Christmas Contradictions: Victory In The Defeat
I Corinthians 11:3-26
It occurs to me that Christmas is a time of contradictions. There is, most obviously, the contradiction of Bethlehem—God choosing to invade our world not with massed armies but with a single baby, not with weapons of war but with words of love, not with battle cries but with angel songs. As the story unfolds there are other contradictions: victory in the defeat, light in the darkness, splendor in the silence, glory in the lowly. Also it occurs to me that the contradictions of Christmas speak with deep meaning to the contradictions that exist in our lives and in our world. Therefore over the next weeks, I would like for us to look at some Christmas contradictions beginning today with “Victory In The Defeat”
We as Christians like to think of ourselves as people of power. In the New Testament, the word for power is “dunamics” from which we derive our word “dynamite.” Power. Jesus said: “You shall receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you.” Paul said: “I am not ashamed of the Gospel for it is the power of God to salvation for those who believe.” In Ephesians we read: “Be strong in the Lord and in the power of His might” We are given power and we rejoice in that.
One minister whose name we all know, Norman Vincent Peale, built his whole career about what he called “the power of positive thinking.” One of his disciples, Robert Schuller, has amplified Peale and built a worldwide ministry around “the power of possibility thinking. The shelves of religious bookstores are crowded with books and tapes and other resources all designed to put Christians in touch with the feeling of power.
There’s a story arising out of the old west about a town unable to keep a schoolteacher. There were some big, bullying boys in that one-room school whose behavior drove teachers away one after another. Then one day a rather meek-looking young man from the east showed up asking for the job. They warned him what he would be up against—these great big strapping fellows who sat in the back of the room and created havoc. He said: “I’ll take the job anyway.” First day in class, he walked to the back of the room where all these troublemaking boys were seated. Without saying a word, on the wall right above their heads, he tacked a little two-inch square of white paper. He went back up to his desk, sat down, and adjusted his spectacles. Immediately, those boys started in with their catcalls and smart remarks. With that, the bespectacled teacher reached into his coat, pulled out a gun and with rapid-fire put six bullets into that little square of white paper. He reloaded the gun, set it on the desk, and said: “We shall begin with prayer”—and my, how those students prayed!
That strikes me as a parable of the way we want to be. We want to be gentle and mild and have a graceful humility about us—but when we need it, we want to be able to demonstrate some power which brings people to attention and which brings them to cooperation with what we desire. We want the power that belonged to Jesus.
But wait a minute. If we really want the power of Jesus, let me read some verses for you. Matthew 27, beginning at verse 27. The power of Jesus.
27 “Then the soldiers of the governor took Jesus into the governor’s headquarters, and they gathered the whole cohort around him. 28 They stripped him and put a scarlet robe on him, 29 and after twisting some thorns into a crown, they put it on his head. They put a reed in his right hand and knelt before him and mocked him, saying, ‘Hail, King of the Jews!’ 30 They spat on him, and took the reed and struck him on the head. 31 After mocking him, they stripped him of the robe and put his own clothes on him. Then they led him away to crucify him.”
The power of Jesus? This is the One who said: “All power in Heaven and on earth has been given to me.” Yet look at what happened to Him. Where was His power then? What happened to Him looks like defeat not victory. Well, it’s important for us to understand that sometimes the power of Jesus in our lives does bring triumph and victory, but other times the power of Jesus in our lives enables us to endure even when we feel utterly powerless. Sometimes the power of Jesus enables us to fly high in life; other times the power of Jesus enables us just to hang on in life. You do remember what He said, don’t you? He said: “Those who would be my disciples let them take up their cross daily and follow me.”
In other words, the Bible doesn’t say that we gain a greater experience of Christ in our successes; rather it says that we come to know Him most deeply in our hardships. It doesn’t say that He is best revealed to us in our triumphs; rather it says that we discover who He is in the midst of our catastrophes. When we pray to God to put His hand of hope and healing upon the painful situations of our lives, we discover that the hand of God which spangles the Heavens with the glory of the stars is actually a nail-pierced hand.
Basil Blackwell tells of the faith of Edith Barfoot who remained strong in her faith through 61 years of excruciating painful, crippling arthritis. He quotes her as saying: “In the course of suffering when you reach the depths of an inexpressible pain; when your body is wracked from head to foot and there is no way to alleviate the agony; when your soul becomes numb because your physical hurt overwhelms it; when you become incapable of prayer and no human aid helps, then, more than ever before, you find God waiting in the depths, opening His arms for your tortured being, and He infuses your soul and your mind with trust, and He feeds your inner consciousness until you know that you have strength enough to endure, which means just to lie still in His everlasting arms.”
If that is true, and I believe it is—if that is true then it means, contradictory though it may seem, that there is victory in defeat. It means that we find God more in the darkness than we do in the light, that He becomes more real to us when we fast than when we are filled, that He reveals Himself to us more clearly when we are hurt than when we are whole, that there is a deeper closeness to Him in suffering than we can ever know in rejoicing. It means that when we are leveled by life, we are lifted by God.
The last year has been a torturously hard year for me and my family. There have been significant victories within it. We have built and dedicated the Clayton Life Center, a building whose architectural grace is matched by the quality of the ministries flowing out of it. Our congregation is growing in record numbers and in spiritual depth. I have written a book which will be published within this next year. Victories, yes—but over, under, and around it all is an ever-present grief at the loss of our son. I think that when I stood in the pulpit at the beginning of the Christmas season a year ago, if I had known what was coming, that I would have asked God to stop time there. But I didn’t know, and time didn’t stop. And as a result, this last year has been marked for me more by that single tragedy than by all of its considerable triumphs. Yet I take to this pulpit to say to you from the deepest places of my heart that I am more sure of my faith today than I was a year ago, because I have seen more of God in the shadows that I ever saw of Him in the sunlight.
Don’t let this table fool you. Here we speak of a broken body and shed blood. It sounds like defeat. Yet here, perhaps as nowhere else, we encounter the Christ who came at Christmas. And when we embrace Him and are embraced by Him, then contradictory though it may seem, we find the thrill of victory in the agony of defeat …