Sermon delivered on Christmas Eve 2015 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 9.2-7; Song of God’s Chosen One (from Isaiah 11.1-9); 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 God’s coming to his broken and hurting world as a human. But does it really matter? Are we like those in our culture who see Christmas as nothing more than a time to party and exchange presents with loved ones and friends so that having a merry Christmas is contingent on living in a world that is essentially trouble-free? You know, we can have comfort and joy at Christmas as long as there is money to buy presents and all’s right with us and the world. But what happens to our merry Christmas if the money runs out or we suffer significant loss of any kind, or evil strikes us or the world in which we live like it recently did in Paris or San Bernardino? Then what? Is it possible to find comfort and joy at Christmas under those circumstances? This is I want us to look at tonight.
Our lessons, each in its own way, insist that it is possible to find comfort and joy that is not tied to the events of our life and the world around us as we celebrate Christmas. In our OT lesson, the prophet Isaiah announces that the people who walked in darkness have seen a great light, that a light has shined on those who live in the shadow of death. We get the darkness and shadow of death part because we have all been confronted with darkness in our lives: catastrophic illness, death, divorce, hardships and injustices of all kinds. Whatever it is, we’ve all experienced darkness and the darkness can overwhelm us and leave us without hope.
But it seems that many of us don’t really believe Isaiah’s promise of a light shining on our darkness because we don’t act like we have. We either refuse to believe the promise of God to shine his light on our darkness or we act like folks who have pulled down the blinds to keep the light out. Take, for example, the increasing popularity of the so-called blue Christmas services conducted by some churches. These services are designed for those who have suffered significant loss in their lives and don’t feel like playing the Christmas game the way our culture insists on it being played, you know, with eggnog a-flowing, the bright shiny lights a-twinkling, Santa Claus a-coming, and people happy in their own revelry and each other’s company.
Now don’t misunderstand. I am not criticizing those who grieve and suffer loss at or near Christmas. I’ve been there and done that myself. Christmas 1976 was the first time as an adult I experienced the loss of two of my family members, and it was a significant loss. Both my beloved grandmas had died the previous winter and now they weren’t there as we gathered for our Christmas celebration. It just wasn’t the same without them and I was in no mood to be happy or merry or have any part of comfort and joy, this despite the fact that the Christmas lights were blazing and all the trappings of the celebration were present. My family had been irrevocably changed and I was miserable. By all definitions, I was having a blue Christmas.
But here’s the thing. In having a blue Christmas that year, I was ignoring the reality of God’s promise that death is not the final reality. In my grief I forgot the promise that God’s light is shining in the darkness of our lives. This is why Paul took the time to write the Thessalonians about the hope of the resurrection of the body, so they wouldn’t grieve like those without hope (1 Thessalonians 4.13-18). Grieve, yes. But not without the hope that in Christ, God has overcome death, and we who are baptized into Jesus’ death will also share in his resurrection (Romans 6.3-5). When we close our eyes to God’s light that shines on us, we lose hope. And when we lose hope, there is no way for us to ever have comfort and joy at Christmas, or any other time for that matter. This is why reading about the increasing popularity of blue Christmas services makes me sad. Those services, while developed with the best intentions, essentially deny that we as God’s people who live in the darkness have seen a great light.
So what is this light that Isaiah proclaims? Listen to his words. “For a child has been born for us, a son given to us; authority rests upon his shoulders; and he is named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.” These titles indicate an authority that is above and beyond us. They describe a child who will be a king who has good plans for us, who is somehow associated with God himself, who is eternal so that he stands over time and has authority over it, and who will finally bring peace to God’s sin-sick and evil infested world. Here is a king with the power and authority to put an end to the darkness that plagues us!
And let’s be clear. Isaiah isn’t talking about some kind of privatized or sentimentalized religion where we focus on getting right with God so that we can escape this nasty world and live with the angels in heaven. No, the prophet is talking about God coming to put to rights all that is wrong with his world—the hatred, injustice, rancor, abuse, terror, and all other kinds of evil. That’s why the boots of warriors will be burned. When God’s Messiah comes, there will be no more need of warriors because there will be no more war or violence or terror or oppression or destruction. The One called Mighty God and Prince of Peace will see to that! That’s why God’s people can rejoice with great enthusiasm and joy! In Isaiah’s prophecy—which remember are the words and promises of God—we are given a vision of the very heart of God and God’s future. This isn’t a God who is indifferent to our suffering and the darkness that oppresses us. This is a God who longs to end all the terrible wrongs that have corrupted his good world and who is determined to set it to rights! If we believe in this God and his promises, we have the basis to experience comfort and joy at Christmas that is not contingent on the circumstances of life because we have a hope for the present and future. More about that in a moment.
Of course, we Christians believe this child to be born is Jesus of Nazareth, God become human for our sake, and Luke’s birth narrative echoes the promises of God spoken through Isaiah. Luke didn’t name all those folks and events at the beginning of his story to irritate people who don’t like history. No, he includes them so that he can invite us to look at the surprising contrasts contained in those events. Here we have Caesar, the most powerful political figure in the world, barking out orders and making people take a census, as if he is the one who runs the world, when in fact the real king is being born inconspicuously and in great humility. This is God’s king to whom all the lesser kings will eventually bend their knee and confess as Lord. Luke wants us to see that this is how God is at work in history. The God who is outside of history works inside it to rescue his people from the forces of evil and darkness. The people living in darkness have seen a great light and his name is Jesus.
So how do we know this about Jesus? Luke tells us. An angel of the Lord announces it to the shepherds. Hear again the superlatives of his words: I bring you good news of great joy. To you is born this day in Bethlehem a Savior who is the Messiah, God’s anointed one, the Lord. And then the heavenly host break out in praise of God for this great event of the birth of his promised Messiah to rescue his people and set them free from the darkness that oppresses them. Now if you paid close attention to Luke’s story, you will notice that he mentions Jesus’ manger three times. What’s that about? Here is something we have sentimentalized so much that I fear we have missed the point. The angels are telling the shepherds to verify their announcement. The unbelievable has just happened, but not as they expected. God has returned to his people as promised to rescue them, but not in the way God rescued his people from the Egyptians in the Red Sea or as God appeared to his people at Mt. Sinai in the desert. No, God has returned to his people as a baby born of a virgin! Is there any wonder that the shepherds, after the angels had gone back to God’s dimension, might be skeptical? So here’s the proof, boys. There are lots of babies wrapped in swaddling clothes, but only one is lying in a feeding trough for animals. That’s your sign. Go check it out. Here we see God tending to the smallest details in the midst of ordinary human history to verify his incredible announcement to the shepherds.
This is how God has chosen to shine his light in the darkness. Are you wiling to recognize it? In becoming human for us, God condescended in a way that is simply not conceivable to us to rescue us from evil, sin, and death, and to put his good but corrupted creation back to rights. In the birth of Jesus we see God beginning to reassert his rightful rule as king over his creation, a rule that has been usurped by the dark powers and principalities of evil. By becoming human, God is telling us we matter to him more than anything else because we are God’s image-bearers, and that creation matters too! Here is the love of God in action and here is the basis to find comfort and joy at Christmas. Immanuel, God with us, is born. God with us. Let that sink in and resonate with you. God with us. This is not a God who has abandoned us or who is indifferent to the evil that has afflicted his world and us, and which casts its dark shadow over us. This is a God who has come to his people to set us free. This is the Good News of Jesus Christ at Christmas.
I can hear some of you now. Get real dude. Look around you. Look at the Internet. The world is a mess. We aren’t rescued from anything. Pass the ammo. But Luke and the rest of the NT writers, along with countless Christians over time and space, would disagree. To be sure, there is much we don’t understand about God’s rescue plan as it is being carried out. But if we take the time to know God, we will learn to trust his promises, deeply ambiguous as they are. And what is the basis for that trust? God’s faithfulness shown most powerfully in Jesus’ death and resurrection. The NT writers insist that on the cross two essential things happened. First, evil and the forces behind it were defeated decisively (cf. John 12.31; Colossians 2.15; Hebrews 2.14; 1 John 4.4; Revelation 17.14). To be sure, Jesus’ victory is not yet consummated, but it is assured. The Prince of Peace died so that the powers responsible for chaos were defeated. Second, on the cross God condemned our sin in the flesh so that God would not have to condemn us. We know this to be true because God raised Jesus from the dead, vindicating him and assuring us his promise to shine his light on our darkness is true. When God raised Jesus from the dead, he launched his promised new world which will be devoid of any kind of evil, death included. Without the resurrection, without Easter, Christmas would be nothing but a cruel joke in which the promises of God are a failed lie and we are still dead in our sins and left very much on our own. But once the ultimate evil of death was defeated, there is no longer a basis for hopelessness for those of us who are Jesus’ people, thanks be to God! Amen?
But that is the future. What about now? Isn’t Jesus just another version of an absentee landlord? Aren’t we really left to our own devices to combat evil? No we are not because Jesus promised to be with his people in the power of the Spirit until he returns, and he calls us to continue the work he started. As Christians, we are not called to sit down, shut up, and mind our own business. We are to be for the world what Jesus was and is for us. We are to embody his love and justice and all the rest, and bring it to bear on God’s world in our neck of the woods. We hear a lot these days about how ineffectual the Church is, and in those parts of Jesus’ body where his members have given up on the promises of God to set his world and us to rights, there is some truth to that. But consider this. Most educational and medical institutions find their roots in Christianity, precisely because our forebears believed the promises of God the Father to be with his people through his Son in the power of the Spirit until Jesus returns in great glory to consummate his victory over evil, sin, and death. We have just spent the season of Advent pondering that hope and promise. Or consider William Wilberforce, an Anglican, who almost single-handedly ended both the slave trade and slavery in 19th-century England. He and his followers did so because they took their charge to embody Christ’s love and justice seriously. This hope and promise of Immanuel, God with us, in and through the power of the Holy Spirit, is why Paul wrote what he did in our epistle lesson. God’s new world is launched and it is both present in us and will one day come in full. Therefore, as Jesus’ people we are called to live out our future hope as if it is a present reality.
But how do we do this? We can’t all be a William Wilberforce or start our own educational or medical institutions. What to do? Here again, we must look to the unlikely advent of Jesus our Lord. As we have seen, the God of this vast universe condescended to become human for our sake through ordinary means. Likewise, we are called to work for the coming of God’s kingdom on earth through mostly ordinary means. We are to first and foremost live as God’s people who embody God’s love and values, broken and hopelessly flawed as we are. We are to pray cheerfully and persistently for God’s world and for his kingdom to come on earth as in heaven, precisely because we believe God’s promise to heal his creation and us. We are to watch the world and its leaders, and to speak out when we see injustice and wrongs being committed. We are to engage God’s word and worship regularly to be reminded of God’s promises. We are to be here for each other because we realize that we are all part of God’s family, broken and equally undeserving of God’s love and grace. Doing these things will open us more and more to the Spirit’s presence in us and when that happens, Jesus becomes more real and more present to us. And when that happens, we learn to experience the truth of God’s light shining on our darkness to comfort and protect and heal us. None of this makes us immune from the evil that afflicts this world. What it does do is give us power to overcome the darkness. This is why we celebrate Christmas. Jesus’ birth is the beginning of the Good News that God loves us and has redeemed us and his world, and nothing can stop his promises from being fulfilled, not even the powers of darkness. This is why and how we can experience comfort and joy each and every Christmas, irrespective of circumstance. It’s because we are people who have the Good News of Jesus Christ, now and for all eternity. To him be honor, praise, and glory forever and ever. Merry Christmas, my beloved.
In the name of God: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.