the first sunday of christmas

1st Samuel 2. 18-20, 26
Born not to the kingdom and power and glory,
but to suffering, sacrifice, and scars.

It was the first words of a fundraising letter that caught my attention. Caught my attention and set me to wondering. “Nothing brings hope into the world,” it said, “like the birth of a child ….” It’s hard to find anything with which to disagree in that statement. Especially, at this time of the year. A fresh start! A clean slate! A new beginning! What’s there NOT to be hopeful about! Look into the eyes of a newborn – of any newborn – and it’s like seeing tomorrow! Tomorrow and every tomorrow, thereafter! Unlimited possibilities! Boundless opportunities! Anything – everything – in reach! Each and every wish! Each and every dream! Jesus doesn’t have to be a child of god to make it special. All he has to be is a child! “Nothing brings hope into the world like the birth of a child!” My child! Your child! God’s child! It doesn’t matter! It makes no difference!

Well, one thing led to another … and it, usually, does when you’re writing a sermon. And before I knew it, I was humming a Christmas song. Not one of the old favorites, but what’s been called a modern Christmas classic. The words were from the mid-Eighties. The music joined up in the early Nineties. The song … “Mary Did You Know?” It began as a church song. A hymn. But it quickly crossed over. It’s been sung by Wynonna and Kenny. CeeLo. Dolly. Just to name a few. So, I pulled up YouTube and played it as background while I worked. Second time through, though, I started to listen to the words.

Mary, did you know that your baby boy would, one day, walk on water.
Mary, did you know that your baby boy would save our sons and daughters?
Did you know that your baby boy has come to make you new?
This child that you’ve delivered, will soon deliver you.

The song goes on to sing about giving sight to the blind man. Calming the sea. Healing the deaf. Raising the dead. The lame leap. The silent speak. And, of course, there’s the requisite claims of divinity! After the third, fourth, time, I started reading about the song. Who. What. When. When. Where. And there was criticism. Most of it having to do with whether Mary knew or didn’t. Most opted that she did. After all, she was Mary! As I listened and read, read and listened, my thoughts went in a different direction.

You see, that modern Christmas classic was all shiny and bright! Just like all the decorations! It was holly! It was jolly! And the poet, the singer, was asking Mary if she knew Jesus was kingdom and power and glory! The one thing he left out … was the cross. Not one stanza. Not one verse. Not a single word. “Mary, did you know your baby boy would suffer … and break … and bleed … and die?” Sure, the Creed talks about Jesus being conceived by the Spirit and born of a virgin. That’s part of the magic, the mystery, of faith. But more than that, we confess that Jesus suffered under Pilate and was crucified and died and was buried and descended to the dead. But the song? The song’s all silent night! Holy! Calm and bright! Everything but the sword that would pierce her soul. But I guess that’s the difference between a national, secular holiday and a church one. For one, we stand beside the manger cooing. For the other, we’re kneeling at the foot of the cross. “Nothing brings hope into the world like the birth of a child.” Nothing, that is, but the death of a god!

But I guess, when push comes to shove, Christmas isn’t all that necessary, all that essential, to believing. Nothing more than a footnote, really. Only Luke tells the story. Here in less than two dozen verses of chapter two. Oh, and Matthew. In a handful more of the first chapter of his book. The heart and soul of faith isn’t December 25th; it’s goodFriday!

In the mercy of almighty God, Jesus Christ was given to die!

In baptism our gracious heavenly Father frees us from sin and death by joining us to the death and resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ!

This is my body given! This is my blood shed!

Start to finish, beginning to end, it’s all about the cross! It’s not the birth that gives us hope! It’s not the Christmas that we stake our life on! It’s the dying! The dying and the rising! But that’s not what we sing about … not in this song. But, to be fair, that’s not what we sing about in most of the songs that make it into the Christmas top-forty. Most of them are, also, full of kingdom and power and glory. Things for which Jesus isn’t known in a truly evangelical – gospel-rooted – church. Here, only one thing matters. Here, only one thing means anything. Love! God’s love! God’s loving! Here, it’s the suffering! Here, it’s the sacrifice! Here, it’s the scars! Here, it’s the love!

Unfortunately, with all the garlands and ribbons, with all the ornaments and trimmings, that love gets lost! Hidden beneath the lights and the holly! Forgotten behind the stockings and the giftWrap! It might be good for the bottom line. But it’s terrible for the faith, for the believing. You see, the thing that shocks us is, also, the very thing that saves us! The things that surprise us, the thing that inspires! It’s Christ that gives us life! It’s the cross! The loving!

True, Christmas is the birth of a child! Full of hopes, dreams! But it’s so much more! For most of us, it’s simply the once upon a time! The first words of a story we’ve heard, so many times before! The first lines of a song we know by heart! But the reason it’s told, the reason it’s sung, is so that everyone can see the gift! Not the child that lies on the straw, but the man that hangs on a cross! That man, that cross, that loving, is the beating heart, the breath, of god’s people. And contrary to popular opinion, that man, that cross, that loving, is the real reason. Not just for this season, but for every season!

In faith, there’s only one thing inerrant! There’s only one thing infallible! It’s not the bible! It’s not the pope! It’s the love! The loving! Always has been! Always will be! Loving that comes to us, this season! Loving that claims us as its own! Loving that takes us in its arms! Takes us just like that child, wrapped in bands of cloth, lying in a manger! And never, ever lets us go!

“Nothing brings hope into the world like the birth of a child!” Nothing, that is, my friends, except the death of a man on a cross! Nothing except the love of god in Christ!

Midland Lutheran Church