Tonight we gather in the beauty of this hallowed space, singing songs we’ve sung for years, hearing a story many know by heart. It’s Christmas Eve; and after our long Advent wait, we can finally say it: Christ is born.
But as we’ve been exploring throughout the weeks of Advent, that claim is not enough on its own. For a good number of us here tonight, we come with deep questions, maybe deep suspicion. We come wondering, “Christ is born. So what?”
As many of you know, I grew up in Springfield, Missouri – “the buckle on the Bible Belt” – so religious messages were everywhere. One of them stays with me particularly tonight, a billboard on Highway 13. On the sign, in huge letters, was the claim we come here tonight to celebrate: “Jesus Saves!” In my less-pious years, I often wondered, “Saves us from what?” What’s the threat from which Jesus delivers us? What do you mean, he’s a “savior?”
In the readings tonight, and especially in Luke’s familiar story of shepherds and angels and the birth of the baby, we hear that claim made in a way that would strike us as preposterous if we hadn’t heard it so often before. Isaiah had set the stage, proclaiming that God would deliver the Jewish people through the birth of a king, a ruler of the house and lineage of David. This king would save Israel from its oppressors, the foreign powers that had been invading and destroying and carrying people off into captivity for decades. Luke then picks up on this promise 700 years later and tells the story of another new king’s birth. He was a peasant child born into Roman oppression – an absolute nobody, like all the other Jewish people trying to remain invisible to the brutal authorities who would kill a bothersome peasant without a second thought. Yet despite the hopelessness of that situation, messengers from God tell the shepherds, “I bring you good news of great joy,” for “to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord” (2:10-11).
For Jewish people longing for someone to deliver them from their oppressors, this news of the coming of the Messiah would have made all the difference. But what about us? Tonight, as we celebrate the coming of the Christ child, God-With-Us – what difference does Jesus make? This “Savior, who is Christ the Lord” – what does he save us from?
Often on this holy night, preachers find themselves recounting heart-warming stories to flesh out the true meaning of Christmas. I’ve heard sermons involving A Charlie Brown Christmas, or How the Grinch Stole Christmas, or It’s a Wonderful Life, or A Christmas Carol. Tonight, I want to step out on a limb of the Christmas tree just a bit and tell you about a story you may have seen at the movies recently. That story is Twelve Years a Slave. OK, it’s about the least likely “Christmas movie” ever. But bear with me.
Twelve Years a Slave is the true story of Solomon Northup, based on his memoir of the same name. Northup was a free African-American man, born in New York state and living in Saratoga Springs with his wife and two children. Deceived into traveling to slave-holding Washington, D.C., he was kidnapped and sold, eventually shipped to the plantations of Louisiana. There Northup endured the frighteningly normal horror of slave life, being regularly beaten and almost killed after striking back at a brutal overseer. He was later sold to a sadistic master who liked to quote Scripture nearly as much as he liked to whip people. The repeated violence kept Northup from sharing his true identity. The one time he took the risk and paid a white field hand to smuggle a letter to friends in New York, the field hand betrayed him for a few pieces of silver.
Where this tale becomes a Christmas story is in Northup’s salvation from the nightmare his life had become. Bound in despair I can’t even begin to imagine, Northup met a wandering stranger – someone who really had no business even being on a plantation in the depth of slavery’s hell. That stranger was Samuel Bass, a journeyman carpenter from Canada. He worked his way through several states before coming into the heart of the slave kingdom. Even more unexpected than his location was his willingness to speak out against the deep injustice he saw in slavery – and the odd fact that he was able to get away with it. As Northup describes Bass in his memoir, “He was that kind of a person whose peculiarity of manner was such that nothing he uttered ever gave offence. What would be intolerable, coming from the lips of another, could be said by him with impunity.”1 Bass frequently confronted his employer, the sadistic plantation owner, forcing him to justify such grotesque exploitation of other people – which the master did by arguing matter-of-factly that non-whites were not people. Hearing Bass argue passionately against slavery, Northup took the risk of confiding to him the truth of his identity. Unbelievably, risking nothing less than his own life, Bass agreed to help Northup; and he sent letters to Northup’s friends in Saratoga, asking them to forward Northup’s “free papers” to the authorities in Louisiana and arrange his release.
Picking up Northup’s own account in his book, here’s what he wrote about Bass: “He overwhelmed me with assurances of friendship and faithfulness…. He spoke of himself in a somewhat mournful tone … that his life was of little value to himself, and henceforth should be devoted to the accomplishment of my liberty….”2 A few days later, Bass left the plantation long enough to write the letters to New York. Weeks and then months passed with no responses; and eventually Bass finished his construction work and had to move on. But on Christmas Eve, Bass returned to the plantation.3 (Now, the movie doesn’t say much about this happening at Christmas, but that’s how Northup’s book describes it.) Then, on Christmas morning, Bass came to talk with Northup. Unfortunately, the news was not good: No replies had come to Bass’ letters. Northup despaired, lamenting that he would die a slave after all. But Bass had a different plan: He pledged to put his own life on the line and journey to Saratoga Springs himself. He said, “I’m tired of Slavery as [much] as you. If I can succeed in getting you away from here, it will be a good act that I shall like to think of all my life. And I shall succeed…. Cheer up! Don’t be discouraged. I’m with you, life or death.”4 Not a bad Christmas present.
But the trip to Saratoga wasn’t necessary. On Jan. 3, 1853 – still within the 12 Days of Christmas, by the way – Northup’s liberation came.5 Miraculously enough, Bass’ letters had reached Saratoga, and they’d had the desired effect. Officials from New York appeared on the plantation early that morning and redeemed Northup from the hand of his oppressor.
In the end, the wandering carpenter had achieved the slave’s freedom. At incredible risk to himself, giving himself up to the very real possibility of death, the carpenter came into the life of a man who simply could not save himself. The carpenter willingly entered into a place of deep darkness, a place where evil held sway; and he defeated the powers of sin and death from the inside out. At Christmas.
Now, I wouldn’t dare to equate much of anything in our lives with the lived experience of plantation slavery. Nor would I compare our lives with the experience of Jewish peasants living under the bloody terror of Roman occupation. But I would say this: There are still powers that seek to hold us in bondage. There are still ways in which we are enslaved. Some of us are held by the power of addiction or obsession. Some of us are held by the power of narcissism and indifference. Some of us are held by the power of materialism and greed. Some of us are held by the power of prejudice and self-righteousness. Some of us are held by the power of a hobbled sense of self that can’t even imagine being worthy of another person’s love.
And yet, in our bondage, we, too, are blessed with visits from unexpected agents of salvation. Through people we’d never have imagined as bearers of God’s presence, we find ourselves liberated from the powers that seek to hold us back. Maybe it’s a sponsor in a recovery group. Maybe it’s a stranger who shares his story, revealing strength and capacity you never imagined in someone “like him.” Maybe it’s a sufferer who teaches you how rich your life is in comparison with hers. Maybe it’s a spouse or a partner who sticks with you when you clearly don’t deserve it. Maybe it’s a teacher who empties himself to prove that you are capable of more than you ever believed. Maybe it’s a friend who shows you that, indeed, you are absolutely worthy of love.
Through those people who walk into our struggles, into our places of despair – through them, the dear Christ still enters in. They are God-With-Us in the same way Samuel Bass was the presence of Christ for Solomon Northup. Through them, God saves us from forces we can’t overcome on our own. The “so what?” of Christmas is nothing less than this: that God loves us enough to step into our places of deepest bondage and confront them from within. God does not stay aloof from our struggles, setting the world in motion and sitting idly by. God takes flesh – flesh that will be risked, flesh that will bleed. God literally has skin in the game, entering into the powerless, humiliating, shameful places of our lives and inhabiting them with us. That’s the difference Jesus makes: In him, God takes the risk to walk alongside us. And when that walk takes us through the valley of the shadow of death, we need not fear because God is with us – comforting us, yes; but also leading us up and out of the valley, out of the grip of bondage and into a land of new birth.
Unto you is born this night a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. Look for him in the people and the places you’d least expect. Look for him where you can’t find answers. Look for him where you’re afraid. Look for him where your heart hurts most. Because where your bondage is most brutal, where your despair is at its depth, where your weakness is most withering, that is precisely where Jesus steps in, and walks alongside you, and speaks the words of a new birth of freedom: “See, I am making all things new!” (Revelation 21:5)
1. Northup, Solomon (David Wilson, ed.). Twelve Years a Slave: Narrative of Solomon Northup, a Citizen of New-York, Kidnapped in Washington City in 1841, and Rescued in 1853 from a Cotton Plantation Near the Red River, in Louisiana. New York: Miller, Orton, and Mulligan, 1855. Electronic scan available at: http://books.google.com/books?id=61kSAAAAIAAJ&printsec=frontcover&dq=12+years+a+slave&hl=en&sa=X&ei=I_F6UqrOJtPesASjo4G4DA&ved=0CD8Q6AEwAA#v=onepage&q=12%20years%20a%20slave&f=false. 264.
2. Northup, 273.
3. Northup, 279.
4. Northup, 281-282.
5. Northup, 287-288.