Several years ago I participated in a ministers’ study group. We met once a month to hear one another’s sermons. We scheduled our presentations a month ahead of the church’s calendar. That meant November was the month to hear sermons on Advent and Christmas. I remember one particularly grey, bleak November afternoon when we met at our church. Before any of the sermons were read one of the pastors commented, “Christmas, Advent, whatever. It’s the same old thing. We talk about waiting and we preach about hope and we pretend to be excited about the pageant on Christmas Eve and the Holy Family and all of that. Whatever. I’ve got nothing to give this year. Nothing.”
His words did not exactly feel like Joy to the World! However, at the end of his rant, all of us knowingly nodded our heads. There is a kind of been-there-done-that feeling when it comes to the season of Christmas.
Tom Long, one of the finest preachers in America, writes about this feeling. He sees this cynicism not only in the pulpit but in the pews too. “When tomorrow is just more of today and all labors of love seem poured into a bottomless pit of human suffering, indifference and cynicism, then it is hard to march out the front door to be a disciple.”
I think he is right but sometimes the presence of God comes out of nowhere like a holy surprise.
If you were in Kansas City last year for Christmas you no doubt remember the blizzard that blanketed our beautiful city with 18 inches of snow. Our Christmas Eve services were quite small compared to normal years. But something amazing, surprising even, happened at the church that night. There was a spirit (a Holy Spirit?) in the services that I had not experienced in years. The 8:00 p.m. service which is normally a huge crowd of close to 900 or so was quite small. There might have been 200 in attendance. Everything seemed calmer, quieter. The singing was, well, I don’t normally use this word, but it was precious. At the end of the service, as I stood at the door to greet the hearty souls who had ventured out into the snowstorm, I was caught by the number of people who had tears in their eyes. The experience at the 11:00 p.m. service was similar. One woman’s comment perfectly captured what I was feeling. She said, “Tonight, when we sang, Silent Night, Holy Night, I swear I could see the ‘dawn of redeeming grace.'”
The tears that suddenly appeared on my face as she offered her testimony were a holy surprise, a gift from heaven. They were a sign that even cynical, been-there-done-that preachers may experience the presence of the living God.