Pastor Chris Tweitmann
Ready or not, it’s that time of year once again. No, I’m not talking about Christmas.
We still have – count them – 29 days left until Christmas. I’m talking about – ‘tis the season – of Advent.
“Advent” is Latin that means “a coming or an arrival.”
It is season of time marked out long ago by earlier generations of Christians in order to slow down and reflect – not on what we have to do to make Christmas happen but rather, on the God, who, in coming down in the flesh, gives us our reason for celebrating at all.
So instead of being consumed by the commercial blitz ahead of us and possibly in the end, finding ourselves lost thanks to the holiday rush, we are going to be intentional over these next four Sundays about coming home for Christmas – coming back to why we need more than just a little Christmas.
Why we need the whole of what Christmas is – past, present, and future – to shape and form, not just how we live in the month of December, but everyday of our lives.
It’s never a good idea to start at the middle of something.
When we come in at the middle of anything – a story, a song, a conversation, an explanation or an argument – we end up more than a bit confused and maybe even frustrated as we struggle to fully make sense of what is going on and why.
Despite this fact, each and every year, we try and share the message and meaning of Christmas by starting from the middle of the story.
We start in the middle of the story – of a young, unmarried couple finding themselves pregnant by mysterious, divine intervention, who then shuffle off to Bethlehem amid much scandal and suspicion, who end up having their baby in less than ideal circumstances, and then find themselves spontaneously visited first by shepherds and later by a bunch of wise guys – counselors from foreign lands – all under the illumination of a majestic star rising in the east, the fanfare of a joyous chorus of angels appearing in the night sky, and the murderous rage of a local king named Herod.
All that make sense to everyone?
Is it really clear how we got here and what it all means?
No. To fully understand the story of Christmas, we can’t come in the middle. We have to go back to the beginning.
To truly appreciate the gift of love that is the baby named Jesus born in a manger to Mary and Joseph, we have to revisit the moment God’s heart for the world, for all the Lord created, for us – first broke in a garden with Adam and Eve.
Christmas is celebrated all around the world.
It is a time marked by a spirit of generosity and charity – expressing gratitude to those whom we love and offering service to those who are in need.
It is a season when we make peace – putting aside our differences and extending good will to each other as we seek to come home and be unified in together making life merry and bright.
It is an occasion when we become more childlike in our sense of imagination and possibility, when we encourage belief and hope in the promise of a better world.
Now what’s interesting – and I don’t know if it’s ever even occurred to us – is the very mindset – all these dispositions and actions that make Christmas special – imply that this way of thinking, of feeling, of speaking and acting are not the norm.
To put this another way, there would be no need for Christmas if empathy and compassion were our default postures rather than self-protectiveness and indifference.
There would be no need for the generosity and charity Christmas invokes if justice was the rule rather than the exception, if we shared and shared alike the abundance, the resources, and the opportunities of creation which we have been given.
There would be no need to appeal for unity or dreams of peace at Christmastime, if we actually lived as though what divides us is not greater than all that we have in kind – our common humanity.
There would be no need to come home for Christmas, if, even as we travel far and wide in our work and play, we didn’t forget where we came from, to whom we belong, that we do not exist apart from each other but that we’re all in this together.
But the fact is, we do need Christmas – badly.
The larger question, however, is why?
Why are all the things we celebrate at Christmas – peace on earth and goodwill to all, tidings of comfort and joy, the world ruled by grace and truth, the wonders of pure, unbounded love – why are these not the norm in our lives, in this world?
And the answer to that question, the why of Christmas – only can be found if we remember the nightmare before Christmas.
The nightmare before Christmas takes place only three chapters into the story of creation – the genesis of humanity.
We need to keep in mind the third chapter of the beginning of the human condition could have been much different if our oldest ancestors, Adam and Eve, hadn’t grabbed the pen from our Creator’s hand and started trying to write a different story for their lives.
For the narrative yet to be divinely authored, the journey ahead that God had planned for us, was within our reach to take hold of.
The tree of life offered the promise of more than paradise on earth; it ensured that our existence, despite the pangs and stumbles of learning and growth, our existence would be eternal – uninterrupted – everlasting.
Beyond the garden in which our lives started, lay a more extraordinary creation – a world of discovery and creative potential – unmarred by any harshness in nature or fear of disaster.
And in all our explorations, inspirations, and revelations, our Creator’s presence would not be regulated to some abstract doctrine of omnipresence,
God would be Immanuel – inseparably with and for us – walking ahead of us every step of the way.
But God’s dream for humanity turned into the nightmare before Christmas, the moment, in our disobedience, we attempted to write a different story.
Now there are those who will tell us, some will strongly argue, Genesis, chapter 3, is the assertion of humanity’s freedom of choice.
To believe this is, however, like it was for Adam and Eve, to take the bait, to give into the temptation of the biggest lie of all – that life apart from God is freedom, when in fact, it is slavery.
Our freedom to choose exists before what happens here. Our freedom to chooseis God-given and not taken by us from God.
Our Creator gives us tremendous freedom
– the freedom to represent God through our stewardship of all things,
– the freedom to represent God through our creativity with everything,
The only boundary to the freedom God gives us is that we have to represent our Creator naturally – within the order and structure of what He has created – of how He has created us. God’s house, God’s rules.
This boundary is not arbitrary but is designed to protect us from the inevitable breakdown and chaos that result when we operate outside of the structure and design of what the Lord has made.
And even within this boundary, God gives us the choice to depend on Him or not.
God provides the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil as a reminder of the limitation of our moral choices.
Which is a good thing because, as we well known now, on the other side of the nightmare before Christmas, the nuances and shades of grey between both good intentions and bad consequences and bad intentions and good outcomes are often hard for us to unravel.
Looking to God as our Provider and Sustainer is what we were created for – not playing God – which always carries a terrible burden and extracts a costly price.
And yet, this is what our first spiritual ancestors did, this is what we continue to do when we champion our independence, our autonomy, and self-sufficency.
This is how the nightmare begins as we deny the image of God in whom we are created and instead assert we can become gods in our own right, as we believe the lie that we can make something of ourselves apart from God and try to craft our identity apart from our relationship to our Creator, as we bow down and worship our productivity and achievements, as we as we rush forward and keep chasing after the kind of fulfillment and contentment that will always elude us when we refuse to wait patiently on the Lord.
This is always how the nightmare begins. And it’s not a bad dream. It’s a living nightmare that we can’t wake ourselves up from.
Divorcing ourselves from God, we ruin our humanity beyond recognition.
We begin to dig our own grave as everything falls apart.
An empty, divine handprint leaves us conscious of our nakedness.
Then the eyes of both of them were opened, and they realized they were naked; so they sewed fig leaves together and made coverings for themselves. Then the man and his wife heard the sound of the Lord God as he was walking in the garden in the cool of the day, and they hid from the Lord God among the trees of the garden. – Genesis 3:7 – 8
Not knowing who we are, we hide, even as we search for our identity.
Feeling exposed, disconnected, and insecure, we fluctuate between puffing ourselves up with false pride and being overwhelmed with the guilt and shame of being imposters.
Our self-imposed distance from our Creator keeps us at arm’s length from each other as we compare, contrast, and compete with one another – all to prove our worth, to justify our significance, to try and be somebody.
And so the living nightmare grows, as like Adam and Eve, rather than take responsibility for each other, we turn on each other and point fingers.
“And he said, “Who told you that you were naked? Have you eaten from the tree that I commanded you not to eat from?” The man said, “The woman you put here with me—she gave me some fruit from the tree, and I ate it.” Then the Lord God said to the woman, “What is this you have done?” The woman said, “The serpent deceived me, and I ate.” – Genesis 3:11 – 13
We play the blame game as we pass the buck.
If I’m not responsible for anything, then you are responsible for everything.
It’s always somebody else’s fault as we blame the devil, the weather, the government, the media, our boss, our spouse, our parents, – anything or anyone else who’s within reach.
We even take out our lack of responsibility on creation itself
– as we toss all our junk and bury all our trash wherever we feel like it,
– as we consume and use for sport animal and plant life,
– as we turn the planet into a disposal resource
rather than a renewable one.
But surprise, surprise, creation doesn’t take being scorned lying down.
And so what was once heaven on earth becomes more like hell as the once peaceful, predictable rhythms of a balanced universe become uncertain, violent, and sometimes deadly.
The fruitness of the land, the sky, and the sea become harder to come by – increasingly resistant to all our sweat and toil – offering us thorns and thistles to work around and at times, for long stretches – harvesting nothing but drought and famine.
The irony of our great divorce from our Creator is that we as humanity end up needing creation more than it needs us.
We no longer rule over creation. Creation rules over us with a vengeance.
All in all, it’s not a pretty picture, is it? Nightmares rarely are.
We choose to live in denial of the nightmare most of the time.
Still, we have to face and not look away from the darkness in order to appreciate the light that breaks in – the light of our salvation.
Now most people don’t see that light begin to emerge until thousands of years later with the surprise announcement of an angel to a young girl, unwed girl named Mary.
More careful and attentive observers, however, will notice the first glimmer of hope, the end of the nightmare, the dawn of the light that is Christmas, appears here at the very scene of the crime.
The initial trauma of the nightmare before Christmas can cause us to misremember what happened next and pass down through subsequent generations, like a game of telephone, a less than gracious view of how our Creator responds – which is ironic, as in the aftermath of our disobedience, grace is exactly what God extends to us.
For example, the standard, generic telling of Genesis chapter 3 portrays an outraged Creator angrily spewing curses on humanity and subsequently casting humankind out of His presence.
Nothing however could be further from the truth.
The first move our Creator makes on the other side of the nightmare is to search for us – to search for us – rather than to grab us by the scruff our neck and drag us into His presence,
The first move our Creator makes is to call us out – not with castigation – laying into us for being so ungrateful and foolish – but to call us out with questions.
“…and they hid from the Lord God among the trees of the garden. But the Lord God called to the man, “Where are you?” -Genesis 3:8-9
To appreciate the graciousness of this first move, let’s be clear.
God does not search for Adam and Eve because God cannot find them.
God does not ask questions of Adam and Eve because God needs information and doesn’t know what just happened.
No, the first move of our Creator in response to our disobedience is to allow space, to cultivate an opportunity for our repentance – to turn ourselves around – to stop running away and hiding and instead to come home and get clean.
God always tenderly draws us out of hiding rather than driving us into hiding.
And as Adam and Eve come forward, in the first sacrifice we witness in scripture,
“The Lord God made garments of skin for Adam and his wife and clothed them.” – Genesis 3:21
through the skins of animals, God fully clothes them – providing for rather punishing them in their guilt and shame.
Likewise, God does not leave us – our humanity – exposed – alone, naked and afraid – but contiually clothes us – wrapping His grace around us.
Our Creator’s second move is no less gracious.
Contrary to popular opinion, while there are consequences spelled out
“I will make your pains in childbearing very severe; with painful labor you will give birth to children…” – Genesis 3:16
– such as the pain of birth, the toil and sweat of labor,
“…through painful toil you will eat food from it all the days of your life. It will produce thorns and thistles for you, and you will eat the plants of the field. By the sweat of your brow you will eat your food…” – Genesis 3:18 – 19
rivalry instead of mutuality between the sexes,
“Your desire will be for your husband, and he will rule over you…” – Genesis 3:16
and ultimately, the sting of death,
“By the sweat of your brow you will eat your food until you return to the ground, since from it you were taken; for dust you are and to dust you will return.” – Genesis 3:18 – 19
while there are consequences spelled out for Adam and Eve’s disobedience, cursing humankind is NOT one of them.
The land, the sea, and the sky – become cursed – adversely affected – NOT as an arbitrary punishment by God against His own creation –
“Cursed is the ground because of you…” – Genesis 3:17
but as the Lord declares, as an inevitable repercussion of our brokenness – of our willful separation from our Creator.
The only thing that is cursed – not as consequence of our disobedience – but as an act of judgment and condemnation – is the serpent –
“So the Lord God said to the serpent, “Because you have done this, “Cursed are you above all livestock and all wild animals!” – Genesis 3:14
the snake that more broadly represents the force of evil.
All the principalities and powers opposed to God – that would seek to corrupt humanity and mar creation further are doomed to destruction.
Surprisingly, it is here in the cursing of evil, that first ray of the hope that becomes Christmas appears.
“And I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers; he will crush your head, and you will strike his heel.” – Genesis 3:15
As the ultimate death blow to all that is wrong, all that is corrupt, all that is unjust, all that is abusive and oppressive, the final death blow all that is malovent, God promises will come by way of a particular, future child of humanity.
Our Creator’s intention from the earliest pronouncement is to bring about our redemption not through an angel, not a demi-god, but through our humanity – through a human being born like any other person, a human being who would grow in wisdom and stature before God, a human being who would, like any of us, die – being struck in the heel and yet somehow, in dying – crushing evil’s head – death’s very grip.
And so our Creator begins to rewrite the story of our nightmare – planting the seed, laying the foundation for bringing life out of death.
Beloved, God’s response to Adam and Eve is NOT a litany of things they must do in order to get back in God’s good graces.
Our Creator’s response to our rebellion and rejection of Him and the nightmare that follows is NOT “Prove yourselves worthy of being saved” or “Save yourselves;” it is to pledge and outline how He is going to save us – what He is going to accomplish for us – namely, undoing evil, sin, and death.
A small, often overlooked but significant detail is Adam’s recognition and trust in God’s promise.
As notice, it is here – in the aftermath of things falling apart and the covenant of reconciliation which follows, it is here Adam,
“Adam named his wife Eve, because she would become the mother of all the living.” -Genesis 3:20
finally names his bride, calling her Eve (verse 20), because she would become the mother – not of the dead but – “of all the living.”
Out of the mystery of God’s assurance, generations upon generations waited and wondered exactly who this promised Savior would be.
Peppered throughout the stories that follow in the Old Testament are genealogies.
These sections of scripture that we tend to gloss or skip over, were the painstaking efforts of those who recorded biblical history to demonstrate that many of the most important figures in the stories they wrote down were descendants of the first family begun by God here in the garden.
And what hangs over each of these stories is the repeated question of whether or not, this person is the One who was promised to save the world.
Is it Abraham?
Is it is Joseph?
Is it Moses?
Is it Joshua?
Is it Samson?
Is it Samuel?
Is it David?
Is it Solomon?
Is it any of the kings of Israel or Judah?
With each turning of the page of biblical history, there is this constant looking to leaders, judges, priests, sages, and kings in some hope that they can lead better than the previous one – that they would prove to be the One to crush the head of the serpent – of the beast inside of us.
But the encouraging start of many of these perceived candidates always ends in a greater disappointment and further waiting.
As the Old Testament concludes with life as we know it appearing to get worse rather than better, God raises up venerable prophets to keep hope alive – prophets like Isaiah – to expand the vision of the child, the Savior still to come – this One who came to be called and known as the Messiah.
In the expanding vision of what this One to come will accomplish – not only crushing the head of the serpent – eradicating evil – but restoring shalom – remaking all creation, one can’t help but be left with a growing sense that the scope of God’s promise exceeds the capacity of any single human being we have known.
Which inevitably brings us to the gospels as we discover the long-awaited answer to God’s promise resides not in the might of human strength or wisdom or the splendor of worldly riches and wealth but as it was in the beginning, in the power of the Spirit and the glory of simple trust and obedience.
Mary, chosen by God, filled with the Spirit, and humbly abiding in the Word spoken over her, becomes the descendant of Eve, through whom the seed of humanity’s salvation would finally bloom, the child, the son, who will be named, Jesus, the One who will later be called the Christ, our Messiah.
But even then, both Mary and her husband, Joseph, could not fully conceive of what child is this – of whom they were bringing into the world.
Not just any human being but the Word of God made flesh – our Creator incarnate in our humanity.
Doing for us what we cannot do for ourselves – living apart from Him, God comes down living the life we were meant to live but cannot because of our brokenness and sin.
And still from our vantage point of more than twenty centuries later, we wrestle with fully comprehending who Jesus is – that his humble birth at Bethlehem, the silent years in Nazareth, the trials and tribulations of the Judean wilderness, the accusations and skepticism journeying throughout Galilee, the darkness of Gethsemane, the opposition in Jerusalem, the betrayal of Judas, the denial of Peter, the abandonment of the disciples, the injustice of the religious leadership, the handwashing and condemnation of Rome, the ridicule, abuse, torture, and death of a cross – all that was the bruising of the heel.
We may sing “Hallelujah!” and shout “Amen” but we still struggle to appreciate the divine calculus – that in undeservingly and yet willingly – lovingly and forgivingly – embracing and bearing all that – the worst of who we are and the worst of what we do as we worship ourselves, bruised though Jesus may be, Jesus crushes the head of the serpent, rising above it all, and in so doing, replacing the nightmare of all our yesterdays with the dawn of a new day and an eternal tomorrow.
In a cynical world that remains divorced from God, Christmas is nothing more than wishful thinking, a naive belief, an imaginative fantasy, that we might indulge for the sake of nostalgia – in trying to return back to our lost, forgotten childhood.
But viewed in this way, Christmas becomes little else than a season – a temporary break from the nightmare – a couple of weeks off from the rat race, the daily grind, the vicious cycle, the survival of the fittest.
It’s only when we come home for Christmas – back to the heart of our relationship with God – that we realize Christmas is, in fact, so much more.
Initially, Genesis, chapter 3 does not appear to be good news.
At first, what happens here sounds quite dark, nothing like what we envision as being Christmas.
But as we’ve discovered, the very reason for Christmas – why we need it and why we have something so amazing to celebrate begins here.
For it is here we first see and can believe that out of the darkest of situations – our most terrifying nightmare – even of our own making – God can and will bring the light – the light that the darkness cannot overcome.
Again and again, in the aftermath of humanity’s worst, God promises us the best possible gift, delivered at the best possible time.
Light that overcomes the darkness once and for all in Jesus Christ.
Waking up to new birth is what Christmas is all about – not just celebrating the birth of Christ way back when – but acknowledging, making room, and marveling at the birth of Christ, the birth of Christ in and through us, through the same power of the Spirit that came upon Mary,
For the seed of promise first given to Eve anticipates not only the birth of an individual, but the birth of a people – a new humanity – all who are in Christ.
A new humanity that in following Jesus purposes to celebrate Christmas not as a time of year but as a way of life.
So, as we prepare to celebrate Christmas, let us not just observe a season of time, let us together take hold of the promise of our Creator – the promise that God’s impulse to save us is greater than our disobedience that leads us to separate from Him.
In all the songs we’ll sing, in all the holiday greetings we’ll convey, in all the presents we’ll exchange and festivities we’ll share – let us lay claim to more than fanciful nostalgia or mythical sentiment.
Let us lay claim and share all humanity’s hopes and dreams made flesh, concrete, and real in the God who comes down to be with and for us in Jesus Christ.
Let us open our hearts as we open our arms, our homes, our lives to embrace the birth of Christ anew in the forgotten friend, the estranged family member, the unknown neighbor, the talkative coworker, or even the complete stranger that ends up right in front of us.
For this is the word of the Lord. Thanks be to God!