Sermon delivered on Christmas Eve 2017 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; Canticle (from Isaiah 11); 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 our Lord Jesus Christ, God’s promised Messiah. As St. Luke tells us, at Jesus’ birth the angelic armies of heaven proclaimed to the shepherds, “Good news that will bring great joy to all people.” But what kind of news can bring us great joy, you ask? I am glad you asked because this is exactly what I want us to look at this evening!
The good news that will bring us great joy is of course the news that God himself has returned to his people and his world to rescue us from our slavery to Sin and Death and restore us and all creation to its original goodness. In fulfillment of the prophecy we read tonight in our OT lesson, God became human in the man Jesus to rescue us from God’s coming and terrible judgment on our sins and the dark powers behind them that have enslaved and utterly corrupted us and God’s good world.
But many of us have a problem believing the Good News of Jesus Christ that God’s messengers announced because we are people who live in a great darkness, both our own and the world’s. Many of us are dealing with serious health issues that threaten to change our lives or the lives of our loved ones forever. Some of us deal with crushing loneliness and isolation or broken relationships. Others of us struggle with depression or have loved ones who struggle with it to the point where its accompanying darkness threatens to destroy those it afflicts. We read on a regular basis about mass murders, terrible accidents, all kinds of scams, lies, cruelty, and betrayal. We see people starving or homeless or crushed by poverty, all of which leave us angry, overwhelmed, and disaffected because we try futilely to manage the unmanageable. We are increasingly becoming a people without roots or purpose because we as a nation are losing our spiritual grounding. So when we read stories like our gospel lesson tonight with its angelic announcement of Good News, we struggle to believe it. In our human pride and arrogance we declare the announcement of God’s Good News is either false or ineffectual because God is not operating according to our own expectations, needs, and/or standards. Everybody knows that if God were really going to do something about the darkness that enslaves us, God would come in great power and glory, with all the heavenly guns blazing, to rout the enemy and stop all the evil in this world and our lives. Incredibly the creature pronounces judgment on the Creator.
And then there is the darkness of our own sin and alienation from God that causes us to remain hostile to God and rebel against him, even as it makes us increasingly fearful. Feed the hungry? Clothe the naked? Visit the sick and those in prison? Who’s got time for that stuff? We’re too busy making money so we can have a secure future, or dealing with a difficult boss or spouse, or trying to gain the kind of power and status we know we deserve but that has eluded us all these years. How can we look out for others when we are so busy looking out for ourselves? And forgive our enemies or those who criticize us or who hold different political and social views than us? Are you kidding me? Those idiots clearly don’t recognize real talent when they see it. Otherwise they’d be seeing things the right way; you know, the way we do!
And if we care at all about our relationship with God, both now and through all eternity—and it’s safe to say that most of you here tonight probably do care about this, otherwise you wouldn’t be here—the knowledge of our own sin and the alienation it causes between God and us can be the darkest darkness of all. As we have seen during Advent, God’s terrible and holy wrath will fall on all of humankind because none of us is without sin and therefore none of us can escape God’s just judgment on us. As the writer of Hebrews reminds us, it is a dreadful thing to fall into the hands of the living God (Hebrews 10.31). Who among us can hope to stand before God’s judgment seat and have the verdict turn out well for us? It is a very sobering thing to ponder, if we allow ourselves to ponder it all. And so we try frantically to compensate for our sins by following all kinds of rules in hope that it will balance the scales of justice in our favor. It won’t. We are too hopelessly enslaved by the outside and hostile power of Sin. As St. Paul reminds us, everyone has sinned and we all fall short of God’s glorious standard (Romans 3.23).
Ah Father Maney! I hear some of you muttering under your breath. What an uplifting and inspiring Christmas Eve sermon! Could you perhaps book the pre-redeemed Ebenezer Scrooge to preach next year? Even Father Gatwood’s preaching would be better than this. Merry Christmas? Out with Merry Christmas! Patience, grasshoppers. If we don’t have the wisdom, courage, and humility to think soberly and realistically about our human condition and God’s resulting good and just judgment upon us, we will never have ears to hear and minds to believe the Good News the angels announced at Jesus’ birth. Instead, in our enslavement to the powers of Sin and Evil, we will delude ourselves into thinking that sin really doesn’t matter, or if it does, God won’t do anything about it. So we have to think seriously and truthfully about the bad news of our human condition and the darkness of living in a sin-sick world to prepare us to hear the Good News of God’s rescue plan for us in Jesus.
The Good News the angels announced in the skies over Bethlehem is that Evil, Sin, and Death aren’t the final word, despite appearances to the contrary. Despite our sin-sickness and inherent rebellion against our Creator, despite the Evil that has corrupted God’s good world so that darkness envelops it and us, God intends to rescue and heal us, and reestablish his goodness and justice in his world and our lives. And God has chosen to do this, not by an initial show of force, but by becoming human to die for us so that our enslavement to Sin could be broken and the power of Death destroyed forever. When the darkness of our lives threatens to consume us, we need to look no further than the manger in Bethlehem, just as the shepherds were instructed to do to find the Christ child, to be reminded that God’s rescue operation is underway. As St. Paul tells us in his letter to the Romans, at just the right time, even while we were still God’s enemies, while we were utterly helpless to live as God’s true image-bearers who love justice and goodness and who do the right things all the time so that God’s glory and goodness are reflected out into God’s creation, Christ came to die for us to break the power of Sin over us and to condemn our sin in the flesh so that we would not have to bear God’s terrible wrath against it (Romans 5.6-11, 8.1-4). From Jesus’ birth to his death and resurrection, the Good News that brings great joy to us is that out of God’s great love for us, God has chosen to do for us what we cannot do for ourselves: to free us from our slavery to Sin with its inevitable death sentence pronounced upon us, death being eternal separation from God, our one and only Source of life. In effect we were condemned into redemption at our baptism, i.e., we were baptized into a godforsaken death like Jesus’ (our condemnation) so we could share in a resurrection like his (our redemption) (Romans 6.3-5). Sin has deadly consequences and God must act against it. How could a loving God do otherwise? What loving parent would stand idly by and let their children engage in activities they knew would destroy them forever if they didn’t intervene? How can God claim to love us and yet not act to bring justice to his world? It makes no sense.
As Christians, we will have to stand before the judgment throne of Christ along with the rest of humankind to answer for our sins. As both the OT and NT make clear, God’s judgment begins with God’s own people. We must face the fearsome prospect of experiencing God’s wrath against our sins that have helped corrupt God’s good world and dehumanize us. But the Good News that must bring us great joy if we really believe it is that when we hear the verdict pronounced on us it will be “not guilty” because we are covered by the blood of the Lamb shed for us on the cross. As St. Paul puts it, because of the cross, there is now no condemnation for those who belong to Christ (Romans 8.1). We won’t hear this not guilty verdict because we are somehow better or more deserving than others. We most certainly are not. We are sinners like all humans. We will hear the not guilty verdict because God has acted on our behalf to save us from his just condemnation of our sin. For those who belong Christ, the cross is the tangible symbol of what God’s justice looks like and we no longer have to fear it as others do.
And because we believe God raised Jesus from the dead, we believe that we too will share in that glorious future we read about tonight in our canticle, a future where the wolf will lie down with the lamb, i.e., a world in which God’s peace and good order will reign, and the knowledge of the glory of the Lord will cover the earth as the waters cover the sea. How do the waters cover the sea we ask? The waters are the sea and this means that in God’s new world we will be living in God’s direct presence so that we can enjoy real life, real health, and real peace for all eternity. This is God’s free gift to us, my beloved. None of us can earn it and none of us deserve it. But God offers it to us anyway because God loves us and is faithful to his created order and image-bearing human creatures.
God’s new heavens and earth will be ushered in fully one day as Paul reminds us in our epistle lesson tonight. Then the world will see and know that God’s merciful justice and judgment are true and that God takes Evil and Sin very seriously. This is the other side of God’s mercy offered to us in Jesus Christ. Forgiveness without justice is a sham. Evil must be dealt with and God’s judgment will be as much about restoring all things to their good and original order as it is about punishment for Sin and Evil. As Isaiah put it to his fearful people, “Don’t be afraid. Your God is coming in judgment and wrath to save you by destroying your enemies” (Isaiah 35.4). When we hear of bad news, we know in our bones that something needs to be done to right all the wrongs of this world. Human justice can go only so far. Our own Tom lost his wife, Sarah, to cancer at too young an age. Where’s the justice in that? The murderer may get life in prison but his victims are still dead and their families still grieve. Where’s the justice in that? How can God forgive drug dealers who push their poison and destroy lives? How can God refuse to take action against those who callously disregard the weakest and most vulnerable in our world? Where is justice for them? To be sure, even the most evil of evildoers can find the mercy and forgiveness of God offered in and through the death of God’s Son. But justice still must be done and this is what God did for us through Jesus on the cross. If we understand this, at least as best we can this side of the grave, we will understand why Jesus uttered that terrible cry of dereliction on the cross: My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? In that cry we get a glimpse of God’s own beloved Son bearing God’s terrible and just judgment and wrath on our sins to spare us from it. God did this out of God’s great love and mercy for us to let us know how terrible and costly our sins really are, both to us and to God. If we really understand and believe this about the death of Christ, how can we not have great joy?
To be sure, there is much we do not understand because God’s justice has not yet been fully implemented. Christ has not yet returned to consummate his initial victory over Sin, Evil, and Death won on the cross. So until that day comes, we must live by faith. Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, of things not seen (Hebrews 11.1). Hope as the NT uses it means to have a sure and certain expectation that something promised will happen based on what God has already done for us in the past. And what has God done for us in the past? God raised Jesus from the dead and promises to do likewise for us when Christ returns because we put our hope and trust in him and live accordingly by the power of the Spirit. And when God raises us from the dead, the last enemy, death, will be destroyed forever and real justice will be achieved, thanks be to God! This is the essence of faith. It involves hope and a humble trust in God and God alone for our salvation, and it must change the way we live. We live for God, not for us. And because we believe we have been reconciled to God in and through the death of Christ, when we fail to live faithfully as we all inevitably do, we can return to God again and again, asking for God’s mercy and forgiveness with confidence that it will be granted to us.
This is the Good News the angels announced on that first Christmas. It began with our Savior’s birth and it is God’s gift to us, the best gift of all, better than anything we can wrap and put under a tree. This is why we are to rejoice and sing tonight and every day of our lives, especially during the darkest times. This is why we cannot and dare not reduce Christmas to airy sentimentality. Christmas announces that God has entered the trenches of human history to fight our battles for us because only God has the power to conquer Sin and Evil. Christmas also announces our Easter hope, our resurrection hope that is grounded in the loving justice and mercy of our God made known to us supremely in the death and resurrection of his Son Jesus Christ our Lord. May this hope and knowledge sustain you in the power of the Spirit all the days of your life. It is the Good News that brings us great joy, 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.