The Nativity of our Lord; Christmas Eve 2019 - Our Saviour's Atonement Lutheran Church
December 24, 2019 - The Reverend John Zachary Flack
[Audio file follows printed text]
Welcome, all, from near and far, to this holy night, when the heaves could not contain their joy, and the holy angel armies sang in chorus to shepherds in their fields. Welcome to this remembrance of a wondrous birth, a son born of a virgin, born in a barn and laid into a feeding trough near the cows and donkeys. Welcome to this night, a night full of the unlikeliest things and unbelievable claims, wild legends and rumors of glory. Welcome to candles, to music, to a liminal moment, when birth and death and resurrection converge in memory and in new community, we here tonight, gathered together by the Holy Spirit to worship and perhaps never see one another again. Welcome to this celebration, to this community. As the shepherds left their flocks, leave your cares behind and let joy take their place.
Most of what I just said, frankly, is hard to believe. God’s angel armies flashing in the sky—surely the rest of the village would have noticed. A virgin birth—c’mon you might say. This story, this Christmas habit of ours, this “most wonderful time of the year”—it is less believable now, in our unenchanted, parched, and dying world than it was when the shepherds ran raving through town. But even in ancient times, you get the feeling the news the shepherds shared was hard to believe. People were amazed, yes, but people are easy to amaze.
But if we look at the story, it is also all too easy for us to believe. Birth in a barn is all too believable, of course, as is the rootless family searching for shelter. We know all about families forced to move by government edict, don’t we, as well as finding children in strange and subhuman circumstances—cages or whatever euphemism may apply. Even traveling is fraught: we know about the changing climate now, and the cost we place not only on our children and their children by flying, but also on future versions of ourselves, and the tickle of guilt we feel at flying may be mutating now into a gnaw in our conscience.
The Christmas story starts as a story of a great power colonizing and subduing a small nation. It’s the story of a non-traditional family, a girl with a secret and a child that is not precisely her fiancee’s. She gives birth before they are even properly husband and wife. And as they move at the mandate of a power whose face they can only see on the coins of the realm and under the helmets of all his legionnaires, they find no room, no place to say. There is sorrow and pain in this story, and we should believe it, because we have our own sorrow and our own pain. The injustice of the past keeps finding footholds in the present. At Christmas, we want to forget about the world’s problems. One solemn night, one sleepy morning, and all the food our stomachs will allow. But that’s not really what happened at Christmas. No one escaped from the world. The pain in the story is as real as the pain in our own lives, the suffering of the holy family as real as our own suffering—Christ is born into a hard, bad, but beautiful world. He was born like us into our world, the world we know, and none other. This is the world God loves.
But that is why this is a story about joy. It is not a story about an escape from the world but an entrance into the world. “Do not be afraid, for 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…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.’ ” Joy. Joy makes you run through streets at 3 in the morning, screaming and shouting—we have seen angels! We have seen the Messiah! He is born!
The ancient world knew about Gods walking among human beings. Generally they seduced, murdered, raped, and behaved as humans do, but with better hair and muscle tone. They did not come in swaddling clothes, lying in a trough, or as we decided to call it in the children’s service, a cow bowl. They did not come to heal the sick, forgive sinners, cast out demons, and teach in truth. And most especially, they were never caught dead, never came to die, and never on the cross. All of that was too unbelievable for a Roman or Greek god. More unbelievable even than the angels singing to shepherds. But tonight we celebrate the unbelievable. We celebrate the birth of Jesus, God with us, the God who breaks the bow, shatters the spear, who burns the shields with fire, who takes the implements and wreckage of war, the boots of the tramping warrior and the garments rolled in blood, and burns them into dust.
Tonight is joy, not because we escape the world, but because God has entered into it, descended into it, as one of us. Just as you do not conquer fear by fleeing it, but overcome fear by entering it, so God does not bring peace to our world by absenting himself. No, God enters completely into our existence as one of us, from a crying little child to man crying in the pain of death. Tonight is joy because God brings heaven and earth together, sanctifying all that God has made, demonstrating for all time that God loves every single speck on this earth is holy and beloved.
Joy is not the deadening of pain but the bearing it together. It is not the continuation of things in the endless spewing of history, but the beginning of a something knew and unbelievable. Joy because life with God is an adventure, because God sends his angel armies to announce the birth of Jesus not to Emperor Augustus, not to Governor Quirinius, not King Herod, but to nameless shepherds on nameless hills, who find Jesus in undescript cattle stall. It is joy that this little child will grow, live, die, and rise again to break the bonds of death and sin, to free us from the constrictions of this sphere.
It is joy—unbelievable joy. We look at this world and the cycles of violence, the climate crisis, the rising tide of authoritarianism and nationalism. Truly all creation groans in travail. It is hard for us to believe that things will get better, when all around us, everything is getting worse. Perhaps it is too much to hope. Perhaps it is too much to believe that we can overcome this times. Perhaps it is too much. But on this day to you is born a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. And he has saved you. It is not too much to believe. Rejoice, O people of God. Rejoice.