This Advent season I will be delivering a series of messages on “The Many Moods of Christmas.” In these sermons, I hope to paint the scenes of Christmas in the colors of human feeling. Last week we shared Zechariah’s feeling of expectation as he looked forward to the birth of his baby boy, who would grow up to be John the Baptist. Next week we’ll have a chance to laugh at the joke God plays on Joseph, a young man who learns his young fiancée Mary is pregnant . . . and knows he isn’t the father. Of course the situation is not very funny for Joseph – but for us Christians, it is truly the Divine Comedy. This morning’s mood, however, is rather somber, as we reflect on Christmas as tragedy.
For all its joyfulness, there are tragic undertones to the Christmas story. King Herod seems like an early incarnation of Hitler as he kills every Jewish male infant in the little town of Bethlehem. Ordinary people are so mired in their own selfishness that they will not make room at the inn for a pregnant woman, so a teenage mother must give birth in a borrowed barn. And in the temple when old Simeon cradles the days-old Christ child, he murmurs with dark foreboding, “This child shall be for the rising and falling of many in Israel . . . ” and to Mary directly, “and a sword will pierce your soul also . . . ” So there’s more to the story of Christmas than falalalala, mistletoe, and “Pass the figgy pudding.” Tragedy is built into the Christmas story as well.
The roots of the tragic strain can be found all the way back in
Then the LORD God said to the woman, “What is this you have done?” The woman said, “The serpent deceived me, and I ate.” So the LORD God said to the serpent, “Because you have done this, “Cursed are you above all the livestock and all the wild animals! You will crawl on your belly and you will eat dust all the days of your life. And I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers [the classic King James version says “between your seed and her seed”]; he will crush your head, and you will strike his heel.”
This is the word of the Lord.
Lord, we are thankful that your guiding hand made sure that from Genesis to Revelation, Scripture bears witness to Jesus. We pray that you would come among us now to illumine your Word as we consider the mystery of your wisdom in coming to us on earth as Jesus of Nazareth, and we pray this in his holy name. Amen.
What preacher in his right mind would choose to preach on sin and evil in the middle of the Christmas season? I just hope I can keep you in your seats for the next twenty minutes. The great theologian H. Richard Niebuhr said that people today want to hear about a “God without wrath who brings people without sin into a kingdom without judgment through a Christ without a cross.” But if we don’t talk about evil, how can we talk about the world we live in today? A world filled with terrorism, gang violence, child prostitution right here on the streets of Atlanta, corporate greed – a world in which millions of people suffer daily from cruelty and injustice which is hard to imagine. Without acknowledging sin and evil, how can we explain the fact that many of us who are living the American dream, here in Atlanta and even right here in Buckhead, nonetheless feel a sense of emptiness and even darkness at the very core of our being?
A number of years ago my two brothers and I went on a fishing trip down to Baja, California. We were traveling to a little fishing village over miles of back roads on the coast of Baja, and all we had for a map was a drawing one of my brother’s friends had scribbled on the back of an old envelope. To give you an idea how crazy this trip was, the directions actually said that when we got to the village, we should simply go to the middle of town and ask for Raoul – that was supposed to be our official check-in! How do I get into these things? Well we arrived and found someone who led us to Raoul.
That night we slept in a shack behind Raoul’s house, and the next morning the three of us, along with three other gringos (slightly older gentlemen than us) piled into Mr. Castro’s beat-up old Boston Whaler with its sputtering outboard engine. We moved out through the waves, further and further, until finally we were out of sight of land. The fishing was incredible – we caught rock cod and sea bass – but as the day wore on, the waves got bigger and bigger. Every once in a while, a particularly large wave would slosh over the side of the boat and soak us. My brothers and I started kidding the older gentlemen. One of us said, “Well at least we don’t need seat cushions.” One of the men looked at us incredulously and replied, “Seat cushions? These are life preservers. Didn’t you bring any?” Suddenly, it became very quiet in that boat, as we realized our situation. We were in a dilapidated old Boston Whaler, miles from shore in rough seas, with nearly a foot of water in the bottom of the boat. And there were seven people onboard, with only three life preservers. I had repressed my memory of that fishing trip until I saw the movie Titanic.
I confess that my first reaction at the time was to look at the three older gentlemen and think, “These old guys have lived a full life. I’ve got little kids back home. I’m also bigger than they are. That’s the cushion I’ll go for if this baby goes down.” Today I’m still haunted today by the question: what would I have done if the boat had gone down? Out in those rough seas I glimpsed an aspect of myself that I’m not very proud of. But that same part of my character is with me at every moment of my life – in my marriage, in my work, in my driving. Selfishness is hardwired into our makeup as human beings, and it is the source of the evil in our world.
Years ago The London Times asked a number of writers to send in essays on the theme “What’s wrong with the world?” The response sent in by G.K. Chesterton was the shortest, but it got right to the point: “Dear Sirs: I am. Sincerely yours, G.K. Chesterton.” John Jay Chapman has said, “There are plenty of people to whom the crucial problem of their lives never gets presented in terms that they can understand.” So let me try to sum it up, using the words of the Anglican Book of Common Prayer: “We have left undone those things which we ought to have done; and we have done those things which we ought not to have done; and there is no health in us.” That is the condition that Kierkegaard called our “sickness unto death”: the megalomaniac tendency to place ourselves squarely at the center and shove even God off to the side.
The serpent says, “Oh come on, Eve! A little fruit won’t hurt you! The reason God doesn’t want you eating of that fruit is that if you do, you’ll become as smart as he is. He doesn’t want any competition. Come on, have a bite. Make yourself into a god!” And Genesis makes it clear that Eve thought about what she was doing, and then she chose to eat of the forbidden fruit.
And the father heart of God was broken as his humans, his beloved creations, joined the coup d’état against him, a treachery repeated by each one of his children since.
And after eating of the forbidden fruit, Adam and Eve do have new knowledge. They know they have done wrong, and they know they are naked.
And now we come to a part of the story that I love. They make for themselves clothing out of fig leaves. Have you ever felt the texture of a fig leaf? Fig leaves feel like sandpaper. That’s how smart Adam and Eve are after eating the fruit of the tree of knowledge: they clothe themselves in sandpaper. So when God comes they run – “Ouch, ouch, ouch, oooh, that hurts!” – and they hide behind bushes. God asks, “Where are you?” And they whisper furtively, ashamed: “Pssst. We’re back here. You see, we’re naked.”
“Naked? Who told you you were naked? Have you eaten of the tree of which I forbade you to eat?” Adam replies, “This woman – you made her, she was your big idea in the first place – she gave me the fruit, and I ate.” Adam’s quickness to blame Eve, to ascribe to her responsibility for his choice to sin, still bears fruit today. We have men who are incapable of loving because they are victims of the “Playboy philosophy,” which says a woman has to look a certain way to be worthy of love. A man will say with no sense of irony, “I can’t love her any more because she doesn’t look the way society says an attractive woman should. I may be as ugly as an old boot, but she still has to look like something out of a sailor’s dream.” At the moment of the Fall there began the unraveling of God’s intended intimacy between man and woman, and the result is the brokenness we see in families today.
And yet, even in his disappointment, God did not give up his dream. To the serpent he said, “I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your seed and her seed . . . “
In other words, out of the seed of woman – all other Biblical births are traced through the man, but in Genesis God says “out of the seed of a woman,” without a man – would come a Redeemer of the world, one who would undo all the brokenness, shame, pain and sin that Satan led Adam and Eve into. We have here the first prophecy of the coming of Jesus, and it gives a pretty clear assessment of his life and his impact on sin: the One who is coming shall crush your head, Satan. He will deal you a mortal blow. Oh, you may strike his heel, but then he will squish you.
This verse reminds me of the only time I ever heard my dear sweet fundamentalist mother say a bad word. It happened way back when I was a little boy. I had a pet salamander, and one night it got out of the shoebox where I kept it in the kitchen. In the dark my mom was walking barefoot across the kitchen floor. I won’t go into the details, but something soft struck her heel, and the result was one squished salamander. As early as Genesis, God is sending a clear announcement: Satan, I’m sending One who is going to squish you. When this One comes to power, you, Satan, will be history, along with all the evil you have ever done.
But this victory will not come without a cost. You will bruise his heel.
We see the bruising of Jesus’ heel in his birth in a rented barn . . . in his desperate flight for his life into Egypt as a days-old infant . . . in his rejection by the religious authorities of his day . . . in his tears in the garden . . . in his suffering, abuse and mockery at the circus of a trial they put him through . . . and finally in his death alone on a cross. Yet ultimately all of these sorrows amounted to nothing more than a bruising of his heel. And a bruised heel was a price he was willing to pay so that, as the author of Hebrews writes: “He might render powerless him who had the power of death, that is, the devil; and might deliver those who through fear of death were subject to slavery all their lives.” (
That is the reason why God came to us in Jesus Christ. It’s why in that third verse of Joy to the World we go all the way back to Genesis and sing,
No more let sins and sorrows grow,
Nor thorns infest the ground;
He comes to make his blessings flow
Far as the curse is found, far as, far as, far as the curse is found.
Behind those jolly faces on our holiday cookies lies the outcome of a cosmic battle between the God of light and the forces of darkness. What the world does not understand is something we in the church do understand: that Christmas is not a temporary distraction from our problems. It is not a glittery bauble we pull out to play with once a year. Christmas is our triumphant celebration of God’s victory over all that could ever hurt or harm or intimidate or destroy us, in this world or the next. It is God’s triumph over evil – think of the magnitude of that: God’s triumph over evil – the evil within us as well as the evil in our world, and over everything that could ever hurt or destroy us.
It’s really hard to lose your Grandpa at Christmas time. In my last church in Houston, our Data Manager’s nephew was a little boy named Willie. Willie’s grandpa died a week before Christmas. When the family arrived early before the service to gather and say their final goodbyes, five-year-old Willie was carrying his big Snoopy dog under his arm. On his way in, Willie tried out every pew and sat his Snoopy dog next to him, and he had Snoopy sniff every flower. As he made his way toward the others who were standing at the casket, they asked, “Willie, would you like to take a look?” Well, Snoopy came up to the casket and peeked in. Then they said, “It’s okay to touch . . . ” So Snoopy settled right down into the casket. Then Willie said, “That’s not my grandpa.” And a family member agreed, “No, Willie, that’s the house Grandpa used to live in. He’s in a new house now. We’re all going there someday.” Willie asked, “Will we know Grandpa then?” “Oh, yes we will.” Then they said, “It’s okay to give grandpa something.” (They were afraid he was going to leave old Snoopy in there.) But out came Snoopy, and Willie went over to one of the funeral floral arrangements, selected a flower and some greenery, and placed them in the casket beside his grandfather.
Friends, the tree of Christmas is always an evergreen. You’ll never see a deciduous Christmas tree, because even in the face of our last enemy, death, you and I are green and everlasting when we dwell in the heart of Jesus. If you look around the sanctuary this morning, it seems as if we are in a forest of evergreens.
Meanwhile, when will the sorrow and suffering of our world end? When will the brokenness and pain that have touched some of our families recently be healed? We don’t know. But we do know it won’t come about gradually, through the spreading of democracy, or through the influence of America, or even through the spread of humane values. This world of sin and brokenness will change in an instant, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet, when Christ shall come again. Only this time the world will see him as He is: the King of all. At that time, the eternal will once again invade time, and into our incompleteness and confusion, Christ will come again to make us whole.
I recently heard a song that reflects the tragedy and pain of this world, but also reminds us of its beauty and hope. It was written by Dave Wilcox, who composed it when a friend of his was killed by a drunk driver; the name of the song is “For Real.” I have asked our worship associate John Allison to sing it for us:
There’s a hole in the middle in the middle of the prettiest life
So the lawyers and the prophets say
Not your father nor your mother nor your lover’s ever gonna make it go away
Now there’s too much darkness in an endless night
To be afraid of the way we feel
Let’s be kind to each other
Not forever but for real
Some say god is a lover, some say it’s an endless void
And some say both, and some say he’s angry
And some say just annoyed
But if god felt a hammer in the palm of his hand
Then god knows the way we feel
And then love lasts forever
Forever and for real 1
Lord, we are thankful that in you, love lasts forever, and that if we live in your love, we are evergreen. We can hold on to your sure promise that a day will come when you restore this creation to the beauty and harmony you first intended. In that day you will wipe every tear from our eyes. This will be possible because you came to us in Christ, as flesh and muscle and bone, and you felt that hammer in the palm of your hand, for there was no sterile way for you to reach us in our lostness and heal us in our brokenness.
Make us real as you are real, Lord. May we not be content to live on the surface, finding temporary pleasure in parties and material treasures, and the artificial high of alcohol and drugs. Lord, crush the enemy within us this morning. Overcome our darkness, and give us a full jolt of your joy: uncontainable, irrepressible . . . Joy to the World. May the entire world know we are Christians by our joy. Amen.
Victor D. Pentz is Senior Minister of Peachtree Presbyterian Church in Atlanta, GA.
1 © Bob Franke, all rights reserved.