My favorite Christmas story is about the young boy who was given a very important role in the church Christmas play. He was to be the angel and announce the birth of Jesus. For weeks he rehearsed the line that had been given to him, "Behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy."
The grandparents got in on it and any time the family was together and the boy was there, they would dress him up in his costume and he would rehearse his part for them, "Behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy." They were certain that when he grew up, he would be another Charlton Heston playing Moses because of his dramatic ability.
The great night came for the Christmas pageant and everybody was in place. All the grandparents and extended family were there. Visitors had come in and all the children were in costumes, complete with bathrobes for the three kings and fake wings and halos for the angels. All the mothers were excited and everyone was really into this thing.
As the pageant started, the excitement was electric around the room. The dramatic event in the first part was the announcement of the angel, "Behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy." The spotlight hit this young boy and as he stood center stage in the middle of all this excitement, his brain froze. Every grandparent, aunt, uncle and neighbor came to the edge of their seats, wanting to say it for him. You could see them in unison, mouthing, "Behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy."
Still, his brain was frozen; he couldn't say it. He tried it, but it just wouldn't come. So, finally, in a heroic moment he filled his lungs with breath and blurted out the words, "Have I got news for you!"
I have become convinced that this is exactly what this season is trying to communicate because the world needs Christmas. I like that frivolous song, "We need a little Christmas, we need a little Christmas now." I think the whole universe is trying to say something and this is the only way it knows to say it. Because the church needs to change that line in Scripture from "Behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy" to "Have we got news for you!" For if there is any time we can push back the sorrow of this world, if there is any time that we can put aside the clouds of depression that roll in our heads, if there is any time we can pierce through the evening news and get a glimpse of hope, it is at Christmastime.
I don't know if the nation is in a recession or depression; but if you listen to the news very often, you are just about ready to give up on life. One story after another of how bad it is fills our family rooms. I felt good the other night before watching the evening news, but when it was over, all I could think of was that "I need a little Christmas right now." Don't show me anything else that is bad.
There are some people who get terribly upset about the $42 billion Christmas machine that rolls through our world. They get upset about it and its excesses. But everything has excesses, and America has put excess into Christmas. Push away all the excesses, push away all the tinsel, get rid of all the things that are absolutely un-Christian, come down to the core of it, and what we are trying to do the world needs to hear.
We need more than a little Christmas right now; we need a lot of Christmas right now. God sends help for the long haul, but not the short run. He helps us by strengthening us, not by pampering us. And let's see how he did it for Mary.
The angel promised Mary that she would be favored of God, but yet her baby of Nazareth would grow into a man who must go into a life which she soon discovered would be one of danger. The more powerful people regarded him with hatred. One day the baby would be taken by the priests and rulers of his own nation, accused before a Roman governor, led to a hilltop amongst a jeering crowd, and there to hang on a cross. That was a career which actually would follow the salutation of the angel. That was the favor of God?
It is noted that the angel said to Mary, "Do not be afraid, for you have found favor with God." What kind of favor was this? It was not unbroken happiness. She plainly did not get that. If she had measured God's favor by the presence of unbroken happiness, then she would have had to say that it didn't add up. But the truth was deeper than that. For, you see, our culture thinks that God's favor is ease and pleasure and prosperity. In essence, some of this may come from God's favor, but in reality God's favor may have been revealed in things that were desperately hard. But by facing them, she had been strengthened. God gave her character to face life.
God's favor for us may allow some frustration. This throws it back upon us and requires us to develop reserves of courage and endurance which otherwise we might never have known.
God's favor may come through a collision with the evil forces of this world, which will batter and bruise us and almost break our hope.
God's favor for us may be more richly bestowed, not in easy times, but in great challenges, when the real faith is put to a test.
People may think that they are fortunate because they have never been called upon to face great difficulty, but they may end with nothing to show but emptiness. It is the lives that have been given something great to do and to bear, even though they have been bruised in the process, which have truly known the favor of God. The good news is that God is in the difficulty with us, helping us to develop in the process. We are not left alone to endure. Indeed, God's favor does not bring the kind of peace the world expects. God is more concerned with our holiness than our happiness.
Two artists were commissioned to paint their conception of peace. A panel of distinguished judges would determine which artist had best captured the idea. The winner would get a rich commission. And after they had been painting for a long time, the judges assembled to view their work.
The first artist unveiled his painting, and there was a beautiful, magnificent pastoral scene, with a farmer coming in after a hard day in the fields. His wife was cooking, his children were playing around the hearth, and all was at peace in this tranquil and beautiful farm.
"That's it," said the judges, "but we'll look at the other rendering anyway." They removed the veil of the second painting. Instead of a tranquil, pastoral scene, there was a raging waterfall producing a mist which communicated hostility. But over on the side of the waterfall was a tiny branch of a tree growing out of a rock, and on the end of the branch was a bird's nest. And on the edge of the nest was a mother bird, singing her heart out in the midst of the turbulence around her. The judges thought for a moment, then said, "This is peace, tranquility and celebration in the midst of turmoil."
We need a little Christmas right now, but the little Christmas that we need is the courage that comes as the favor of God. We must remember that the Christian community has done its best when it has gone against the wind.
The rule of Christ has endured wars and rumors of wars. His reign has withstood Roman imperialism, Jewish legalism, pagan optimism, medieval institutionalism, the excesses of the reformers, wars and rumors of wars, a youthquake, modern skepticism, southern provincialism, resurgent fundamentalism, and anything else that future generations can throw at it.
It has also been victimized by unprepared preachers, tone-deaf musicians, manipulative members, argumentative deacons or elders, demanding denominations, unloving reformers, greedy politicians, and still he continues to reign. He provides community in the face of alienation and love and affirmation in a hostile world. His reign is not a porcelain teacup that is easily broken. His reign and favor is an oak tree with deep and abiding roots. His gift at Christmas-the favor of God-is strength in the face of whatever life may bring.
Our world desperately needs to know that not only has God come in Jesus Christ, but that he reigns forever in unexpected ways. The motion picture "The Bridge Over the River Kwai" was selected as one of the 100 great films of the 20th century. It is the story of some British prisoners of war during World War II. They were held by the Japanese in northern Burma in a very difficult circumstance. It was made into a motion picture and won an Academy Award. Most of us know of it from that standpoint.
But Ernest Gordon, theologian and preacher, later to become chaplain at Yale, wrote a book called Through the River of the Kwai, which told another side of the story of degradation and desolation experienced by those impoverished prisoners. This book tells how those in the camp interacted with one another. When these young soldiers realized that they were going to be there for a while, they began to have Bible studies and prayed diligently that they could be delivered from their present circumstances.
He said, "We knew that the thrust of our praying was to be delivered from this prison camp and that was it. Our praying was shallow and superficial, and we were railing against God for letting us be here. But something happened to us and that kind of railing against God disappeared. And we began to move toward a more mature faith. We began to pray about how we could relate to one another in those bad situations. No longer was it Why, God? but it was How should we act, God?"
Gordon said the most spiritual moment of his life was Christmas 1944. Out of deference to the men in the camp, they were not given work detail that day and were given a bit more food. He said that as they moved around the prison yard, they sensed that things were different. In one of the barracks (basically a thatched hut with a dirt floor and open sides where the men slept), one soldier began to sing a Christmas carol. It was echoed over the infirmary where men were dying. Then all around the camp, the men began to sing, and those who could, those who were ambulatory, came to the parade field and sat there in a great circle. Gordon said, "God touched us that day."
Gordon said it was the most sacred event that he had ever been involved with. No preaching, nothing of the usual church paraphernalia, just men united by their common misery, singing of God being with them and God's sovereignty. And he said, "We were touched by God." Christmas became real to him when he was touched by God in the surprising place of a Japanese prisoner-of-war camp in northern Burma.
The world desperately needs this news. The favor of God is courage in the face of crisis, and the peace of God is focus in the face of confusion. As the little boy said, "Have we got news for you!"
Now let us pray.
Eternal God, let us know your favor is to give us strength for the living of these days. For we pray in the name of Christ Jesus our Lord. Amen.