A Guest Post by Paul Johansen
This is the seventeenth in a series of posts engaging with the sermons in Leaps of Faith: Sermons from the Edge. This post is a reflection upon a Christmas Eve sermon entitled “When a Hallmark Christmas Isn’t Good Enough” (pp. 78-84). The Scriptural text for the sermon was Luke 2:1-20.
At the core of this sermon and at the core of Christmas Eve worship is the harsh recognition that the story through which God chooses to save the world isn’t the nicest story for this wonderful occasion which usually drips with the sentimentality of our seasonal expectations and traditions, like a Christmas card oozing with denial.
This is why we need theologians and pastors like Robert Dean, who out of a strong heart and keen biblical insight, love us enough to risk retelling us this story in the life altering way that God intends for us to hear it, on the very night where it could actually shake us out of our deepest expectations and desires, and therefore convert us to the very ways of God in the world, revealed so disturbingly through the lives of Mary and Joseph.
The truth of the matter is that our Christmas candle lighting services need to be challenged and freed up so that we can continue to be redeemed by the shape of God’s kingdom described and defined by the particular shape of the birth, life, death and resurrection of Jesus, who is the light of the world.
Overall, the preacher is calling for biblical, liturgical and personal renewal. A big task for an evening when most of us are too distracted to listen well to such a shocking message. In this context, the message represents some of the most powerful prophetic insight and some of the deepest pastoral compassion that you are likely to witness in a single sermon. This is a preaching voice more concerned with the biblical tradition than it is with our traditions, all for the purpose of our healing and sanctification. What else is preaching and Christmas Eve for?
If there is a subtle vulnerability anywhere in this exquisite speech, it might be that the cultural critique the preacher expresses could itself be perceived as somewhat obvious and cliché. After all, don’t most of us already understand that our cultural Christmas celebrations are shallow and completely gutted of meaning? Maybe. Maybe not. But what this sermon succeeds in doing so powerfully is in revealing how we have doubled down on obliviousness to the depth of our own stories, as well as ignorance of the specific shape of the biblical story, and how our approach to celebration somehow succeeds in keeping us oblivious and ignorant. We have succeeded in messing up our interpretation of both stories and therefore have put our understanding of their dynamic relationship at serious risk.
For this preacher, the resulting insight is that the sentiment we seem to long for and escape to does nothing to touch and heal the brokenness and pain we actually live with. Sentimentalizing the Nativity keeps us from the saving power of the gospel so ingrained in the very drama and detail of the scriptures about the coming and work of a real Saviour.
Because this preacher is not into worship as sentiment and theology as hobby, this sermon works to overcome our abstractions by inviting us to reflect on our own real lives and the true revelation of scripture. Not to do this is, is to risk missing out on all the gifts and grace of the story and the season.
As the preacher says “We need something more than a sentimental moment that warms our hearts for an evening, or a day, or even a week. We need something more profound than a tender birth scene or a celebration of babyhood or of families. We need something more than mere sentimentality this Christmas. Moving beyond our own existential needs, there’s actually nothing particularly sentimental in the Christmas story itself.”
Where this sermon hits me this year is the realization that despite our deepest desires for a lovely family Christmas, my wife and I will be entering into Christmas Eve worship carrying with us an unusually large group of our friends who have been recently hit with tragic loss, sickness, despair and disappointment (including: the loss of babies; imprisonment; a home burnt to the ground; the death of a spouse; shocking diagnoses and a life threatening hospitalization). And this is only a small slice of the world’s deeper, wider longing.
Our merriness of the season is being threatened by the profound concern and sadness we are experiencing for others. Rob’s message is reminding us that this birth we celebrate, this incarnation, this coming of the Messiah into the messiness of human life has nothing to do with cheap, cultural, escapist sentimentality and everything to do with “the hopes and fears of all the years” that we all face every day with those we love and those we care for. It is for this reality that Christ was born as the light of the world and it for this ministry of being light-bearers in the darkness that we have a chance to be reborn as we hold our candles high and sing.
Paul Johansen is the Chaplain at King-Bay Chaplaincy, Toronto and Pastoral Assistant at Knox Presbyterian Church, Toronto.