December 26th, 2017

Christmas Eve 2017

Genesis 50:15-21; Luke 2:1-20; 2 Corinthians 5:16-21

December 21, 2017

Reconciliation in Whoville

A TV special the other night on the top 12 Christmas movies of all time piqued my curiosity.  I compared several web sites for the consensus opinion of the best ever. Those who know me well won’t be surprised that I entered the data in an Excel spread sheet to find the consensus ranking, as if this were the College Football Championship.

  1. It’s a Wonderful Life
  2. Miracle on 34th Street
  3. Holiday Inn
  4. A Christmas Story
  5. Die Hard
  6. Nightmare before Christmas
  7. Muppet Christmas Carol
  8. A Christmas Carol
  9. National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation
  10. Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer
  11. How the Grinch Stole Christmas
  12. Home Alone

What all great Christmas movies seem to have in common is that somehow enemies become friends.  The 6-syllable church word for that is “reconciliation.”  Consider #11 –“The Grinch that Stole Christmas.”  Standing outside his cave overlooking Whoville, the Grinch opens a phone book and, name by name, considers how much he abhors the people in the village.  His scrawny but menacing pointer scrolls name by name: “Hate, hate, hate, hate, hate, hate, Double hate.  LOATH ENTIRELY!”

Where did all that hate come from?  According to Jim Carrey’s 2000 movie version, it came from a childhood where the Grinch was teased and bullied and rejected mercilessly, especially at Christmas.  Hate is usually multi-layered like that.  The deeper the wound, the longer the time, the wider the gap, these make reconciliation harder.

A little girl named Cindy Lou decides she will climb Mt. Crumpit to find the Grinch and, in spite of all he does to hurt her and turn her away, even in spite of the Grinch’s successful venture to steal every Christmas decoration and present in Whoville, she finally gets through.   The Grinch hears singing in Whoville even after he has stolen all their presents and decorations and lights, and it changes him.  “Well in Whoville they say the Grinch’s small heart grew three times that day.”

I think the name of the movie should be “How Reconciliation Came to Whoville.”  I’m guessing the marketing people never seriously considered it.

God meant it for good

Among our Scripture readings tonight was one you may have thought was out of place in a Christmas Eve service.  Genesis 50 is about “Joseph,” but it’s not the same Joseph as the husband of Mary.  This Joseph lived almost two thousand years before the birth of Christ.  The reason we read it is that we have been looking at stories from the first book of the Bible since August at Corinth.  We couldn’t finish out that series without a quick look at the last chapter, which in some ways is the best story in Genesis.

We’ve learned during our studies of Genesis this book of “beginning” previews the Bible’s most important story lines.  According to the Apostle Paul in 2 Corinthians 5, reconciliation is the Bible’s most important story line.

For those of you who haven’t been with us during the fall, here is a short version of the story of Joseph, retold a bit of a modern twist.

Joseph was #11 of 12 boys (plus one girl) born into a messy, blended family in Hickory, North Carolina.  Joseph was a born leader, far exceeding his older brothers in management instincts, and his father recognized that.  For his part, Joseph dreamed of the day his whole family would bow down to him – and told everyone about the dream.  When their father dressed 17-year-old Joseph in a white collar shirt and 3-piece suit and put him in charge of the factory where his brothers worked, jealousy turned to rage.

One day when Joseph went out on the factory floor to evaluate the brothers’ work, they conspired to kill him in an industrial accident.  “Then we’ll see what comes of that ‘dreamer,’” they said.  “Oh, what a tragedy,” they would tell their father.  That same day, it happened that Chinese human traffickers came through Hickory. One of the brothers found a way to sell Joseph instead of killing him.  Joseph cried and begged for his brothers not to do it, but the pain was too deep and wide and long.

For more than twenty years Joseph’s father thought his favorite son, on whom he had pinned his hopes for extending the family line, was dead.  In reality, Joseph had used that time and his leadership instincts to work his way up the ladder in Chinese business and then government.

An economic downturn in North Carolina closed every factory.  The half-brothers all went to China which had prepared better than we did for the depression.  The men bowed low before the Chinese tycoon, who, unknown to them, was their long lost brother Joseph.  But he was kind to them and eventually brought their families and their aging father to China where he could care for them.  The half-brothers themselves ended up with fine homes, good jobs, and stable income throughout the worldwide depression years.

Seventeen years later, their father died.  That’s when our part of the story takes place.  Joseph was still in Beijing helping to run the country while his brothers lived in an outlying province.  They hadn’t seen each other much for all those years except maybe for Thanksgiving and Christmas.

Even though Joseph had been kind to his brothers while Dad was still alive, they thought as soon as Dad was gone he would use his considerable power to put them in prison, or make them slaves, or even kill them.  They worried he would remember how long and deep and wide was the painful separation.  They knew Joseph could still pay them back for the way they had treated him like the Grinch treated Whoville:  “hate, hate, hate, hate, hate, hate, double hate, LOATHE ENTIRELY.  So they made up a story or, who knows, maybe it was true, that their father had left instructions for Joseph to forgive their sins against him.  Too terrified to say it to his face, they sent a messenger.

When the message arrived at powerful Joseph’s office, he cried like a baby.  But he did nothing about it.  His brothers then came to see him in person.  They bowed low, just like he had dreamed they would when they made fun of him as a teenager.  “Don’t hurt us,” they pleaded.  “We’ll be your slaves!”

Then, in one of the most moving speeches in all the Bible, Joseph said to his brothers,  “Don’t be afraid!  Am I in the place of God?  You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives.  So then, don’t be afraid.  I will provide for you and your children.”  That’s what reconciliation is – it’s closing the gap created by pain and distance and time.

Reconciliation is Christmas love

Can you feel it?  Do you see it?  Can you connect the dots between the Grinch and Whoville, Joseph and his brothers, and Luke chapter 2?  Every Christmas story includes hatred and most of them end with reconciliation.  In every story of separation there is layer upon layer of reasons why two people or two groups no longer relate, no longer listen, can’t even stand to be in the same room.  Separation is always a tangled mess, and I would not presume to give you an easy 1-2-3 solution or suggest that this Christmas 2017 is automatically the right time for total reconciliation.

But it might be the Christmas to start that journey.  Every human heart longs for reconciliation.  Every broken family or friendship bond hurts that much precisely because God wired us to connect.  Whether or not everything changes this Christmas, I believe God is calling each of us to two responses.  First, open your heart.  Every reconciliation begins with someone’s heart that grows three times as large.  Second, pray through the next forward step. .Maybe it’s a kind word or a hug or just an acknowledgment.  It may be prayer for or with that person.  Remember, prayer is not doing nothing.  Prayer is actively partnering with God for his purposes.

You may say, “You don’t know how wide is the gap or how long is the time or how deep is the pain.”  You’re probably right.  I don’t.  I do know that the whole story of Christmas is about the widest gap and longest time and deepest pain – that between God and every human being who ever lived.  This is the story of Christmas.  For his own purposes, God let a lot of time pass and allowed the distance to grow wider and the pain to get deeper, but in his own good time, he said, like Cindy Lou the Who, “I will go to them.”

Most of you know that Linda and I just became grandparents about a week ago to a perfect little boy in Honolulu named Arlo.  Every baby that comes into the world, especially at Christmas, is a reminder that God became a baby on that night in Bethlehem.  Every angel you see at Christmas is a reminder that God sent angels to announce this birth.  Every light on your tree and every candle that you light points to the light that filled the sky because the dark world of separation was being replaced by the light of reconciliation.  As Pastor Paul Cummings said in this morning’s sermon, remember that Christmas is not about “nice news” – the kind that gives you temporary warm feelings.  It about “good news” – the Gospel.

I hope the Christmas movie that will, in years to come, lead the Top 12 list of Christmas movies is the 2017 release, “The Star.”  It includes “reconciliation” as a theme, if not for Herod and his evil head soldier (there always seems to be at least one unchanged character, like the mayor in Whoville), at least for Thaddeus and Rufus, the two mean dogs who are saved by Bo the donkey and join all the animals and shepherd and wise men bowing down to the baby in the manger.  That scene made me cry, even though I’d already read the Book.

Why do Christmas stories always include the theme of reconciliation?  Because that’s the whole story!  The Apostle Paul says this in 2 Corinthians 5.  “We regard no one from a worldly point of view,” Paul writes.  We don’t see anyone as unredeemable.  We see no separation as too wide or long or deep.  “God was in Christ, reconciling the world to himself, not counting people’s sins against them.”  The word “counting” there is a term from the world of finance.  The credit side of the ledger has been zeroed out.

“In Christ,” he continues “the new creation has come.”  This is the story:  “God reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation.”  Christians don’t think reconciliation is easy or quick.  It wasn’t for God.  Grinch-style heart transformations are rare.  But who knows, maybe someone tonight will “get it” for the first time just by being here among believers and singing songs that repeat this central message over and over.

Why do Christians talk about love so much, especially at Christmas?  Because God “has committed to us the message of reconciliation.  We are Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us.”  This is our number one mission.

We want to see and experience reconciliation in families, in friendships, in work places, in society.  Oh, we don’t do it perfectly and sometimes we believers have been even better than non-believers are justifying the separation.  But it’s not our fight song.  Our anthem is “Peace on earth, good will to men.”

The how is that we are first reconciled to God by grasping what he did for us.  2 Corinthians 5:21 is perhaps the most succinct explanation of the Gospel in the New Testament:  “God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.”  The only possible way for the barrier between us and God to be shattered is if he found a way to treat us as if we had never sinned.

You can be nice to someone who has been unkind to you, but you can’t truly reconcile to someone until you stop holding their sins against them.  My favorite definition of forgiveness is “giving up my right to hurt you back.”  God has every reason to hurt us back, but instead he came looking for us, came to our turf just like Cindy Lou seeking out the Grinch on Mt. Crumpit.  He refused to accept that the gap was too long, too high, too deep.

But do you see it in this verse?  It’s not just that he took our sin and placed it on Jesus.  That would have been amazing, but he did something else.  He made it possible for us to “become the righteousness of God.”  What that means is that God traded our sinful record for Jesus’ perfect record.

God unilaterally said, “I will choose to look not at your sin record – that has been transferred to my Son.  I will see you as righteous, perfect.  I will transfer Jesus’ record to you.  When you trust Christ, I will never hurt you back, ever.

That is reconciliation.  This sermon and service may not instantly change everything for you.  But will you take the first step – or the next step – which is letting him grow your heart three times as large?  Will you open the door of your heart to the possibility of reconciliation with others?  Most importantly, will you open the door of your heart to Jesus Christ, by whose birth, death and resurrection we are reconciled to God?  That is what we mean by “Christmas love.”  Amen.

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