December 24, 2016 – Christmas I
© 2016 Evan D. Garner
Audio of this sermon is available here.
Into a broken, chaotic, conflicted world, a child makes his appearance. The world around him is full of pain and suffering, but he rests in a small, safe place. In the beginning, he is no one of consequence—just a boy whose life is caught up with the worldly powers that seek to rule him and his people. At first, only a handful of onlookers notice him, but over time his story grows and spreads. The image of that child on that night becomes a touchstone for millions of people. The contrast between his innocence and gentleness and the harsh reality of life that surrounds him and surrounds us all becomes too much for anyone to bear. Meek and mild, he reveals the real suffering of the world to anyone who looks into his eyes. He reminds us of the importance of hope. His silence demands a change within us and within the world. As a weak and vulnerable child who captures the hearts and minds and imaginations of the whole world, he shows us that things don’t have to be this way. He allows us to dare to dream of a different sort of world—one where pain and suffering and death are no more, where God’s peace and justice are real for everyone.
That child’s name is Omran Daqneesh, but you might know him better as the Syrian boy whose face “became a symbol of Aleppo’s suffering.” Although video of that night shows a boy who sits alone in an ambulance and who seems overwhelmed by his circumstances, wiping his bloodied face and then not knowing what to do with his blood-stained hand, it was the still images of that boy, staring straight ahead as if to look right through us, that tore my heart in two. As Anne Barnard reported in the New York Times, Omran was one of twelve victims under the age of fifteen treated in Aleppo that Wednesday—“not a particularly unusual figure”—but this one boy felt different. As his photograph spread across the Internet and newspapers and the nightly news, the world seemed to notice again what it had conveniently forgotten: that there is indiscriminate suffering and death taking place in the world right now and that the world is desperate for a change.
Of course, two thousand years earlier another child was born in that same region—one who not only reminded us how to have hope but who was and is hope itself. His picture did not make it into the newspaper, but his story grabbed the hearts and minds of millions of people. Luke set that story amidst the powers of his day—Emperor Augustus and Quirinius, who was governor of Syria at that time—but this child’s path was different from theirs because the hope he brought was different. At long last, God had come to his people to give them the peace and prosperity that they had dreamt of for generations. This was the moment when God’s gracious rule was to be established through Jesus, who was and is the Savior, the Messiah, the Lord. But, because this hope and this peace came from God himself, they had to be different—the kind of true and lasting hope and peace that only God himself could bring.
Emperor Augustus decreed that the whole world would be registered, counted, and taxed, but God used that decree to bring Joseph and his fiancée Mary to Bethlehem, the city of David, where the prophet Micah had foretold that God’s anointed ruler would be born. The political and religious rulers of the day would never have permitted a rival king to grow up in their midst, so God revealed this majestic birth not to the authorities but to some lowly shepherds in a nearby field. Earthly kings were born in palaces, but God’s Messiah was born in the lowliest of circumstances to an unwed teenage mother and her working-class carpenter husband, who wrapped their newborn in some spare rags and placed him in a feeding trough because there was not even room for them in the inn. These were not accidents. This was and is God’s plan. This weakness, this poverty, this vulnerability—this is how God comes among us and establishes his everlasting reign. This is God’s way. This is the hope that God gives us.
Aleppo reminds us that we cannot defeat violence with violence. History shows us that we cannot triumph over hatred with force. Our own neighborhoods prove that we cannot cure poverty with money. Our own lives tell us that we cannot overcome sadness by trying harder to be happy. The world needs a different kind of hope. The world is desperate for a hope that has the power to take hold of our hearts and minds and imaginations and to show us that it doesn’t have to be this way. We yearn for a hope that can take on all that is broken in this world and in our lives and finally make that brokenness whole. Tonight, we see again that that hope is born in Jesus.
God does not defeat weakness. God becomes weakness in order that weakness might be transformed. God does not conquer poverty. God becomes poverty in order that poverty might be redeemed. God does not cast out brokenness. God becomes brokenness in order that brokenness itself might be made whole. That is the miracle of this night. That is our true hope. In the baby Jesus, God takes upon himself all that is wrong with this world in order to make it right by showing that God is inseparable from our suffering. In that Bethlehem stable, God’s light shines in the darkness—a gentle, warm, glowing light that beckons us into the very life of God, that brings our deepest hurts into God so that they might be healed.
This is the hope that transcends every struggle. This is the light that overcomes every darkness. Come again to the stable and see God’s gift of himself to the world—not a king that sits high above us on an unapproachable throne but the king who comes down to us and meets us right in the very midst of our struggle. This is our savior. This is our hope. God is with us, and, because of Jesus, we are with God, and there is nothing that can ever take that away from us.