Sermon delivered on Christmas Eve 2014 at St. Augustine’s Anglican Church, Columbus, OH.
If you would like to listen to the audio podcast of this sermon, usually somewhat different from the text below, click here.
Lectionary texts: Isaiah 9.2-7; The Song of God’s Chosen One (from Isaiah 11.1-16); Titus 2.11-14; Luke 2.1-20.
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 Jesus and I want us to look at why Christmas is important to us as Christians. In our OT lesson the prophet Isaiah tells us that God’s people have walked in darkness but have seen a great light, and we get the part about walking in darkness, even if we do not have to worry about armies of a great world power invading our country the way Isaiah and his contemporaries did. Be it the darkness of losing loved ones to death, especially at this time of year, or the darkness of disease and illness that threaten our very lives or debilitate us, or the darkness of estranged relationships, or the darkness of past or present sin that still haunts us, we know what it is like to walk in the darkness. But perhaps our biggest fear is that God has abandoned or rejected us so we will have to face our darkness alone with no hope of resolution. Perhaps some of you here tonight are walking in a darkness that is weighing you down and making you wonder how on earth you are going to possibly have a merry Christmas.
I can hear some of you right now. Ah, Father Maney! We always enjoy your feel-good sermons. How especially nice of you to preach one on this joyous occasion of Christmas Eve to refresh and uplift us! And you are right. This would be a terribly depressing sermon if the darkness in which we walk is the end of the story. But of course it isn’t the end of the story and that is why it is possible to celebrate Christmas even when we are walking in the midst of darkness. Why? Because as the prophet tells us, we have seen a great light, the light of God himself, so that as people of light we have reason to have real hope and joy despite the various troubles that sometimes darken our lives. In the OT God’s people always rejoiced whenever they experienced God’s presence in their lives and this is why Christmas is such a joyous feast—because God himself, the Creator of this vast and mind-boggling cosmos of which this beautiful world is part, chose to enter human history in the same way every one of us enters human history to rescue his good creation from the ravages of sin and evil, and reunite heaven and earth in the manner God always intended. In doing so, God proclaimed he is for us and not against us, that he wants us to be his image-bearing people in the manner he created us to rule his good world despite our sinful and rebellious nature that has corrupted and defiled it. As John would report in his gospel, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world but to save it. God did this because God loves us and is eternally faithful to us as well as to his entire creation (John 3.16-17; cf. Romans 8.18-25). This is the great light that Isaiah prophesied, the light of God that is seen most brightly in Jesus of Nazareth whose birth we celebrate tonight.
The whole narrative of Scripture is about how God has chosen to rescue us and his creation from the ravages of evil, sin, and death, a rescue plan that ultimately involved God himself becoming human (John 1.1-14). But God’s rescue plan is not what we expected or even wanted. God did not invade his world as a mighty conqueror to sweep away all that is evil. Had he done that, God would have had to sweep us away too because there is no one without sin and God cannot ultimately allow sin and evil to abide in his holy presence.
And so in God’s infinite and gracious wisdom, at exactly the right time God chose to become human and enter our history as Jesus the Son to offer us healing and redemption and real life, not by working outside of history but by using the actions of men and women in history, including our own day, to accomplish his purposes. We see this illustrated in our gospel lesson. Luke tells us that God used Caesar’s order for a census to be taken to get Mary and Joseph to Bethlehem where our Lord Jesus had to be born (cf. Micah 5.2). Bethlehem was David’s home town and God had promised to save his people through one of David’s descendants, ultimately understood to be the Messiah (2 Samuel 7.8-12). Is it any wonder, then, that shepherds (the profession of David) were the first to hear the Good News of the Savior’s birth?
Here we see Luke telling us that in the midst of the reign of the world’s greatest king (Caesar), an even greater King was born and there was nothing Caesar could do to stop it, even if he had been aware of it (cf. Matthew 2.1-18). This is how God typically works and we need to pay attention to details like these in Scripture because they can help us better understand how God works in even the smallest details of our lives to accomplish his good will and purposes for us and his world. The God who uses even the chance happenings and decisions of history and our lives is not a God who is an absentee landlord or who doesn’t care about us or his world or lacks the power to fix it (and us)!
Of course this Jesus, God with us, would grow up to die for the sins of his people and the world so that we could be released from our bondage to sin and death and begin to live like the image-bearing humans that God originally intended us to live. As Paul would remind us, on the cross God condemned sin in the flesh so that God would not have to condemn us. That is why there is now no condemnation for those of us who are in Christ Jesus. The Father has reconciled us to himself, rescuing us from the dominion of darkness and transferring us to the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of our sins (Romans 8.1-4; Colossians 1.13-14). This was the peace the angels proclaimed to the shepherds on that first Christmas.
And then in an even mightier act, God raised Jesus from the dead to usher in his promised new creation and give us a preview of coming attractions of life in the New Age where evil, sin, and death are abolished and God will wipe away all our tears and hurts and sorrows forever (Isaiah 25.6-9; Revelation 21.1-7). Jesus’ resurrection is the surest sign that God loves us and his whole creation and intends to one day merge heaven and earth together in a fantastic new creation.
This future hope and promise—and in Scripture hope is always a sure and certain expectation, not wishful thinking—is why the angels told the shepherds they were bringing good news of great joy for all the people. God had returned to finish his mighty act of redemption and if they wanted proof, they needed to go find the baby who was wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a feeding trough. Let that image sink in for a moment. The God of this vast universe is found lying in a feeding trough for animals. This isn’t exactly the kind of God we expected nor the rescue we envisioned God doing on our behalf. But as we have seen, it is the only kind of rescue that gives us a chance to truly be saved from the darkness that besets us.
So what does Christmas mean for us? It means that we no longer have to be haunted by our sins because we have been washed clean of them by the blood of Christ. Guilt and self-loathing have no place at the manger tonight, or in God’s kingdom in general, and if you are one who suffers from this, bring your guilt and lay it forever at the Table when you come to feed on our Lord’s body and blood so that you might know real forgiveness. The Christmas story means that we never have to worry that God has abandoned us or leaves us to our own devices. The same God who used Caesar to bring about Jesus’ birth at the right time and place is the same God who continues to use even the darkness in our lives to accomplish his good will and purposes for us, even when it is not entirely obvious or self-evident to us. The Incarnation means that we no longer have to fear death because we are destined for new bodily life forever. And the Christmas story means we can find comfort in our sorrow because we are a people of hope. Our future is secured and we have immediate access to God through Jesus in the power of the Spirit, as well as in the Scriptures, in worship, in fellowship with God’s people, and in the Lord’s Supper. So when darkness afflicts us, we can have confidence that even though we walk through the darkest valley, we will fear no evil because the Lord has defeated evil on the cross (Colossians 2.15) and is with us in the power of the Spirit to provide the comfort and strength we need to persevere and ultimately triumph over the darkness.
This promise requires a response on our part, and more than just coming to worship every Sunday, vital and necessary as that is. It requires that we develop a realistic worldview about life and things of this world as well as how God operates in this world to love and heal us. We do this by studying the Scriptures diligently and working to develop the kind of fellowship in the power of the Spirit to comfort and support each other in our afflictions because in the birth of Jesus God has chosen to use human agency to make his love and presence known to us. God never promises to make us immune from the darkness, but rather that he will help us overcome the darkness as he did ultimately on Calvary, unbelievable as that initially seemed. One thing is for certain. If we do not have the faith that God is good to his word so that we cry out to him when we are distressed and give thanks to him for his manifold blessings, we will never truly learn what living life with Immanuel, God with us, is all about and that would be a true shame.
But neither are we to keep God’s blessings to ourselves or make it some kind of private religion as Paul reminds us in our epistle lesson. We have been saved so that God can use us to bring his healing love and blessings to others and the world, and we do this in how we choose to live our lives. Every time we renounce our worldly passions and refuse to live as the world wants us to live—as selfish, greedy, unjust, or hateful people to name just a few—by our actions we announce to a world filled with hate and injustice and greed and strife that there is a better way, the way of Jesus, God with us, and that our manner of living testifies to our faith in God’s promise to heal and redeem his world through Jesus of Nazareth.
Living life with this kind of faith, hope, and love allows us to truly have a merry Christmas, irrespective of our circumstances, because we are announcing to others we believe that in the Lord Jesus, we truly have seen God’s great light and the darkness will not overcome it. And in announcing this hope to others, let us also love them enough to invite them to join us in embracing the Good News of Jesus Christ that was first announced in Bethlehem by the heavenly host all those years ago. If you have not already done so, will you respond in an ongoing manner of living to the heavenly call that is ours in Christ Jesus so that you too may know the real hope and promise of Christmas? This Christmastide I pray that not only we, but all the world, will be given the grace to have the faith that proclaims we have Good News, now and for all eternity. To him be honor, praise, and glory forever and ever. Merry Christmas!
In the name of God: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.