In December 2006 I gave the following sermon. I’d like to share it with you:
Sometimes the world is a dark place where it is easy to get lost. In this dark place there exist things with teeth that can bite you anytime they want. This is not a place where you want to be lost.
Some say, “It’s not so bad”—but we can’t look honestly at the world without acknowledging the presence of serious evil. Go to Sudan, the families and young children in Africa decimated by AIDS, the physical abuse suffered by children and women in America at the hands of husbands, boyfriends and fathers. Evil is here—even during Christmas.
At Christmas it is easy to get caught up in sentimentalism. The nativity scenes, complete with other-worldly representations of Joseph, Mary and the shepherds peer out from church lawns and store-front displays. A cute, cuddly infant in a sanitized blanket on a comfortable straw mattress greets us. And we are tempted to miss the point. We forget the early first century (B.C. and A.D.) world of Palestine was not really a picture of Pax Romana (Roman Peace)—it was populated with rebels, unwanted occupational forces, insurgents, and mad kings. The so-called Pax Romana was accomplished by the edge of a sword and baptized in the blood of rebels and collateral damage. And lest we get caught up in some romantic notion, remember: the slaughter of the Bethlehem children is an integral part of the story. We tend to gloss over that story, don’t we? But it is there to remind us the world is indeed a dark place where there is no shortage of evil ready to sink its teeth into anyone who crosses its path.
But it wasn’t always this way. God called the world out of chaos. He created it whole and beautiful. Mankind was the crowning touch. God looked around and proclaimed it “very good.” God created us to be his image-bearers. That’s what it meant to be human. But we wanted to be God. Our choice, our decision, our action introduced sin into the world: a fatal flaw that has affected not only mankind, but creation itself.
Ever since, we have failed in our calling to be fully God’s image-bearers, to be fully human. We’ve even twisted our identity into an excuse: “Well, I’m only human!” That’s not a rationalization —it is a judgment! In reality, when we embrace evil, we fail in our calling to be human. One word for sin means “to miss the mark.” Sin is to miss our calling to be what God has created us to be: human—the image bearer of God. When we sin, it is not because we are human, but because we have settled for something much less.
While the choice was ours—we were encouraged by evil personified. We were not victims, but we were not alone in our guilt either. Since creation, there has been an Evil One whose sole mission is to mar God’s beauty. To destroy all that God holds dear. He was our seducer and accomplice. And he’s been trying to destroy us ever since.
And so enters the baby. And we want him to stay a cute, cuddly infant. But to focus on the babe is to miss the point. He did not come to be a baby. He came to shine light into the darkness and expose the Evil One who would destroy us.
And he did this so well. The gospel of Mark begins with an adult Jesus bursting on the scene. One of the characteristic actions he takes throughout the gospel is the driving out of demons. Instead of fighting a defensive battle, he hunts the enemy down, as it were. He invades Satan’s territory. With a word he expels confusion. The demons cry out: What do you have to do with us? Have you come to destroy us? We know who you are: the Holy One of God!
In the gospel of Matthew, he tells his disciples the gates of Hades will not overcome him—he doesn’t say the swords and spears of Hades. He says the gates. Those are defensive structures; not offensive weapons. Jesus is the one on the offense! He confronts those who collude with evil: the powers of the world represented by the religious elite and the government. He reaches out to love on those victimized by evil: the outcasts of society—tax collectors, prostitutes, lepers, irreligious. He doesn’t do this to goad the religious. He does it because, as God, he is not willing to give up on anyone.
But his ultimate victory over evil was witnessed, not in his birth, but in his crucifixion. The very place where he appeared helpless; the very moment he looked like a victim—was the exact time when he defeated evil. He did it in a radically different way than anyone expected. Rather than using violence to defeat violence, he used self-sacrificial love. Not sentimental love. Not some romantic notion of love: but gutsy, tough, sacrificial love. He turned evil’s own momentum against itself. Like some eastern martial artist, rather than striking back, he absorbed the blow and allowed evil to spend itself out on him. And in that moment the darkness was shattered.
Paul describes the moment in Colossians 2:13-15
When you were dead in your sins and in the uncircumcision of your sinful nature, God made you alive with Christ. He forgave us all our sins, having canceled the written code, with its regulations, that was against us and that stood opposed to us; he took it away, nailing it to the cross. And having disarmed the powers and authorities, he made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross.
The powers and authorities described here are demonic forces of evil—but also those forces who collude with them, whether they are religious or secular.
And we return to the baby. Not a sentimental figure of innocence; but a paradoxical one. How can the evil of the world be defeated by a baby? How can the violence of the world be overcome by a suffering servant? Don’t our own governments and even our own sense of rightness seem to suggest otherwise? The way to defeat violent evil is to use more violence? But Jesus shines a light in all of this darkness. He points to a different way.
And he calls us to accept that calling: To lead the world back to creation; to demonstrate what it means to be fully human: image bearers of God. He calls us to confront evil the way he confronted evil—to hunt the enemy down by rescuing those entrapped by his demonic influence, by honestly confronting the misuse of power, and by loving on all of those trapped and bitten by evil.
Yes, the world can be a dark place where it is easy to get lost. But through the power of the babe who came to die, we can bring light to the darkness, expose the evil, and bring the lost to a safe place.
May you celebrate the light of Christ who came into this world. As you look at the babe, may you avoid sentimentality. May you recognize his paradoxical power of suffering. And may you embrace his calling to bring light into the darkness.