Christmas 2020: When Faith Feels Small

A video worship service for Christmas 2020 at First Presbyterian Church, Waukon, IA, USA. Merry Christmas to all our friends and neighbors!

Related Advent sermons:
Like Those Who Dream,” from Mark 13:24-37, about Jesus’s caution to “keep awake” for his return. (Available in audio and text formats.)
Something New Begins,” from Mark 1:1-8, about “preparing the way” for Jesus to enter our lives. (Available in audio and text formats.)
Connecting the Dots, from Luke 1:39-56, about Mary’s song of praise for God choosing her to be the bearer of God’s dreams. (Available in audio and text formats.)
God Removes the ‘If, from 2 Samuel 7:1-16, which offers assurance that God is always leading our way. (Available in audio and text formats.)

Related video meditations:
Lighting the First Candle of Advent – Hope
Lighting the Second Candle of Advent – Peace
Lighting the Third Candle of Advent – Joy
Lighting the Fourth Candle of Advent  Love

Here’s the text of Pastor Grant’s message that’s in the video:

It’s surely not the feel-good, Hallmark-movie kind of ending to a holiday story that we much prefer to enjoy come Christmas.

But then, neither does this year unwrap colorful dreams for a white Christmas just like the ones we used to know.

Battling and bickering, loneliness and fear, sickness and death all hang heavy in the air like thick icy fog on a gray winter’s morning. Through a cold veil of hopelessness, desperate eyes squint and strain to catch of glimpses of the new year’s coming glories that, at least for now, appear as little more than distant specks on a far-off horizon.

That light we spy at the end of the tunnel could be blessed relief. That surely is our hope and prayer. But, given the way the year has unfolded, odds seem almost even that the light just as easily could turn out to be the signal of an oncoming train!

And so, we wait, and wonder, and struggle, feeling glum and shedding tears, desperately trying to feel our way through dark nights of the soul that seemingly have no end, fumbling through crises of faith that, like malicious hits, just keep on coming.

But maybe within our misery and melancholy lies the blessing of some new and quite-helpful understanding of the essential nature of faith.

One of the reasons we struggle with faith, spiritual writer Ronald Rolheiser suggests, is that God’s presence inside us and in our world rarely reveals itself as dramatic, sensational, overwhelming, and impossible to ignore. More often than not, God simply doesn’t work like that.

Instead, much to our frustration and impatience, God’s presence is something that lies quiet and seemingly helpless deep inside each of us – oftentimes unfelt, outwardly nonexistent, mostly unnoticed, and easily overlooked.

In other words, God’s presence rarely makes a huge splash or inspires anything to write home about.

Because it’s hard to wrap your mind around that reality, we tend to misunderstand the dynamics of faith, preferring instead to ground our belief in all things loud and dramatic, big and bodacious, forever pining for gifts beyond those that God so graciously has already given.

But, at least by now, we should realize, by the very way that God is born into our world, that faith needs to ground itself in unassuming belief that’s mostly quiet and every bit undramatic.

Heavenly hosts and guiding stars aside, Jesus is born into our world with little fanfare and certainly no power. This Wonderful Counselor, this Prince of Peace, arrives among us as a helpless baby lying in the itchy straw of a rough-hewn manger. His cries of hunger, his needs for caress, and his desires of love no more than join those of a million other children held desperately tight in the weary arms of their exhausted mothers.

Then, years later, during his earthly ministry, Jesus never performs miracles to cause a stir, make a fuss, or call attention to himself, nor does Jesus use divine power to pronounce the existence of God beyond a shadow of a doubt.

Instead, when he restores sight, feeds the hungry, cures the lame, and raises the dead, Jesus unleashes acts of gracious compassion that reveal something about the goodness and mercy of God. Jesus does what he does to show us what God is like – a God who loves us without condition.

Even more, what Jesus has to say about God’s presence in our lives paints verbal pictures of quiet, near-imperceptible divinity in our midst:

A plant growing silently as we sleep (Mark 4:26-29).

Yeast leavening dough in ways hidden from sight (Matthew 13:33).

Summer slowly transforming a barren tree to lush, leafy green (Matthew 24:32-35, Mark 13:28-31, and Luke 21:29-33).

A tiny mustard seed eventually surprising with abundant growth (Matthew 13:31–32).

Someone forgiving an enemy (Matthew 5:43-48, Luke 23:34, Colossians 3:13, Ephesians 4:32).

The God that Jesus reveals often chooses to be neither dramatic nor splashy, further suggesting that, indeed, God really does work in mysterious ways.

While it never overpowers, God’s presence nevertheless bears a gentle-but-emphatic command, an urging toward something higher and bigger than ourselves that invites us to abide within it and draw upon its grace. And when we live and tap into such intimacy, grace flows like a gentle-but-never-ending stream that instructs, nurtures and invigorates.

Like a baby lying vulnerable in a straw-filled manger, innocently beckoning our instinctive attention, grace is enticing, and eventually, we can resist no more and spy no other choice than simply bending over, reaching down, picking it up, and holding it close to our hearts!

In explaining why he finally became, in his words, “the most dejected and reluctant convert in all of England,” C.S. Lewis writes that for years he effectively ignored a voice deep within himself precisely because it was almost nonexistent, mostly unfelt, and largely unnoticed. In retrospect, Lewis realized the voice – a gentle-but-incessant nudge inciting closer relationship – had always been speaking to his soul and spirit with an unyielding directive that, if obeyed, would lead to his liberation.

A fellow Briton, Ruth Burrow, describes a similar experience. Toward the end of her teen-age years, Ruth’s faith was flighty at best, and she felt no attraction to religious life. Yet, she eventually ended up becoming quite serious about faith – so much so that she became a Carmelite nun!

What changed for Ruth?

One day, in a chapel, triggered by a series of accidental events, she unwittingly opened herself to an inner voice that she had, until then, mainly ignored because it lay inside her precisely as a nonexistent voice she largely neither felt nor heard.

But, once heard, the voice spoke volumes as the richest, most real, most relevant thing within her, and that voice set the direction of her life afterward. Like C.S. Lewis, she too, once she had opened herself to the voice, felt it as an unyielding moral compulsion that ultimately led to her spiritual liberation.

Why does God seemingly make spiritual relationship so gosh-darn hard, preferring not to reveal the divine self to us more directly, more clearly, and more powerfully so as to make faith easier?

That’s a fair question for which there are no fully satisfying answers.

In the end, maybe faith isn’t something you ever simply achieve, not something you ever nail down as something that’s already happened that leaves you with no choice but to accept it.

The reality of faith is more like this: Some days you walk on water, and other days you sink like a stone. Some nights you find room at the inn, and other nights you have the door slammed in your face. Faith invariably gives way to doubt before it again recovers its confident assurance – only to lose it all over again and again.

And along that roller-coaster ride of faith, possibly the best we can do, like that little girl in the story I shared, is strike a match, or a whole bunch of matches. Or light a candle, or a whole mess of candles, and  bask in the flickering, sometimes seemingly dim halo of light and joy that just is God’s meek, unassuming presence.

May that simple act be our hope of glory for this Christmas and the coming new year.

Perhaps the true blessing of 2020 and the best gift of its Christmas are fresh, new opportunities to die to ourselves, silence our tongues, and tune into that still-small voice inside.

For Christ’s sake, may it be so. By his stripes, we have been healed and raised to new life!

Glory to God in the highest, and peace to God’s people on earth!

Amen, and amen!

Pastor Grant VanderVelden shared this message for Christmas Eve 2020. It is part of his Advent-Christmas series “Those Who Dream.” Commentary and reflection by Ruth Burrow, R. Alan Culpepper, Luke Timothy Johnson, C.S. Lewis and Ronald Rolheiser inform the message.

3 thoughts on “Christmas 2020: When Faith Feels Small

  1. Well done! Enjoyed the entire production! Many thanks to PG and Russ for helping make this a very memorable Xmas, pandemic and all! Nothing beats in person worshipping together, but this video is a wonderful substitution! Hoping the New Year soon brings us together again. Vaccine coming! BRW.

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