The Right Stuff (a Christmas sermon)

*This sermon originally preached at Sunrise Church on Sullivan’s Island, SC on December 29, 2019.*

Hebrews 2:10-18

This is kind of a weird Sunday. It, along with the Sunday after Easter, is often jokingly referred to as Associate Pastor Sunday. Attendance is typically lower, many people are traveling, sometimes even the pastors. It’s also a sort of strange Sunday because technically, it’s still Christmas until Epiphany on January 6th, but in the secular world, Christmas ends the second December 25th is over. The Christmas products that had covered Target a week ago are now relegated to an aisle or two, on super sale. There may even be Valentine’s Day stuff going up. The world pauses, ever so briefly, on the day Christians recognize the birth of Christ. But then it moves on at light speed. 

It’s easy to get caught up in that – there is plenty to distract us. There’s New Year’s Eve to worry about, decorations to take down, returns to work and school, but here we are trying to stay with Christmas in the midst of all of that. The dissonance can indeed feel strange. But the good news is, Jesus is as with us here and now as he was on Christmas morning. He is as with us in the weird, awkward, inbetween moments, as he is in the joyful, big moments. And he’s with us in the hard painful moments too.

Life doesn’t stop being hard just because it’s Christmas.

That’s an important thing to recognize in the Christmas season because while everything and everyone around us says that Christmas is meant to be a season for glad tidings and good joy and bright merriment, this can be a really hard time of year for some. I admit that this year, I came into Advent and the Christmas season feeling like my life is full of blessings. If anything, I was so distracted by the many good things in my life that it was hard to be fully spiritually present to the true significance of Christmas. 

But I know many friends who came into Christmas this year hurting, struggling, fearful, grieving, despairing. A friend and her 6 kids faced their first Christmas after her husband died in a freak accident this past summer. Another friend lost her mother-in-law just days before Christmas. Others I know spent this season when we put so much emphasis on pregnancy and motherhood deep in the throes of ongoing fertility struggles. Still others have been walking family members through hospice. And then there are those I know who, in this season that we assume is all about family and togetherness, have spent it estranged from their own families, cast out, abandoned, or in deep conflict. Others are struggling to show up for their kids and loved ones under the deep weight of depression or mental illness, and some are struggling under the weight of loving and showing up for those struggling with mental illness.

Life doesn’t stop being hard just because it’s Christmas. Three years ago, my grandmother — to whom I was very close — died unexpectedly from a stroke not even a week before Christmas. I officiated her funeral on December 23rd. That was the day my parents and I were meant to drive down to the beach – Hilton Head – to spend the holiday. We delayed for a day. The second she had her stroke, Christmas went on hiatus for us. Others sang carols, and we sat vigil by her bed. Others rejoiced and we made the painstaking family decision to honor her wish for no life saving measures.

My grandmother died in Atlanta, but the South Carolina coast – especially at sunrise – had always been our special place, me and her. So when she died, I was far less eager for Christmas presents and mimosas than I was to get back to the coast – our coast. To say goodbye and grieve.

That year, I woke up before dawn on Christmas Day, the first morning I was on the coast, to go to the beach closest to my parents’ house and watch the sunrise and think of my grandmother. I had planned to go alone, but to my surprise, my parents quietly joined me. We stood in the early silence, sipping coffee from styrofoam cups, looking out over the water as the first light of day crested the horizon. That was a hard year.

Sometimes, it can feel like there’s no place in this season for those who aren’t joyful. It can feel like they and their struggles don’t belong. That they need to put on a happy face or lurk quietly out of the frame so as not to ruin anyone else’s good time. And that can mean that Christmas, for all the promise of love and grace that it is meant to hold, actually makes an already difficult time of life even harder.

But in the years since my grandmother died, sunrise at the beach Christmas morning has become a tradition of mine. I go and I watch the waves, and I miss my grandmother, and I give thanks to God, and I marvel at how both can exist at the same time. That my missing, my grief, belongs on that beach as much as my joy, and God meets me in both.

Christmas, Jesus coming to us, is as much for those in the throes of pain and suffering – perhaps even moreso – as for those with unfettered delight. Our passage for today makes that clear. 

It says: “It was fitting that God, for whom and through whom all things exist, in bringing many children to glory, should make the pioneer of their salvation perfect through sufferings… Since, therefore, the children share flesh and blood, he himself likewise shared the same things, so that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil,… Because he himself was tested by what he suffered, he is able to help those who are being tested.”

The whole point of God coming crashing into this world with a gasp and a baby’s cry, is to be with us. Truly with us – not just in the good, but in the bad, in the ugly, in the hard and heartbreaking. 

God could have come into this world in any which way God chose. As any given baby, sure. Perhaps one of high station, or at least one with a home. But God is God, creator of all things, all powerful, all knowing, infinite — God didn’t have to come as a baby at all. God could have ridden into this world as a mighty warrior king, strapped with muscles, crowned with priceless jewels, on the back of a valiant steed. God could have coming striding in as an unquestionable emblem of absolute strength and power in the ways we understand those words, with all the right stuff, as far as what we’re taught world-saving heroes are meant to be. But God doesn’t.

God chooses differently. God chooses something particular and peculiar. God comes into this world not powerful and mighty, not strong and perfect, but tiny and vulnerable and without a place to lay his head, to young terrified unmarried parents, in the company of smelly animals, in the midst of a world that – from the jump – seeks to destroy him. And he can’t even fight back. One of the other lectionary passages for this Sunday details Herod’s decree to go after every child under 2 in an attempt to eradicate the threat that he sees Jesus to be. And Jesus lives because God shows his parents what to do, and they follow.

Think about the power of that. God could have come into this world any which way, but God chooses to come in such a way that he is fully dependent on human beings for his own wellbeing and survival for the duration of a childhood. And not just any human beings, but human beings who are without particular power, who are on the margins because they are unwed and raising a child and far from home and forced to flee even farther. That is who God chooses to entrust himself to. That’s how God chooses to show up.

Not with the right stuff we expect — strength and might and a conquering force. The right stuff, as far as God is concerned, is exactly the last things we’d expect: vulnerability, weakness, risk, empathy, mercy.

Jesus’ whole life reflects this truth. Over and over Jesus chooses the hard path, Jesus enters into challenge and struggle, even into death itself! Not incidentally, but on purpose!

There are two common ways this theology of Jesus has been misused. One is to glorify suffering. To suggest that we should rejoice in our suffering because it brings us closer to God. But if I may, the point of Jesus suffering isn’t so that we seek out suffering to be close to God but rather to know that when we suffer, when we feel most alone and abandoned and lost, even there – especially there – God is with us.

In the deepest, most secret vulnerable and broken places within us – that is where God is doing the holiest work.

The other way it’s been misused is when people have suggested that the more similar one is to Jesus, the closer one is to God. This has mostly looked like saying that men are closer to Godliness because Jesus was a man. I’ve noticed it’s less common to suggest that those born in the first century, or those born in stables, or the children of carpenters, are closer to God.

No, the real power of Jesus’ story is that he is so very particular. A particular person born into particular circumstances at a particular time. A person who struggles in particular ways. No one is exactly like him! But that is how God chooses to show up – in such a particular, messy, very human way – and that shows us that God understands that particularity, unique stories, are a part of being human. And we can trust that God recognizes and loves us in our own particularities. Our own very unique life circumstances. Our own quirks. Our own deep secret struggles.

God rejects the easy route in reaching us through Jesus. God does it the hard way. Jesus inverts the expectations of power and strength by being vulnerable and powerless, Jesus struggles in all the ways that Jesus does to show us that God does not just love us in our strength, in our goodness, in our proximity to perfection, but also in our weakness, in our struggle, in our pain and fear.

In the deepest, most secret vulnerable and broken places within us – that is where God is doing the holiest work. That is where God is whispering over and over until we finally hear and believe that nothing, neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come, Nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature, nothing, shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Jesus is God’s most unexpected, unbelievable, and unstoppable act of absolute solidarity. Solidarity always, but especially where we need it most. Christmas isn’t just also for those who are struggling and suffering. Christmas is especially for those who are struggling and suffering. 

Christmas is the miraculous fruit of God not being willing or able for even a moment to abandon us in the hard stuff. God is with us. God is with us.

We all have our Christmas traditions, some more expected than others. One of mine is to rewatch my favorite episode of The West Wing, a show that details the life and work of a fictional US president and his staff. My favorite episode, “Noel”, is the Christmas episode for the second season.

The president’s Deputy Chief of Staff, Josh Lyman, is struggling with the ongoing psychological effects of a shooting earlier in the year. While his friends and colleagues process and move on from the traumatic event, he spirals slowly out of control. The more he struggles, the more he acts out and pushes others away. Finally, his mentor and boss—Leo—calls in a trauma specialist. As they review Josh’s behavior over recent weeks, he remains combative, closed off, and resistant. Finally—when the doctor diagnoses him with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder—Josh nervously stammers, “That doesn’t really sound like something they let you have if you work for the president.”

Within his particular world—steeped in high stakes, and challenges, and experiences of trauma, Josh Lyman believes that the only way to survive and succeed — the right stuff — is to be closed off and unaffected and impenetrable.

Christmas isn’t just also for those who are struggling and suffering. Christmas is especially for those who are struggling and suffering. 

At the end of the episode Josh Lyman finally confronts his own pain and fear and names it to himself and the trauma specialist. Only after he’s done so can he see the concern that drove his colleagues and friends to seek help for him. Afterward, he finds his mentor and boss, Leo, waiting in solidarity for him to see how the day-long session went. They share an awkward moment of mutual appreciation before Leo suddenly launches into a story that seems like a modern Good Samaritan story. The story he tells is this:

“This guy’s walking down the street when he falls in a hole. The walls are so steep he can’t get out.

“A doctor passes by and the guy shouts up, ‘Hey you. Can you help me out?’ The doctor writes a prescription, throws it down in the hole and moves on.

“Then a priest comes along and the guy shouts up, ‘Father, I’m down in this hole can you help me out?’ The priest writes out a prayer, throws it down in the hole and moves on

“Then a friend walks by, ‘Hey, Joe, it’s me can you help me out?’ And the friend jumps in the hole. Our guy says, ‘Are you stupid? Now we’re both down here.’ The friend says, ‘Yeah, but I’ve been down here before and I know the way out.’”

Jesus comes into this world to get down in the hole with us. And he invites us to do the same for one another. That is the miracle of Christmas. Thanks be to God. Amen. 

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