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Again

For about seven years in the 1960s, the Beatles recorded special Christmas songs and greetings for the members of its fan club (mailed to them on a 45 rpm—remember those?). One year the song was titled “Christmas Time (Is Here Again).” It has to count as one of the simplest of all Beatles songs as the five words of the title are sung over and over. And over. And over again. This repetition is punctuated by only two other lyrics: John Lennon singing the nonsense line “O-U-T spells out” and “It’s been ’round since you know when.” The song was just a frolic.

I have no idea if this was intentional, but the repetitive nature of the song has always reminded me that, yes, Christmastime really does come every year, and often it sneaks up on you quite quickly. “Didn’t we just do this?” we think. “Wow, I can’t believe how close it is to Christmas again!” we often say at some point in November. “The mall has all its Christmas stuff out already!” we may note long about Halloween. And next thing you know, sure enough: Christmastime is here. Again.

In other columns here in Reformed Worship I have noted that for those of us who preach, big days like Christmas and Easter present challenges. There is only so much biblical material to work with for days like these, and Christmas actually has far less to work with than Easter given that two of the four gospels skip all things remotely Christmasy. Sooner or later, if you minister in the same place for any length of time, you get the feeling that you’ve said all there is to say. Yet Jesus keeps insisting on being born every year. Again. Christmastime in fact has “been ’round since you know when.” So when it comes to fresh ideas for a Christmas sermon, we might apply Lennon’s words to how we feel about fresh preaching angles: “O-U-T spells out”—as in “out of ideas.”

Yet somehow or another Christmas each year manages to be different. I don’t mean the story, or the core truth, or the available biblical materials. Rather, what is different each year is the world in which we celebrate the incarnation of God’s love. Christmastime has come again in times when the church was being actively persecuted by Rome even as it comes again now when the church is being actively persecuted in China, actively attacked in Nigeria, actively suppressed in many places. Christmastime has come again during times of peace and prosperity, but also during world wars, times of famine, and periods of plague and disease.

Lately in many places—certainly in the United States—Christmastime has come again during a period of great strife and deep divisions. Whatever else our current era will be remembered for, surely history will note how disagreements about politics and policies went from the normal give-and-take of political banter to something far more dire, far more wounding. Rhetoric on all sides has ratcheted up significantly in the last half-dozen years. We wish we could say that the church has remained above this fray.

But we all know that congregations have become fragile places of late. And most of us who preach know that so many of our colleagues are casting about to find a way to preach, to pray, and just generally to communicate in ways that manage to be at once honest and yet unifying. Few have found that rhetorical sweet spot. Words or comments in sermons or public prayers that twenty years ago might not so much as raised an eyebrow are now regarded as grenades lobbed by pastors and worship leaders with the intent to maim some in the congregation.

In the midst of all that, soon enough it will be Christmastime again. Do Advent and Christmas have anything to say in the midst of our broken body politic and in the midst of our fractured Body of Christ? Probably. Because what even we in the church need to remember is that for all the serenity and sentimentality with which we have larded over this season, for all the would-be silent awe and childlike, wide-eyed wonder with which we infuse Advent and Christmas (even within the church), the fact is that Jesus was born into a brutal world.

Christmastime has come again during times of peace and prosperity, but also during world wars, times of famine, and periods of plague and disease.

In what is now a widely quoted line, theologian Juergen Moltmann once said we need to remember that Christ was not crucified between two tapered candles on an altar but between two thugs on a bloody garbage heap named after a skull. So also we can note that Christ was not born between a shimmering Christmas tree and a cozy fire crackling on the hearth but in the midst of animals and dung and in a world loaded with violence.

Luke is the one who takes the time twice in his gospel (Luke 2 and 3) to give a litany of the bigwig political leaders of the era when Jesus was born. These were mostly violent, tyrannical figures. Herod alone was a fire-breathing, murderous brute. All of the figures Luke names were part of a repressive empire that regularly staged public executions on crosses meant to serve as de facto billboards telling the citizenry of the empire, “Fall in line with Caesar, or else!”

God did not send his only Son to be born into this world because it was a place of peace and goodness that would somehow mirror the peace and shalom the Son was meant to bring. God sent Jesus to this world precisely because it lacked those qualities. The world did not have to look like a Hallmark Christmas card as a precondition for the incarnation of God’s Son. Jesus was born into a world where people were at each other’s throats as often as not due to squabbles and disagreements, a world agitating for change but unable to find any words or actions with any hope of generating any real—much less lasting (much less eternal)—change.

It’s tempting when preaching at Christmas to shut out the cacophonous wider world in order to set the right tone of warmth and wonder within the church. We don’t want death or divisions or political fractures to come into the sanctuary because they spoil “the Christmas spirit.” How wrong we are. We need to let the Christ of God to be born once again precisely in the face of all that so that maybe, by the Spirit of God, we can hear him speaking words of hope, of peace, of joy that might even slightly realign our sensibilities. We need to be honest in calling people of sharply differing opinions on immigration or other hot-button issues to come together and humble themselves before the same incarnate Jesus.

No, this will not make differences of opinion on various issues evaporate. But maybe it will remind us that my ideas or your ideas, my words or your words, my stance or your stance on this or that is not going to chart the way forward to peace and love. Only honoring the Child of Bethlehem will do so in the long run. If we can remember this, then maybe even in the short run we can see each other through new eyes.

Christmastime is here. Again. Good thing, too.

This column is provided in cooperation with the Center for Excellence in Preaching. For more on the CEP, its upcoming events, and its online resources, visit cep.calvinseminary.edu.