By Fr. Bill Wigmore
(This sermon was delivered to a group recovering from alcohol and drug addiction.)
Some of you might remember a movie from way back
that was called “Marathon Man”.
It starred Dustin Hoffman and in it,
Lawrence Olivier plays a Nazi dentist who’s escaped right
after the war and is now hiding out in South America.
The doctor’s afraid that his secret cover’s been blown,
so he comes out of hiding to find out if he’s still safe.
And there’s a scene in this film that’s always stayed with me –
maybe cause I hate going to the dentist
or maybe because with my alcoholic paranoia,
that dentist could so easily turn out to be a Nazi! –
But in this scene – Hoffman’s strapped to a chair
and the bad guy’s coming after him with this really huge drill –
Over and over, he drills into Hoffman’s teeth –
No Novocaine! No whiskey to dull the pain!
And after each drilling, when all the screaming stops –
he pauses and he asks Hoffman just one question:
“Is it safe? …Is it safe?”
Over and over that’s all he asks: “Is it safe?”
The scene is powerful!
Maybe it’s powerful because the question he asks
is a question that sooner or later we all come to ask:
Is it safe?
Last week we went over to spend Christmas
with my daughter and her husband in South Austin
We brought presents for our granddaughter –
a little red chair and a white rocking horse
She just turned one in September and so this was her first real Christmas –
But over on the next block there was a very different gathering going on –
Over there, a few days earlier
a young mother had gone to wake up her two-year old daughter from her sleep –
The young child never awoke.
She had died in her sleep that very night – and no one knew why.
Is it safe?
The grief those parents felt broke through my defenses –
I felt at least a small touch of the terror they must have felt inside.
Maybe it was the fact that our two little girls were so close to the same age –
Maybe the fact that it could have been our precious one that was gone –
Whatever the reason, I felt feelings I don’t like to feel.
Feelings I usually manage to keep repressed –
buried inside until they break through when they can’t be denied any longer.
This physical world is a dangerous place.
And in a way, that’s what I think
the Old Testament reading we heard tonight is asking about.
Is the world safe?
The reading tells the ancient Jewish story of creation –
where man, in his consciousness, finds himself in a very different
place from all the other animals –
He feels different from all of the other parts of God’s
The story says: Man knows.
The story says Man’s made in God’s image
and so unlike the lions and tigers and bears – man is aware.
And part of what he’s aware of
is all the death and destruction and disease that are all around him
And so he asks the un-seeable God:
“Is it safe? Is it safe?”
This story is ancient Israel’s way of assuring him that no matter how dark and how frightening
this world may appear – underneath it all –
God has pronounced it good –
Indeed God’s verdict says it’s very good.
But the truth is:
very few of us are really satisfied with God’s answer!
Enter the human ego!
Maybe I’m the only one I can trust to rule the world!
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We look around us and we see all the pain & suffering –
And self-centered creatures that we are,
it’s probably not so much the pain and suffering of others that
troubles us – that would be compassion –
No, it’s more the pain and the suffering and the fears we all face
The fears that make us all sooner or later ask: Is it safe?
Part of me said thank God it wasn’t our child who died.
My little family was safe for another day.
We’d dodged the bullet –
Maybe now I could shove that fear down again –
down where I don’t have to be aware of it –
at least not until the next time.
Now I know I’m preaching a real downer here tonight –
And here we are, the first Sunday after Christmas
and this guy’s talking about death and destruction –
So why can’t we just stretch the Christmas story out a little bit
and not go looking for what’s hiding there under the bed?
And that’s all a very long introduction to what I hope
brings us to tonight’s gospel.
Now I know it may not have sounded like it,
but this gospel reading is really one of the three Christmas
stories that we find in the Bible.
Of course, to most people, it doesn’t sound anything at all like Christmas.
There aren’t any shepherds –
no manger scene – no wise men following a star –
and the cute & cuddly little, baby Jesus is nowhere to be found!
But this gospel tells the Christmas story in a very
And it does it in a way that maybe addresses
some of our most basic and most terrifying fears.
The gospel writer John is known as the most mystical of all the gospel writers.
If one of those four gospel writers was an alcoholic or an addict, my money’s on John –
And that’s not just because he’s the only one of the four who writes about Jesus turning water into wine! Although I always like that one!
No, my money’s on John because: John felt – he felt things deeply.
I believe he probably felt far more deeply than the other 3.
Sometimes us addicts are accused of being un-feeling –
But I think it might be closer to the truth to say we feel –
But some of those feelings scare the hell out of us!
Some of those feelings we feel maybe more intently than the earth people do
and so we find our ways to block ‘em out
We become addicts
We try to not feel at all. It isn’t safe!
Now, as I said, John’s gospel doesn’t read like the other three.
John wants us to know who Jesus is in the grander scheme of things
and so this is what his Christmas story tries to do.
John says that in the life of Jesus,
God was doing something new in the world –
God was addressing that basic human anxiety –
that fear that goes to the very heart of the human condition.
He tells his readers that what God was doing in and through Jesus
didn’t just begin in Bethlehem.
It didn’t begin with the physical birth of a Jewish baby boy.
But it really began long before the world ever was.
At the moment of creation, God saw & felt our fear
and the instant he spotted it,
he answered it.
So John’s Christmas message is this:
God is no longer to be found – out there – or up there –
God’s no longer to be thought of and experienced as
disconnected & far removed from the world
as some of us can sometimes feel God to be –
John says He’s heard the cry of his own frightened children
and he’s come to be with us – come to humble himself –
come to live in time to share in our humanity
so we can share forever in his divinity –
God’s come to be fully human –
to know all our fears and to experience first-hand
all our terrors.
He’s come to tell us that underneath it all – we really are safe.
John says before the Christmas event,
it was as if the world was living in darkness –
But now: a LIGHT has appeared.
The LIGHT came to its own people – to the Jewish people –
To the people God had been speaking to & preparing
for this event for five thousand years –
but when it came, its own people failed to recognize it.
But then John goes on to says: now here’s the good news of Christmas – he says: for those who did recognize it –
whether they were Jew or non-Jew –
for those who opened themselves to this LOVE IN THE
and received this LOVE in their hearts –
this LOVE had the power to actually transform them –
This LOVE had the power to make them children of God.
This is the Christmas story for John.
Love overcoming Fear –
Light overcoming darkness.
Life overcoming death –
The world is safe – because God’s with us in it.
Christmas is a story that’s been told for two thousand years.
But it can be an old story that stays in a book and gathers dust;
or it can become a new story –
it can become our own story –
A story that we addicts can relate to in our Second Step
when we too have to ask: – Is it safe?
God, is it really safe to put down my bottle & my drugs?
God, is it safe to turn my will and my life over to your care??
Can we really believe you’re there for us –
To catch us if we fall
To hold our hands and to comfort us as we walk through this sometimes very terrifying land?
And this time – God – This time – we need to do it all sober!
This time we’re gonna feel the pain.
I heard a lot of lectures when I was in treatment,
and most of them I’ve long forgotten.
But one of the counselors gave us a talk that’s always stayed with me.
It was about a man named Viktor Frankel.
Frankel was a Jewish psychiatrist who’d landed in the death camp
at Auschwitz during the Holocaust.
Maybe he and that Nazi dentist were among of the very few who
survived the camp and lived to tell their stories.
That counselor said that, in a way,
maybe Frankel was a lot like us
in that death & darkness were all around him.
What Frankel did was he turned to God –
Not to a magical, miracle, up in the sky kind of God –
but to a God who met himand lived with him where he was.
A God who asked him above all to find new meaning and
purpose in his life – right where he was –
To find LIGHT – where to all outward appearances,
only death & darkness appeared.
That’s exactly what Frankel did.
He found his meaning and purpose by loving and by serving
the other terrified men and women and children in that camp.
Frankel survived because he discovered something really important –
and the guy who delivered that lecture said that
those of us there in treatment that day had better do the same.
He said: if we didn’t find
more meaning & purpose in our lives of sobriety
than we found in our addictions,
then sooner or later,
we’d go back to them.
After he was released,
Frankel wrote a book called Man’s Search for Meaning.
In it, he develops a school of therapy that he called
It can’t help but remind us of John’s gospel –
In Greek, LOGOS means WORD –
How do we find the LOGOS –
How do we find the Word of God calling to us from inside our own darkness?
Frankel has a quote in his book that helped see him through –
and it helped me see a very different image of God.
The quote was from Nietzsche and it says:
“He who has a why to live-for / can bear with almost any how.”
Hear that one again:
“He who has a why to live-for / can bear with almost any how.”
Most of the men around Frankel lost their reason to live –
One by one they gave up the fight.
Frankel could see it coming in their faces long before it came.
They lost sight of the why to live –
and so they couldn’t find the how.
Frankel had tried hard to carry the message to them
before they got overwhelmed in their darkness.
“Whenever there was an opportunity for it,
I tried to give them a why – an aim for their lives,
in order to strengthen them to bear the terrible how of their existence.
Woe to him who saw no more sense in his life,
no aim, no purpose, and therefore no point in carrying on.
He soon was lost.”
Frankel sounds just like the Big Book as he continues:
“What was really needed was a fundamental change in our attitude toward life.
We had to learn ourselves, and furthermore we had to teach
the despairing men,
that it didn’t really matter what we expected from life,
but rather (now hear this) what life expected from us.
“We needed to stop asking about the meaning of life,
and instead to think of ourselves
as those who were being questioned by life –
questioned daily and (sometimes) hourly.”
“Our answer must consist not in just talk but in right action….”
If that ain’t the program – I don’t know what is!
As addicts, we can cry and we can whine about what life’s handed us.
Some of us have been handed a lot – and our sorrows are real and we need to grieve –
This is a painful world – but we’re not in it alone and God grieves right along with us!
Maybe the two most powerful lines in all of scripture are the two that say: Jesus wept.
For John that translates: God wept.
John says: “No one has ever seen God – but we have seen Jesus.
We’ve seen a man who carried God’s Light
and carried God’s Love into our very dark world.
He carried it without complaint –
He carried it to all the terrified and to all the lonely and to all abandoned children of God.
He carried it all the way to the cross.
John says: Jesus is the Love of God that always was and always will be –
It took five thousand years for one man to open his heart wide enough to let that LOVE come in – but because he did
he’s here today –
Because he did, he’s here to put his arms around that young mother and father –
he’s here to weep with them –
here to lead them to other grieving parents who also know their pain –
lead them perhaps to other children who need their love.
God can be there for them only because he was here with us.
God’s LOVE had became flesh and it dwelt among us.
We’re not alone – God is with us –
God’s cast his fate with us humans forever.
He’s here and he’s now – no matter what.
No matter how dark it may seem to be.
Someone asked one of the survivors of the death camps
if the holocaust had made him lose his faith in God.
“Lose my faith in God?”
“No,” he answered, “but it damn near destroyed my faith in my fellow man!”
Is it safe? Yes, it’s safe.
But it’s our job to make it so for those who don’t yet know.
As we do that,
as we do what Dr. Bob recommended –
as we make love and service our code –
then we get to experience John’s more mystical,
more grown-up version of Christmas.
It ain’t a Christmas story for the weak of heart.
But as addicts, we have a leg up on the earth people –
We already know how dark this world can get –
But now our light has come.