Hello, and welcome to Lechem Panim. I hope all of you are doing well as you prepare for what promises to be a very unusual Christmas; I know it will be for my family. It can be hard celebrating when we cannot be with friends and loved ones to the extent that I know many of us would like to be. But you know, I think this may actually prompt us to think a little more about what Christmas really means.
The other night my family and I drove around a nearby neighborhood looking at all the Christmas decorations, many of which were absolutely beautiful. I mean, what better way to celebrate the Light of the World than to look at all the Christmas lights. But I remember in the midst of all the decorations one item in particular; a snowman (you know, the inflatable kind) who wasn’t quite making it. For some reason or other, it was a bit deflated. And you know, honestly, while I’d say that that is often times how we feel at Christmas time (which is true) I kind of feel like our entire year has been kind of like that (at least for many people). It has been a tough year. And for some, Christmas is sort of an escape from all of that. It is a time to forget about the problems of the world and to pretend (at least for a little while) that everything is okay. It’s kind of like how we often tend to think about Church. We escape our normal week for a day and think higher, happier thoughts before setting them aside again when we return to our regular schedule on Monday. Now something like this happened the other night when my family and I were looking at all those Christmas decorations. We left our worries at home for an hour or so and simply went out to enjoy something beautiful. But ironically, after cruising around looking at all the beautiful lights, we came home; and after we got settled I got a phone call from a lady in my church that utterly deflated me. Her father (also a member of our church, who always made sure that I had a cup of water by the pulpit should I need it during or after I preach); he had passed away. And man, I will tell you, I became just like that snowman, as all the harsh reality of the world we live in just kind of came flooding back in that moment. And today is the first Sunday I preached today where his seat was empty and I knew wouldn’t be occupied by him again. And I will miss him dearly.
But you know, Jesus keeps challenging me with the way that I tend to think about Christmas. He keeps asking me about the nice pretty nativity scene picture that we tend to imagine; all the perfection. And He keeps asking me, “Is that what it was really like?” “Was it really as perfect as what we like to think it was?” “Was the first Christmas a nice pretty picture or was it something else entirely?”
The Wright View of Christmas— There’s this quote by N.T. Wright that I keep coming back to; and it is one of those quotes that has become more and more dear to me as I walk through periods of personal suffering. Listen to what he says. He captures it so beautifully. He says “For many, Christianity is just a beautiful dream. It's a world in which everyday reality goes a bit blurred. It's nostalgic, cosy, and comforting. But real Christianity isn't like that at all. Take Christmas, for instance: a season of nostalgia, of carols and candles and firelight and happy children. But that misses the point completely. Christmas is not a reminder that the world is really quite a nice old place. It reminds us that the world is a shockingly bad old place, where wickedness flourishes unchecked, where children are murdered, where civilized countries make a lot of money by selling weapons to uncivilized ones so they can blow each other apart. Christmas is God lighting a candle; and you don't light a candle in a room that's already full of sunlight. You light a candle in a room that's so murky the candle, when lit, reveals just how bad things really are. The light shines in the darkness, says St John, and the darkness has not overcome it."
And you know, the more I read the Christmas story, the more I find that statement to be proven true, as Jesus keeps showing me new levels of pain and suffering I hadn’t seen before; or at least allowed to sink in as deeply as I ought. For starters, think of the fear of rejection Mary no doubt feared when she became pregnant by the Holy Spirit. Even though she knew it was of God (because the angel had told her), what did she think Joseph would say? And God (for some reason) saw fit to allow Joseph to also wrestle with this for a time after finding Mary to be pregnant. He knew it wasn’t his child, and so he was no doubt uncertain as to the faithfulness of Mary; and just as uncertain about what path he should take. And when God reveals that path to Him, it isn’t an easy one. He’s to take a pregnant woman as his wife knowing that doing so might impinge on his own personal reputation. And that is a microcosm of God’s relationship with us by the way; as God welcome us into relationship with Him even though we (unlike Mary) are truly unfaithful; at least until Christ gets ahold of us. Think about Joseph and Mary’s having to travel to Bethlehem at the whim of a tyrannical leader imposing a census. Think about the poor birthing conditions; the manger; the stench of the animals; the subsequent dream revealing that Herod would be after them to kill the child; their flight to Egypt; the murder of all the young boys in Bethlehem by Herod (and think about it; some of those boys may have been part of the families of the very shepherds who had come to see Jesus. I’m still trying to wrap my mind around that one). Think about Joseph, Mary, and Jesus’ return to Israel only to be warned that Archelaus (who was reigning in place of his father Herod) might also try to kill the child; and finally their settling in Nazareth (the no-wheres-ville of Israel) to eek out a humble existence that we know left them barely scraping by. And the reason we know that is because of the level of sacrifice Joseph and Mary had offered at the temple not long before that; “a pair of doves or two young pigeons” instead of a lamb. This was a concession that was given in Leviticus 2:28 for the poorest of the poor who could not afford a lamb. Amazing to think the Lamb of God was born into a family that was so poor, they couldn’t even afford a lamb? And maybe that’s the message of Christmas in a nutshell; God giving us a sacrifice (the perfect gift) that none of us could afford.
But my point is that the reality that we are confronted with when we come to the Christmas story is that the Christmas story is not a story of escape from trouble; it is the story of a God who loved us so much that He was willing to enter into our struggle; into our suffering; into our death. He was part of a family that was in turmoil right from the start; He grew up in poverty-stricken conditions; He knew what it was like to be cheated by tax collectors as he helped his dad with the family business. And we know (though we don’t know when or how it happened; other than that it definitely happened before Jesus began his ministry); but we know that Joseph (Jesus’ non-biological earthly father) died. And Jesus had to go through the process of grieving and burying his father. Now I don’t know about you, but that says something to me. It says to me that Jesus was not willing to try to escape from one single dimension of the way that you and I suffer in this life. Every element of suffering that we face, He also was willing to face. And you think about it; He could have raised Joseph again in a heartbeat. He (the author and sustainer of all things) could have kept his earthly father alive till the end of time; keeping himself from having to go through that pain. But He didn’t. He didn’t take the easy way out. No, He chose to weep, cry, bury, and mourn right along with us.
Now I feel in my heart of hearts that that is the message of Christmas we most need to hear right now; the reality that in the flesh of Jesus Christ (born in that stable 2,000 years ago) God met us (and continues to meet us) in all of our brokenness; in all of our pain in order to offer us life.
You know, over the past few weeks we have been taking a look at Acts chapter 3, which of course tells of the lame beggar who was begging at the temple gate called “Beautiful”. And I don’t know about you, but the more I look at that story, the more I think of the many ways it perfectly embodies the experience (at least in symbol) of every single person alive today. Here was a man sitting in darkness; in absolute hopelessness. The text says he had been lame since birth. And you know, that is how all of us come into the world (at least in a spiritual sense). We are born into this world lost in sin and darkness; incapable of walking with God. And in ourselves, we are hopeless, just like this man was hopeless. We don’t have what it takes to be the men and women God has called us to be; has designed us to be. No matter how hard we might try on our own strength, we will always fall short of the glory of God. You can never be good enough or do enough to merit or earn your salvation. No; just like this lame beggar had to happen with this lame beggar, healing had to come from outside of himself. He couldn’t find healing by tapping into his inner goodness; or by simply trying to engage in more positive thinking. No, he needed a healer; a Savior. Because without the touch of the Savior, we know that there was no chance for him to ever be healed. Now (like any of us would have) this lame beggar no doubt resolved in himself that that is just how things were always going to be for him; that was how he was destined to live out the remainder of his existence. But then, lo and behold, Peter and John come to the temple at the hour of prayer. And seeing this lame man, who had asked them for money, Peter speaks into this man’s brokenness the name of Jesus. And the moment Jesus’ name is called upon, the impossible takes place. The man is healed; so healed in fact that the next passage finds him not just walking, but also leaping and praising God. From hopelessness to restoration in a single moment. What do you think Jesus is trying to offer you this Christmas season? Maybe it’s the message that when we are weakest and most broken, He is right there with us offering us life in Himself; a light that (in the end) will not be overcome by the darkness but will overcome all the temporal suffering that you and I face. It is my hope and prayer that He may be God with you this Christmas season; that through His being born in you, He also might be the light in your darkness this day and every day. God bless and Merry Christmas.
Rev. Cameron Ury graduated from Asbury University in 2007 with a B.A. in Bible and Theology. From there he continued his studies at Wesley Biblical Seminary in Jackson, MS. It was there that he met his wife Tanya, who graduated from WBS with her M.A. and M.Div. degrees. Cameron and Tanya got married in 2009. Cameron then graduated with his M.Div. degree with a pastoral concentration in 2011.
After shepherding churches in both Mississippi and Ohio, they joined the ministry team at Renton Park Chapel in January of 2018, where Cameron serves as Senior Pastor and Teacher.
Cameron is also the founder and host of Lechem Panim, a weekly radio show that airs on KGNW 820AM "The Word Seattle". The ministry of Lechem Panim is centered around leading people into the life-giving presence of God in and through Bible study, prayer, and active discipleship with the aim of ministering to a world that is in desperate need of the healing touch of Jesus Christ.