Specific, Physical, Unsentimental

Video of the service is here. The sermon begins around the 46:40 mark.

In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

It is hard to speak about something that’s been spoken about so many times. For that matter, it’s hard to hear what we have heard so many times. Our ears close up, our eyes glaze over, and we tune out. The stories are too familiar, which, ironically, makes them seem further away, rather than closer. But we still want Christmas to mean something, and we have different ways of trying to drum up some meaning from the too-familiar.

One of the things we do is generalize the specific. So we might take the specific birth of a specific baby and generalize it: this is really about a new birth for us, a new beginning, a new opportunity, a new year. Or we might take the specific words of this Man, for example when He says that He is the Light of the world, and generalize them. So we look at the lights on trees or houses, and we talk about a general “light in the darkness,” the idea of light, whatever that means to you. Or we might take the specific presence of God in this baby, in this man, Jesus, and generalize it to talk about the presence of God or the divine in all things and all people. Like Ralph Waldo Emerson once wrote in a diary, “the highest revelation is that God is in every man.” In order to bring meaning to Christmas, we generalize the specifics of the story.

Or we might spiritualize the physical and the concrete. So we take the very physical birth of a baby to a mother and make it a “spiritual birth,” a metaphor for how God is born in each one of us. We are all Mary now. Or we take the actual words of Jesus and distill from them a spiritual truth about our highest aspirations. We shave all the sharp edges off of something like “love,” and make it a spiritual truth that is found in all great teachers and religions. Or we take a very physical redemption of a very physical and concrete creation, of physical and concrete bodies, and we spiritualize it so that it becomes, instead, an escape from the physical and concrete world in which God put us. Then the goal is to escape this physical world and these physical bodies to some better place after we die. We spiritualize the physical in order to make Christmas mean something.

One more thing that we do to find some meaning in Christmas is that we sentimentalize. When we don’t feel how we think we’re supposed to, when the stories can’t touch us anymore, and we don’t feel anything for them, we have to manufacture good feelings. So we do different things like try to look at things through the eyes of a child. Or we take refuge in nostalgia, in the way things used to be. We dream of white Christmases just like the ones we used to know. We have to make good feelings for ourselves, so that we can have a little bit of an escape from the difficulty and struggle and anxiety of life in this world.

What all of these things have in common is that they take for granted that the events we are celebrating are essentially dead and gone. They happened a long time ago (if they happened at all). We have to make something out of them; they certainly can’t make anything out of us. We celebrate Jesus’ birthday as if it were like all birthdays of those who lived and died a long time ago.

But the stories themselves all run exactly in the opposite way. They are not general, spiritualized, or sentimental; they are specific, physical and concrete, and unsentimental. And, honestly, if they’re not, we should discard them as quickly and easily as we discard the other myths of Christmas we associate with childhood. If Jesus is not Immanuel, God-with-us, here and now, I’m not sure what good any of this is.

The Scriptures, and the creeds that summarize them, are all very specific, and they resist being made into general ideas, rather than the specific actions of God in this world in order to salvage it from what we have made of it. We do not generalize from the idea of love, or the idea of light. John says that God is love, but not that love is God. And he says that the only way we know love is because God’s love appeared in the world in a very specific time and place, as a man born to a woman. God’s love became visible among us when God sent His Son into the world, so that we might live through Him. This is love, not that we loved God, but that He loved us and sent His Son to be the whole burnt offering by which sin is taken away. He is the Light of the world, and in that light, all other so-called lights might as well be shadow and darkness.

The Son of God did not take flesh, was not born, did not live and die and rise from the dead, to help us escape this world and our bodies. He did that in order to restore and remake this physical and concrete and material stuff. In His body, flesh and blood, He was born into the blood and mess and death and sin of this world as it is. It was not some idealized world, with fluffy snowdrifts and cute animals and glitter. It was this same world in which we get sick and suffer and grieve and die.

And that is the reason it is not sentimental, because God doesn’t need you to manufacture good, happy feelings. Whether you feel happy or sad or nothing at all, Jesus comes to and for you. He comes to you in physical and concrete ways like water and bread and wine, to which He has attached His salvation and forgiveness and life by His holy Word. You don’t have to paste a smile on your face and pretend that things are other than they are, when everything is not holly and jolly and merry, when it is not the happiest time of the year for you. Jesus wept and suffered and died in this world as it is. No pretending, just acting and loving and healing. Whether you feel it or not, the Word comes from outside you: He says, I forgive you, specifically and concretely. I love you and the evidence is written in very physical scars and nail-holes. I am going to keep you with Myself and raise you up on the last day, in the final and perfect deliverance: specifically, and physically. And you won’t have to manufacture any feelings on that day, because everything that has gone wrong in this world and in you will be made right, and there will be only the fullest and truest joy, only the genuine and eternal celebration with the God who entered this world in order to make it so.

In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen. “And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:7, ESV). Amen.

— Pr. Timothy Winterstein, 12/23/21

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