The Promises Of Advent – A Promise To Be With Us

Steve Lindsley
(Luke 2: 1-14)

There is a word we have for the coming of Jesus: the word is Emmanuel.  It’s a Hebrew word, found in both Old and New Testament alike.  It’s one of those beautiful Hebrew words that requires multiple English ones to do it justice.  The word means: God-With-Us.  “We must all decide for ourselves whether it is true, this Emmanuel” Frederick Buechner once said, “(not) sentimentality or wishful thinking, (but the) wild hope of Christmas.”[1]

This “wild hope,” this Emmanuel, comes to be with us on this night.  He comes to us wherever we are.  He comes in the beauty of life, when all is right with the world, and all is well with us; he comes to us and we give thanks to God for that.

But what makes his coming the reason for all this celebration, is that God comes to be with us not just in the beauty, but in the mess.  Because that is where we need him the most.  Life is messy.  Pain, grief, sorrow, heartache, hatred, death, fear – it’s like one mess right after another.  And God comes to be with us in all of it.

Even though we try our best to hide the mess!  Sweep it under the rug and pretend it’s not there.  We want everything perfect when Jesus gets here.  We make all kinds of preparations; we deck the halls, wrap presents, send Christmas cards, cross things off our list.  We want to be ready for the coming Jesus.

But Emmanuel is not God-with-us-when-we’re-ready.  It’s God-With-Us – period.  Even in the mess.  In fact, the mess is where Jesus was born.  He knows it well:

Born to two young people who weren’t even married yet.

Born in the middle of a last-minute trip set in motion by powers far beyond their control.

Born in an animal stable, because there was no room in the inn.

Born in a manger – a feeding trough for livestock.

Jesus was literally born into a hot mess.

So what does Emmanuel look like in that?

Just over a hundred years ago on this very night, on a World War I battlefield in Flanders, Belgium, German and British and French forces were hunkered down in the mess of muddy trenches some six to eight feet deep, separated by a strip of land the size of a small softball field. There was a break in the fighting – even the best of soldiers get weary of warfare.

In the German trench, two soldiers fashion Christmas trees a few feet high and place lit candles in their branches.  Carefully, they set them atop the inside rim of the trench, their light casting a soft glow below.  One soldier reaches into his torn coat with tattered gloves and pulls out a harmonica.  Placing it to his lips, he blows out four familiar notes.  Another, recognizing it, begins singing in this beautiful tenor that cuts through the muddy cold:

Stille Nacht, Heil’ge Nacht….

He sings the first verse of “Silent Night, Holy Night” and starts into the second.  But as he does, another sound joins him, this one from a distance.  This one from another trench.  He stops to listen and hears the sound of a lone bagpipe, coming from the other side, playing along.  He resumes singing, now accompanied by both friend and foe:

And as he sings, he steps up out of the trench, out into full view of the enemy.  His fellow soldiers look up at him incredulously.  On the other side, a French shooter takes aim, until he thinks differently and lays his weapon down.

He finishes the second verse, and there is cheering – not from his side, but the other.  He bows his head in gratitude.  He can see them now, the French and British sitting atop their trenches, unarmed.  Not a weapon in sight.  Among them is the bagpipe player, and others with him; and he watches the one pump his elbow and blow life into it.  Another familiar tune to which he lends his voice.

And as he’s singing O come, all ye faithful, joyful and triumphant, O come ye to Bethlehem, he reaches down and picks up one of the small Christmas trees; raising it like a torch shining light in the darkness.  And he walks to the middle, carrying the tree with him.  And now he stands there lifting that lit Christmas tree high in the air: O come let us adore him, O come let us adore him, Christ the Lord!  Soon, the others would join him out there – German, British, French.  Soon they all would exchange handshakes and personal trinkets and bottles of wine.  Christmas Eve in Flanders, Belgium, 1914.[2]

Snopes will tell you it’s a true story, because it is.  But for us, on this holiest of nights, it is something more than story.  It is a promise: a promise shared earlier by our children, a promise read in scripture.  It is the promise of Jesus born into our mess.

Born into the mess of our violent battlefields and muddy trenches….

Born into the mess of our fractured relationships and family struggles….

Born into the mess of our politics and our religion twisted by a culture of fear….

Born into the mess of our systemic injustice and institutional inequality….

Born into the mess of our human brokenness and the full weight of sin….

It is, for us, the promise of this night: that Jesus was born into all of that precisely because it is where we are.  Like carrying a Christmas tree into the middle of a battlefield, singing!  It is love that compels God to do such a thing; it is love so great that God became one of us, to be with us, right where we are.

Because when this light enters our darkness, when this beauty comes into our mess, when this love blows away our wildest expectations, that is when we come to see the truth of it all: that the Jesus we have so desperately been waiting for is in fact that Jesus who is already here, who has always been here, who isn’t going anywhere. So it is true:

The powerful have already been humbled.
The vulnerable have already been lifted up.
For God has made a home among the people.
God has made a home with us.[3]

Welcome home, Jesus.  Welcome to our mess.  Be with us in it now; be with us here forever.

In the name of God the Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer, thanks be to God – and may all of God’s people say, AMEN!


* Because sermons are meant to be preached and are therefore prepared with the emphasis on verbal presentation, the written accounts occasionally stray from proper grammar and punctuation.

[1] From A Room Called Remember: Uncollected Pieces by Frederick Buechner (HarperSanFrancisco, 1984), pgs. 63, 65.
[2] From a scene in the movie Joyeux Noel, and based on actual events in World War I.
[3], visited on 12.6.2017