Sermon delivered on Christmas Eve at St. Augustine’s Anglican Church, Columbus, OH.
Lectionary texts: Isaiah 9.2-7; Psalm 96.1-13; 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 one of the most breathtaking events in all history—the birth of Immanuel, God with us, God born of a Virgin, who entered our history in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. Think about that! The God of this vast universe chose to become one of us to rescue us from sin and death, to end forever our exile from him along with the alienation we experience because of our sins and rebelliousness, and to call us to be the fully human beings God created us to be, people who are God’s wise image-bearers. No wonder the angel told the terrified shepherds in our gospel lesson not to be afraid!
But we are afraid. We fear that others will neither love us or find us acceptable. We fear economic instability or financial ruin or other kinds of failure. We fear catastrophic illness striking us down. We fear growing old and ending up totally infirm or all alone and abandoned. Events in our world also make us afraid, things like the threat of terrorism, random acts of violence, and other kinds of evil over which we have no control. But most of all, we fear death. And so this evening I want us to look briefly at why that is and what God has done, and we can do about it.
We are afraid because as the prophet Isaiah reminds us, we are a people who live in darkness. We live in the darkness of our limited perspectives. We have a hard time seeing the world in any other way than through our own lenses. We live in the darkness of our finiteness. We don’t know what is going to happen in the future let alone what’s happening in the lives of the billions of people living in God’s world. Simply put, we are not all-knowing and all-seeing. To make matters worse, we are control freaks and when awful things happen around us over which we have no control, it makes us afraid because those things tend to remind us just how powerless we really are. And we live in the darkness of our own intellectual arrogance that makes us discount things that we really cannot explain or measure or observe. If it doesn’t make sense to us, we tend to think that it just cannot be. We hear this all the time, from believers and unbelievers alike. How can God allow despicable acts of evil to go on around us, we ask? If God is good and all-powerful, why doesn’t God stop bad things from happening in his world?
Isaiah and his contemporaries would have understood this because they too were beset by the same kinds of problems and fears. In the context of our OT lesson, the darkness about which the prophet spoke was the presence of foreign invaders in Syria and Israel. The kings of both Syria and Israel had pressured Ahaz, king of Judah, to join them in a military alliance against Assyria, the world’s greatest power of Isaiah’s day. Isaiah went to Ahaz and warned him not to enter such an alliance, assuring him that God would protect Judah and Jerusalem. But Ahaz was afraid, just like his counterparts in Israel and Syria. So Ahaz sought to ally himself directly with the Assyrians. The result was invasion and devastation. Listen to the reaction of the people of Israel to this awful calamity [read Isaiah 8.21-9.1]. Devastated by the darkness and destruction of an invading foreign army, God’s people were hard pressed to see where God was in it all, just the way we are when confronted with unimaginable evil, and it made them angry and afraid, just like it makes us.
But it was this world of darkness, both theirs and ours, that God made his breathtaking promise through the prophet to enter and redeem. Despite the dark circumstances that they faced in their lives, God reassured his people that he would fulfill his ancient promise to David to establish David’s dynasty forever (2 Samuel 7.16). In other words, God promised he would not abandon his despairing and fearful people. And it is that promise that we ultimately celebrate tonight in the birth of Jesus, God become human. In the birth of Jesus, God is telling us not to be afraid because he is with us and is in control of his creation, even when everything seems to scream otherwise. In telling us who the movers and shakers were when Jesus was born, Luke is reminding us that God entered our history to fulfill his ancient promises to redeem his broken world and free his people from their slavery to fear, sin, and death. This alerts us immediately to the fact that God is not some remote or distant God, but rather a God who is willing to mix it up with us on our level so that we might be able to see beyond our own selfishness and darkness. We see this illustrated poignantly in the angel’s instructions to the shepherds. Go find a baby wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger. It wasn’t so much that Mary and Joseph had been snarfed out of a place to stay in Bethlehem but rather that God used the unusual circumstances of Jesus’ birth to help the shepherds locate and identify Jesus so that they could confirm the truth of the angel’s announcement. Surely the angel could have led the shepherds directly to the holy family in some spectacular way. But the angel didn’t do that. Instead, the angel described the situation that would allow the shepherds to find Jesus themselves and the shepherds obeyed. Until we grasp this truth about God’s primary modus operandi (working in history and the lives of ordinary people) and how we are to respond to it (by obeying his call to us), we will likely remain in our darkness regarding how God works to heal us and his world.
Paul says much the same thing in our epistle lesson. Because God loves us and is gracious toward us, even though we often prefer to remain in our own darkness rather than in God’s light, God appeared to us in the man Jesus. Paul is referring to not only Jesus’ birth but also his death, resurrection, and ascension as Lord. In Jesus, God gave himself for us to redeem us from wickedness, to rescue us from the dominion of darkness, and bring us into the kingdom of light (cf. Colossians 1.12-22). On the cross, God not only condemned our sin in the flesh so that he would not have to condemn us, but he also defeated the dark powers and principalities (Romans 8.3; Colossians 2.15).
But of course there is more to it because we all know that Jesus’ victory over the powers of darkness and evil is not yet fully consummated. We live as a people with hope in the midst of our darkness and the world’s, not only because of what God has done for us in Jesus, but also in anticipation of God finishing the work he started in Jesus. Both Luke and Paul remind us of this in their own ways. As we have seen, Luke is keen on having us understand that God is a God who works in and through his people and history. Luke wants us to understand that history is going somewhere, and for the good. We know that because as Paul reminds us, we wait for our blessed hope, the appearing of our great God and Savior, Jesus the Messiah, to usher in God’s promised new creation and consummate his victory over evil won on the cross and vindicated in his resurrection. Resurrection and new creation where we will live for all eternity in God’s wonderful presence is our destiny, not death and darkness, and it all started with the birth of a baby in a manger in Bethlehem. Immanuel. God with us. What is there for us to ultimately fear?
This hope and promise of new creation must make all the difference in the world for us right now. And please. If you don’t hear anything else I say tonight, listen to this because it is massively important to your ability to live without fear, even in the midst of darkness. The birth, life, death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus are historical and verifiable evidence that God is good to his ancient promises to use his people to help redeem his lost and fallen world. This is the basis for our confidence in God’s future promise of new creation. If God is good to his ancient promises, why would he not be good to his future promises? When we know we are going somewhere and for the good, it allows us to live with hope in the midst of desolation. Think about it. If you are convinced that death is the end and God does not exist, you cannot have real hope. And without hope, you will die. But if you know you are going to be part of something that is indescribably wonderful and you are going to be part of it even though you do not deserve to be part of it, it changes how you look at things and react to the darkness around you. When you are convinced that your future is secure in God’s hands, you must believe that your present is also. And when that happens you have the power to live without being afraid.
This is why Paul emphasizes that God’s people in Jesus are to live differently and with hope. Not only does God’s grace manifested in Jesus’ death and resurrection save us from our sins, it also transforms our lives in the power of the Spirit. And as that happens it turns us into the people God calls and created us to be, people who are wise stewards of God’s creation and who pursue God’s righteousness and justice in how we conduct our lives, following the example of the selfless and suffering love of Jesus, most powerfully demonstrated to us on the cross.
This is the other key to help us live without fear in the midst of darkness. God calls his people in Jesus the Messiah to build on the accomplishment of Jesus’ death and resurrection. When we imitate Jesus in our lives, we can have confidence that God uses us to help bring in his kingdom on earth as in heaven (cf. 1 Corinthians 15.58). Make no mistake. Our work does not bring about the new creation. Only God can do that. But God promises to use our transformed lives to build on Jesus’ work and to be signs for the world that God is with us and his kingdom is coming even when darkness seemingly has won the day. This is what Paul meant when he said that Jesus gave himself for us to redeem us and purify us to be his people who are eager to do good and not to satisfy our own selfish desires. Our hard work to build on the kingdom foundation established by Jesus is also a wonderful remedy to hopeless hand-wringing because it makes us proactive in the name of the Lord. Instead of asking questions that are not answerable, we get busy in Jesus’ name to bring his healing love to others and be his beacons of light so that the world can see God at work in and through his people, even in the face of the dark powers. We do this because we know what God has done for us, what God will do for us, and what God is doing for us right now in and through his people working in Jesus’ name. It’s a win-win situation, both for us and for those we meet who have eyes to see and ears to hear.
All of this requires faith, of course. Massive faith but not uniformed faith. In Scripture we have the consistent record of God working in and through his people to heal and redeem his world. And we have confirmation of its truth in the testimony and transformed lives of countless Christians. We ignore this at our own peril because we are easily distracted and fall prey to the world’s darkness. We must therefore tend to Scripture, the sacraments, and the fellowship of Christ’s body, the church. It starts right here, right now, when we remember that on this night God is with us, born of a Virgin, and all that followed. This reminds us that we are going somewhere and for the good. That is why we can actually have a Merry Christmas in the midst of darkness and live each day like people who have Good News, now and for all eternity.
In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.