Saturday, December 24, 2022

A Christmas Eve Eucatastrophe

[A sermon delivered on Christmas Eve, 2022.]

Brothers and sisters in the Christ Child, grace and peace, hope and joy to you, Amen.

This time of year is bound up in such high hopes.  Like almost no other moment on our calendar, Christmas is a time when we yearn for everything to be just right.  We get all the decorations and the lights in place.  We set plans for family gatherings and parties hoping to see all of our favorite and beloved people.  We even offer up prayers that the weather will cooperate just nicely and give us a white Christmas.  

Yet as it goes with life, rarely does everything go according to plan.  When party plans change we almost expect it.  When the weather doesn’t cooperate, even that we kind of expect, it is Michigan after all.  What really throws us is when tragedy and hardship and suffering find us in this most holy time of year.  So many of us have endured losses at this time of year and they weigh on us, year after year.  They take so long to heal.  Losing loved ones so close to Christmas always seems to affect us more as it interrupts that idea. It interrupts those perfect hopes we so yearned for.  

In the midst of these unexpected and unwanted twists of fate that seem to go against us it becomes easy for us to get angered.  Typically this means angry at God.  Why would God allow this to happen to me?  Isn’t Christmas the time of year when the good guys are supposed to win?  All I wanted was a perfect Christmas, why can’t God just grant me that?  Good things are supposed to happen to good people right?  

Amidst all our hopes and delusions of grandeur we must eventually come to grips with the fact that we live in a fallen world.  And this world is indifferent to the seasons and holidays that come and pass.  This world is indifferent to our wishes for a perfect Christmas.  In fact, the ways of this world are a long slow defeat for us all.  Sin continues to take hold.  The years and the ages continue to add up.  Death is always knocking at the door.  It seems things are always taking a turn for the worse.

But then, what if they don’t.  What if a moment were to come when things don’t take a turn for the worse.  What if when the world would least expect it, the most greatest, impossible, turn for the good would happen?  What if such an impossible good were to come that tears of joy beyond our wildest imaginations were to flow forth?   Such a moment has come.  It happens to be the very moment we celebrate this night.  The Incarnation of our Lord Jesus Christ.  The Eternal God has entered human flesh and He is born a baby to the virgin Mary.  It is the singular most unique event in all human history. God has entered our world in the most intimate way possible and He has come to save.  

English author J.R.R. Tolkien coined a word to describe this wonderful turn of events that so often comes in our fairy stories and in life itself.  He calls it eucatastrophe.  Quite literally it means “the good catastrophe” or “the good turning of events”.  He used this phrase to describe several events from his own literature when it seems all hope is lost and yet suddenly victory is snatched from the jaws of defeat.  Tolkien himself once wrote "I coined the word 'eucatastrophe': the sudden happy turn in a story which pierces you with a joy that brings tears ” It is an event that is more than just a happy ending.  It is more than something that gives you a content little smile.  He describes it as that moment where the tears of joy overwhelm the tears of sorrow.  And Tolkien has another surprise for us.  He himself is the one who wrote “The birth of Christ is the eucatastrophe of man’s history.”  

The amazing, unexpected, beyond all joy turning moment in all human history is the birth of Christ.  I believe that is true.  It is no wonder still to this day we are so engulfed in Christmas joy.  Its no wonder this season moves us and captivates us like no other.  Its not just the presents or the lights or the gatherings or the reindeer or the nostalgia for it all.  This event, this eucatastrophe of our Lord’s birth changes everything.  It is the moment when tears turn from sorrow to joy.

Consider for a moment a view of man’s history.  We began in paradise, in the Garden, with God.  There was no sin. There was no death.  Mankind and God were all but inseparable.  We could have dwelled in perfect harmony with God forever in the garden.  Until we sinned.  Until the fall. Then we were separated from God. Sin is the great chasm between mankind and God. Sin is utter darkness. And in time this only grew worse.  By the days of Noah man’s sin was so great God judges the entire earth with water.  In the centuries following the flood man continues in sin in an endless cycle of war and violence and bloodshed and darkness.  And all of it to what end?  Where was the history of man going to go?  Would we continue in that endless death spiral til we finally destroyed ourselves?  Would our human race continue to take a turn for the worse century after century into endless darkness?

No.  God was ready to do something. Enter the birth of Christ.  The heavens were full of angels singing “Glory to God in the highest and peace on earth with whom God is pleased.”  That choir of the heavenly host was a surefire sign God was up to something big that night.  The shepherds knew it.  The shepherds could see it.  They went and told everyone they could after it all took place.  

But perhaps our most joyful witnesses of God’s sudden joyous and dramatic entrance into all human history are Mary and Joseph.  Joseph’s life was taking a sudden turn for the worse when he found out his wife was pregnant, and it wasn’t his baby, and he was picking up the now shambles of what he had hoped would be a new family and a beautiful life together.  Joseph was given a moment of eucatastrophe when an angel appeared to him to tell him this was all the work of God, that his wife’s child would be the Savior of all mankind and suddenly tears of joy must have flowed freely.

And for Mary, she is greeted with the message of the impossible.  You Mary, though a virgin, will soon be with child.  You will give birth to the long awaited Savior of the world.  You, Mary, will be the mother of God in the flesh.  What a sudden and joyous turn of events indeed.  The birth of Christ, this incarnation of God into human flesh, into human life, does change everything. It is the impossible now become possible  It is the everlasting light shining into the darkness of man’s history.  It is everything we could ever hope for.  It is the perfect Christmas our hearts so long for.

You know sometimes stories have such sad and shaking details you hear you them play out and you just hope they aren’t true.  One tragic turn befalls another and you just hope its a bad dream.  Life can feel like this a lot.  You hear stories from the news and you just hope they aren’t true.  Cause you know they would break your heart if they were.  You can’t imagine such a darkness could be active in our world, let alone the hearts of your fellow people.  

But amidst such sadness, we also see the Lord works immense gladness.  For when the Lord is at work, you hear such stories that you hope with every fiber of your being that they are true.  You hope those good dreams turn into realities.  And the good news is that with Jesus, it is all true.  The hopes and dreams of all the years are met in thee tonight O Babe Born in Bethlehem.

The stories of the blind seeing and the deaf hearing and the lame walking are all true in Jesus.  The stories of sins being washed away and forgiven are true in Jesus.  The stories of the lepers, the unclean, the undesirable being welcomed into the presence of the king are true in Jesus.  Even the stories of the dead being raised are true in Jesus.  All of it almost sounds too good to be true.  All of it the good twist and turn in the story, the eucatastrophe, the impossible become possible.  

For all of these joys and this goodness that our Lord has worked, our hearts and minds might need one more miracle to convince us that the light shines in the darkness.  For by faith we do indeed believe that our Lord has been born into this world for us to bring us peace.  We do indeed believe that He loves us and has died for us to pay for sin and open heaven’s gates.  But our eyes still see the darkness of this world. We still experience the injustices and brokenness. We still hurt from the losses at Christmas and every other time of year.  Pain and suffering are still so very real for us, is there any way this story could possibly have a happy ending?  

For this, I want to take us back to author J.R.R. Tolkien’s words on eucatastrophe and the history of Jesus.  I shared with you earlier the quote “The birth of Christ is the eucatastrophe of man’s history.” but the quote has a second half to it.  Here’s the rest of the story: “The resurrection is the eucatastrophe of the story of the incarnation. This story begins and ends in joy.”

The story of Jesus, of God incarnate, is not complete without the resurrection.  Christmas isn’t complete without Easter.  Jesus was born, and history changed forever.  But also not complete until He died on the cross and then defeated death by rising on the 3rd morn.  Jesus’ resurrection is the eucatastrophe to seal the joyous ending forever and ever.  And the Scriptures remind us, just as He is risen, so too shall we.  Though its hard to picture how our story, this story of sin and death could end so joyously, the resurrection assures us that it will be glorious, it will be joyous and it is all because our Lord was made flesh and dwelt among us that first night in Bethlehem.

To God be the glory, Amen.

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