Worship Service, December 24, 2020 Christmas Eve “No Going Back to Normal”

Worship Service, December 24, 2020 Christmas Eve “No Going Back to Normal”

Join Holy Trinity church members and Pastor Erik

on Christmas Eve via YouTube


The message for Christmas Eve, December 24, 2020, “No Going Back to Normal” by Pastor Erik can be heard during HTLC Virtual Worship Service.





Many things have become part of our world this year that just last Christmas we would have thought not were normal. Who would have thought a year ago that you could advertise a brand by putting it on a piece of cloth on someone’s face? Who would have thought hand sanitizer would be everywhere? Who would have thought that getting dressed up for work would be wearing sweatpants with a dress shirt because people can only see from the waist up on a Zoom call? Who would have thought it would be okay to walk into a bank with a mask on and ask for money from the teller? Who would have thought that being a couch potato was good for your health and that we would be told we could save the world by staying home and doing nothing? It’s funny how these things are now considered a part of our new normal, but we would not have imagined they would be, just year ago.

It’s interesting to me as well, how over the years there are parts of the birth of Jesus that we now consider typical aspects of the Christmas story, but would not have been that way for Mary and Joseph in their time. We have come to think having to put the baby in a box filled with prickly straw or hay was just the way it was supposed to be. It seems perfectly fine that a bunch of animals were crowding around as Mary was on the floor of the stable having her baby. Of course, strange shepherds would just show up in the middle of the night just after Mary gave birth to share the news that a host of angels had told them to come visit. We think that Joseph and Mary would have been expecting such an announcement since the angel had told them that they were going to be a part of saving the world, just by having this child.

Because we have become so accustomed to these parts of the story we can think everything was just fine, but for Mary and Joseph at the time, it would have seemed anything but normal. They were supposed to have been in Nazareth with Mary’s mother and relatives who would have helped in the birthing process. It wasn’t normal to have to travel 90 miles by foot during your last weeks of pregnancy because of a decree from a foreign emperor who lived thousands of miles away had demanded a census. They should have had a place to stay with perhaps a bed and some blankets. They should have had family with them not cows and sheep. I can imagine that Mary and Joseph were wishing things could go back to normal, back to the way they thought they were supposed to be.

How many times have we found ourselves thinking the last months that we wished things could just get back to normal? How many times have you heard people say they will be able to do this thing or that thing again “when things get back to normal?”

Months into the pandemic, the refrain of “when things get back to normal” has become common. COVID fatigue is very real. Longing for better days, and for “getting back to normal” as soon as possible, might seem to make sense as a coping mechanism. But is it the healthiest outlook to take, when experts warn that it will be quite some time until “normalcy” ― at least as we defined it pre-pandemic ― returns?

Dr. Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease expert, told Americans in the spring that getting back to normal isn’t “going to be a light switch that you turn on and off.” Realistically, the U.S. won’t get back to something like “normalcy” until late 2021, when vaccines can be more widely distributed.

Some things might not ever get quite back to the way they were for many people. Temporary layoffs are becoming permanent job losses for many American workers. Certain industries are at risk of being wiped out completely. An estimated 60% of small business closures during the coronavirus pandemic are now permanent, according to data from Yelp.

“Normal” will look considerably different post-COVID. Just like in the aftermath of the September 11 terror attacks, we will have to adjust to new security precautions. Temperature checks and lower-capacity restrictions in public places will likely become commonplace. Wearing masks in certain places and especially when you are sick might become more a part of our culture.

For the families and friends of the more than 300,000 Americans who have died because of COVID, the prospect of “getting back to normal” without their loved ones around will be difficult. Ryan Kelly, a psychologist in Charlotte, North Carolina, says that given this disheartening reality, what we need is realistic optimism and a kind of tempered hope. “We need hope to thrive,” he says, “However, unrealistic optimism can be a problem.”

Kelly says that when his clients bring up their hopes for a “return to normal,” he gets it. He says that what they usually mean by this is that they want to feel safe and comfortable again, which is understandable. But Kelly points out that he doesn’t think it’s healthy to aspire to a return to the normal of yesterday. We are designed to adapt and grow, not simply to “exist,” he said, “And that can only be achieved by overcoming adversity and embracing progressive change.” A post-COVID world will most likely be “remarkably different from a pre-COVID world which means that some things may still not feel ‘normal’ or ‘comfortable.’ But we will adapt to that, and be stronger for it.”

As an example of the importance of looking at things realistically and accepting a new normal, the therapist Elisabeth Motte points to the reflections of United States Navy vice admiral James Stockdale who wrote a memoir on his almost eight years as a prisoner of war in Vietnam. Stockdale observed that his fellow POWs who fared well emotionally were the ones who realized they could be living in captivity for an exceedingly long time, whereas the overly optimistic prisoners, who pinned their hopes on being released soon, often fell apart.

This idea became known as the “Stockdale paradox.” Admiral Stockdale’s memoir contains grim details that can be hard for a reader to bear, even with the knowledge that Stockdale’s later life was happy. One interviewer of the admiral wondered, if it felt depressing for him as a reader, then how on earth did Stockdale survive when he was actually there and did not know the end of the story?

When he was posed this question, Stockdale answered: “I never lost faith in the end of the story. I never doubted not only that I would get out, but also that I would prevail in the end and turn the experience into the defining event of my life, which, in retrospect, I would not trade.”

The interviewer also asked the admiral about the personal characteristics of prisoners who did not make it out of the camps. Stockdale explained that the ones who were overly optimistic were the ones who said, ‘We’re going to be out by Christmas.’ And Christmas would come, and Christmas would go. Then they would say, ‘We’re going to be out by Easter.’ And Easter would come, and Easter would go. And then Thanksgiving, and then it would be Christmas again. And eventually they would die of a broken heart. This was a very important lesson, the admiral says. For while you can’t afford to ever lose faith, you must never confuse faith that you will prevail in the end with the discipline to confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they might be.

Mary and Joseph did not know what the end of the story would look like as they encountered the brutal reality of the cold stable. They came to accept their unusual circumstances and adapted to the situation, even when it would later mean fleeing to Egypt to escape the soldiers of King Herod. But, although they may not have been sure what it would look like, they did have faith in how the story would end because they trusted the words of the angel messengers who had spoken to them. The angel had told Joseph that their child would grow and save the people from their sins. The angel had told Mary that their child would be holy and would be called the Son of God. As the couple endured the dangerous and uncomfortable situation they were in, they trusted that these words the angel had said were true and that they were a part of a greater purpose which had the goal of salvation.

Professor Karoline Lewis from Luther Seminary points out that once Mary and Joseph are forced to leave Nazareth and travel to Bethlehem, there was no going back. There was no going back to normal. They came to accept this and realize this truth as they found themselves between who they thought God was and who God needed them to be.

Isn’t this the very heart of the Gospel? There was no going back to normal when the women found the empty tomb. There was no going back to normal when Jesus sent his disciples into all the nations. There was no going back to normal once the Word became flesh.

Maybe this was God’s intent all along, why God chose to become one of us—to upend whatever our “normal” is. Maybe this is why Christmas has to come every year—to remind us, once again, that the normal we want to create isn’t necessarily the normal God is calling us to be a part of.

One thing is for sure. This Christmas won’t be normal for any of us. But maybe it will be more like that first Christmas. Maybe instead of just feeling the comfort of homes with family around us, we will feel a little more like Mary and Joseph, alone in a stable by a humble manger, waiting for our world to change—waiting for our world to be saved—waiting for our world to be healed. As we wait, may we acknowledge the pain and grief of our world’s difficult situation, but let us also never lose faith in the end of the story about a savior who dies yet rises again in order to bring new life to all.

-Pastor Erik Goehner


You may view any previous worship services by visiting the

Holy Trinity Lutheran Church Thousand Oaks YouTube channel.