Christmas Eve 2016
Bless O’ Lord this word proclaimed and we who hear it. That as we gather here on this holy night, we would experience the wonder of your birth. Let your light break through the darkness of our lives, and guide our path, that we might be for the world signs of your grace and peace. Amen.
We come together this night, on the holiest night of the year in order to celebrate the birth of our Lord and Savior. In expected fashion, we do so by singing those familiar hymns, Away in a Manger, Silent Night, and Joy to the World, we light candles and the advent wreath as a sign of Christ’s presence, we adorn our worship space with a tree like most of us do in our homes, we surround ourselves with family and friends (albeit maybe a bit closer right now than we would like), and we hear from the Gospel of Luke those well-known words that tell the story of how Jesus, the Son of God, came into the world through the birth of a human mother. We come together on this night, to celebrate a miracle. And as Christians who place our faith in Christ, the miracle, our miracle.
As I read and re-read Luke’s words in preparation for my sermon for this evening and reflected on what it must have been like on that Holy Night in Bethlehem, I couldn’t escape the question of why we gather here tonight, why each of us find ourselves in this place this evening. Of what it means, of what it really means, for each of us as individuals, to gather together in a church in the year 2016, soon 2017, in order to celebrate the birth of Christ some two thousand years later.
For some of us, tonight’s worship is, without question, a critical part of our life of faith of which we practice week after week here in church on Sunday mornings and in all that we do throughout the week.
For others of us, tonight is more about family tradition and being with the ones we love, than it is about religion and spirituality.
And for others of us yet, I suspect, your lives are so filled with hardship and have become so complicated, that you may not be entirely sure why you’re are here at all, other than for some message of hope, to experience just a bit of that Christmas magic that fills our hearts as children.
Yet, regardless of reason, here we are. A fact, that in and of itself is without a doubt a Christmas miracle. That so many years later, we would gather together in His name. Proof that Christ is still at work in our world.
For me, from the time I was born, Christmas Eve was spent much like it is tonight, at church. With both of my parents being pastors, it was a reality that I couldn’t escape, no matter how bad I may have wanted to. And then, in my first seminary, after being asked to lead a Christmas Eve service for a local congregation without a pastor, my role in Christmas Eve worship became that of what I had watched my parents do for so many years.
As you could probably guess, as a first year seminarian with absolutely zero experience in leading worship, who barely completed introduction to preaching class, it didn’t take me long to realize how unprepared I was. So, I looked to my experienced veteran pastor father for some advice, and in all of his years of experience and wisdom, his response was, “Just talk about the baby Jesus. People want to hear about the baby Jesus on Christmas.” Pretty profound…
Six years later, and my first Christmas Eve sermon as an ordained pastor, and while I certainly have more experience in preaching than I did as a first year student in seminary, the truth is, finding the words to put on paper was just as difficult of a task, maybe even more so… even with the inspiration of our two year old daughter, Gabrielle, playing with her stuffed figurine crèche while I wrote, talking to Joseph, Mary, and the baby Jesus as if they were responding to her every word.
In our Gospel reading for this evening, Luke tells us the story of Joseph and a pregnant Mary travelling from Nazareth to Bethlehem, to Joseph’s ancestral city, the city of David, in response to the decree set by Emperor Augustus that all of the world must be registered.
And then, as if everything else in their current situation wasn’t trying enough, as they arrive in Bethlehem they discover that there is no place for them to go. The inn is filled with no rooms are available. So Mary gives birth in a stable surrounded by animals, wraps her newborn son in bands of cloth, and lays him in a manger to keep him warm. As the hymn goes, “Away in a manger, no crib for a bed. The little Lord Jesus lay down his sweet head…”
It’s in this way that Jesus was born into the world. It’s in this way, that a baby born away in a manger and into a sinful world became a – way in a manger. A way in which through the birth of a child, given to us, that forgiveness was offered to a world desperately in need of being forgiven, that the good news of great joy became possible for all people, that the world was changed forever.
As Luke continues, he writes that next to Joseph and Mary, a group of shepherds living in the fields and keeping watch over their flock at night were the first to experience the news of Jesus’ birth. Not kings, as in Matthew’s Gospel, but shepherds. Those classified as being on the bottom of the social scale, deemed as nothing more than dishonest thieves by the rest of society, and ritually unclean by the religious authority. Not exactly the way we might expect the Son of God to be welcomed into the world. Born of un-wed parents, in a stable, and greeted by outcasts.
As with the world Jesus was born into, our world today is often one of fear and uncertainty, that doesn’t always live up to our expectations. In the news just this past week, a failed ceasefire in Aleppo leads to more devastation and death… the Russian Ambassador to Turkey is shot and killed in Ankara, caught on camera for all the world to see… a fireworks explosion in Mexico… and yet another terrorist attack, this time in Berlin.
And then too, there are the many personal events of our lives that we can’t escape simply by turning off the television. Those that fill our hearts with fear and lead us to question God’s presence. That lead us to wonder on this night especially, what the “good news of great joy” of Jesus’ birth really means.
It’s safe to say, that as we all have our own struggles, we all have our own answers to this. For me, the answer rests in the shepherds from our Gospel text.
Luke tells us that an angel of the Lord was sent to those about as far on the outside of society as we could imagine. Not to priests, the religious elite, or to kings, but to shepherds in the fields, living on the margins, forgotten, and alone. This is where God sent the Good News of great joy of Jesus’ birth. To those we would least expect, yet possibly those who needed it most.
It’s with this, that I find hope. That God does not give up on us, even, and maybe especially, when we feel outcast, abandoned, and alone. Rather, just as with the shepherds, through experiencing the birth of the Christ child, even our moments of great fear, can become those of great joy.
“And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people.” To all people.
On these words from Luke, Martin Luther writes, “This joy is not just for Peter and Paul, but for all people. Not just for apostles, prophets, and martyrs does God say… but to you, “Come, see the baby Jesus.”
“For unto you is born this day,”… that is, unto us… For our sakes he has taken flesh and blood from a woman, that his birth might become our birth. This is the way to observe this feast – that Christ be formed in us. It is not enough that we should hear his story if the heart be closed. I must listen, not to a history, but to a gift.”
This is the Good News of Christmas. In his birth, Jesus came to the world, vulnerable and helpless, as “a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger”. In the same way he died. As he hung from the cross, and turning to a criminal just moments before he breathed his last, he uttered, “today you will be with me in Paradise.”
As we gather here this night, we do so under this promise. The promise made true in Christ Jesus who was born, lived, and died into our vulnerability and brokenness in order to free us from such. The promise set in motion on this holy night, as a Savior was born to us. The promise rooted in God’s love for us. The promise that assures us of God’s presence when we are filled with fear and we feel alone, and that in those times when we have just about given up on God… that God has not given up on us.
This is what brings us to this place to talk about the baby Jesus regardless of what other motivations we may have. What a miracle that is! For this we give thanks and praise. For this we shout Glory to God in the highest. For this we treasure the gift of the Christ child in our hearts like Mary, and following the shepherds, we glorify and praise God for all we have seen and heard.
May God’s glory shine around you on this holy night, may you know the joy of Christ’s presence in your hearts, and may His light shine brightly into your lives bringing peace, joy, and hope. Thanks be to God.
~Pastor Andrew Geib