“God Came Near to This Grief”
December 11, 2022
So I think I know what you’re thinking after hearing that passage read. You’re thinking: “Matt, really? You need to preach on THAT passage AGAIN at Christmastime this year?? Haven’t you preached on that passage like two of the last three Christmases already? Really, Matt? Try picking a story with more shepherds or reindeer and snowmen next time.” I know, I’m a pretty good mind reader.
If you’re thinking something like this, you’re not wrong. This is not the type of Christmas story that you gather the whole family around to read in front of the Christmas tree after dinner, right before opening gifts and singing carols. Unless you’re trying to kill the mood. Then you do read this story. Because this is a hard story.
But I think it’s a really important part of the Christmas story. It reminds us of WHY God came near at Christmastime. It reminds us of the hurt and the grief and the evil in the world that God entered into when he came as a baby in a manger.
This is an important story, because while everyone around us is trying to spread good Christmas cheer, for some of us, cheer is hard to find this time of year. For some of us, the holidays evoke a sense of grief and loneliness rather than hope, joy, peace and love. The empty chair at the dinner table just pains us a bit more this time of year. The old traditions that we’ve participated in for years are tinged with sadness as we miss our loved ones who aren’t here to partake with us this year.
And this story, which is really a story about grief and loss and evil in the world, happens right smack dab in the midst of the Christmas story. Joy to the world is announced, and then this happens. The Christmas story it seems, is not left untouched by grief; and we should be glad it isn’t.
Because if it was, if the Christmas story was actually as sanitized as our quaint nativity sets suggest, then it wouldn’t really have anything to offer us whose lives are worn thin by grief.
In other words, the Christmas story knows grief. The Christmas story is actually really all about grief – and I know that’s not going to sell on many Hallmark cards – but it’s a story that’s all about how God came down to be Emmanuel, God-with-us with us in all of the sadness and the pain that life can cause. This doesn’t mean that it isn’t also a joyful and hopeful and love-filled story. It is all of those things. But what our trite Hallmark cards fail to realize, is that real hope, real joy, real love only exist where our grief is first taken seriously.
The Christmas story promises real hope, joy and love, because it first acknowledges the pieces of our lives that ache for a God to come sit with us, be with us, and sometimes cry with us in our grief—to know we are not alone.
And the intermingling of hope and grief that we see in this part of the Christmas story reminds me of another story. It is sad too, but it is also powerful and beautiful. It’s one of my favorite Christmas stories, which I read for us a couple years ago at our Christmas Eve service.
It’s a kind of parable by Martin Bell, called “The Tale of Barrington Bunny.” I wanted to read it for us again this morning. So I invite you to just sit back and enjoy and may this story inhabit your imagination as we contemplate what kind of God came to be Emmanuel, God-with-us.
ONCE upon a time in a large forest there lived a very furry bunny. He had one lop ear, a tiny black nose, and unusually shiny eyes. His name was Barrington.
Barrington was not really a very handsome bunny. He was brown and speckled and his ears didn’t stand up right. But he could hop, and he was, as I have said, very furry.
In a way, winter is fun for bunnies. After all, it gives them an opportunity to hop in the snow and then turn around to see where they have hopped. So, in a way, winter was fun for Barrington.
But in another way winter made Barrington sad. For, you see, winter marked the time when all of the animal families got together in their cozy homes to celebrate Christmas. He could hop, and he was very furry. But as far as Barrington knew, he was the only bunny in the forest.
When Christmas Eve finally came, Barrington did not feel like going home all by himself. So he decided that he would hop for a while in the clearing in the center of the forest. Hop. Hop. Hippity-hop. Then he cocked his head and looked back at the wonderful designs he had made.
“Bunnies,” he thought to himself, “can hop.” And they are very warm, too, because of how furry they are.” (But Barrington didn’t really know whether or not this was true of all bunnies, since he had never met another bunny.) When it got too dark to see the tracks he was making, Barrington made up his mind to go home. On his way, however, he passed a large oak tree. High in the branches there was a great deal of excited chattering going on. Barrington looked up. It was a squirrel family! What a marvelous time they seemed to be having.
“Hello, up there,” called Barrington.
“Hello, down there,” came the reply.
“Having a Christmas party?” asked Barrington.
“Oh, yes!” answered the squirrels. “It is Christmas Eve. Everybody is having a Christmas party!”
“May I come to your party?” said Barrington softly.
“Are you a squirrel?”
“What are you, then?”
“Well, how can you come to the party if you’re a bunny? Bunnies can’t climb trees.”
“That’s true,” said Barrington thoughtfully. “But I can hop and I’m very furry and warm.” “We’re sorry,” called the squirrels. “We don’t know anything about hopping and being furry, but we do know that in order to come to our house you have to be able to climb trees.” “Oh, well,” said Barrington. “Merry Christmas.” “Merry Christmas,” chattered the squirrels. And the unfortunate bunny hopped off toward his tiny house.
It was beginning to snow when Barrington reached the river. Near the river bank was a wonderfully constructed house of sticks and mud. Inside there was singing.
“It’s the beavers,” thought Barrington. “Maybe they will let me come to their Party.” And so he knocked on the door.
“Who’s out there?” called a voice.
“Barrington Bunny,” he replied.
There was a long pause and then a shiny beaver head broke the water.
“Hello, Barrington,” said the beaver.
“May I come to your Christmas party?” asked Barrington.
The beaver thought for awhile and then he said, “I suppose so. Do you know how to swim?”
“No,” said Barrington, “but I can hop and I am very furry and warm.”
“Sorry,” said the beaver. “I don’t know anything about hopping and being furry, but I do know that in order to come to our house you have to be able to swim.”
“Oh, well,” Barrington muttered, his eyes filling with tears. “I suppose that’s true–Merry Christmas.”
“Merry Christmas,” called the beaver. And he disappeared beneath the surface of the water. Even being as furry as he was, Barrington was beginning to get cold. And the snow was falling so hard that his tiny, bunny eyes could scarcely see what was ahead of him.
He was almost home, however, when he heard the excited squeaking of field mice beneath the ground.
“It’s a party,” thought Barrington. And suddenly he blurted out through his tears, “Hello, field mice. This is Barrington Bunny. May I come to your party?” But the wind was howling so loudly and Barrington was sobbing so much that no one heard him.
And when there was no response at all, Barrington just sat down in the snow and began to cry with all his might.
“Bunnies,” he thought, “aren’t any good to anyone. What good is it to be furry and to be able to hop if you don’t have any family on Christmas Eve?”
Barrington cried and cried. When he stopped crying he began to bite on his bunny’s foot, but he did not move from where he was sitting in the snow.
Suddenly, Barrington was aware that he was not alone. He looked up and strained his shiny eyes to see who was there.
To his surprise he saw a great silver wolf. The wolf was large and strong and his eyes flashed fire. He was the most beautiful animal Barrington had ever seen. For a long time the silver wolf didn’t say anything at all. He just stood there and looked at Barrington with those terrible eyes.
Then slowly and deliberately the wolf spoke. “Barrington,” he asked in a gentle voice, “Why are you sitting in the snow?”
Barrington replied, “Because it is Christmas Eve and I don’t have any family and bunnies aren’t any good.”
“Bunnies are too, good,” said the wolf. “Bunnies can hop and they are very warm.”
“What good is that?” Barrington sniffed.
“It is very good indeed,” the wolf went on, “because it is a gift that bunnies are given, a free gift with no strings attached. And every gift that is given to anyone is given for a reason. Someday you will see why it is good to hop and to be warm and furry.”
“But it’s Christmas,” moaned Barrington, “and I’m all alone. I don’t have any family at all.”
“Of course you do,” replied the great silver wolf. “All of the animals in the forest are your family.” And then the wolf disappeared. He simply wasn’t there.
Barrington had only blinked his eyes, and when he looked– the wolf was gone.
“All of the animals in the forest are my family,” thought Barrington. “It’s good to be a bunny. Bunnies can hop. That’s a gift. A free gift.”
On into the night Barrington worked. First he found the best sticks that he could. (and that was difficult because of the snow.) Then hop. Hop. Hippity-hop. To beaver’s house. He left the sticks just outside the door. With a note on them that read: A free gift. No strings attached. Signed, a member of your family.”
“It is a good thing that I can hop,” he thought, “because the snow is very deep.”
Then Barrington dug and dug. Soon he had gathered together enough dead leaves and grass to make the squirrels nest warmer. Hop. Hop. Hippity-hop. He laid the grass and the leaves just under the large oak tree and attached this message: “A gift. A free gift. From a member of your family.”
It was late when Barrington finally started home. And what made things worse was that he knew a blizzard was beginning.
Hop. Hop. Hippity-hop. Soon poor Barrington was lost. The wind howled furiously, and it was very, very cold. “It certainly is cold,” he said out loud. “It’s a good thing I’m so furry. But if I don’t find my way home pretty soon even I might freeze!”
And then he saw it– a baby field mouse lost in the snow. And the little mouse was crying.
“Hello, little mouse,” Barrington called.
“Don’t cry. I’ll be right there.” Hippity-hop, and Barrington was beside the tiny mouse.
“I’m lost,” sobbed the little fellow. “I’ll never find my way home, and I know I’m going to freeze.”
“You won’t freeze,” said Barrington. “I’m a bunny and bunnies are very furry and warm. You stay right where you are and I’ll cover you up.”
Barrington had only two thoughts that long, cold night. First he thought, “It’s good to be a bunny. Bunnies are very furry and warm.” And then, when he felt the heart of the tiny mouse beneath him beating regularly, he thought, “All of the animals in the forest are my family.”
Next morning, the field mice found their little baby, asleep in the snow, warm and snug beneath the furry body of a dead bunny. Their relief and excitement was so great that they didn’t even think to question where the bunny had come from.
And as for the beavers and the squirrels, they still wonder which member of their family left the little gifts for them that Christmas Eve.
After the field mice had left, Barrington’s frozen body simply lay in the snow. There was no sound except that of the howling wind. And no one anywhere in the forest noticed the great silver wolf who came to stand beside that brown, lop-eared body.
But the wolf did come.
And he stood there.
Without moving or saying a word.
All Christmas Day.
Until it was night.
And then he disappeared into the forest. The End.
My hope is that this story will live in our imaginations for a little while; because though sad, it offers us a powerful image; an image of the free gift we all receive again this time of year. No strings attached. Amen.