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Sturdier Than That

December 26, 2016

“Sturdier Than That” Luke 2:1-20 © 12.24.16 by Tom Cheatham at First Presbyterian Church, Amory, MS. All rights reserved.

Simon and Garfunkel, the popular ‘60s singing duo, broke up years ago, though Paul Simon has continued to record and do shows. A quick Google search shows that Art Garfunkel has a full concert schedule as well in 2017. When they were together, the pair thrilled us with songs like “The Sound of Silence,” “Bridge Over Troubled Water,” and “Mrs. Robinson.”

But there is another, obscure song of theirs that, in the words of “The Sound of Silence,” once “planted in my brain” “still remains.” I first heard it at my best 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 eight million dead, many more wounded and dying later, and setting up a political situation which led eventually to Hitler, 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. The incident showed the truth of something I read recently, namely that Jesus didn’t just come to bring peace of mind, but peace on earth.

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. “‘The prison became very quiet,’” Cheng recalls, 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; for the WWI story, see also http://time.com/3643889/christmas-truce-1914/).

The kingdom of God is a realm where the values and practices of the world are turned upside down. As the hymn writer put it: “The poor are rich, the weak are strong, the foolish ones are wise” (Miriam Therese Winter, “O for a World”). So, sisters and brothers, the silence of God is louder than the weapons of war that reduce cities to rubble and send people fleeing if they can, louder than the endless screeds and pronouncements of self-assured pundits, politicians, and news anchors. The awe of humble shepherds kneeling at a manger reminds us that it is the meek, the gentle, and the holy, not the mighty and boastful and self-absorbed, who will inherit the earth. The truth of God will win out over any lie we are told or we can tell or fall for. 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.

I know a number of you are grieving tonight for a loved one lost, whether earlier this year or in 2015 or times past. Others of you may be exhausted or stressed from too much to do and too little time and energy to do it. You may wonder, as I do, about the state of the world and the nation and be sorely troubled. 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”).

As writer Chris Van Allsburg encouraged us to do in his lovely book, “believe” this Christmas, and let the light from the morning star, fair and bright, lead you on.

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