The last few days I have been preparing for Christmas. It may seem odd, this preparation, but I can think of no better way to get ready.
Some of you will wink and nod at this because you know I was in northern Minnesota, on the farm where I grew up, and I was bowhunting for deer. This is most certainly true. But if you have ever participated in bowhunting in December, you know it's a slow, quiet, cold business.
Saturday afternoon, for example, I spent two hours sitting on a stand attached to a tall oak tree, fifteen feet above the ground, face exposed to a brisk breeze from the north-northwest. The temperature hovered around zero, but the breeze made it feel much colder than that. I sat quietly, trying not to flinch or shift or wiggle. I closed my eyes from time to time to keep the water on my eyeballs from freezing. Ice crystals formed in my mustache and my breath blew back against my face and frosted my beard and my eyebrows. I looked out into the cold and watched for deer. I waited.
As Tom Petty said years ago, "the waiting is the hardest part." When was the last time you sat without electronics, without something to read, without conversation, for two hours? Even without the cold, those two hours on stand are tough. Add the windchill -- or maybe more accurately, subtract it -- and it gets brutal. I sat still in the cold roughly twelve hours over a few days.
In every minute of that waiting, I was keenly aware of Christmas approaching. Over and over during those long mornings and afternoons on stand, I wondered: What does it mean?
What difference does it make that Jesus came back then? What difference does it make today?
The world can be a pretty cold place. People complain that the news broadcasts are always negative, and especially this time of year you see the occasional "human interest" story -- a pet that saves its owner, a soup kitchen saved from bankruptcy by kind neighbors, a company adopting a needy family, etc. These are good stories and I'm glad they include them in the broadcast from time to time. In the face of the real cruelty, the real evil, that we see in our news, however, these stories don't carry much weight.
Fact is, the world is a pretty cold place. Those who want to believe in the essential goodness of humankind look to me like people standing on the streetcorner, trying to keep a tiny candle lit on a dark and stormy night. It's a hopeless task.
I am not a cynic, but I do not believe in the essential goodness of humankind. I believe, along with the Bible, that humankind -- along with the rest of creation -- is broken. We are in bondage to sin and unable to free ourselves. We need a savior.
Isn't that what the angel told Mary when he announced to her that she would bear a child who would be the Son of God? "You shall name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins." We need a savior, because the icy power of sin is chilling our hearts, breaking our bones, grinding our relationships, stealing our hope, starving our love. Left to ourselves, we are alone in the dark.
These cold December days are dark as well. I hunted the winter solstice, the shortest day of the year. Just a few desperate hours stood between sunrise and sunset. The late sunrise and the long, long evening made this hunt quite different from the warmth of early season bowhunts. Most of the hours are spent in darkness, and the sun seems to have little power to warm.
One of Jesus' closest friends and most loyal followers reflected on the question of Jesus' meaning, many years after Jesus' life, death, and resurrection. That friend acknowledged that the world is a dark and dreary place, that darkness seems to have the upper hand. But then he wrote, "The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it."
So today, we live in a dark, cold world. I am not speaking about weather and astronomy but about the state of the human soul. John's assessment is true, however: Jesus' light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it. Jesus' light wins. This is true not because we see it, not because CNN reports it or it makes the front page of the New York Times. It is true because Jesus promises that he will make it true, that his power to thaw icy hearts and to enlighten darkened souls overcomes the stubbornness of the forces of darkness.
When life is chaotic, dark, dreary, cold, hopeless, we have confidence. Not because right always wins, nor because the essential decency in people always comes out. We have confidence because God has given his Word -- the word of hope he spoke in creation, his word of promise in the face of sin, the Word that took full form in Jesus of Nazareth. God has given his word that evil will not win the day. Dark will not overcome light. Hope will not be extinguished. Death will not sing the last refrain. All of this rests on Jesus' arrival as a tiny baby in Bethlehem, born to obscure but faithful parents who simply did their best to raise a child destined to be the fulfillment of God's promises to his beloved creation.
It is only when we take time to see our need that we can begin to know our Savior. My prayer for you in the next couple days is that somehow, somewhere along the journey you can find a few quiet moments to recognize just how much you need Jesus' presence in your life, to acknowledge his grace in coming for you while you were still far from him, and then to thank God that he cares enough to fulfill his Word, to shine the light of Jesus in our darkness.
Thanks be to God. Merry Christmas.
P.S. If you're within reach of Central Lutheran, Elk River, MN tomorrow, I'll be at the afternoon services designed for families with young children (2:00, 3:30, 5:00) and at the 11:00 pm candlelight worship. There will also be a candlelight worship at 7:30 pm and a celebration service on Christmas Day at 10 am. It would be an honor to have you at Central to celebrate the anniversary of Jesus' birth!