut had a dirt floor and dirty blankets hanging at either end for doors, several children running around like filthy little angels, one table, a few chairs, and a broken-down couch where he motioned for me to sit before sitting himself. This was hospitality Mexican style. He reached out his hand and said, "Me llamo Chui . . . " Now I know enough Spanish to know that Chui is the nickname for the Spanish name Jesus. I was in the house of Jesus in the Tijuana dump. And I as look back on this scene I realize what a sense of humor God has. Chui said, "Victor, le gusta Coca-Cola?" (Do you like Coca-Cola?) I said, Si, me gusta mucho." And like a magician pulling a rabbit out of a hat, he reached down and pulled out a dusty warm bottle of Coke, the family treasure, which his children would have given anything to have. But I would have wounded him deeply had I refused it. He wiped that bottle off with his hand, popped it open, and got two Dixie cups for us . . . from the Tijuana dump. I almost crossed myself. But in a moment I will treasure for as long as I live, on that day during the Christmas season, Jesus and I shared a warm Coke together in the Tijuana dump.
Friends, imagine the distance from the palace on the cliff in La Jolla to the drafty lean-to in the dump in Tijuana.
That distance is nothing compared to the journey God made to reach us at Christmas.
The book of Hebrews describes the Lord of all enthroned in glory: radiant as a diamond, every angel eye was on him. But then the Lord of all looked down and saw the suffering and pain and heartbreak of our world. He saw that the terrible diseases of sin and selfishness had broken out and overtaken his beloved creatures. And knowing the cost of his coming, that in our twistedness we would certainly reject the God of light, out of love for us he came anyway.
He came so that tonight we might receive him by faith and have among us and within us the life of God, the eternal indestructible life of God's own spirit.
Sometimes it seems that in this world we are caught in the bad part of a fairy tale, surrounded by the darkness and evil forces, and there's no way to get out of our trouble, no hope that we will ever break out of that darkness. Every time we turn on the news, we are bombarded by stories of murder, terrorism, madness and mayhem. We feel small, insignificant, and helpless, and the darkness seems impenetrable. But in fairy tales, creatures are ultimately transformed into what they truly are. The ugly duckling becomes a great white swan, the frog is revealed as a prince, and the beast is transformed by Beauty's love. At Christmas, my friends, you and I undergo a magical metamorphosis into what we always are but sometimes forget to be: children of God.
We are all, in fact, characters in the greatest story ever told. James Patrick has likened the church to the characters in J. R. R. Tolkien's Ring trilogy: out in the world, moving among the forces of evil, surrounded by darkness on all sides, and yet triumphant.
I know of a Christian family in which there is a four-year-old daughter named Kylie. Like many other little girls, Kylie wants to be a princess. After all, she has heard the fairy tales and knows how beautiful princesses are. One day she asked, "Mommy, can I be a princess?" A lot of parents would have said, "Someday" or "Maybe," but Kylie's mom is a very smart woman. Without blinking, she replied, "When you believe in Jesus, you're already a princess." And silence suddenly engulfed this talkative little four-year-old, because the answer made perfect sense. Of course God would make her a princess. It's crazy to think he wouldn't do that for her.
Friends, you and I are sons and daughters of the King of Kings and the Lord of Lords. Though we live as flawed people in this flawed world, as someone has said, we are ragtag royalty. My prayer for each of you this evening and as you go out into the world is this: Feel that crown on your head — You are a princess! You are a prince! And won't you try to see that crown on the head of every person you meet, for your fellow human beings are princes and princesses all when you see them in the light of the glory of Christ. Glory be to God.
Victor D. Pentz is Senior Minister of Peachtree Presbyterian Church in Atlanta, GA.