Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel shall come to thee, O captive Israel.
Why are we rejoicing? I've been to baseball games where the home team led throughout the game and held on for a slim victory; that brought sighs of relief but not rejoicing. Rejoicing comes when the home team is behind . . . a win seems out of reach . . . and then a ninth-inning rally concludes with a walk-off home run and victory. That's rejoicing.
We rejoice when we recognize that we need something like a miracle-and it comes.
Those rich in money or power or academic degrees often are reluctant to come to Christ because it's hard to see yourself as needing a come-from-behind victory when the scoreboard says you're ahead.
So what is the gospel? My favorite summary is still that offered by J.I. Packer: "God saves sinners." A person who sees himself as a sinner knows that he's trailing in the late innings.
I also value the words of Anne Lamott, unorthodox though she is in theology: "I don't understand much, but I understand how entirely doomed I am without God."
We'll soon be following the results of presidential primaries. Many Christians will be caught up in the excitement. It's important to care about politics. It's even more important not to care deeply. As Gutenberg College professor Charlie Dewberry notes, "If politics can fix a problem, then Christianity is a lie."
Here's a story from a Christmas Eve two years ago: One fine young man I know was in despair about his inability to make emotional contact with a person both of us cared about deeply. He had tried all kinds of approaches, and so had I. Both of us had to acknowledge ruefully, "Nothing works."
Our only hope was in God's grace. And Christmas Eve was the appropriate time for this lowest of low moments, because Christmas commemorates God breaking through.
Why does God at times take His time? When Elijah was in despair over Israel's political and ethical condition, why did God tell him that help would come only over a long and convoluted series of events, which would lead to much mourning before improvement came? Why, when the next-tolast verse of the book of Revelation ends with the plea, "Come, Lord Jesus," have two millennia gone by without His return?
Maybe we need to learn and relearn our lesson: Nothing works. Politics doesn't work. Moral renewal by itself doesn't work. One of the Bible's most revealing descriptions of how the world works comes in chapter 6 of 2 Kings, when Elisha's servant fears enemy troops and Elisha asks God to "'open his eyes that he may see.' So the Lord opened the eyes of the young man, and he saw, and behold, the mountain was full of horses and chariots of fire."
What's striking is that those horses and chariots are there all the time. By doing God's will, the angels who drive them make the world work. If we could see them, we would think differently. But blessed is the man who believes without seeing.
Curiously, one of the best depictions of how seeing changes everything comes in the loopy but lovely movie Field of Dreams (1989). For those who haven't viewed it: Ray Kinsella (Kevin Costner) uproots his lucrative cornfield and puts in a baseball diamond to which long-dead players mysteriously come. Ray, his wife, his daughter, and eventually a disillusioned author, Terence Mann (James Earl Jones), can see the players, but no one else can.
Since the field of dreams is not producing a cash crop, Ray is going bankrupt; his brother-in-law pressures him to sell the farm. A nearly fatal scene ensues as Ray's daughter almost chokes on a hot dog: At the moment a doctor helps clear her windpipe, the brother-in-law who was blind suddenly can see the players on the field. His immediately transformed advice is: "Don't sell this farm, Ray. Do not sell this farm."
When we see the array of forces lined up against Jesus and those who try to follow Him, we are often tempted to sell the farm. That's when we need especially to pray that our eyes be opened, so that we can see what Elisha urges: "Do not be afraid, for those who are with us are more than those who are with them."