(You can listen to a podcast of this message here. The telling of the Christmas Gospel on which it is based, Luke 2:1-20, can be heard here.)
If the Star Wars universe was Lutheran, every time someone said, “May the Force be with you,” the people around would respond
. . . (Congregation: “And also with you.”)
Many of you have probably seen the newest Star Wars movie, “The Force Awakens.” It is breaking all kinds of records at the box office.
I saw it last weekend with Karen and Philip. I wanted to see it before I heard any spoilers . . . Don’t worry, I won’t spoil anything in this sermon. We all enjoyed it. It may be a little intense and long for young ones, though.
So I was sitting there in the theater waiting for the movie to begin. The previews were over and the announcement about how rude it is to use your cell phone had just ended as well.
The theater became completely dark. Then, words in blue font appeared on the screen, familiar words that evoked memory and anticipation. . .
“Long ago in a galaxy far, far away . . .”
Then, trumpets and drums. Bah bah, ba ba ba bah bah. Ba ba ba bah bah. Ba ba ba bah.
John Williams’ “Theme from Star Wars” carried me back to 1977, when I was a teenager watching a movie I thought might be good, but really didn’t know. I was 15 again, experiencing “Star Wars” for the first time.
And simultaneously that music transported me into the intergalactic world of “Star Wars.”
The Star Wars Logo glowed on the screen. Words began to crawl from the bottom to the top, rising over a background of stars. Words that told a story. A story of good battling evil, a story of heroes and villains and light versus darkness.
Then the movie started, and it was the classic “Star Wars” story. Sure, there were new characters, but it was a familiar tale. In fact, the only real criticism I’ve seen of the film is that the plot in many ways is similar to the plot of the first Star Wars movie. But that’s a good part of what makes it so awesome – the retelling of the classic tale.
All in all, seeing the new Star Wars film, “The Force Awakens,” was a lot like Christmas Eve worship.
We gather here in anticipation of hearing the familiar story, maybe in a new way. But it is the story that we long for, it is the story that brings us together. It is a story that gives us HOPE.
When I hear the first notes of “O Come All Ye Faithful,” or when we sing “Joy to the World,” or especially when we get to “Silent Night” with candlelight, it really feels like Christmas. The music evokes recollection of Christmas Eves past, worshipping in places long left behind, with loved ones no longer here. The music of Christmas evokes powerful memories and emotions.
As we gather, we hear about familiar events and places – the census, Bethlehem, Galilee, shepherds’ fields.
And we encounter beloved characters in the story once again . . . Mary and Joseph, the angels, the shepherds, and of course the Baby.
Our hearts are stirred because the Christmas story begins the Greatest Story Ever Told.
Even better than Star Wars!
One of the unique things about Star Wars is the Force, that mystical, quasi-scientific power that binds the universe together. There are those who can channel the Force in powerful ways – the Jedi. They train and fight against those who have mastered the dark side – the evil side – of the force.
Star Wars is basically a good old fashioned drama of good versus evil, sort of a western in space where you can usually pretty easily tell the good guys from the bad guys.
Yes, it’s exciting and fun and the special effects are great.
But here’s the thing – the victory of the good guys doesn’t last. The new Star Wars movie is episode seven. At the end of Episode Six (“The Return of the Jedi”), evil had been defeated and peace reigned in the galaxy.
But here we are in the new movie and the dark side is again wreaking havoc. So the Force awakens to battle the dark side.
But the story we gather to tell today, the Greatest Story Ever Told, is different. Not just in that it is true. Not just in that it happened.
It is different because the story that begins in Bethlehem with the birth of the Christ Child, ends with – SPOILER ALERT – the defeat of evil, the defeat of sin and death – once and for all! That would happen when the baby grew up and died on a cross. He showed the world the extent God would go to show God’s love for me and for you.
You see, the story we gather to hear again today is the story of a different kind of force. It is the most powerful force in the universe.
The Jedi Knights in Star Wars fight with Light Sabers.
The weapon in The Greatest Story Ever Told is . . . LOVE.
What does love look like?
A baby in a manger. That is certainly that is not the usual idea of power – a helpless baby wrapped in rags and lying in a trough where animals fed. But that baby was God, God in human flesh. Total power become totally vulnerable. God among us.
Star Wars happens in a fantasy galaxy.
The birth of Jesus is God entering the real world.
Our world. A world where he would experience cold and hunger and loneliness and betrayal and even death. A world where he would laugh with his disciples, and where he would cry with his friends.
Christmas is God saying to us, “I love you so much that I am willing to go through everything you must suffer in life, so that when you experience disappointment and struggle, not only will you know that I am with you, you will know that I have been through it.”
We try to pretty up the birth of Jesus into Christmas card perfection, but we lose its reality when we scrub away the filth and the smells and the pain of that birth where animals fed. We run the risk of turning the real-world story into a fantasy.
That is so important! Jesus was born into the real world so that God’s relationship with real-world people like us could be healed. That relationship between God and us is scarred by sin, and Jesus was born to break down that barrier.
When Jesus was born the force of love awakened in the real world in a way that it never had before.
God is love, the Bible says in First John. With the birth of Jesus, God is here. Love is here.
The darkness of this world is the absence of love.
We see the results of that darkness all around us. We see it in terror attacks and in violence of all kinds. We see it in hunger and preventable disease and in greed-spawned poverty. We see it in any attempt to divide the world into “us and them,” whether “they” are defined by ethnicity or nationality or religion or race or gender or who “they” love.
The force of love awakened in Bethlehem to break down those barriers as well, to conquer the darkness of division and bigotry and hate.
Hatred is birthed by fear. In an earlier movie, The Star Wars character Yoda said this: “Fear is the path to the dark side. Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering.”
I agree with Yoda. Biblical he sounds.
With the birth of Jesus we no longer have to fear. We no longer have to hate. Over and over in the Biblical Christmas accounts we hear these words “Don’t be afraid.” The angel Gabriel says it to Mary, and Joseph hears it in a dream. It is the first thing the angels say to the shepherds. “Don’t be afraid.”
Sisters and brothers, because the force of love awakened in Bethlehem, we don’t have to be afraid. We don’t have to fear anything or anybody in this life, or even death.
In Jesus, we are free to love. We are free to live his summary of the law – to love God and to love our neighbor.
And we are free to tell this story, the Greatest Story Ever Told.
It is OUR story to tell. When we were baptized, we became participants in the story. As “The Force Arises” introduced new characters into the Star Wars story, this year 18 babies, young people, and adults were baptized here into the Greatest Story Ever Told.
It’s up to us to tell that story. Millions have seen “The Force Awakens” already and millions more will watch it. People are hungry for stories of good battling evil . . . Are we willing to share the Greatest Story Ever Told – the story of God in human flesh born in Bethlehem, growing up to die on a cross simply because he loves us, then rising again?
If we don’t tell the story, who will?
Our greatest witness is to share with others our part in the story. The best evangelism is to tell other people what difference it makes that the force of love has arisen in us.
Every year on Christmas Eve I take a moment to address those who are here who don’t know – yet – that they are part of the story; those who are here but think it as much of a fantasy as Star Wars, those who are like me when I didn’t believe a word of the story. It took me until I was 33 to realize I was part of the story that the baby in Bethlehem was born for me. Let me encourage you, if you are now in your faith – or lack of faith – where I was then – to be open to the story.
I am still surprised the force of love awakened in me.
And to everyone, sisters and brothers, may the force – of love – be with you.
(Congregation: And also with you.)