Christmas: God’s Power Introduced

Sermon delivered on Christmas Eve 2018 at St. Augustine’s Anglican Church, Westerville, OH.

If you prefer to listen to the audio version of tonight’s sermon, usually somewhat different from the text below, click here.

Lectionary texts: Isaiah 9.2-7; The Song of God’s Chosen One; 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 and I want us to look at why that matters and why we shouldn’t dismiss the heavenly host’s announcement of Christ’s birth as airy sentiment or nonsense.

In our OT lesson, the prophet Isaiah declares that the people who walked in darkness have seen a great light and we know something about the darkness because we’ve all been afflicted by it. Being the proud and self-sufficient people that we are, we’ll go to almost any length to produce our own light to counter the darkness. We decorate our houses, buy loads of presents, go to endless Christmas parties, sing our favorite Christmas carols, get ready for Santa Claus and a host of other things. Try as we might, however, our light simply doesn’t cut it. I remember my first significant encounter with the darkness of personal loss and grief when I was a young man. It was Christmas Eve 1976 and earlier that year I had lost both of my beloved grandmothers in the span of a month. It rocked my world. Christmas Eve was always my favorite night of the year but when my extended family met that Christmas to celebrate and exchange gifts, it just wasn’t the same. To be sure, the lights were blazing, the same food was served, we were dressed in our best Christmas duds, and there were loads of presents under the tree for and from me. In other words, all should have been right with the world—at least as our culture defines it—but it was not. I missed my grandmas terribly and I hurt inside. Although I never talked about it with my parents, I’m sure they were hurting too. Losing one’s parents is a hard thing and our family’s Christmas Eve was never the same after that. The years passed and the pain has subsided. The scars are there but they no longer hurt. My parents’ generation died in the following decades and family members moved out of town. Now we don’t even gather as an extended family on Christmas Eve. Our divergent lives and responsibilities prevent it and I am left with bittersweet memories of ghosts of Christmas Eves past when my family was intact and together, never to return in this mortal life. I am thankful that I had my entire extended family living in one town and that we were a pretty healthy family. Some folks don’t even get to experience that blessing, which creates a whole different kind of darkness for them to deal with.

Isaiah’s people also knew what it meant to live in fear and darkness and if you are old enough, which most of us here tonight are, so do you. We carry our hurts, heartaches, fears, and angers with us. Just this past weekend we buried a beloved member of our parish and we grieve with her family as they try to make sense of her untimely and tragic death ten days before Christmas. And we grieve with Christopher as he mourns his brother’s death in Kenya on Saturday. What we all have in common—folks who live in the past, present, and future until the Lord returns—is this. Try as we might to generate some human light and solutions to the darkness that afflicts us, we are utterly powerless to do so. Our dead remain dead. Our hurts and sorrows and fears remain with us, mitigated only slightly by the passing of time and perhaps therapy. We deal with illnesses, maladies, and addictions of all kinds. We see our society tearing itself apart. We witness all kinds of injustice and evil being committed and devise various solutions to address the darkness that afflicts us. But our solutions deal with symptoms of the problem rather than the problem itself. We are utterly incapable of healing ourselves and this only adds to our frustration and sorrow. If we are humble enough and truly honest about the darkness that dwells within us and around us, we are forced to admit that our best efforts to make each Christmas “merry and bright” are contingent on our current life circumstances and we are essentially powerless to do much, if anything, about it. 

To add insult to injury, the Church over the years has not always been helpful in addressing the human condition and our response to it. We’ve sometimes been afflicted with bad theology and preaching—never from this pulpit, of course, especially when I occupy it—that focuses on the punitive aspects of God’s wrath and declares this world to be intrinsically evil, without hope of redemption. Like their gnostic forebears, they preach that being human is all about how “spiritual” one is because one day God in his rage is going to destroy this world and all but a few elect whom he has rescued to enjoy a disembodied existence in heaven for all eternity. How perfectly dreadful. Others don’t even believe their own story and in their arrogance are proud that they don’t. After all, in our enlightenment who has time for angels, virgin births, etc.? This kind of baloney (I would use a stronger noun but I am mindful I’m preaching) has inflicted great harm on God’s people and caused us to devalue God’s good creation, especially the pinnacle of God’s creation—human beings, God’s image-bearing creatures. This in turn creates all kinds of catastrophic darkness and causes us to miss the point of Christmas if we are not careful.

And what is the point of Christmas? It is to announce that our good and faithful Creator loves his creation and creatures, especially his image-bearing creatures. Christmas announces that God has not given up on his good world gone bad or us, despite our proud and haughty arrogance and our incessant and stubborn rebellion. Christmas announces that God knows the darkness that all of us deal with. He knows our hurts and heartaches and sorrows and sicknesses and sighing and cares about them and us. He knows that we are but dust and are terrified by that fact. More importantly for our purposes tonight, God knows we are powerless to overcome the darkness on our own and has entered this world as a human being to be with us to set us free from the power of Sin, Evil, and Death and to one day recreate this sad old world to vanquish all forms of evil and darkness so that we can live in the perfect light of Christ forever, free from all forms of darkness, and reunited with those in Christ whom we have loved but lost for a season. When that day comes, as tonight’s canticle attests, perfect justice will reign and death will be no more. In other words, God, the only person who has the power to really deal with the darkness that afflicts us, has declared that he has seen our plight and has acted decisively on our behalf to end it by entering our history to deal with the darkness once and for all. No wonder all creation rejoices tonight!

The imagery in our gospel lesson is full of this glorious announcement of God’s light piercing the darkness. The shepherds are working in darkness, only to be confronted by the light of heaven’s armies announcing their liberation from the darkness. We hear this wondrous story read in the darkness of a December evening, a darkness pierced by the candles and light of Christ in this chapel. If we were to extinguish this light, we would sit in total darkness, not unlike how the world and our lives would be had not Christ been born into them. Savor the light, my beloved, on all levels. Later we will read the dismissal gospel from St. John with its bold announcement that the Word became human, the light of God, to overcome the darkness despite the latter’s attempt to overcome God’s light. Christ came to destroy the dark power of Sin and Evil over his people, something St. Paul addresses in our epistle tonight. Oh not completely in this mortal life, to be sure. We all know that. But Christmas announces that God has entered his world to live with his people and to heal and redeem it and us. Only God can do this because only God is more powerful than the forces of darkness that hate us and afflict us. Christmas announces that God sees our afflictions and has acted decisively to change our condition. Is that not reason for us to rejoice?

And how did God do this? By becoming human, or to use NT language, by sending his one and only Son to die for us so that we could live. As St. Paul proclaims in Romans, God condemned our sin in the flesh by bearing his own good and righteous condemnation of our evil so that we will be spared and set free from Sin and Death (Romans 8.3-4). We didn’t expect God to destroy the darkness in this way and none of us understand the full meaning of the Cross. But we accept it by faith because by his wounds we, along with countless others, find healing and renewal in the power of the Spirit. God had to have flesh to condemn our sin in the flesh and set us free from the grip of Sin’s power and this is what the heavenly host announced to the shepherds in Bethlehem that night. As the old song proclaims, “Jesus our Savior did come for to die.”

As we have seen during Advent, we must await our Lord’s return for the promise of perfect freedom and release from the darkness to be consummated. But along the way we are not left without glimpses and signposts of our future life in God’s new heavens and earth. The Son of God has died a cruel death for our sake and was raised from the dead to destroy the power of Death over us. Without Christmas, none of this would have happened. And now the Father and the Son have given us the Holy Spirit to mediate Christ’s presence among us and begin to heal us, sometimes partially, sometimes fully. But we are never abandoned. The result? God calls a people to himself in Jesus Christ, Israel reconstituted, to be his signs in a world afflicted by darkness. I could give you hundreds of examples but I will give you just one. Look at how this little parish has rallied around Ken and his family in their darkest hour. We are not the only folks to do that, of course, but the outpouring of love for this grieving family is simply remarkable. In doing so we are signs of God’s promise to be Immanuel, God with us, as well as his love, to help mediate God’s presence to those who need it the most this Christmas, and we have the promise that one day God will finish his work started at the announcement of the birth of his Son. This dynamic illustrates perfectly the contrast between human and divine power. The former, while effective, is only partial. We don’t bring in the Kingdom fully on earth as in heaven; only God can do that because only God’s power can overcome the darkness. Contemplate that hope and promise this Christmas Eve, my beloved. Savor the light shining in the darkness. Be content to put your hope and trust in the One who loves you and gave himself for you so that you might one day be free of the darkness that is within you and surrounds you. As you do, you just may find that the lights of Christmas give you reason to rejoice as well as a new-found power to imitate Christ, whose birth we celebrate tonight. There is no darkness that can overcome this great light, dear people of God, and that’s Good News for all of us, 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.