For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation to all, training us to renounce impiety and worldly passions, and in the present age to live lives that are self-controlled, upright, and godly, while we wait for the blessed hope and the manifestation of the glory of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ. He it is who gave himself for us that he might redeem us from all iniquity and purify for himself a people of his own who are zealous for good deeds.
There’s a better than good chance that all of us here have heard the story before. We all know that the holy family was turned away by a greedy innkeeper, that Jesus was born in a stable, laid in a manger, surrounded by farm animals, admired by shepherds, and sung to by angles.
Never mind the fact that half of these details aren’t even in the Bible; we’re still ready to remember it that way. Just a few hours ago the children of this church even acted the whole thing out with pipe cleaner halos, cotton ball covered sheep, and plastic shepherd staffs.
You have to be careful giving a long stick to a 5 year old, you never know when they’ll flip it around and turn it into a light saber and cut you in half.
A few years ago, when I was serving a different church, we had one of our wisemen decide to take a nap on the chancel steps halfway through the service and he didn’t wake up until the end and he was surrounded by a bunch of people holding up candles and singing a song.
I promise there was nothing silent about that night.
Or, like this afternoon, when one of our angels came up to the chancel area, she adored the baby Jesus so much, that she decided to pick him up and rock him back and forth while the wisemen were busy following the star across the sanctuary.
Her precious parents motioned for her to put the baby Jesus back in the hay but she, I kid you not, smiled at them like an angel, and kept on rocking.
It warms our hearts to return to this story, it’s part of the trimmings and the trappings of this season. We can recall in our minds Christmases past when we’ve encountered this story in a variety of ways. And yet, if you spend even a short amount of time in the strange new world of other Bible, you can’t help but notice that all of the sentimentality is missing.
Which, of course, runs completely counter to how we want this to go. We want the cute little baby cooing up at his parents, we want him glowing preternaturally as if he’s the one keeping everyone else warm, we even want the wisemen making silly noises and faces at the baby born king.
In short, we want sentimentality.
Why? Sentimentality rises when we are in denial of reality. It is our way of coping with an unbelievable world. It’s why Hallmark and Lifetime make a killing this time of year with their never-ending and confounding Christmas stories that all follow the exact same pattern.
We can turn them on, and disappear for 90 minutes, while everything else is crumbling around us.
But Christmas, the real Christmas, begins in the dark. It is not a denial of how bad things are, it is a proclamation that though things are bad, God has arrived to do something about it!
“What child is this?” That might be the best beginning to any hymn we’ve got in the hymnal, because that question is our question. All we do as a church, particularly on Christmas Eve, is our attempt at answering the question. And we get lots of answer.
The child is the dawn of redeeming grace, the child is light from light eternal, the child is the Savior, the child is Lord at thy birth.
Translation: the child is God!
But if Kurt Vonnegut is right, and people come to church not to hear preachments but to day-dream about God, then the question still lingers: Who is this God we worship?
In church circles there are these two major competing images for the Lord.
Among some, God is like a mother-in-law who shows up for Christmas dinner with nothing but judgments and expectations: I thought you were going to actually do something with your life! Why aren’t we using the family china?
God then becomes the arbiter of bad news for bad people. We cower in fear of the One whose expectations we will never meet. We hide in shame from the One born for us. We struggle under the weight of guilt that we are never enough.
But there’s another image of God among church types.
God is like an uncle who shows up for Christmas dinner with a sausage under one arm and a bottle of wine under the other. And when he sees us moping around he slams his fist on the table, sending the roast beast flying, and shouts, “Why all the long faces?! Have you not heard the Good News! Grace has appeared, bringing salvation to all! Let’s celebrate!”
Christmas, despite its various trimmings and trappings, is a party, it is a celebration, it is the foretaste of the Supper of the Lamb to which we are invited without earning it or deserving it.
It is the divine laughter that goes on ad infinitum.
And this party hosted by One who turns water into wine, who drags in people off the street, who slaughters the fatted calf for the wayward child, this party isn’t in preparation -it’s not off in some distant place during some different time.
It’s here! Right now! It’s in our kitchens and in our living rooms, it’s in the aisles and the grocery store and out on the ball field.
Christmas is who we are.
It is from Christmas that our lives are ordered and re-ordered. Christmas makes intelligible all of the illegible wanderings of our days and of our nights.
Christmas is the proclamation of the great Good News that God is here! We are redeemed. No matter what we’ve done or left undone, it is no match for the Lamb of God who comes to take away the sins of the world.
If Christmas says anything, it says that God comes to us!
Years ago, during one of my first Christmas Eve services as a pastor, I stood outside the doors to the sanctuary welcoming the last stragglers before the service started. And the final car pulled into the lot just as the organist started playing the first hymn.
I had a choice – either get the show on the road, or let the service start without me in order to greet the one lost sheep.
I chose the sheep.
I could feel the organist’s eyes growing wider and wider as the pastor did not walk down the center aisle, but I waited.
And I waited.
Out of the car stepped an old little man who shuffled along with the help of cane and a decisively Ebeneezer Scrooge scowl on his face. By the time he made it to the door the organist had started the hymn over again. So I politely, and quickly, offered him my hand, opened the door, and started to make a break for the front, but he grabbed me by the robe, pulled me down, and said, “Listen son – I only come to church once a year so the Good News better be good.”
It seems like, no matter how hard we try, the world just keep drowning in bad news. Just turn on the news at night, or doom scroll through Twitter for five minutes, and it seems like we have no hope at all.
Thanks be to God, then, that the hope of the world is born for us.
So hear the Good News: God in Christ, born to us, has brought us salvation. God is our helper, liberator, and redeemer. God rescues us and delivers us. We live because God lives with us.
God in Christ, born to us, has changed the cosmos free of charge, without our earning or deserving. The only thing we are asked to do is stretch out our hand, receive the gift, and be thankful.
God is Christ, born to us, has brought salvation to all, without reservation or exception, simply because that is who God is.
Do not be afraid; for see – I am bringing you good news of great joy for all people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. Merry Christmas.