Every year, at about this time, my dad has this tradition of getting out old home movies. A lot of families have a tradition of watching their favorite Christmas movie: “Home Alone,” or “Elf,” or “How the Grinch Stole Christmas,” or “It’s a Wonderful Life,” or what have you. But for my dad, he likes to stick to the “family classics.” His family. Our family. Whether it’s watching the silent home movies from when he was a boy at Christmas, or replaying the scenes of my siblings and I opening our presents when we were just kids. Those are the Christmas movies Dad likes to watch at this time of year. To rewind back to those distant memories. To replay those fond moments. And to pause on those precious scenes, to reminisce and reflect, and think about “the good old days.”
We all do this, though, don’t we? Maybe not by watching old home movies—but we do it through all of the little traditions we hold onto. From the food we eat, to the music we listen to, we’re just rewinding back to those distant memories we’ve held onto for so long. From the moment the decorations go up, and then when they’re taken back down, we’re just replaying those fond moments for ourselves. Each piece, each ornament seems to carry with it a history, a story, a smile. And then, after all the busyness, all of the planning and buying and wrapping and traveling—finally, the day arrives. And we gather with friends and family, people we care about. We call, text, Skype, FaceTime. And then what do we do? We pause. We reminisce with one another, telling the same old stories, year after year, thinking about the way things used to be. Even romanticizing those “good old days,” looking back through rose-colored lenses, leaving out the more painful details.
Christmas is a wonderful time. A time for nostalgia. A time to rewind, replay, and pause. Never a time to fast-forward; only to rewind, replay, and pause. But I wonder if we press pause at the manger scene for a bit too long each year. Throughout Advent, as we begin a new church year, we rewind through our Scripture readings, pointing to God’s promise of a Messiah. We replay the scenes of John the Baptist preparing the way of the Lord. And then we get to Christmas Eve; we place this statue of a baby in the manger; and we pause.
I’m not saying any of that is bad. It is a good thing for us to join in the narrative of God’s people through Scripture. As the people of Israel awaited their Messiah, we now await Christ’s return. As John the Baptist prepared the Judeans for Jesus, we now prepare for His coming again on the last day. And as so few paid any attention to the wonder in Bethlehem, so we now marvel in awe at the manger scene. While the world keeps going, God’s people gather to reflect on how He came in the flesh to be with us! But it is here, I think, we tend to pause a little too long. And we look at the scene with those rose-colored lenses. We don’t like to fast-forward the scene beyond that “silent night,” that “holy night.” We don’t like to fast-forward, because we know where it leads. We don’t like to fast-forward on this serene scene, because it forces us to acknowledge that this sweet, innocent infant was born to die. And that’s a heart-wrenching thought.
No, we much more prefer to pause at the picturesque portrait of the “holy family.” Gentle Mary and Joseph dearest looking down in a great and mighty wonder, marveling at this miracle in the manger. One or two shepherds quietly quaking at the sight, standing by, holding a perfectly clean and white, fluffy sheep. And more than likely, your nostalgic nativity includes 3 wise men—no more, no less—having traversed afar, now bowing before their king, not even questioning the locale or the humble surroundings. There’s usually a lone angel, perched on top of the stable, and holding an unfurled banner that says something like, “Glory to God in the Highest,” or “Peace on Earth.” And, of course, there’s a baby—often blond-headed, interestingly—wearing only a diaper and a smile, eyes wide-open but no crying he makes, and his arms are out-stretched as if reaching to you for a hug. That’s our nativity. That’s the way we like to remember it. That’s where we pause.
But the problem is, when we pause here with these statues, we can forget the harsh reality of it all. I mean, just look at the size of that baby compared to the size of Mary. Poor girl! But SHE doesn’t appear exhausted in the least. No she’s just kneeling there, her clothes are spotless, hands manicured perfectly, hair looks amazing. Yeah, right! I was in the delivery room throughout my wife's entire labor with our daughter. And, while she was the most beautiful I’ve ever seen her, that day…she didn’t look like THAT, all put together so well! She certainly wasn’t ready to get up, walk around, and kneel there, squatting beside her little baby. That would have been…a bit of a mess, let’s say.
No, Mary would have been laying there, an awful after-birth mess, holding that small child, who was probably slimy and screaming after being evicted from the warm womb into the cold dark world of His creation. Desperately trying to claw his way to the warmth of his mother’s chest, to hear the familiar beating of her heart, and she would hold him there, though still reeling from the agonizing pain of labor. Because, after 9 months of carrying that child, morning sickness, feeling him kick in the middle of the night when she was trying to sleep, giving her the strangest cravings—after all that, Mary wanted nothing more than to hold that precious gift of God, who made her a mother. Only after that special few moments did she wrap him in swaddling clothes and lay him in a manger. And, really, the only reason she did that was because Mary was absolutely exhausted and needed to rest.
But that rest would be interrupted by the boisterous company of nomadic shepherds, barging in unannounced. And Mary, in embarrassment and horror, would have reached for the nearest shawl or horse blanket or tablecloth, whatever she could find—anything to cover up. Because, the last thing any new mother wants is for smelly homeless strangers to come in uninvited off the streets, to ogle your baby, talking a mile-a-minute—like some coked-up, tripping junkies—about a crazy thing they saw in the sky, and how the song they heard was so other-worldly, it was like they were hearing colors. True as it may have been, and as much as she treasured these things in her heart afterward, it was still, no doubt, a bit off-putting at the time, you can imagine.
Really, when it comes to these nativity scenes, the closest figure coming to reality is Joseph. He looks like he’s in awe and wonder at the child. But that’s really fear and trepidation. It’s not a question of “What child is this?” but, “What is this child? What do I do now?!” Because, while Joseph got the message about this child being from the Lord, that He would save His people from their sins, I’m guessing he had his questions about how to take care of a baby. Joseph didn’t get to go to all the parenting classes. He didn’t get to have a nurse instruct him on how to swaddle an infant—which is maybe why the baby Jesus is so often just in a loose-fitting diaper. He didn’t get to learn how to properly burp him, and change him. How to baby-proof a house, let alone a stable. He didn’t have a house in Bethlehem, let alone a nursery to prepare. He didn’t get to read all the latest parenting books. He didn’t have all of his questions answered…but now, he would be responsible for this special child’s well-being. And from that very moment, from that very scene where we pressed pause on our nativity, Joseph would question, for the rest of his life, whether he was a good enough daddy or not.
We rewind, we replay, and we pause—but don’t pause here too long. Because, what happens when you pause too long is that we almost forget it really happened. Through our rose-colored lenses we lose track of the fact this perfect child was born into an imperfect, even dysfunctional family—maybe just like yours. We overlook the reality that that infant holy, infant lowly, entered into a messy messed-up world—a world where sin and its effects boisterously barge in unannounced and unwelcome. A world where the plans we make get turned upside down in unimaginable ways. We forget that the statuesque figures of Mary and Joseph had very similar fears and failures and embarrassments and questions that we have. When we pause too long, we miss the fact that this Jesus came to experience the world as we know it and live it and feel it and fear it and are crushed by it.
And when we pause too long, though we marvel at Him being God-in-the-flesh, we maybe forget His very name—or, at least, its meaning. Jesus: which means, “Yahweh saves.” “The LORD saves.” For “He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High. And the Lord God will give to Him the throne of His father David, and He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of His kingdom there will be no end.” (Luke 1:32-33) We like that part. But first, before we fast-forward to that happy ending…“you shall call His name Jesus, for He will save His people from their sins.” (Matthew 1:21) “…so that we may live through Him.” (1 John 4:9-10) And how will He do this? How will the Lord save through this child? How will He give life and be the propitiation for our sins?
By a cross. Through bloodshed and torture. Through a tomb…but also, through a resurrection. See, when you pause here, don’t stop too long; and don’t get caught up in the cute, nostalgic serene scene. For this child was born to die…but also born to give life.
Alleluia! Christ is Risen! [He is risen indeed. Alleluia!] I bet you didn’t expect that at a Christmas Eve service! I had actually thought about starting my sermon that way, though. But, I know what you’re thinking—“‘Tis NOT the season, Pastor!” But isn’t it? “Jesus is the reason for the season,” we say. But we cannot separate his mission from His coming. Born to put an end to sin’s curse all the way back in Genesis 3. “Born that man no more may die, Born to raise the sons of earth, Born to give them second-birth.” ‘Tis ALWAYS the season! Because, without the cross, and without the resurrection, Christmas is meaningless. This child was born to die, but He was born to give life!
I read an article about a family in Oklahoma, and their experience this year with their child who was born to die, but born to give life. (The following story is based on the article by Royce Young, found here: https://medium.com/@royceyoung/we-spent-months-bracing-and-preparing-for-the-death-of-our-daughter-79f357dd254d)
The couple went to their 19 week ultrasound to see their little girl in the womb, only to learn terrible news. Their daughter was diagnosed with a rare birth defect called anencephaly. Anencephaly is where “The child [in utero] fails to develop the frontal lobe of the brain, or the top of their skull. The chance of survival is literal zero percent.” The phrase the doctor used was, “incompatible with life.” Knowing their daughter was only going to die, the couple was left with two options: 1) terminate the pregnancy (an option most choose); or 2) continue the pregnancy to full term, knowing they’d have an indefinite amount of time with her—maybe only seconds. They chose option two.
Now this sermon is not about the ethics of organ donation or anything like that—but that was the reason they chose option two. They contacted an organization, LifeShare of Oklahoma, for the opportunity to donate her kidneys, liver and maybe pancreas and heart valves; and maybe her eyes and corneas. The way they saw it, their mission was to get to full-term, welcome their little girl into this world, hold her as long as they could, until she would finally die. But first, they HAD to get bring her into the world in order to allow most of her organs to be useful. And then, they would “let her give the gift of life to some other hurting family.” With this purpose, they gave her the name “Eva,” a derivative of “Eve,” meaning “giver of life.” What a beautiful name. What a beautiful mission.
They could no longer envision Eva’s high school graduation, her wedding, her own children…so they began to imagine, to fantasize. To dream about the difference she could make. “What if the person who got her kidneys became president? What if her liver goes to a little boy and he wins the Heisman trophy?” These were the new dreams they imagined for their sweet unborn baby girl. She might be born to die, but maybe she could give life—a "normal" life to another child.
At 37 weeks, it was a Sunday in April—this past Easter Sunday, in fact—their world, their plans, their dreams would be turned upside down, again. After not feeling little Eva Grace move or kick that day, they went to the hospital. There was no heartbeat—her brain could no longer maintain it under these conditions. And later that night, a still, lifeless infant would be placed into the arms of her exhausted, disheveled mother.
It was not a silent night. There was no crying child, but weeping parents. They felt robbed. They had done everything right. Took every precaution. They had plans and contingency plans with contingency plans. They even put up with people asking when they’d have a baby shower, or if the nursery was ready. They had come this far. But she was gone before they even got to meet her. And there went their plans, their dreams that little Eva Grace would give life.
But as they mourned this loss, as the nurses cleaned up Eva’s tiny lifeless body to be held for the first time, LifeShare called. They knew the situation, that there would be no liver or kidneys or heart valves. But they called, and they said, “We have a recipient for Eva’s eyes.” And suddenly, they said, out of the worst experience of their lives came the greatest moment. It wasn’t what they planned; it wasn’t what they had hoped or dreamed. But it was everything they needed in that moment. And then, they were handed their baby girl for the first time. Here came little Eva Grace, “giver of life,” the superhero she was meant to be. Suddenly, all the dread and fear was lifted, and they were filled with joy and hope once more.
Because, now, some other little child has the chance at a new life. A life of seeing her own mother and father, a brother or sister. To see the way the snow gently falls from the sky at this time of year. To see the presents under the Christmas tree. To read the music of a carol on the page. To someday see Star Wars for the first time. A chance to pause at the manger scene, to see the Christ child who was born to die, born to give life. To see Him who entered into our reality to, to live in our messy-ness and dysfunction; to put an end to our mortality; to put a stop to the painful unexpected deaths of ‘Evas’ and others all around this world He created and loves. And THAT is just a glimpse, just a peek of joy and hope we get when we don’t pause for too long at the manger.
Tonight, and in the Christmases to come, go ahead and reminisce, tell the same old stories. Rewind, replay, and pause. But when you come to that nostalgic nativity, don’t pause too long. Keep Christ in Christmas, yes…but don’t leave Him in the manger. Because this "Christ has died. Christ is risen. And Christ shall come again." (Our congregation speaks these words every week--for those at SermonCentral, perhaps a better ending is "Because this child was born to die, born to give life.")
Come soon, Lord Jesus. Amen.