Sermon delivered on Christmas Eve 2019 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 52.7-10; The Song of God’s Chosen One (Isaiah 11); Hebrews 1.1-12; John 1.1-14.
In the name of God: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Merry Christmas, St. Augustine’s! During this past Advent season we have encouraged you to look into the darkness of this world and our lives with faith in the goodness of God’s justice and power to act on our behalf. Continuing this theme in our gospel lesson tonight, St. John writes that the light shines in the darkness and the darkness did not overcome it. But what does that mean for us as Christians living today? This is what I want us to look at this evening.
Have you ever waited to hear good news about something or someone? If you have, you get a sense of what’s going on in our OT lesson. There’s a sense of real hope that the news will be good, but we can imagine God’s people also waiting and wondering if their hopes will be dashed and the news will be bad. We don’t have to live in 7th century BC Israel to understand this dynamic. We all have our secret and not so secret hopes and fears, our anxieties and sorrows. We look at our own failures and all that swirls around us in our lives; and as we have seen during Advent, we ask the Advent questions: How long, O Lord, before you act on our behalf? Have you forgotten us, Lord, forever? Why are you not acting to bring justice to your world and people? This is the darkness about which St. John speaks in our gospel lesson. It is a darkness caused by the powers of Evil and their human agents. It is the darkness of a sin-stained life. It is the darkness of grieving the death of loved ones or of serious physical or emotional ailments. It is the darkness of alienation, both from God and each other. It is the darkness of fear, to name just a few. Where is God in all of it? Does God not care? Why does God allow the darkness to seemingly prevail? As God’s people in Christ, we eagerly await some message of Good News, hoping that God’s light and goodness prevail. Many of us hope for the best but expect the worst.
But then we, like God’s people Israel, hear the Good News and our spirits soar. God’s heralds announce our salvation (think angels over Bethlehem in St. Luke’s gospel). Our God reigns! The enemy has been defeated! The forces of darkness are destroyed! Notice carefully, my beloved, that in our OT lesson, as well as our own lives, the promised deliverance is not yet fulfilled; it is only announced to us. The people of Israel had not yet witnessed the destruction of their Babylonian conquerors and experienced the joy of returning to their beloved Promised Land. Likewise for us. Come Christmas morning tomorrow, we will awake believing that Christ has come but with the realization that the world still seems committed to its old sinful and hurtful ways. The powers of darkness do not take a break on Christmas Day. If anything they ramp up their game with all kinds of mayhem and violence in an effort to make us believe God’s announcement that our salvation has been achieved in Christ and that God our Father reigns is nothing but a lie. Let none of us dare fall for their lies because Satan, the head of the dark powers, is the father of lies and he does not want us to know and experience the joy of God’s Truth.
No, the promise of the birth of Christ at Christmas is that the good news announced to God’s people through the prophet Isaiah has come true, i.e., Christmas is the beginning of God’s answer to our Advent questions. Both St. John and the writer of the letter to the Hebrews make the bold and audacious statement that God himself has become human to deliver us from our sins and the powers of Evil, Sin, and Death so that our present and future are secure. But as all our lessons make clear, in coming to us as a human, or in the language of the NT, in sending his Son to us, God the Father has much bigger fish to fry than just saving us from our sins, massively important as that is.
When St. John tells us the Word became flesh and lived among us as Jesus Christ, he takes us back to the very beginning of creation. In sending Christ to rescue us from the powers of Evil, Sin, and Death, God the Father intends to rescue not only us, but all of creation. We see this vision put forth in our canticle lesson. The original harmony and goodness of nature are restored and we as God’s image-bearers, you and me, are healed and equipped to once again rule God’s good world on God’s behalf. Think about this carefully, my beloved. When the Word became flesh, when the Light shined in the darkness, God revealed to us that creation matters, that we matter, our entire being: body, mind, and spirit, not just our spirits. God intends to heal the entire creation, freeing his image-bearers from the darkness that has enslaved us, and restoring us to his full image-bearers the way we were before the Fall. Think it through. How wonderful it will be to one day be able to walk unfettered and unashamed with God in God’s new world the way our first human ancestors enjoyed perfect communion with God in the garden (cf. Genesis 3.8-9), free from the anxieties that plague us because of our sin-sickness and the alienation that afflicts us. How wonderful and awesome will that be! The goodness of God will permeate through every atom of our cosmos and us, freeing us from our sins and our slavery to the dark powers that hate us and want to destroy us. Death will be no more because it too will have been destroyed when Christ returns to raise his people from the dead and transform those who are living at that time as he ushers in God’s new world, perfect and devoid of every kind of evil and sin and darkness. This is what the writer of Hebrews is getting at when he tells us that God’s Messiah, Jesus our Lord, the Light that shines in the darkness, will change the old creation into the new, just like we change from old clothes into new ones. Christ can do that because he is our Creator and Sustainer, i.e., he is Lord of the universe and has been given the authority from God the Father to rule, both in this dark age and in the age to come.
And how do we know this is true? Because the word of God proclaims and announces it to be true, and as our OT reminds us (along with the NT), the word of God in Scripture has the power to transform us so that we can believe its proclamation is true. But there’s more, of course. As St. John reminds us, we are to look at the wondrous fact that God became human in the course of human history to verify the NT’s claim that God did indeed become human and dwell among us. It is critical for us to know why God became human and what he did so that the darkness cannot overcome his Light and we may have hope, i.e., we look to the past so that we can trust God’s present announcement of God’s return to us. To be sure, Christ will come as a warrior to judge all those who refuse to submit to his Lordship and way of life. Sadly there are many who will fall into this category. Let us make every effort in the power of the Spirit not to be counted among those poor souls. God’s judgment on all that is dark and evil is surely coming as the NT promises when Christ returns to finish his saving work. Evildoers will be dealt with accordingly and the powers of Evil, Sin, and Death will be banished forever. When the dead are raised perfect justice will be ushered in and our memories will surely be healed of all the hateful and hurtful and dark things we have had to bear, thanks be to God! A loving and good God cannot and will not tolerate evil forever and we get a foretaste of that in Christ’s first coming when we see our Lord heal the sick, raise the dead, give sight to the blind, and cast out demons.
But what about us? We are all sinners. Won’t we too fall under God’s terrible judgment on all that is evil and wrong? Not so fast my anxious ones. Enter the story of Christmas where God takes on our flesh to deal with our sins. In Christ, God has refused to wage war on the enemy’s terms. God did not come with shock and awe, much as God’s people Israel (and many of us) wanted him to. Instead he came as a baby boy, fully human yet fully God, an impenetrable mystery. That is why so many of God’s people (and others since) missed God’s promised return to his people. And why did God choose to do this? First because he gave humans the exalted status and privilege of being his image-bearing creatures who would rule God’s world on God’s behalf, reflecting God’s goodness and justice and love out into God’s world for the world to enjoy and celebrate. If God created us for such a job, it makes sense that God would choose to rescue us from our slavery to Evil, Sin, and Death through the human agency of Jesus Christ.
But secondly, God became human so that he could pronounce judgment on our sins without condemning us. As St. Paul reminds us succinctly in his letter to the Romans, God became human for us because
The law of Moses was unable to save us [from our sins] because of the weakness of our sinful nature. So God did what the law could not do. He sent his own Son in a body like the bodies we sinners have. And in that body God declared an end to sin’s control over us by giving his Son as a sacrifice for our sins.Romans 8.3 (NLT)
In other words, God condemned our sins in the flesh so he would not have to condemn us. That is why there is now no condemnation for those of us who are in Christ (Rm 8.1). We can enjoy God’s tender mercy, love, and goodness right now because our God reigns as the prophet proclaimed in our OT lesson and God the Father has declared us not guilty ahead of time! This great love and mercy and justice of God is even more remarkable when we consider that God did all this for us while we were still his enemies (Romans 5.8). And because we are united to Christ through faith and our baptism, while we will share in a mortal death like his, more importantly we will also in a resurrection like his, a future benefit we can enjoy right now. This is the light shining in the darkness that the darkness cannot overcome! Christmas announces the penultimate Good News of God’s rescue plan for his sinful world and its people. Without Good Friday and Easter, Christmas would be meaningless because it would mean God did not become human to live and die and be raised again to rescue us from our slavery to Evil, Sin, and Death.
And now we return to our OT lesson. This is the Good News Isaiah announced to his people centuries before Christ was born. Isaiah probably did not realize that his prophecy was far greater and more encompassing than even he could imagine, and we as God’s people in Christ must take hope in that announcement, even if we do not see our promised deliverance realized in full yet. Do not let your broken heart or cynicism or whatever ails you prevent you from letting your future hope in Christ start to heal you today so that you can live with hope—the sure and certain expectation of things to come—and joy, even as the darkness of your life swirls around you. Without hope, people die. Literally. As bad as things are today, think about how much worse they would be if you did not have this present and future hope in Christ. Think about never seeing loved ones again, or having your old age and infirmity be the final arbiter of the value of your life, or dying in utter loneliness and despair. How could St. John and the other NT writers possibly claim that the light shines in the darkness and the darkness did not overcome it? It would be a lie and you would be a fool to believe it. But the gospel proclamation that God reigns and you are forgiven is true because Jesus Christ was born into this world and Jesus Christ is raised from the dead, and you would be a bigger fool not to believe it, effectively not allowing your future expectation to give you joy and power for the living of your mortal days.
And here is where I want to speak to those of you who are living in the darkness right now. I know there is at least one person here who has lost a loved one recently and Christmas will never be the same for you again so that you are grieving. If you are one who experiences the darkness of loss or fear or anxiety or desperation, I want to say to you first of all how sorry I am that you are experiencing the darkness of this world at Christmastime. My heart goes out to you and I grieve with and for you. But I also want to tell you to take hope! Take heart because Jesus Christ is born and raised from the dead! God is good to his word and has become human to rescue you and those you have loved and lost for awhile. The light shines in the darkness and the darkness cannot and will not be able to overcome it unless you submit to its lies. Please don’t do that. For the love Christ has for you and yours, please don’t do that. You have the Spirit of Christ living in you to testify that you are not alone, that you have hope because God himself has acted to rescue you and those in Christ whom you have lost. You have people here in your parish family who will walk with you in your grief if you let them. You have God’s word and sacrament to heal and refresh you. Trust and believe in God’s power to do so! To be sure, you will grieve your losses as we all do and have your struggles. No one ever said the darkness is easy to overcome. But grieve as one who has real hope, a hope based on Christ born this night. It is especially during the darkest times that the light of Christ comes to shine the brightest in your life and there is no darkness that can overcome this great light, dear people of God. You have the Father’s very word on it. 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.