The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness on them light has shined. You have multiplied the nation, you have increased its joy; they rejoice before you as with joy at the harvest, as people exult when dividing plunder. For the yoke of their burden, and the bar across their shoulders, the rod of their oppressor, you have broken as on the day of Midian. For all the boots of the tramping warriors and all the garments rolled in blood shall be burned as fuel for the fire. For a child has been born for us, a son given to us; authority rests upon his shoulders; and he is named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. His authority shall grow continually, and there shall be endless peace for the throne of David and his kingdom. He will establish and uphold it with justice and with righteousness from this time onward and forevermore. The zeal of the Lord of hosts will do this.
I don’t know if I’ve ever heard a good Christmas sermon. I certainly haven’t preached one. No commentary, no anecdote, no perfectly delivered joke can ever come close to the outrageously wonderful news of the Christmas story.
The story is better than any sermon and yet, I wonder what you were thinking as the scriptures were read and the notes from the songs were lifted up…
Perhaps some of you have heard the Christmas story so many times before that it flew right over your hears. Maybe some of you think it a mere fairy tale, far removed from the realities of life. Perhaps some of you were transported to Christmases past and remembered hearing the story from other people in other ways. Maybe some of you drifted off to the dream-like space where the boundaries of reality become fuzzy.
And then BOOM! Christmas! The angel of the Lord appears and shakes us up. The angel shows up in the Gospel, just as much as the angel of the Lord is present with us right now, downright shouting the Good News for all to hear: “For to you is born this day in the city of David, a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.”
Notice, the angel does not say, “For us is born.”
The angel says, “For you.”
That’s so strange. Which is really saying something because the strange new world of the Bible was plenty strange before this angel showed up with glad tiding to tell.
You see, the Christmas story is not meant for certain people in particular places. This news is for you. You! Regardless of who you are, whether or not you understand it, or even believe it, whether you are on the nice list or the naughty list this year. There are no qualifications for who should receive this news because this news, the Good News, is for you!
And what, exactly is the Good News?
God took on flesh to liberate us from sin and death.
In other words, the Good News is Jesus.
Jesus is the reason for the season. All of the other trimmings and trappings and traditions serve only to point to the One who arrives for you.
And yet, we could just as well say that the reason for the season is the joy of giving.
Indeed, it is true that Jesus says it is better to give than to receive. It is true that our brains release more endorphins when we do something for someone else, than if someone does something for us.
But Christmas, at least according to the strange new world of the Bible, isn’t about what we’re supposed to do for others. It’s about what God does for us. For you.
Many of us love Christmas because we believe, whether or not it’s true, that Christmas brings out the best in us. Christmas has the power to reform even the Scroogiest among us. Dickens’ A Christmas Carol has probably done more to form our notions about this night than Luke’s story of the manger. Luke gives all the agency to God, reminds us through shepherd and song that Christmas is about God’s gift to us, whereas Dickens tell us about how we can give to others.
But that betrays the necessity of the incarnation. God does not take on flesh to help us see that we have the power to save and fix ourselves. God takes on flesh to save us. Full stop.
The Gospels go to great lengths, through various stories, to demonstrate how we can’t help ourselves, how utterly dependent we are on the God who comes to us.
The great joy of Christmas is that we do nothing to make it happen – Christmas happens to us. Even the biblical characters that we read and were singing about, they are all so wildly passive in the story. They are recipients of God’s grace made manifest in the manger.
This is often the way God loves us. Not with a drill-master attitude of begging us to see our potential if we would only work harder. But with strange gifts that we did not know we needed, gifts that transform us into people we don’t necessarily want to be.
Christmas is about the great gift given to us, to you. And that gift has a name: Jesus.
The angel address us personally, individually, with the gift of the one born. But, at the same time, the angel’s proclamation ties all of us together. For in receiving the gift, in receiving the news, no one is first and no one is last.
The Christian life is one great communion, the great fellowship that transcends all things.
Christmas created and creates a new community called church. At any given time and place we have no idea what it will look like, except we know it will be filled with people whom we would not have chosen if we were not friends with Jesus.
Put another way, through the gift of Jesus Christ, God has also given us each other.
Look around. You might not know it, or even believe it, but these are the people God has chosen for you to be with this Christmas. Men and women. Old and young. Conservative and liberal. Gay and straight. Courageous and cowardly. Stupid and smart. Hideous and handsome. Saints and sinners.
All sorts of people who are only here because of Jesus.
Jesus is the Good News, Jesus is our only hope, Jesus is the reason for the season.
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 our worship, 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 I remember them crying. And right then, 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, I saw and felt the Good News of Jesus Christ.
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 brought salvation to all, without reservation or exception, simply because that is who God is.
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.
To you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.