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Sturdier Than That

December 25, 2011

“Sturdier Than That” Luke 2:1-20 © 12.24.11 by Tom Cheatham at First Presbyterian Church, Amory, MS. All rights reserved.

The ‘60s duo Simon and Garfunkel had an obscure song that I first heard at my friend Donald’s house in high school. It was called “Silent Night/6 O’clock News.” The two begin by singing the carol. But gradually, their voices are overwhelmed by the stories of war and murder and hatred from the news. Eventually, all the listener can hear is the newscaster’s testimony to our fallen and marred humanity.

I have never known if Simon and Garfunkel were being cynical or sorrowful with their song. But it doesn’t matter. The fact is that “Silent Night” and those who sing it cannot and will not be overwhelmed by evil in any ultimate way. They’re both sturdier than that.

Consider, for example, how Mohr and Gruber’s gentle song stopped a war. It was Christmas Eve, 1914, and the soldiers who had been promised they would be home by then knew the politicians had lied. But all along the Western front, something extraordinary began to happen. As German soldiers lit candles in their trenches, the British held their fire, even though the lights clearly illuminated the enemy. Some of the Germans began singing “Silent Night” in its original, and the British joined in with the English version.

One by one, soldiers began laying down their arms and venturing into “no man’s land.” An eyewitness described the scene: “‘We stuck up a board with “Merry Christmas” on it. The enemy stuck up a similar one. Two of our men threw their equipment off and jumped on the parapet with their hands above their heads as two of the Germans did the same…. They shook hands and then we all got out of the trench and so did the Germans.”

The soldiers sat around a common campfire, exchanging gifts like chocolate or buttons or tins of beef. Then, the meager festivities done, the truce ended, and the war was on again.

WWI went on for four more years, resulting in 8 million dead, many more wounded and dying later, and setting up a political situation which led eventually to the Third Reich and WWII. But for a little while at least “Silent Night” had overcome the sounds of guns and grenades and rumbling tanks, and there was peace.

Or think about how “Silent Night” brought a prisoner comfort in her cell. During the so-called “Cultural Revolution” in China in the 1960s, anyone who was seen as collaborating with the West was put in jail. One such person was Nien Cheng, who spent seven years in solitary confinement. From a calendar she had made with chalk marks one December, she knew it was Christmas Eve. As she huddled in the cold and dark, she heard from above her a soprano singing “Silent Night.” The singer had been jailed for displeasing the Maoist rulers. Cheng recounts: “‘The prison became very quiet’” as all the inmates listened to the woman sing. Though she had been to many Christmas concerts, that solitary voice singing in prison meant more to Cheng than all of them (Victor M. Parachin, “The Carol That Stopped a War,” Presbyterians Today, December 2011: 28-29).

Sisters and brothers, the silence of God is louder than the weapons of war. The truth of God will win out over any lie we can tell or believe. The song of angels will drown out the shouts of hatred that resound throughout our land and our world daily. The thoughts of a new mother, treasured in her heart, will prove more powerful than the schemes of evil people. The peace given on a silent, holy night is stronger than any fear we may know. The cry of a newborn in a manger is more articulate in its communication of the love of God than any sermon.

You may be lonely tonight. Or despairing. You may be grieving for a loved one lost. You may wonder about the state of the world, as one war ends, but another drags on and on. You may have gifts under the tree, and a home full of friends and family, but an empty heart. You may be confused or hurting or angry. Then know this: love’s pure light is more radiant than the brightest beacon; it overcomes the darkness in our souls. God’s love is the sturdiest stuff in the cosmos. It’s the central truth and reality in the enduring, robust, indestructible Christmas gospel. As the hymn put it: “I feel thy strong and tender love, and all is well again. The thought of thee is mightier far than sin and pain and sorrow are” (Samuel Longfellow, “I Look to Thee in Every Need”).

Believe this Christmas, and let the light from the morning star, fair and bright, lead you on.

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