I was working on a funeral sermon last Friday when the news of the school shooting in Connecticut broke over the news. As the magnitude of the story grew and the scope of the tragedy increased, it occurred to me that the words of assurance that I was attempting to craft for the family who were grieving their enormous personal loss in this holiday season were equally applicable to the situation in which we find ourselves as a national family, as a human family.
One of the most cherished promises of God’s Word is that the Lord will not break off the “battered reed,” or put out the “sputtering wick” (Matthew 12:20/Isaiah 42:3). These are wonderfully descriptive images of woundedness, word pictures of people who have been shattered by the circumstances of life. As the contemporary Gospel musician Wayne Watson put it in one of his songs –
Jesus, He meets you where you are. Jesus, He heals your secret scars.
All the love you’re longing for is Jesus; the friend of a wounded hear.
All of us who know darkness; all of us who have wounds, need to know this too. We are not alone. Jesus is “the friend of the wounded heart.” In fact, I believe that wounded hearts, and how they got that way, are the great fact of the human condition, and are the reason why God became flesh and dwelt among us in Jesus Christ +
(John 1:14), sharing the contingencies of life in this world (Hebrews 2:14-18; 4:14-16), and breaking the grip that darkness has on us. This makes what we proclaim and celebrate at Christmas foundational to the resolution of the problem of pain.
This is what I was trying to address for a single family in that funeral message that I was working on last Friday when the news of the school shooting broke. And because I believe that it is the same message that speaks to the deep hurt that we are feeling as a people because of what happened in Connecticut, I offer it to you here, believing fully that the Gospel is the power of God for salvation (“healing”) to everyone who believes (Romans 1:16). DBS+
“While Quirinius was Governor of Syria” – Luke 2:1-7
A Meditation in Honor of Thomas Henry
I’ll bet that you weren’t expecting to hear the Christmas story from the Gospel of Luke read here this morning. And no doubt you find this sanctuary brightly decorated for Christmas an unusual setting for a memorial service. Neither the setting nor the text feels quite right does it? We are so much more accustomed to somber settings and those other texts we heard read about the gentle shepherd, the dark and fearsome valley and tears being wiped away from our eyes.
There is something incongruous about death and Christmas. In this season when we are occupied with singing angels and lowing cattle, pretty paper and expensive gifts, musical nut-crackers and dancing sugar-plum fairies, we don’t want to be bothered with thoughts about death. In this season of joy and light, talk of death is just not appropriate. It doesn’t fit. It doesn’t belong. But death is an intruder, an uninvited guest. We don’t get to choose the times and places it makes its presence known. And sometimes, no matter how much we would prefer for it to be otherwise, a death coincides with Christmas.
In this season when we are celebrating Christ’s birth, we find ourselves having to deal with a loved one’s death. And the experience leaves us feeling just a little bit rattled, uneasy, emotionally torn in two. In fact, we may even feel a little bit cheated; cheated that we find ourselves grieving in this season of celebration. We can feel slighted because we have to cope with an enormous personal loss in a time when the rest of the world is having a party. A death at Christmastime forces us to grapple with feelings that are not normally related – joy and sorrow, peace and distress, hopeful anticipation and profound loss.
Madeleine L’Engle, the author, experienced this years ago when a member of her family died quite unexpectedly in the days before Christmas. The funeral actually took place on Christmas Eve, and when it was all over, as the family sat exhausted and empty in the front room of Madeleine’s house, the question was asked about Christmas. What were they going to do about it? Obviously, nobody there felt much like celebrating – exchanging gifts and sharing a big festive family dinner. They had almost agreed to cancel Christmas that year in light of their circumstances when Madeleine finally chimed in.
She said that she thought that Christmas ought to proceed just as planned. They should do what they always did as a family on Christmas. And when she was challenged; when she was asked if it was “proper to grieve and rejoice simultaneously?” Madeleine gave an answer that I have never forgotten. She said – “If the love I define in my own heart as Christian means anything at all; then yes. If the birth of Christ as Jesus of Nazareth means anything at all, then yes” (24).
We must not let the beauty and warmth of this season fool us into forgetting what Christmas is really about. As we gaze lovingly upon that infant wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger so tender and mild, we must not lose sight of the fact that He grew up to be the Savior who died so brutally on Calvary’s cross. The Gospel will not allow us to get sentimental. We are told right from the beginning of the story who this baby is – “Emmanuel” – “God with us” (Matthew 1:23) – and why He’s come – “to save his people from their sins” (Matthew 1:21). As Dag Hammarskjöld put it in his Christmas Eve 1960 journal entry – “The manger is situated on Calvary; the cross has already been raised in Bethlehem.” And this means that the mixture of joy and sorrow, hope and dread that we feel here this morning – conducting this memorial service for our brother Thomas in this sanctuary that is brightly decorated for Christmas – is not something that is somehow alien to the story of Christ’s birth, but is rather a natural part of it. You see, incredible joy and unspeakable sorrow were forever intertwined in Bethlehem that night when the Savior was born.
The appropriateness of this Christmas setting and the relevance of that Christmas story for this memorial service here this morning for Thomas Henry resides in the fact that the One whose birth these decorations signal and the story proclaims is our Savior. Now, the fact of the matter is that we need saving from lots of things – danger, delusion, disease, deception, disaster, depression, degeneration, damnation – and death. The Bible calls death our final enemy. Death is the ultimate frustration of life. It destroys our best laid plans. It shatters our finest dreams. It interrupts our deepest relationships. Oh, we need saving from lots of things, but nothing more fundamental than death. We need a way of breaking the powerful grip that death has on each one of us. And Christmas is the way that God does it.
And this is why here this morning, in this setting, I can think of very few texts from the Bible that are more appropriate for what we have to do than that one about the birth of Mary’s baby in Bethlehem of Judea when Quirinius was the Governor of Syria. I know that the death of a loved one at Christmastime is hard. I know that it can feel like its stealing the joy of the season and stripping the holiday of its glow. But this can only happen if we aren’t clear about what Christmas is really about.
Christmas is not about Santa Claus, or Rudolf the red-nosed reindeer, or Frosty the Snowman. It’s not about the fancy parties and the rich food. It’s not about the beautifully decorated tree and the piles of presents under it. It’s not about that happy music and the festive feelings. Christmas is about the coming of the One who has challenged death and broken the grip that it has on us. As one of the Christmas carols that we really love to sing puts it –
Hail the heaven-born Prince of Peace! Hail the Sun of Righteousness!
Light and life to all he brings, risen with healing in his wings.
Mild he lays his glory by, born that we no more may die,
born to raise us from the earth, born to give us second birth.
Hark! the herald angels sing, “Glory to the new born King!”
“Born that we no more may die… born to raise us from the earth… born to give us second birth.” This is why a church sanctuary looking like this and that familiar story from the second chapter of the Gospel of Luke are perfect for what we have to do here this morning. As the theologian Hans Kung put it – “Nowhere is it more clearly visible than in Christ’s humble birth in that stable and in His agonizing death on that cross, that we have a God who is for us, a God who is really on our side.” And as the Apostle Paul put it –
If God is for us, who can be against us?
He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all,
how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things?
Who will bring any charge against those whom God has chosen?
It is God who justifies. Who then is the one who condemns?
…Christ Jesus who died—more than that, who was raised to life
is at the right hand of God and is also interceding for us.
Who (then) shall separate us from the love of Christ?
Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine
or nakedness or danger or sword?
…No, in all these things we are more than conquerors
through him who loved us. For I am convinced
that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons,
neither the present nor the future, nor any powers,
neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation,
will be able to separate us from the love of God
that is (ours) in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 8:31-39)
It’s because of that baby born in Bethlehem that we know that this is true for Thomas. Nothing, not even death, has separated him from God’s love. And it’s because of that baby born in Bethlehem that we know that this is equally true for us. Nothing, not even Thomas’ death, will separate us from God’s love. It’s because of that baby born in Bethlehem that today is not just a day of sorrow and loss, but a day of promise and hope. And so there is no better day, no more urgent day, no more important day than a day like today to be in a sanctuary that looks like this, and to hear once again that –
In the city of David a Savior has been born…
He is the Messiah, the Lord. And this will be His sign:
…a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger. (Luke 2:12)