December 24, 2007

Christmas-Eve Meditation, 2007
John 1:1-14

Think for a moment about birth announcements. We’ve all seen one, I suspect, and many of us have sent one or two, or three, or four, or …. Birth announcements are of course designed and mailed out when the child has barely seen the light of day—before the child has eaten solid food, slept in a bed, engaged in an argument, entered the doors of a school, or made a contribution of any sort to the world around her. And what information do they provide? The baby’s name, date of birth, weight and length, and often, at least for those of us who follow Jesus, a passage of Scripture expressing our gratitude to God. When one of our children was born, for example, Deb and I included these words derived from Genesis 33:5: “Who is this with you? The child whom God has graciously given your servants.” Such announcements, however, typically say little else. They don’t provide glowing statements concerning the child’s future accomplishments and character. They don’t make audacious predictions like, “This baby will alter the way we think about micro-economics,” “This baby will solve the problem of world hunger,” or “This baby will change the entire course of human history.” Birth announcements, after all, go out to the public long before anyone ever knows what the child will be or do.

Most birth announcements, that is. John’s announcement of the birth of Jesus is different. John’s announcement was written and sent out well after the fact—after the long trips with the disciples, teaching sessions on the hills of Galilee, miraculous feedings and healings, and run-ins with opponents. After the last supper in Jerusalem, washing of feet, arrest in Gethsemane, trial and crucifixion. John’s announcement, in fact, was written even after the resurrection and ascension—it was written with the entirety of Jesus’ life and ministry in mind.

And look what it says. Nothing about date or time of birth. Nothing about the baby’s size—length and weight. Instead, John describes in Jesus both the sadness and the hope so often associated with Christmas. Christmas can be, as many of us know, a very painful time. A time when we miss friends and loved ones who are no longer with us. A time when the pain of broken marriages and severed relationships is particularly acute. A time when the pressures and products of our world remind us that we are not the prettiest, richest, best dressed, people in the world. A time when unwanted people feel, well, even more unloved. Christmas, in spite of lights, trees, carols, and unending presents, is for many people a very lonely and disquieting season of the year.

I felt a bit of that myself again this year. As we sat around the dinner table a few nights ago, I said to my family, “I feel a bit out of whack today. My emotions are all over the place, and I can’t quite put my finger on it.” And as we sat and talked, I realized again that I was grieving the loss of people who were no longer at the table. I imagined large, festive gatherings going on everywhere but in my own house. I felt lonely during what is supposed to be the happiest time of the year.

Wouldn’t you know it? The Christ-child—the baby—over the course of his life experienced these very same feelings as well. He knew, John tells us, a life of rejection, a life of being abandoned by those around him. He knew what it was like to be ridiculed, to feel as though he didn’t quite fit in. “…his own people,” John points out, “did not accept him.” Jesus knew a life of loneliness, disappointment and separation. “What a wonderful occasion Christmas is,” people shout. But some of us find ourselves among those this evening whose hearts are not quite there. Jesus, whose birth we remember tonight, understands first-hand those feelings of grief, loneliness, and separation. And he is here, not to condemn us, but to offer us his gracious and caring support.

But Christmas, like the Gospel itself, is not ultimately about sadness, grief and loneliness, as real as they can be. John, after inviting us into Christ’s despair, leads us beyond and into Christ’s hope. Jesus, who at the very dawn of time breathed life into all of humanity, took on flesh and came into the world in order to restore the light and life that had long since been lost. “To all who receive this child, who believe in his name,” John declares, “he will give power to become children of God.” What an audacious statement to include in a birth announcement. But it is a statement, remember, tested by time and experience. This child, who himself knew grief and rejection, has within himself all that is needed to bring light into even the darkest corners of our souls and of our war-torn world.

So what do we do with this announcement? What do we do with this ongoing tension between the sadness and hope of Christmas? John tells us that, too. Look at Jesus. Gaze at him. Read the stories about him. Reflect on his life and ministry. Push the distractions out of the way. “We’ve looked at Jesus,” John concludes, “and we’ve seen his glory.” Here, I suppose, is the irony of Christmas. It is, in fact, the irony of the Christian life in general. In the middle of all of our running and buying and struggling and searching, we often fail to stop and look at the child. Under the weight of our loneliness and insecurities and broken relationships and unanswered questions, we often fail to look at the child. Imagine going to the hospital at the birth of your child or grandchild but never looking at the baby. Running around the hospital, checking out the gift shop, grabbing a bite in the cafeteria, but never looking at the baby. “Look at the child,” John announces. “Look at Jesus.” Because when you do, everything in your life begins to change.

There are, I’ve discovered, various places that have within them a certain sense of permanence and timelessness. Mount Arbel, overlooking the Sea of Galilee, is such a place. So are Pike’s Peak, the Grand Canyon, and Victoria Falls. So is, to a lesser degree, Pole Steeple Overlook, a quartzite rock formation just a few miles away at Pine Grove Furnace. I’ve climbed the path up the mountain several times to get to the overlook, and the effects that the setting has on me never seem to change. A massive rock overlooking miles and miles of valleys and forested mountains. I’ve climbed up to Pole Steeple Overlook on days when I’ve felt excited and thoroughly delighted to be alive. And I’ve climbed up there at times when I was grieving and lonely—when it seemed as though the entire world around me was falling apart. And every time, Pole Steeply Overlook remained unchanged. My world wasn’t falling apart. There was stability and security calling me back on center. There was a perspective—a vantage point—above the details of everyday life below that altered my own way of thinking. When you stand beside such permanence and look at such magnificence, you and your view of life can’t help but be changed.

Please forgive me for reducing all of Christmas to something so simple. I don’t mean to insult your intelligence—books and books have been written about the birth of Jesus, and many legitimate scholarly questions remain. But for the moment, stop what you are doing and forget about everything else. Forget about turkey dinners, unopened presents and model trains. Forget about broken relationships, unhealthy bodies and lost loved ones. Forget even about caves, stables, and donkeys. Stop and just look at the child. Look at Jesus. Catch a glimpse of his strength, his permanence, his grace, his glory. If you do—if you really do—you will be changed.