Sermon delivered on Christmas Eve 2016 at St. Augustine’s Anglican Church, Westerville, OH.
If you prefer to listen to the audio podcast of tonight’s sermon, usually somewhat different from the text below, click here.
Lectionary texts: Isaiah 52.7-10; Canticle—from Isaiah 11.1-9; Hebrews 1.1-12; John 1.1-14.
In the name of God: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Merry Christmas, St. Augustine’s! Tonight we celebrate the birth of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Word made flesh. Accordingly, I want us to look at what that means so that we can all develop a realistic and biblical view of Christmas that will help sustain us in the living of our days, as opposed to a sentimental and unrealistically false view of what Christmas is all about.
In his magnificent prologue to his gospel, St. John tells us that the light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it. To be sure, we all know about the darkness but we’re not so sure about the light. We know, for example, about the latest terrorist attack on a Christmas market in Berlin or the bombing of a Coptic Christian church in Egypt. We shake our heads when we read of a road rage incident that claimed the life of a three-year old child. These are but the latest examples of a stream of news that make us mourn over the fact that the forces of evil and their human minions (the darkness) are alive and well in God’s world.
And then there is the darkness in our own lives. It might be an extramarital affair or the betrayal at the deepest level of a friend’s trust. It might come in the form of pornography addiction or drug or alcohol addiction. It might be the darkness of losing a loved one to death or divorce, or the darkness of loneliness that makes us feel we are all alone in the world with no one to help see us through. The list goes on and on, making us wonder if John didn’t have it backwards in his gospel—the light shines in the darkness and the darkness has overcome it.
This, I suspect, is where many of us really are when it comes to Christmas. We are enculturated to believe that somehow at Christmas time, all the problems of the world will magically disappear. We sing about comfort and joy and dream of a White Christmas with all its cozy trappings, but experience something quite different. And especially in the West where we have made the values of the Enlightenment our king, pinning our hope and trust on human reason and the steady advancement of technology and science to cure all that ails us, we are skeptical that Christmas is anything more than an attempt to create a pleasant diversion. In other words, we tend to dismiss the promise of the gospel as ineffectual and wishful thinking. If God were really good to his word, he’d clean up this mess with a mighty act of power and rid the world of all that ails it and us. And then another mass murder occurs, another natural disaster strikes. Evil rears its ugly head and we don’t know what to do with it. We continue to have our blue Christmases where all is not right with the world, at least our world, and we don’t know where to turn.
I trust by the glazed look in your eyes and the fact that some of you are taking ice picks to your head, I have gotten you in the proper Christmas spirit with this uplifting message so far. Take heart. I am not trying to be Scrooge to you tonight and rain on your Christmas parade. I am simply asking us to read the Good News of Jesus Christ with eyes wide open to the state of affairs in God’s good but corrupted world. When we have a realistic view of evil, and when we realize that the story of Scripture is the story of how God has returned to his world in and through Jesus and the power of the Sprit to restore it and us to our original goodness, i.e., that our loving God really is concerned about justice, we are ready to hear the good news of the Christmas story and believe it to be more than sentimental claptrap.
We start with our OT lesson this evening. The prophet Isaiah had previously warned his people that the unthinkable will happen to them, that one day they will be forced into exile and made to live under the oppression of a cruel enemy. The only way for this to happen, of course, was for God to abandon his people and vacate the Temple in Jerusalem, the very place where Israel believed heaven and earth intersected. And since God’s people would be going into exile, this was the terrifying conclusion of Isaiah’s prophecy. God would indeed abandon his people.
But now the prophet tells them of the day when messengers will bring the good news that God is returning to restore and comfort them, defeating their enemies and setting up his reign on earth as in heaven. In other words, God promises to return to his people and restore his justice so that all really will be well. And as we learn from our OT Canticle this evening, God will do this through his Messiah, God’s specially anointed person who will defeat the dark powers and bring about the healing of the nations. When that happens, new creation breaks out and the corruption and evil of the world will be forever destroyed, and we can enjoy living in the presence of God with all the goodness God intended for us in the first place. Who in their right mind would not long for this vision?
This brings us to our gospel lesson tonight. John tells us that in fulfillment of ancient prophecy, God has returned to his people to put them to rights, but not in the pillars of cloud and fire as he did when he rescued them from their slavery in Egypt. No, God has entered his world just like the rest of us—through our mother’s birth canal—to heal and restore us along with God’s creation that evil has corrupted. The light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it. John does not tell us how and why the darkness has not overcome the light of Christ shining in his world, but he does so later in his gospel. What is critical for us to see at this point in the story is that God is not some absentee and uncaring landlord who has abandoned us to our own devices. Despite our sin and alienation from God, despite our consistent rebellion and our failure to be his faithful image-bearing creatures in the manner God created us, God has returned, in fulfillment of OT prophecy, to dwell with us and to heal and release us from our slavery to sin and death, i.e., to restore justice to his world. This is exactly what the writer of Hebrews wants us to understand. You want to see the character and heart of God, say John and the writer of Hebrews? Look carefully at Jesus and you will learn how you can find forgiveness, healing, and new life. Why? Because the Lord God has returned to his people as one of us to free us! The light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it.
But why has the darkness not overcome the light? Because of the cross and resurrection. Without Good Friday and Easter, Christmas truly is nothing but airy sentimentality and we are bound to suffer blue Christmases because the dark powers have not been overthrown and we are still in our sins, alienated from God. But as Paul tells us, in Jesus’ death, God condemned our sin in the flesh, bearing his just condemnation himself so that we would be spared (Romans 8.1-4). Here is justice enacted with mercy at its finest. The cross reminds us that God will not tolerate sin forever and has acted to do something about it in Jesus, the light shining in the darkness. Not only did God address the madness of our sin, God defeated the powers and principalities on the cross so as to bring an end to their dominion over the earth. This is deeply enigmatic to us because as John reminds us, the darkness, while not overcoming the light of Christ, God-with-us, is sure putting up a good fight! But the resurrection of Christ testifies to us that what happened on the cross was indeed the end of the old order of darkness, sin, and death, and the beginning of God’s new world, a world in which the original goodness of creation is restored—and more. God had to enter human history as a human to deal with our sins, and this is why we can sing “Joy to the world” at Christmas, even in the midst of our own darkness and the darkness of this world. God has won the decisive victory for us himself. God has addressed the deadly consequences of our sins so that we can be his true image-bearers again who reflect God’s goodness and glory out into the world. Certainly, the victory is not yet consummated. But as we saw during the season of Advent, it will be when Christ returns so that there will no longer be any doubt as to who is Lord and King of God’s creation (cf. Philippians 2.5-11).
To be sure, there is much we do not understand in all this. For example, if God defeated the dark powers on the cross, why does God still allow evil to operate in his world? How has the cross defeated the dark powers? Nowhere does the Bible give us answers to these kinds of questions and we must assume that part of the reason is that the answer is simply above our pay grade.
Moreover, Scripture reminds us consistently that God often acts in ways that take us completely by surprise. For example, as Luke will tell us in our dismissal gospel tonight, God announced the Good News of the reestablishment of his rule on earth as in heaven in and through Jesus his Son, not to the power-brokers of the world—after all, Mary and Joseph were in Bethlehem because Caesar was flexing his political muscle and requiring folks to enroll in the census—but to shepherds, the losers of their day, in effect telling us not to be fooled as to who really is in charge. Acting in this way is not how the world understands power and we are consequently caught off guard when we encounter the story. However, this does not change the truth of the matter that God loves us and his world, and is actively involved in it to restore justice and make things right in and through Jesus. So let us have the needed humility to accept the fact that God is God and we are not (cf. Isaiah 55.6-11), and live accordingly with faith and hope.
Christmas, therefore, is the beginning of the culmination of God’s rescue of his good world and us from the dark powers, and we are called to have faith in this God who has acted strangely and decisively in his world through Jesus his Messiah to give us real hope—and be-cause of that victory, through folks like you and me to restore God’s rule on earth as in heaven. This is the way it was always meant to be and Jesus is still present with us in the power of the Spirit to heal and transform us to do the work he calls us to do, quirky and messy as that is.
And because God has fulfilled his promise to return to us and set things right in his world, we can celebrate Christmas with joy despite the darkness that often surrounds us. So, for example, for those of us who grieve the loss of loved ones to death, we can grieve as people with hope, confident that because of Jesus’ death and resurrection, we will one day be reunited with our loved ones, never to lose them again. Contrast this kind of grief to those who have no resurrection hope. How awful that must be! And when we read of fresh acts of terror and the like, we can be confident that because Jesus is Lord, and God has returned to set his world to rights, that their murderous acts will be met with justice, sometimes through the God-ordained governments that exist, and certainly at the end of time, when God will consummate his loving, just, and merciful rule. Whatever form the darkness takes, we are promised that in Jesus, God has made good on his promise to return to his people to set us free from that darkness. This the Good News we are to live and proclaim, now and for all eternity—if by the grace of God we have hearts and minds to believe. To him be honor, praise, and glory forever and ever. Merry Christmas, my beloved! Rejoice and be glad because your King and Lord has been born! The light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it.
In the name of God: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.