I received a phone call from a doctor who told me about a woman, not much older than I am, who was dying of cancer.
She had also suffered a stroke that greatly limited her abilities.
This doctor asked her if she would like to see a pastor or a priest, and she indicated that she would. For some reason that no one could explain, she requested a Lutheran pastor, and so the call came to me.
I found her alone in her room, lying in a fetal position on a bed in the nursing home. She had splotches of vomit all over her shirt. Swallowing was so difficult and painful that it was hardly worth the effort; and when she tried, the result was what I saw.
As I sat beside her, she looked at me with an expression of pain, bewilderment, and utter hopelessness. I saw in that expression someone who had given up trying to hold on to her last shred of dignity.
I tried to speak with her, only to discover that the stroke had robbed her of that function. She could only, with great difficulty, nod or shake her head. So the many questions I wanted to put to her went unasked. I will never know why she wanted a Lutheran pastor to visit her, or how her life came to be the way it was.
Through nods and shakes, she told me she had no family. No church. No friends. She had lived in this town for virtually her entire life, and had no important connection to anyone. She knew nothing about God, or Jesus, or the Christian faith. She was terrified of the death that was fast closing in on her.
This picture I have just presented is very close to what you or I would look like without God. There is only one act of imagination needed to complete the picture. Take her out of the nursing home, where the staff, reflecting the love of God, tried to make her as comfortable as they could. Put her alone in a dark, cold apartment, or in a cardboard shelter in an alley. That is what you or I would look like in a world without God.
It was not in the unfortunate string of illnesses that she found herself separated from God. God is able to be present with people in the most difficult of circumstances.
It was in the utter aloneness, the fear, and most of all, the hopelessness that she lived apart from God. When things are terrible, and getting worse, and you cannot visualize any possible circumstance or event that will make that better, that is a portrait of living without God.
When you have no one in your life who cares whether you live or die, when your existence seems to have gone unnoticed and you think that your passing away won’t make a speck of difference to anyone in the world, that is a portrait of living without God. When you are convinced that life is nothing but an accident, and when that open grave staring you in the face calls you into the icy grip of the grim reaper and not a Savior, that is a portrait of living without God.
That is the picture that Jesus came to obliterate from the face of the earth.
God broke into our world to destroy the emptiness. To seek and to save the lost.
Jesus appeared in a manger in a stable, as a little baby, so that everyone on earth would have the one ingredient necessary for life: hope.
We cannot live without hope, whether we suffer through the horror of a country torn by violence, fight a losing battle against disease, float aimlessly in the empty shell of luxury, or find ourselves crushed by grief.
In those moments when we lose hope, and we slide toward the emptiness of a lonely, dark corner, the love of God brings it back, often through family and friends, sometimes acquaintances and even strangers.
The events of Christmas occurred to make certain that in the worst of times as well as in the best, each one of us is touched by hearts and hands of love and compassion.
Jesus came to us to show us what love is, so that no one would have to end their life alone, in a dark corner. So that no one would be without hope. So that no one would be without God.
God’s work is not finished until that happens. And so our job as people of faith is not finished until that happens. We tell the story, and we carry the message of hope into all the dark places of the world. That is why we preach.
Because of that first Christmas in Bethlehem, I was able to visit Alberta on Christmas Day, and on behalf of our congregation bring a ray of hope to a person living a razor’s width away from a world without God. To let her know how it feels to be special in God’s eyes, to have a song dedicated to her, in a house of worship. She wasn’t able to see what happened in our congregation, or hear it, but she was able to imagine it. That is what Christmas does to us.