Sermon delivered Christmas Eve, 2011, at St. Augustine’s Anglican Church.
Lectionary texts: Isaiah 9.2-7; Psalm 96; Titus 2.11-14; Luke 2.1-20.
In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
Merry Christmas, St. Augustine’s! Tonight we celebrate the entrance of God into human history in the person of Jesus the Messiah (or Christ) and I want to spend some time looking at what that might mean for us today. In this evening’s OT lesson, the prophet Isaiah tells us that, “The people walking in darkness have seen a great light” and that light has dawned on the land of deep darkness. While the prophet wrote these words to the people of ancient Israel who were under the threat of Assyrian invasion and conquest over 2700 years ago, we instinctively understand what Isaiah is saying because way too often we also live in darkness and fear. It can be the darkness and fear that results when we ponder the threat of terrorism and war or have our eyes opened to the terrible reality of disease, famine, and injustice and the massive suffering that results. Closer to home, it can be the kind of darkness and fear caused by loneliness and isolation, broken relationships, or failure and loss of all sorts. Or it can be the kind of darkness that descends on us when we realize that the prophet Jeremiah was spot on in his succinct analysis of the human condition: The heart is deceitful and desperately sick. Who can understand it (Jeremiah 17.9)? All this can become a terrible burden for us, especially if we care at all about our relationship with God. We instinctively understand that God cannot be pleased with an incurably sick heart and this latter realization has the potential to make us really afraid.
But just when we think the darkness is going to overwhelm us, our eyes are opened by God’s grace and the power of the Spirit to see God’s great light. Thankfully God can use our darkness (usually with our cooperation, but not always) to bless us with the needed humility and wisdom so that we are really ready to hear the glorious good news that was launched at Christmas. When we are ready to hear the Christmas story, the first thing we realize is that we need not be afraid anymore because the God of this vast and awesome universe has condescended to our level and become human for our sake so that our exile and alienation from him could be ended forever, which of course is the root cause of all our darkness.
Don’t let the way our culture has sentimentalized and even paganized Christmas muddle your thinking about what God has done for us in the Christmas event. Think about this regularly. The Creator of this vast and wondrous universe entered our history on this night and became human for us. What this means, of course, is that God does not intend to destroy us but to redeem and restore us to be the people he created us to be. By becoming human, God shows us in the most convincing way possible that he values his creation and human creatures and wants to have a real relationship with us. As Paul reminds us at the beginning of Romans 8, God condemned sin in the flesh by becoming human so that we no longer have to worry about being condemned. We need to pay careful attention to this because it means that God finds sin offensive, not humans. What is even more remarkable is that God did not become human because we are worthy or special. No, he did this because he is loving and gracious and merciful. That is why the Christmas story is so wondrous. God is demonstrating his true character to us!
A second reason we do not need to be afraid anymore is because the gospel, God’s rescue plan for humanity and all the sin and evil that bedevils us, is offered to everyone, which means we can stop worrying about whether God will find us acceptable. God accepts each of us just as we are. But thanks be to God that he loves us enough not to leave us where we are. It doesn’t matter who we are or what we have done or failed to do. God offers healing, hope, and life to everyone without exception. Paul tells us this in tonight’s epistle lesson when he talks about the grace of God appearing, which of course is Jesus, to offer salvation to all people. Sadly, however, not all people will have the good sense or humility to accept the gift offered in Jesus or even want to do so. But for those who, by God’s grace, do have the humility and good sense to accept God’s offer to us in Jesus to end our exile and alienation from him forever, there is every reason to rejoice and not be afraid anymore because God’s offer is tied to his love and grace, not to how good we initially are.
We see this truth poignantly illustrated in our gospel lesson. God did not announce the birth of Jesus to Caesar Augustus. God didn’t announce to Quirinius or the movers and shakers of ancient society that his rescue plan had been launched in Jesus. Had God done so, think of how many more people might have been initially exposed to the gospel. But no, God has always promised to bring down the mighty and raise up the underdogs. And so it was to poor shepherds keeping watch over their flocks by night that the gospel first came. Once again, we’ve got to stop carrying around a sentimentalized picture of the shepherds so that we think of them as poor, humble, and good. That’s not who your average shepherd was. Typically shepherding was for the outcasts of society, those who were criminals and other shady characters. These folks weren’t your solid citizens. You wouldn’t invite them into your homes. They were on the fringe of society and marginalized, and this is to whom God first announced the good news of Jesus. This reminds us in an unmistakable way that nobody is without hope or beyond the reach God’s tender love and mercy unless it is our own willful and proud rejection of God’s offer of life to us in Christ (cf. Romans 8.31-39).
Of course the birth of Jesus was only the beginning of the good news of God’s rescue plan for us and God’s creation. Jesus would have to grow into a man and be tempted and suffer and die a horrible criminal’s death to defeat evil, sin, and death decisively. He would have to be raised bodily from the dead three days later, thereby launching God’s promised new creation in which all the world’s wrongs would be put to right before we would know the full extent of the good news of Jesus’ birth.
“But wait,” you say. “Look around you! How can you say God has defeated evil in the death and resurrection of Christ? You even talked about the evil that exists in this world at the beginning of your sermon.” Fair enough (and thanks for noticing). Evil and death still persist but they have been defeated and there will be no doubting this when Jesus returns in great power and glory to finish the work he started when he first appeared. That is the blessed hope to which Paul refers in our epistle lesson tonight.
In the meantime, we who put our hope and trust in Christ are not left to fend for ourselves because we have work to do here on earth on Jesus’ behalf to help bring in the promised new creation. When, by God’s grace, we come to a real faith in Christ, we are given his Spirit to live in and among us. It is the Spirit who helps us respond to God’s love and mercy to us in Christ. It is also the Spirit who helps us develop a character like Christ’s. Sure, we have to make an effort to “put on Christ” at first. In other words, we have to practice being merciful, forgiving, selfless, and all the rest so that we are ready for God to use us as agents of new creation to bring healing, hope, and reconciliation to his world. That is hard, especially at the beginning, because we are not naturally that way. But when we do our part, we can be sure that the Spirit is transforming us into the very likeness of Christ. And if we don’t believe that, we simply have to look for the fruit of the Spirit (cf. Galatians 5.22-25) in our life as proof.
But this is where it gets really interesting. As we grow in the Spirit, more often than not we discover that we are blessed with what pastor and author Craig Groeschel calls a “holy burden.” We look around and discover our heart breaks over certain things we see in this world. We become angry over the wrongs and injustice we see being perpetrated against those least able to defend themselves. The Spirit also gives us a heart and passion for people and things that nobody else seems to care about. All this leads us to act on behalf of Jesus and in the power of the Spirit to address these burdens. When we have faith enough to act in this manner—and make no mistake, this will be very costly to us—we discover that God will turn our burdens and sufferings into blessings and joy because we realize that he is using us as his agents of new creation to bring healing and hope to a world that desperately needs it, just the way Jesus did when he walked this earth. This often isn’t what we expect when we become a Christian but it is a clear sign that we are being led, shaped, and formed by Christ’s Spirit living in us. And in the process, we also discover that we are learning how to deny ourselves, take up our cross, and follow Jesus in the manner he commands us to do.
Of course we don’t pursue our burdens, holy or otherwise, alone. We do this together and our Spirit-led fellowship (which is better known as the Church) is another important and tangible sign that Jesus really is good to his name—Immanuel, God with us. This is especially important for us to remember because we live in a culture that prizes rugged individualism and doing your own thing. But that is not how we as a redeemed people in Christ are called to live. We are called to live life in the Spirit in Christ together so that we can support, love, and encourage each other as we pursue our individual and collective holy burdens. You will miss a good deal of the Christmas (and Christian) hope and promise if you ignore this truth.
This then, is why the Christmas story is so important for us and why we celebrate it tonight. By entering our history and taking on our humanity, God declares to us that he loves us, warts and all. But God promises not to leave us where we are with our desperately sick hearts so that we are forced to continue to live in our darkness and in fear. No, God has entered our history to end our exile and alienation from him, once and for all. He has called us to help bring in his promised new creation as we await his return to finally put all things right. And he has blessed us, in part, with his very Spirit and the fellowship of other believers to help us do just that. When you really believe that, folks, so that it changes you in ways that are surprising even to you, then you have no good reason to ever be afraid because you really do have Good News, now and for all eternity. Merry Christmas!
In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.