Christmas in the Trenches (12/24/16)
British and German troops celebrate Christmas along the Western Front, 1914.
I wanted to tell a different kind of story this Christmas Eve, the story of the Christmas truce during the First World War. This is an amazing story and it only happened in 1914. This sermon was inspired by John McCutcheon's song of the same title. I've posted a video of the song at the end of my meditation.
Good evening! Merry Christmas! I can’t tell you how happy I am, how much joy it gives me to be your pastor on this night! And I realize that I could have taken the easy way out—I could have skipped preaching and just stuck an extra hymn in the service. Besides, you all know the story of the birth of Jesus from the Gospel of Luke. Even if you didn’t grow up in church, you probably heard it every year when you watched A Charlie Brown Christmas. What more could I possibly say about this Scripture? But then I realized that this was a golden opportunity. I have such a large, captive audience tonight. How could I resist?
Before I jump into the oh-so-familiar story from the Gospel of Luke, I want to start with a story you might not know. Exactly 102 years ago, all of Europe was engulfed in war. The First World War was the greatest conflict that the nations of Europe had ever seen. The Western Front ran across Belgium and France—trenches were dug across those nations. On one side were the British and the French. On the other side were the armies of Germany and Austria.
In many places, the trenches were only a few hundred yards apart. The area in between the trenches was called no-man’s-land, because no man was likely to survive there. It was filled with barbed wire and craters where artillery shells had exploded. Any soldier who left his trench was going to get hit my machine gun or rifle fire. This is, by the way, where we get the expression, “over the top.” In our world today, going over the top simply means drawing undue attention to oneself. Along the trenches of the Western Front, that sort of attention was deadly.
Mind you, the only way to attack the enemy was to go over the top. Commanders on either side hoped that they could throw more men at the enemy’s position than the machine gunners could mow down. It was a grim slaughter, yet the commanders saw no other way of doing things. Men who refused to go over the top were put on trial for cowardice, and then they were shot by their own countrymen. It was the ultimate no-win situation.
The war began in August, 1914, and by December, soldiers on both sides were well aware of the grim reality they faced. In the week before Christmas, 1914, there were unofficial truces along the Western Front. The guns were silent, but the men were not. They sang Christmas carols in their own languages. The soldiers went over the top—not to attack one another, but to exchange gifts of food and cigarettes, and also to bury their dead. They showed pictures of loved ones to one another. They spoke different languages, but they all knew it was Christmas. On Christmas Day, a group of English soldiers played a soccer match against some German troops. The fighting resumed the next day, but for a little while, there was goodwill for all; there was peace on earth.
The Christmas truce of 1914 is a little-known piece of history; the narrative of the birth of Christ in the Gospel of Luke is so very familiar. I say this because most of us know it so well that we don’t give it much critical thought. It is familiar history, but it may not be entirely accurate.
Luke’s gospel was written somewhere between 70-100 years after Jesus’ birth. Let’s just say that it’s not very likely that Luke was an eyewitness to that event. The references to Caesar Augustus, King Herod, and the governor Quirinius seem to lend an aura of authenticity to this account. But there are some problems with Luke’s timeline. While the reigns of Augustus and Herod did overlap, Herod died in the year 4 AD; Quirinius became governor of Syria in 6 AD. Christ may have been born as early as 4 BC. What’s more, there’s no record of Augustus ever calling for a census, ever; in fact, he had no need to do so—collecting taxes was Herod’s responsibility.
It’s entirely possible that Luke just didn’t know these details. Perhaps Luke had something else in mind. Details like the census and the earthly rulers Augustus, Herod, and Quirinius suggest the contrast between the things of the world and the things of God.
Augustus was the epitome of earthly power and Rome was the seat of that power. Under Augustus, Rome grew so powerful that no nation or tribe offered a serious challenge to the empire. This period was called the Pax Romana—it was peace through strength. The Romans believed that Augustus was a living god and that he enjoyed the favor of all the other gods. For those reasons, Rome was mighty and Rome was at peace; the military might of the Roman Empire was unchallenged.
What’s more, the census and the taxes that were imposed by Rome were also signs of strength. The people had no choice but to submit to that power and oppression, and the taxes that they paid supported the Roman legions that were garrisoned in their cities and towns. This was the way of the world and the people of Judea had to accept their fate.
Judea, Palestine, and Syria were insignificant provinces on the eastern edge of the Roman Empire. As long as the taxes continued to flow into Roman coffers, Augustus barely took notice of these provinces. Jesus was born as far away from the center of worldly power as anyone could imagine. Bethlehem wasn’t even the capital of Herod’s kingdom.
Jesus was born among the poor and insignificant people of Bethlehem. Yes, he had royal lineage, but the world took no notice of his birth. Luke is telling us that God came into the world in the humblest of circumstances. God did not enter the world in royal splendor. Jesus did not become a military leader and drive out the Romans. No. Jesus did something different. Jesus came into the world so that we might all be included in God’s covenants—God’s promises to Israel—that all of us might be saved. This is entirely different than what everyone expected.
At Christmas, 1914, those soldiers did something different. They set down their weapons and acknowledged their humanity. They knew they would have to go back to fighting the next day, but for one whole day, they saw each other as God’s beloved children, not an enemy to be destroyed. Something different!
When the commanders on each side learned what the soldiers had done, they issued strict orders that it was never to happen again. And it never did. The officers would not stand for fraternization across the trenches. Nothing was to get in the way of the war. So the slaughter continued for four more years.
We worship the God of peace and joy and love. We worship a God whose love for us is so great that he sent his only son into the world. This was Jesus, and He was the original Christmas gift and He was given to us. Jesus came into this world and did something different. If we want this world to be different, to be transformed, then we, too, must do something different. We must follow Jesus in the paths of peace and righteousness. Thanks be to God. Amen.
This is a video for John McCutcheon's song, "Christmas in the Trenches." The songwriter offers a wonderful story about a performance of this song in Denmark and some curious audience members. Please listen.
BenedictionNow, beloved, as you depart from this place, remember that God so loved the world that he sent his only son, Jesus Christ, our Lord. Remember Jesus did something different: in a world of violence, he offered peace; in a world of despair, he offered hope and joy; in a world of hate, he offered love. So go forth and be instruments of God’s love and peace and reconciliation. Do not return evil for evil to any person, but know that we are all loved by God, and that we are called to reflect that love and act upon that love to everyone we meet. In the name of Jesus Christ, our Lord, Let all God’s children say, Amen!
 R. Alan Culpepper. The Gospel of Luke: Introduction, Commentary, and Reflections. Volume IX in The New Interpreters’ Bible, (1995, Nashville: Abingdon Press). 62-63.
 Culpepper, 62-63.
 Culpepper, 62-62.