Good News!

Luke 2.8-14

In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for see — I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.” And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!”

It was my first Christmas Eve service as a pastor. I was standing by the main doors welcoming the last stragglers in for worship. And just as the organist began to play the opening hymn, during which I was supposed to walk down the center aisle looking like I knew what I was doing, one final car pulled into the parking lot.

So I had a choice – either get the show on the road and parade down the aisle or stay by the door and greet the one last, and perhaps lost, sheep.

I chose the sheep.

I could feel the organist’s eye like daggers cutting through me as the song went on without a pastor, but I waited.

And I waited.

Out of the car stepped an old little man who shuffled across the lot with the help of a walker and a decisively Ebenezer Scrooge scowl across his face. By the time he made it to the door the organist had started the hymn over again, much to the surprise of the congregation. So I very quickly, but politely, offered him hand and started to make a break for the sanctuary but the man 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.”

That man’s quick quip has stayed with me over the years because, I think, we all feel that way. We want, in fact we need, Good News. We need good news because it feels like all we ever encounter is bad news. We can’t turn on our TVs, or turn to our phones, without being bombarded by all that is wrong with the world.

But then we come to a place like this at a time like this. 

Chances are most of us, if not all of us, know the story we’re about to hear through scripture, drama, and song.

We know how the holy family traveled to Bethlehem with a pregnant Mary riding on the back of a donkey. We know how they were turned away by a greedy innkeeper. We know how Jesus was born in a stable, laid in a manger, surrounded by farm animals, admired by shepherds, and sung to by angels.

Never mind the fact that half of these details aren’t actually in the strange new world of the Bible! But we’re ready to remember it that way!

Indeed, it is a tradition to remember the story with these details. We sing the songs, we read the scriptures, we get out the pipe cleaner halos, and the plastic baby Jesus.

Tradition is one of those words that we either love or hate. Some of us rejoice in traditions, the habits and practices passed on to us. Others of us find those things to be constrictive, or even oppressive.

And yet, traditions serve to root us in the world. Traditions teach us who we are and, more importantly, whose we are.

The tradition of Christmas, of gathering with others for the worship of God, locates us in a community constituted by hope, peace, joy, and love.

Which is why we need things like child-led dramas, Christmas pageants, because they brings great godly things down to earth. Often, in church, the things we talk about seem so far away, removed, and distant. Even preachers fall prey to the stained glass language that flies over the heads of our dozing congregations.

And then Christmas! This is the Good News! It is a story that is down to earth because God comes down to us. It has all the hallmarks of real life: birth, death, marriage, relatives, taxes, babies, work.

It was into this world that God arrived as one of us. And, oddly and wonderfully, the great joy of Christmas is that we do nothing to make it happen – Christmas happens to us. Notice, during our pageant, how wildly passive all the biblical characters are. They, like us, are recipients of God’s grace made manifest in the manger.

The story itself, as I noted before, is so warm and familiar that the shock of it all has dimmed. And yet, Christmas is absolutely astonishing!

God, the author of the cosmos, chose a young woman from a forgotten village to birth God’s very self in a sleepy little town in a tucked away corner of the empire. The first to know of God’s birth were shepherds, those relegated to the margins of society and ignored by most. 

Jesus, fully God and fully human, grew into an adult who had a brief public ministry that was spent among the riff-raff and the elite, announced God’s forgiveness of sin for a world undeserving, and in whose death and resurrection, we are made holy.

And it doesn’t matter who are you or what you’ve done. This all happens for you.

The world will tell us again and again and again that we are not worthy, that there is always more to do. Christmas tells us the opposite. God makes us worthy. There is nothing we have to do, except open our hands to the gift that is Jesus Christ. 

That is how the Good News works, it’s good news.

Christmas is the end of the beginning and its the story we are about to receive through pageant and song, but before I hand it over, I want to share one final thought:

There’s this thing that we do every Christmas Eve, in addition to the drama and the lines and the songs, we end worship same way every year: with the lighting of candles and the singing of Silent Night. It’s a tradition. Some of my earliest memories are of standing up on the seat of a pew on Christmas Eve, holding up my little candle, and watching wax fall onto the floor. 

But last year, as we rounded out the pageant, I came forward with my tiny little candle, and brought it up to the Christ Candle. From that one candle the light spreads throughout the church. And I’ve done this countless times. But last year something happened to me. I brought the light down to the first person sitting in the first pew, I don’t even remember who it was, but I remember their eyes. I remember seeing the light of the candle flickering in their eyes, and it hit me hard in the chest, a sensation I can’t quite describe with words, I was overwhelmed by the conviction that it’s true. All of it. The light of God’s love outshines the darkness.

In the candlelight spreading across the sanctuary, in the little children in their costumes, I saw and felt that the Good News really is good.

God in Christ, born to us, has brought us salvation. God is our helper, liberator, and redeemer. God rescues and delivers us. We live because God is 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 in Christ, born to us, has brought salvation to all, without reservation or execution, simply because that is who God is.

To you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. 

Merry Christmas.

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