Dr. Tim Kostamo is an esteemed parishioner, a devoted husband and father of four, and a respected orthopedic surgeon. But he has spent time in jail.
How he landed behind bars has a great deal to teach us.
The year was 1977. Tim had remarkable parents, deeply devout Protestant missionaries from Finland. They were the kind of Christians who knew God was talking directly to them when he said, “Go preach the Gospel to all nations.”
And so, they turned their minds and hearts to a place, not far from Finland, where the Gospel was not preached: the former Soviet Union. They became missionaries to Communist Russia and bravely smuggled Bibles hidden in the floor of their camper.
To avoid suspicion – and perhaps to save on babysitters – their children came along. The Kostamos ran a number of successful missions delivering the Scriptures to Russians hungry for the Word of God.
Until one day, when they were betrayed. The border guards knew just where to look and found the store of hidden Bibles. Immediately, the whole family was locked in a Russian jail.
And the discovery of the Bibles was not the Kostamos’ greatest worry. Tim’s mother was carrying the address list of the Christians and converts to whom they were going to deliver the Scriptures. She knew it would bring great persecution and imprisonment to everyone on the list if it fell into the hands of the Russian authorities.
Aided either by the guidance of the Holy Spirit or the memory of spy movies – or both! – Mrs. Kostamo pretended to be violently ill and dashed to the washroom before the guards could grab her. As they pounded furiously on the locked bathroom door, she ate the list.
Back in the cells, her children were drinking polluted prison water and Tim fell wretchedly ill.
But things were still worse for Mr. Kostamo. He was interrogated for four days without sleep or food. His captors told him he faced a lifetime in the Gulag, the infamous Soviet forced-labour camps. When the questioning finished, his interrogators said he would never see his family again. They offered him one chance to say a quick goodbye.
It was the most desperate situation imaginable. Tim’s father did not know where to turn, even how to pray, in the face of such terror.
Suddenly, Tim’s three-year-old brother piped up. He quoted a verse of Scripture, from the first Letter of St. Peter: “Cast all your cares on him, for he cares for you” (1 Peter 5:7).
Such words from the mouth of a little child seem miraculous enough. But what happened next is harder still to explain. Mr. Kostamo went back to the cell and announced to the guards that they had no authority over him.
And they let him go.
That prophetic promise from a three-year-old brings to mind the words of Psalm 8: “Out of the mouths of babes and infants you have drawn a defense against your foes, to silence enemy and avenger” (8:2).
But who among us wants to count on a three-year-old in time of crisis? And is there any family here whose children grew up so steeped in Scripture as did the Kostamos?
Tonight we celebrate the fact that a child has been born for us, a son given to us, and that authority rests upon his shoulders (cf. Isaiah 9:6).
This child does not quote the Word of God; he is the Word of God. And the Word he speaks has authority and power. Power to lift burdens, power to break prison bars of addiction and despair, power to shatter the iron rods of oppression of every kind.
I don’t know about you, but my fine Catholic family did not take missionary trips into the heart of darkness. I didn’t grow up living the faith with such high stakes. So how can we claim a share of the power that delivered a family from prison, restored the health of a very sick youngster, and made sure such a dreadful experience did nothing to dampen the evangelizing zeal of Tarmo and Eila Kostamo, who continue as pastors and missionaries to the present day?
On this Christmas night, I offer a one word answer. Trust. The verse from First Peter, “cast all your cares on him, for he cares for you”, can be translated in several different ways. All of them invite us to trust in the face of our fears, be they great or small. The plainest translation, the Jerusalem Bible, says simply, “unload all your worries unto him, since he is looking after you”.
What better day to put our trust in God than the day he has shown himself to our eyes in the unthreatening form of a child?
Trust is more than the decision of a moment. It’s an attitude to God and his providence that deeply affects our relationship with him. After early childhood, trust is rarely instinctive. We learn to trust. We pray to trust. We practice trust.
In our Christian tradition, trust is linked with faith, and particularly with hope. We may trust confidently, and yet, always, there is still an element of the unknown; otherwise, trust would be the same as utter certainty. It’s not. St. Thomas Aquinas calls trust “a strengthened hope”.
In his Letter to Titus, St. Paul tells us that the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation to all. He makes it clear, though, that there is more to come, and that we must hope for it. We must wait for it.
And while we wait, we can grow in trust.
Tim Kostamo gave us a great gift by letting me share his family’s story of trust and deliverance with you tonight. The parish would like to give you a small gift that might help you grow in faith as his family did, whatever the challenges you are facing now, or may face in future.
It’s a “Litany of Trust” written by the Sisters of Life, a young religious order who vow to protect and enhance the sacredness of every human life. The prayers on this little card help us to ask Jesus to deliver us from the things that bind us, and to place our trust in his promises. The Litany is simple, but prayed sincerely and often, it has power to change our hearts.
It’s unlikely any of us will get locked up for smuggling Bibles. But most of us are bound by one thing or another. And all of us need to place our trust in God’s promises if we are to have the peace that the Angels proclaim on this holy night.