When I was in seminary, one of the things our preaching professor Richard Lischer required us to do was to read well crafted sermons from the past. In fact, he put together a set of 21 such sermons in a booklet that was given to us at the start of the semester. At various points, each of the 21 was assigned to be read. After reading them, we discussed them, analyzed them and learned from them.
Truthfully, there is only one of those sermons that I still remember. In fact, probably the only reason that I have held on to my booklet all of these years is because that particular sermon is included in it.
The sermon is called The Eye of the Storm. It was preached on Christmas Eve by the Lutheran minister Edmund Steimle who himself taught preaching at seminaries in Philadelphia and New York. Though there isn’t a date attached to the sermon, I assume it was originally preached in the 1960s because in the sermon Steimle shares about what it was like to live through Hurricane Hazel in 1958 as the storm hit Philadelphia where he was living at the time.
What Steimle focuses on is the moment that the eye of Hazel passed right over their house. For hours, the wind had raged, the rain had come down in buckets and there was destruction all around. Then, out of nowhere, the eye arrived and there was this mysterious calm, quiet and even a moment of sunshine. After that brief interlude, when the eye had passed, the storm and its intensity was experienced all over again.
Steimle says that the Christmas story as told in Luke is like the eye of a hurricane. Life for the Israelites, for Mary and Joseph, for the shepherds in the fields and for those in Bethlehem at the time was chaotic and storm filled. The Romans were in charge of Israel in those days, life was not easy and most of the people who factor heavily into the story lived life on the margins of society. Further, the whole Israelite story over the centuries felt like the enduring of one storm after another. Yet, for a moment, all was right in the world, there was calm, peace and this profound reminder that God had not forgotten or abandoned them but that God was with them and now among them as a child born into their midst.
After that world altering Bethlehem moment, the storms of life returned for all of them – Mary, Joseph, the shepherds, the people of Bethlehem and Israel. Even the arrival of the Messiah didn’t take away all of life’s troubles.
Yet, for those who believed, that moment in the eye of the storm reminded them that God was with them in the storms for God had come to be with God’s people in it all – the good and the bad – as Immanuel, God with us.
As I said, I have never been able to get that one sermon and illustration of Edmund Steimle of Christmas as the eye of the storm out of my mind. Virtually every year at this time I think of it. In fact, if the image seems oddly familiar it is likely because I am sure I have mentioned it before.
Yet, it has never felt more real, more appropriate, more what we need to hear than right now, this year.
Tonight and this week, we are in the eye of our storm. We haven’t been through a hurricane but we all feel like we have. 2020 has been such a chaotic, fearful, uncertain, hard year. The winds have blown, the rains have come down in buckets and all of us, if we are honest, have likely wondered if we would survive. For a moment, at Christmas, the winds have subsided, it is calm, it is quiet. Yet, we all know that there is more to come, more wind, more rain, more unknown before we finally get beyond this storm.
But here, in the calm, we are reminded that God is with us. God, in Jesus, has come to live among us. Further, Christmas reminds us that God isn’t with us just in the peaceful moments but that God is with us in all of life, in the good and the bad, the hard and the easy, even in the storms.
Christmas reminds us that Immanuel has come, God with us. And Christmas reminds us that even the greatest, fiercest and hardest storms ultimately come to an end. They may rage, blow and be destructive for a season but ultimately as at Christmas, in the end, God always reigns. Amen.