Scripture: Isaiah 9:2-7
I am a fan of science fiction, so because of that I am very familiar and comfortable with the idea of a paradox. A paradox is when two things that should not exist or happen simultaneously do so. A paradox is something that by its very nature is contradictory. TV shows like Star Trek love to use paradoxical thinking. For instance, four different episodes of the original Star Trek series involved Captain Kirk getting a robot or artificial intelligence to explode by presenting it with a paradox. In one episode, an AI had the ethics of its creator programmed into it. The AI had previously killed a red shirt crew member for what it thought was the greater good. Kirk pointed out that killing should have been against its ethics, so by carrying out its programming it was also violating its programming and it caused the computer to explode. Star Trek, as well as shows like Dr. Who or anything that involves time travel, also love to use temporal paradoxes, but those can get very wibbly-wobbly. Every year, we go through a cultural paradox. In our American culture we do something that is so paradoxical. It is something by its very nature contradictory, and it is something we all just experienced. It is Black Friday, the day where people trample each other for sales and good deals mere hours after giving thanks for what they already have. Honestly, this whole holiday season is a bit of a paradox. Collectively, we spend more money in between Thanksgiving and the end of the year than we do any other time. In theory we do this to celebrate the birth of someone who once started off his most famous sermon by saying “blessed are the poor . . .” About the paradoxical way that we celebrate Christmas United Methodist pastor and author Mike Slaughter writes, “How biblical is the ‘Christmas we know? Many Christmas traditions that we hold as Christian are really mixtures of traditions: start with a little biblical truth, blend with some eighteenth century Victorian practices, and add a double shot of Santa theology . . .For example, how many confuse, ‘The Night Before Christmas’ with the real Christmas story’ “?
This does not mean that are family traditions are necessarily wrong or evil. However, when we look at the paradoxes surrounding how we celebrate Christmas, we have to admit that this season is a little off-kilter, it is in need of rebalancing, we need a different kind of Christmas. Today is the start of Advent, this is the season in the church where we prepare our hearts and minds for the coming of the Christ child. This year, as a church we are going to mark Advent by exploring the curriculum series A Different Kind of Christmas by Mike Slaughter, both in Sunday school and in our worship services. Today as we begin to think about a different kind of Christmas we are going to explore what is at the heart of Christmas, which is a miracle. A miracle that was foretold centuries before it happened; A miracle that still has major implications for today.
The idea of a Christmas miracle is something that we are all familiar with. If you are not familiar with it, and you have cable, then just watch the Hallmark channel. They will be showing movies based on this concept for the next month. The website Tvtropes.com defines a Christmas miracle like this: “a Christmas Miracle is when some highly unlikely stroke of good fortune comes to the characters in the time where they need it most, simply through the magic of Christmas.” In the countless TV Christmas specials that have ended with a Christmas miracle, just when everything seems to be lost, everything instead works out perfectly in the end to create a perfect Christmas full of all the warm feels. There is a true Christmas miracle, and it does not involve an angel getting its wings. The true Christmas miracle involves a baby boy, and a divine love so great, that God sent his only son.
We do not always appreciate the scope of the Bible. This morning’s scripture from Isaiah originates from around 720 BCE. That is to say, this prophetic scripture from Isaiah was first made seven hundred and twenty years before the birth of Jesus. To put that in perspective, seven hundred and twenty years ago from now would put us at the end of the 13th century, when William Wallace of Braveheart fame was still alive. The miracle promised here was grand when it was made, and it only grew over those seven centuries. Isaiah lived and prophesied during troubled times. The kingdom of David, was split into two. The people had turned from God, and powerful enemies on all sides threatened their existence. Isaiah, like many of the prophets, contained grim warnings of God’s judgement upon the Israelites if they continued to persist in their idolatry. Also, like many of the prophets, Isaiah contained promises of restoration, reconciliation, and renewed blessings. This morning’s scripture comes from of those sections, but this looks forward and prophesies the coming of a child who will be great, who will be the culmination of and the perfect embodiment of God’s chosen people. For a person living in the northern Kingdom in 720 BCE, this would have a word of good news and hope. Seven hundred years later, after an exile, after a return, after multiple conquests, the Jews found themselves under Roman rule. They looked to scriptures like this one and others from Isaiah, and believed they promised the coming of a Messiah. A person who would be their political savior, they were hoping for a Christmas miracle.
The real miracle was far greater, because it was just that- a real miracle. A miracle is not just some impossible coincidence happens. A miracle is when the divine actively meddles with the way the world work. A miracle is when the rules of reality are broken, and something truly incredible, truly impossible happens. The bible is full of miracles: The red sea parts, water comes from rocks, the walls of a city fall down, a bread and loaves multiply, and people walk on water. Of all the miracles one of the most miraculous is that unto us a child is born. A 700 year old scripture is fulfilled, and he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God. This is the miracle, because that foretold child was Jesus and Jesus is Emmanuel-God with us. Christmas is all about celebrating THAT miracle. The miracle that God so love the world that God himself invaded the world to redeem it and bring it out of darkness. The magic of Christmas is the miracle of God’s love that began at a cradle in Bethlehem and reached its fulfillment at a cross in Jerusalem. The way that we celebrate Christmas should be first and foremost based in our humble thanksgiving for this love and earnest worship of the triune God that loves us. We can also celebrate Christmas through our actions.
Christmas is all about the celebration of a miracle, and in this season of advent we should be expecting miracles to happen. Remember, a miracle is not just a stroke of good luck. A miracle is God at work in this world. It is the unexpected that can only happen because of God doing something incredible. Miracles require God, but that does not mean miracles are easy. In Christmas is not your Birthday Mike Slaughter writes, “Grace may be free, but it is never cheap. Miracles come at a cost? Can you imagine the ostracism and rejection that Mary experienced as an unwed teenager? Becoming pregnant with the messiah was most definitely not the miracle that she had been hoping for.” This reminds us that miracles have a cost, but it also reminds us that God often does not choose to perform miracles alone. God works through God’s people. The biblical record is full of this. Whenever the miraculous happens, whenever the divine touches the earth in a mind blowing way, there is nearly always one of God’s faithful people there carrying the miracle out. God chooses to work through God’s people as miracle workers. Brothers and sisters in Christ, because of the Prince of Peace we are reconciled to God, and we are God’s people. This means, that we can be God’s miracle workers.
No matter how you go about it, Advent, this holiday season, is a season of paradoxes. In our cultural celebration there is the paradox between being grateful and rapid consumerism. If we were to seek to celebrate a different kind of Christmas, there is still a paradox at work here. Miracles are not cheap, and if we are going to do be miracle workers we have to pay the costs. This means we have to be willing to give sacrificially. We have to give of our time, our resources, our energy, and our compassion. Again, Mike Slaughter writes, “Miracles do not appear out of thin air, like magic. You cannot receive God’s miracle unless you are willing to pay the cost. . .Meaning is not found in personal comfort and material luxuries. So it should be no surprise that a meaningful Christmas is not found in mindless spending, eating, and stress. Rather we find meaning when we give sacrificially to those in need, because doing so, we are giving to Jesu himself. It is his birthday after all!”
There is a story that reminds me of how we all can be miracle workers this season, and it is one of my absolute favorites. Youth Minister Mark Yaconelli writes about a story he observed once. Mark was out Christmas shopping trying to find the perfect gift for his wife. After a successful venture to the local mall, he sat down in the food court and noticed the hustle and bustle all around him. In the midst of this crowd one group of people stood out. Ten adults with developmental disabilities were being accompanied by two assistants with sweatshirts that read “Redwood Group Home.” The two assistants helped each person order from one of the many eateries in the food court. Except for one man with down syndrome, he shrugged off every attempt at help. This man knew what he wanted. He got in line at McDonalds, produced a coupon made some motions, and successfully got his very own 32oz cup of coffee. He returned to his friends, his face beaming with pride at his accomplishment.
At this point Mark got up to check out one more store before leaving the mall. As Mark left the mall he found that it was pouring buckets outside. The people from the group home were taking sheltering under the eaves of the mall entrance blocking the way. One of the assistants had pulled up a 15 passenger van, and the other walked the folks with special needs from the eaves to the van. The man with the McDonalds coffee was sheltering his hard earned brew, when without any apparent direction he took off for the van. The rain was harder than he expected, and he froze unsure what to do. The assistant called him to keep coming to the van, while he looked back towards the safety of the overhang. In this motion he twisted his body and the jerk caused him to drop his cup of coffee. The coffee began to wash away creating a mudslide on the wet pavement. In shocked horror the man looked at his lost purchase and began to cry. Soon his body gave way and he collapsed to the ground sobbing. It was a pitiful sight to see this young man wailing mournfully, sitting in a growing pond of coffee, the rain soaking his clothes. Then one of the assistants left the van, sat down beside him, wrapped her arm around him, and put his head on her shoulder to cry. For several minutes she sat there with the patience of God just holding the young man while the rain poured down. Once he calmed down, she helped him up, took him to the front seat of the van helped him fasten his seatbelt and kissed him of the forehead before squeezing herself in the backseat.
For that upset young man, the assistant was more than just a woman doing her job. She was the very hands and soft shoulder of God. What he witnessed on that rainy December day, was God at work in the world, a miracle, being done by a miracle worker. She had to sacrifice her time, her pride, and her comfort to get on her knees in the rain and help him. It would have been easier to just yell at him to get up, but that would not have been miraculous. We are in a season that is meant to celebrate the greatest miracle of all time. May we celebrate the miracle of a child being born who was to become the wonderful counselor, Mighty God, everlasting Father, and the Prince of Peace by seeking to be his miracle workers. This Advent, as we prepare for Christmas, may we spend less time looking for the perfect gift and more time looking how we can be someone else’s miracle.