As an illustration, he told us about working in a factory when he was younger. Kevin said that they hired a lot of people and there was little, to no, training. They put him in front of a computer with no instructions. Kevin even tried to look over his co-workers’ shoulders to learn from them, but it never made sense. He didn’t have the foggiest. Kevin wanted to ask questions; but the longer he waited, the more difficult it was to ask…without looking really stupid.
So Kevin sat there doing nothing and collecting his paycheck.
Finally he couldn’t do it anymore and resigned. But they still kept sending him paychecks. Kevin started to feel guilty about the paychecks, so he returned to work. When he got back to work, nobody even knew he had left.
Kevin used that very funny illustration (you had to be there) to show the difference between believers and unbelievers. He also talked about how much he admired Ernest Hemingway—his writing, his full and exciting life, and his fame. Then he referenced Hemingway’s suicide. Kevin said that the normal means of grace God gave his people are places where we can be reminded of who we are and Whose we are. He contrasted that with the meaninglessness of the lives of those who don’t believe…who have no resource when it gets dark and scary.
There was more than that in the sermon and I may have gotten some of it wrong. (You know, I do have this hearing problem and a little sympathy would be in order.) Not only that, there is zero chance that I’ll clear this with Kevin. His correction might mess it up. Besides, my late mentor, Fred Smith, used to take notes while I was preaching. I was quite flattered until I realized that he wasn’t taking notes on what I said, but writing down the thoughts that came to mind while I was preaching. “A good sermon,” he would say, “is one that makes me think, and it will often result in things I write and teach.”
So Kevin’s sermon was a great sermon for a lot of reasons…and one is what he made me think of while he preached. In fact, I’ve been thinking about Kevin’s sermon since Sunday and it still haunts me. Remembering really is the difference between Christians and those who aren’t Christians. It’s what Luther meant when he said that we should “preach the Gospel to one another lest we become discouraged.” He was saying that it’s important we never forget.
There is no place where that is truer than at Christmas.
As you know, I’m not big on Christmas. It’s not the commercialism. I know that Christmas is the time when most merchants have to make it or they don’t make it at all. I don’t begrudge merchants selling stuff at Christmas. I also like the parties, gifts, decorations and family things that happen at Christmas. I don’t even mind that the secular world has taken over the “holy day” and made it into something that doesn’t have a thing to do with Jesus. You don’t get mad at trees because they have leaves, at the sun because it shines, at dogs because they bark, or at birds because they sing. All of that is as to be expected. It often seems, as someone has said, that we Christians—knowing that eternity will be long and unpleasant for those who don’t believe in Christ—want to rob unbelievers of anything that’s fun before they get there.
The thing that really bothers me about Christmas is that so many don’t have memories. On social media, everything begins now and nothing important happened yesterday. Only the latest “thing” is important and everything else is…uh…well…so yesterday. At Christmas that makes me sad. In my mind’s eye I can picture a man taking down the Christmas tree and his wife putting the ornaments back into their box. They look at each other, both knowing that “there was something there” and they missed it.
“For to us a child is born, to us a son is given; and the government shall be upon his shoulder, and his name shall be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace” (Isaiah 9:6) but “…you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins” (Matthew 1:21). “The Word became flesh…from his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace. For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ” (John 1:14, 16-17).
I’ll remember at Christmas. I’ll remember that everything has changed. I’ll remember that, no matter how dark, no matter the pain, and no matter what everybody else says, there is hope, meaning and a reality behind the façade of what those who don’t know call “reality.” I’ll remember that it’s not just a nice story to make us feel better, a fairy tale to help us sleep at night, or a religious myth for religious people. I’ll remember the actual time and place where God’s laughter spilled over into a dark and meaningless world.
I’ll remember at Christmas. I’ll remember that everything has changed. I’ll remember that, no matter how dark, no matter the pain, and no matter what everybody else says, there is hope.
I once saw a bumper sticker on maybe the most dilapidated and junky car that I’ve ever seen: “This is not an abandoned car!” We don’t live in an abandoned world. Everything is moving toward God’s good purpose until finally “every knee will bow and every tongue confess” (Philippians 2:10-11) that the one who came is Lord of all.
This Christmas, remember that we’re not alone. So many can’t.
I’ll also remember my own existential Christmas…the place where he found me. I’ll remember the time and place where the Messiah who was given to the world…was then given to me. “Born again” is what they call it because there is no other way to describe everything becoming new…kind of like Christmas. When I simply can’t be as good as I think I should be or as good as people think I am, I’ll remember Christmas. In that memory I’ll rejoice that I’m free and forgiven where, as a playwright put it, “a man can feel clean and pure and close to his God.” When the world has turned its back and they don’t understand, at Christmas I’ll remember that I’m loved beyond anything I can imagine. When there seems to be no purpose, meaninglessness begins to look me in the eyes, and the questions come (Who am I? What’s my purpose? What’s it all about?), I’ll remember Christmas and rejoice in the essential value and meaning of history and my life.
This Christmas, remember where he found you. So many can’t.
This Christmas I’ll also remember you and the family Jesus created by his coming. He “loved the church and gave himself up for her” (Ephesians 5:25). That would be us. It’s why he came. I’ll think of those who said kind things about me and those who said some not-so-kind things. I’ll remember those who loved and forgave, and those who, for whatever reason, couldn’t pull it off. I’ll remember those who joined hands in the fight and those who were too scared to do so. I’ll remember the “saints and the sinners,” the “broken and the fixed,” and the ones who got it right and the ones who missed it a lot. And I’ll remember the times I’ve been—and continue to be—all of that.
And then I’ll make a Christmas celebration of being a part of the only club in the universe where the only qualification is need, the only barrier is being qualified, and the only person who is kicked out is the one who never came.
This Christmas, I’ll rejoice in the memory of you. So many can’t.
Kevin was right. The means of grace are the places of remembering. Christmas is when we remember.
This Christmas, enjoy the wine.
The world says, “Drink up and forget.”
Jesus says, “Drink and remember.”
Speaking of memories, he asked me to remind you.