I don’t think I’ve ever seen a look of relief as I saw on the face of a couple leaving church a week ago. It seemed they were driving around when their cell phone rang. It was their panicked neighbor telling them that she had smelled smoke, had gone to the couple’s house, and their Christmas tree was on fire. It turned out they were just a couple blocks away, so they tore home. If they had been a minute later, their house would have gone up in flames. As it is, they only have to repaint a wall.
As the child of a firefighter, I had one lesson drilled into me again and again and again and again: Don’t play with fire.
In a sense, you might say I’ve gone into the same line of work as my dad. Whether the flames of hell turn out to be literal or figurative, the message from the pulpits is: Do not take lightly the eternal commands of God. Don’t play with fire.
There are certain things we call playing with fire. If you poke a stick at a pit bull, if you leave a loaded gun lying around the house, if you ask a married person out on a date, it’s just not smart. You are playing with fire.
Then it struck me that here at Peachtree on Christmas Eve, thousands of us come into this building to play with fire. In our hugest numbers of the year, we come together having donned our most festive clothing, with our hearts filled with cheer and joy, surrounding ourselves with the people we love most in life, on a night when there’s a fight for seats unlike any other night of the year. The climax of this magical evening is a moment when we play with fire.
It’s not just us pyro-Presbyterians. Millions and millions of Christians around the globe this evening are flocking into darkened cathedrals, sitting in clapboard meeting houses, huddling on sofas behind closed shades in living rooms, all to play with fire.
Before this evening ends, we’re going to put something in your hand that could destroy this whole building. What are we thinking? Is that safe? Physically there isn’t any real danger, but that’s the least of the threats humans face on a night such as this. Just ask the shepherds. Christmas Eve cannot truly be celebrated unless you have at least a tiny tingle of fear running up your spine, unless you’re standing alongside those shepherds that night on the hillside. Let’s listen to this story as if for the very first time:
"And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night. An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, 'Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; He is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.'
"Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying, 'Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.'
"When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, 'Let’s go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has told us about.' So they hurried off…"
To celebrate true Christmas Eve, the first feeling in that flame you hold tonight is fear—as in awe and healthy respect. In C.S. Lewis’ Narnia tales, Mr. Beaver tells little Susan that she’s about to meet mighty Aslan, king of Narnia. Then Mr. Beaver adds that Aslan is a lion. “Ooh,” said Susan. “I’d thought he was a man. Is he quite safe? I shall feel rather nervous about meeting a lion”
“Safe?” said Mr. Beaver. “Who said anything about safe? ’Course he isn’t safe…. He’s the King, I tell you.”
To come into the presence of God should give us a feeling not unlike that. It’s been said the worship of God should give us the same feeling as if we were running with the bulls in Pamplona or surfing 40-foot waves along the Hawaiian coast, as if we’re doing this wild, reckless, crazy thing that makes me feel more alive than we ever dreamed possible.
So, yes, tonight we’ve come to play with fire, because, no, that baby is not safe. He is the King, I tell you.
A Light that Reveals
There’s something more frightening here than the burnie, burnie part of this flame tonight. There is something far deeper. A flame doesn’t just burn. A flame casts a light that reveals.
I learned that lesson one of my early Christmas Eves here at Peachtree. (This is my 14th.) Through these years, we’ve changed very little about this service. At the end of my message, I take my candle and light it from the Christ Candle, and then I light the candles of the other pastors, who then light the candles of our youth, who then fan out and light the candles of the people who are sitting at the end of each of the rows. Then comes the moment when the room is aglow, and we’re all singing “Silent Night.”
I always would come and stand right here in the front and reverently take my candle and hold it beneath my face, until one time my wife said, “Vic, that looks so creepy. You look like a monster. You look like a Jack-o’-lantern. It’s not Halloween; it’s Christmas Eve. Hold the light away.” So I tweaked my technique. Often the light is not very flattering. The light reveals our flaws and our shortcomings.
How else do you explain these shepherds? This is a very odd story. Shepherds are abiding in the fields, keeping watch over their flocks by night. Shazam! Down comes a light! They are terrified. Why? What causes them to be afraid? A light! Doesn’t that strike you as a tad odd that these shepherds are doing just hunky dory in the dark? When I was little, I was scared of the dark. I’d yell, “Mommy, Daddy, Mommy, Daddy!” Then when the light came on, I wasn’t scared any longer.
The shepherds were fine in the dark, and when the lights came on they freaked out. They were not just afraid but sore afraid. Why? That was a special light coming down, the light of the glory of God.
When God comes close, what’s instantly obvious is that I’m not God. The light of God’s glory does not show us in a flattering light. Here is the holy, majestic, omnipotent, omniscient, righteous perfect God, and then here’s little me. What am I doing in this picture? That’s why I’ll never understand why people love to take selfies of themselves with celebrities.
If I’m standing next to Brad Pitt, the last thing I want is a picture of me standing next to Brad Pitt. Why would I want to take a selfie? Or, if you’re a woman, standing next to Beyonce? Are you kidding me? The shepherds see themselves in the light of the glory of God and that stark reality terrifies them.
There were once two humans for whom that was not true. Adam and Eve every day would meet with God in the Garden of Eden, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them, and they were filled with joy. You and I were made to romp unafraid in the light of God’s glory. Then one day, God came to the garden and the glory of the Lord shone about them and Adam and Eve were sore afraid. Oops! What happened?
As Tim Keller says so well, Adam and Eve had decided to become modern people. A consultant came and said, “You really need to be your own boss. Only you know what’s right and wrong for you. You can’t let somebody else tell you which trees to eat or not eat of in the garden. You decide what’s moral or immoral. Be your own boss. Be your own God.”
So they did, as have all humans ever since. So why were Adam and Eve and then the shepherds terrified in the light of the true God? Here’s a great way to think about it. Have you ever found yourself in a job for which you were not at all qualified? Maybe you faked your way through the interview, and now here you are in this job in which you are in so far over your head. Chances are you will be very defensive. The slightest criticism will set you off. Inside your head you’re thinking, “I really shouldn’t be here.”
Then if someone shows up in your department who really is qualified to do your job, it is your worst nightmare. As they get close, you are sore afraid. Of what? Being exposed as the imposter you are. You and I play God without having any of the skills to do the job.
It’s as if you’re an articulate person and bluff your way through the interviews at the FAA, and tonight you find yourself an air traffic controller sitting in the tower down at Hartsfield. You’re sitting at the computer screen: “Turn left. Oops! Er, I mean right. Rats!” Be afraid. Be very afraid.
Tonight is your opportunity to resign and give that job back to the only One capable of fulfilling it. For what comes to you is the very same good news that lit up the sky on this night long ago, the song of the angels: “Unto you is born a Savior.”
This was such a tender moment. The angels were speaking to these poor, marginalized herdsmen, quaking in terror, and they say, “Do not be afraid.” Then, I noticed this week that four times they use the word you.
The angel said to them, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; He is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.”
A personal God has descended from the heavens to these, the lowliest of shepherds, and now chooses to meet them not in a blinding light and unbearable glory but in the problem pregnancy of a teenaged girl.
On this night, the God who could burn us to a crisp or expose us in our shame instead dims His glory to meet us in the dimpled flesh of a human infant so that, in the words of Paul in 2 Corinthians 4:4, we see the “glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ,” and shepherds were invited.
Fire burns. Fire reveals. There’s a third thing fire does: Fire draws us in. Think of a fireplace, a bonfire, a candle light dinner. Nothing draws us in as does fire.
Until this night long ago, God’s presence on earth had been the eternal flame within the Holy of Holies inside the temple. Once a year, one man had the privilege of entering the Holy of Holies to gaze upon the eternal flame of the presence of God. The high priest who entered would have wrapped around his ankle a rope so that just in case God struck him dead, the other priests could drag his body out of the place.
Tonight, we are inside the Holy of Holies. We are gazing upon the eternal flame. We are playing with fire. God is speaking to us from the flames of our candles, and He’s saying, “Draw near, draw near, including you grubby shepherds. Come in; draw near; draw near.”
No words capture Christmas better than Hebrews 4:16, “Let us then approach the throne of grace with confidence.” Then in verse 22, “Let us draw near to God with a sincere heart in full assurance of faith.”
We should be pinching ourselves tonight. We are inside the Holy of Holies. We’re in a place of privilege.
I remember once in my previous church in Houston, we were meeting friends for dinner at the elegant Houston Club. While we were waiting, we stepped into a drawing room, and there in a corner sitting by themselves were George and Barbara Bush, the former president and first lady. I motioned to Becky with my head and they smiled, and we went over and spent several minutes smiling and chatting with the former president and first lady. They were so gracious. We smiled and took our leave.
As soon as we went around the corner, I uttered a, “Woo hoo!” I said, “Becky, did you think in your wildest dreams that we’d be spending casual time talking to President and Mrs. Bush?” She said, “Vic, you’re not in my wildest dreams.”
Tonight, we live our wildest dream in the privilege of all privileges: the presence of God. Further, it’s not just our privilege. If you’re not in God’s presence tonight, God is seeking you.
God Is Seeking You
We heard in the news of the three women in Ohio who were kidnapped by an evil man named Castro, who held them for decades against their wills. In an interview, one of the women told of the particular torture Castro used on her. She had no family. He’d point at the television and say, “Look, those other two have families. Their families are having press conferences every night, and they are telling the world how much they miss them. Nobody misses you. Nobody is looking for you.” She said of all the terrible things that happened to her, this was by far the worst.
Tonight, there is someone looking for you, and you, and you, and you this very night. The God who dwells in inapproachable light tonight is approaching you whatever road you are on or however lost you may be.
I got a call one day from a pastor friend, Joel Baker. He said, “Vic, I want to tell you a story, and you’re going to love this story.” He said, “Last weekend my mother was visiting from Maine, and in a long conversation one evening, she unfolded the details of how her mother had come to this country early in the last century. She was a teenager living on a farm in Austro-Serbia.”
Joel said, “My grandmother’s father was an abusive man who used to beat her. One day, she was told to take a few of the family cattle to town and sell them. So she did. Seeing this opportunity and fearing for her life, she took that little bit of money and ran away. She boarded a ship for America.
“When she arrived at Ellis Island, the passengers were put in two parallel lines with hundreds of people in each line. An immigration official came by checking documents. Of course, my grandmother had none. The official had a block of chalk. So he put a white X in chalk on my grandmother’s arm, meaning she was to be deported immediately. The message of that X was, ‘You shouldn’t be here.’ She had no documents, no passport, no family, no friends and no status.”
Here Joel got a little choked up. He said, “My grandmother’s name was Barbara Slobovic. Across from her in the other line was a stranger named Theodore Daizy. When the immigration official left, Theodore Daizy reached out with his hand and brushed that white X off my grandmother’s arm. He then stepped across from his line to hers and stood next to her. When they got to the head of the line, Theodore Daizy said to the official at the desk, ‘She’s with me.’ Within a few weeks they were married, and today their grandson is a Presbyterian pastor in Florida.”
You and I were born with an X. So on this night long ago, God reached down through His Son and wiped away the X and said, “You’re with Me.” Draw near.
Tonight God makes us His own. That’s why we play with fire, because nothing can hold a candle to God’s love.
Vic Pentz is senior pastor of Peachtree Presbyterian Church in Atlanta, Georgia. He is a contributing editor of Preaching.