In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
What is the Human Condition?
Merry Christmas! Tonight we begin the great celebration of Christmas. It is a time for rejoicing and thanksgiving, and tonight I want to remind you why we do so. In tonight’s OT lesson, the prophet tells us that, “the people who walked in darkness have seen a great light” (Isaiah 9:2a). Tonight I want you to look deep into your heart of hearts to see what is the darkness in which you walk. Each one of us has our own darkness in which we walk, don’t we? For the Maneys, we are walking in the darkness of grief, loss, and separation that is caused by the death of loved ones. Prior to that, we were walking in the darkness caused by aging and the infirmity that beset our loved ones, and it was heartbreaking to watch. But we are certainly not alone because many of you are also struggling with similar darkness.
Neither is darkness unique to people who are our age. Young people struggle with the darkness of false and conflicting values that can lead to death. They can struggle with low self-esteem or the fear of being rejected or not fitting in. I know I walked in that darkness when I was a teenager. Some of us walk in darkness caused by the fear of not finding a suitable mate or of failed careers or economic catastrophe. Others of us walk in darkness caused by divorce, shattered relationships, or by guilt over things we have done or left undone, things made all the worse when it is no longer possible to put them aright because of death. Still others of us walk in the darkness of addiction, or chronic or terminal illness. At one time or another, each one of us walks in the darkness caused by our awareness that we have failed to live or be all that we were created to be or hoped that we could become.
Then there is the common darkness in which we all walk. We wonder what will be the fate of our race or nation. We see the world beset by hunger, poverty, war, bigotry, and unspeakable evil that seeks to murder thousands of innocents if given half a chance. Whatever it is, none of us here tonight is immune from walking in the darkness because we live in a broken and fallen world, and if we are not careful, we can quickly fall into despair. For you see, when we walk in darkness, it is difficult to see that we are not alone.
Where is God’s Grace?
At its very core, then, the question is this: do we struggle with darkness in vain, doomed to defeat, beaten before we start, or is there hope? It is to the glory of God that in his birth, there is hope. Our struggles are not in vain nor are we beaten before we start. To be sure, there will always be struggles in this world because like us, it is broken and fallen. But the glory of the Christmas message is this: We are not alone. We are not ultimately defeated. For you see, by condescending to our level and taking on our flesh, God has shown us that he loves us and that we have worth in his sight. He is not interested in destroying us, but in redeeming us. We no longer have to walk in darkness because we have seen the great light of Christ.
Christmas is the beginning of the climax of our salvation story. It reminds us that God loves us so much that he willingly took on our flesh and nailed our sins to the cross so that we can live with him forever. We can stop trying to earn our salvation because God has already done that for us by becoming one of us and dying for us. We no longer have to wonder if God loves us or what will happen to us when we die. We find the beginning of the answer in the Christmas story.
Did you notice to whom God first announced his Mighty Coming in tonight’s Gospel lesson? If individual merit or power meant anything to God, we might have expected him to announce his Coming to Quirinius or Herod or even to Caesar himself. After all, these were all men of merit by worldly standards and each had the power to influence their respective populations through political means or coercion. But God did not come to these men. He came to poor shepherds watching their flocks by night. Shepherding was regarded as a menial job in Jesus’ day and shepherds did not enjoy privilege or social status or prestige. But these were precisely the folks to whom God chose to announce his coming because they represent the lowliness of the human race and God is interested in raising up the lowly.
What does that mean for us as we walk in our darkness? It means that God loves us no matter who we are or what we are struggling with. He is interested in raising us up. God was born of a virgin and was named Immanuel, God with us. We are not alone. We don’t have to continue to walk in the darkness. In taking on our flesh, God has shown us that he does not keep a balance sheet of our sins. There is nothing we can do on our own to earn entry into his very Presence. No, God comes to us and dwells with us, pure light of lights, and promises to transform us into his likeness. As Augustine observed, “On Christmas we see Christ as an infant. Let us grow up with him.”
Christmas means that the darkness in which we walk will not have the last say. Christmas reminds us that God loves us passionately and wants us to live with him forever. He wants us to enjoy the kind of relationship he created us to have with him, the kind in which we recognize that he is the Creator and we are his creatures. To be sure, struggles will remain and new ones will surely emerge. God’s Coming does not make us immune to the hurts and evils of this broken and fallen world in which we live. Instead, the story of Christmas reminds us that we are God’s beloved and he has given himself for our redemption despite our sins, our failures, and our muted fears. As Phillips Brooks reminds us in his wonderful Christmas carol, “the hopes and fears of all the years are met in [Christ] tonight.” It is ours for the taking if we will only embrace it by faith. We no longer have to walk alone. We have Immanuel, God with us. Thanks be to God!
This, of course, will naturally evoke in us a response of thanksgiving and gratefulness, but only if we take our cue from the shepherds and come and see Christ for ourselves. When we learn to trust Christ and really believe that we are cleansed of sin and the separation it causes by his Blood, we will naturally want to worship and adore this great God of ours who took on our flesh at Christmas and gave himself for us on the Cross. We will naturally want to become just like him, the way Paul talks about in tonight’s Epistle lesson. But our salvation is not contingent on our ability to live sinless lives because our salvation is not ultimately our own doing. Surely God wants us to be holy like he is holy. He wants us to live holy lives and we believe that even now he is working in us through his Holy Spirit to accomplish just that, mysterious as that process may be. But the Cross is a living testimony that our salvation is not contingent on our own efforts because as John Wesley reminds us, even for the most devout of Christians, sin remains but no longer reigns.
There is a difference in striving to be holy because you love God and are grateful for what he has done for you versus striving to be holy because you think your very life depends on it. The story of Christmas reminds us that our very life depends on God, not us, and that he loves us despite who we can sometimes be. Certainly failures will come. But we who believe in the promise of the Gospel that has its beginnings at Christmas have nothing to fear because we know we have a God who loves us and will help pick us up again.
As we saw during Advent, he promises to come again in power and glory to finish the mighty work he started at Christmas. Christmas gives us hope because we remember Immanuel, God with us. It give us hope because we remember that God loves us, warts and all, and wants us to live now and forever with him. Christmas is God’s wondrous gift to us and it is ours for the taking if we will embrace it through faith.
Where is the Application?
What does a Christmas faith look like? I had the awesome privilege recently to see it lived out in my own family. Despite the death of their beloved husband and father, I watched my wife, her mother, and her sister, be joyful even in the midst of their grief and loss. Yes, they miss dad terribly because they love him and are greatly saddened to lose his physical presence. But they also saw the terrible darkness of infirmity of body and mind in which dad had to walk. They know he had faith in Christ and they believe the promise of the Salvation Story. They really do know dad is in a better place and is enjoying his new life with Christ. It is not a cliché to them. Was dad perfect and without sin? Hardly. But he had a relationship with Christ that transcends his sin and because of that, we know dad is released from his darkness. That is cause for joy and my beloved bride and her family manifest it in ways that are simply awesome and inspiring to watch. That is what it means to walk in the light. That is what it means to abandon the darkness. Yes, the sting of separation and loss is still there. I feel it keenly too. But in the midst of our sorrow we remember Immanuel, God with us. We remember all that he has done for us, and in the midst of darkness, we see Light and are invited to walk in him who is Light.
The Good News of Christmas does not promise to make us immune to being exposed to darkness. What it does promise is that we can overcome it. Not by our own power, but by the very power of God, a power that manifested itself first in the weakness of a baby but which will come again in glory and strength. At Christmas we remember we are not ultimately defeated despite our setbacks. We remember we do not have to live life alone. Christmas reminds us that we no longer have to be perfect so that God will love us. Christmas reminds us that God loves us before we even realized we needed to be loved.
As you come to the Table later on in this service, bring the darkness that is afflicting your heart of hearts and give it to Christ tonight. If you are worried that you are not worthy to come to his Table, don’t be because none of us is. Instead, come to his Table with the realization that you are a sinner of his own redeeming, and be thankful. Remember that you are his beloved, no matter who you are or what your failures are. As you remember this, feed on his very Presence in your heart by faith with thanksgiving. Let the bread and wine be tangible reminders of Immanuel, God with us, and rejoice in the fact that he will be with you for the living of all your days, a Presence that not even death can sever. That’s good news, folks, now and for all eternity. Merry Christmas.
In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, Amen.