This night is not an escape, a sweetness that makes us forget the darkness of the world; it is God’s entering into that darkness to make light – in Jesus, then in us.
Pr. Joseph G. Crippen
The Nativity of Our Lord, Christmas Eve
texts: Luke 2:1-20; Isaiah 9:2-7
Sisters and brothers in Christ, grace to you, and peace in the name of the Father, and of the + Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen
“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.”
That’s Isaiah’s claim. This birth, this child, is God’s light in the darkness of this world. And there’s plenty of darkness. We’re destroying the environment, we’re drowning in hatred and prejudice, we see little hope to an end to war and hunger and oppression. In our personal lives, things aren’t perfect; loved ones suffer, loved ones die; family members disappoint us, or we them. We fear the future, other people, other nations, our own actions. We know about walking in darkness.
If Isaiah tells the truth, this child, this birth, is the transformational gift of God for the whole world. God’s light actually shining into our deep darkness.
We need to be careful we aren’t overcome by the beauty of these words, the beauty of Christmas music, the beauty of these brief minutes here tonight, and forget all these proclaim this is God’s truth that changes the world.
We need to be careful we don’t see this liturgy as a moment of escape from a difficult life, a scary world, from our problems and anxieties, and forget that this birth, this child, signals the precise opposite of escape for God and for us. God has entered our world, our darkness, our anxieties, our fears, our pain and that of all people, and has an answer in this child and in us that will finally heal all things.
This night cannot be simply a beautiful moment that has no impact on our lives or the world.
This night cannot be simply a time to sing words of deliverance and hope from God without believing this deliverance and hope is true and already working in the world.
Much of what passes for “Christmas spirit” and “holiday cheer” are artificial attempts to manufacture a sense of hope and joy centered on this night. All the planning, all the purchasing, all the hoping for a perfect holiday, all attempt to make something that isn’t real. We try to create joy and hope, we desire perfection in celebration, in family behavior, in food, in gifts, as if all that is the real good news. But if our lives, our families, our city, our world, are not whole and at peace and perfect in October or in February, pretending they are in this one season, hoping they will be, is guaranteed to disappoint.
This night either signals the grace of God alive in the world that we can rely on, proclaim, trust in every day that follows tonight, or it’s just an escape from reality. And reality is going to hit us pretty hard tomorrow, or the next day. Maybe even tonight.
In fact, we can only see God’s Good News when we realize our families don’t always get along, when our celebrations fall apart, when we just can’t get into the spirit, when we suffer pain and loss at this season, when others frighten us, or disappoint us, when the world looks as if it is broken beyond repair.
Because when we know we’re living in darkness, and don’t need to fake that we’re not, the Good News that God’s doing something to lighten that darkness is something we can hear, believe, and live.
So listen to the angel: this is no ordinary baby.
The shepherds weren’t sent to a beautiful star-lit crèche to be overcome with sentiment at a baby in his mother’s arms.
They were told by the angel of God that if they went they would find a Savior, a Messiah, a Lord in that baby. The challenge the angel gives the shepherds and us is to force ourselves away from the distraction of the sweetness of this night, of a little baby, and see God’s answer to the pain of the world.
A cute baby only distracts us. The Son of God can actually save us.
The angel says that’s exactly what this baby will do, that news of this baby’s coming is “great joy for all the people.”
Listen to Isaiah: the yoke of oppression is broken in this child. The birth of this child signals the end of enslavement for all people. The end of oppression. If this is true, if Jesus will do this, then there is real joy for all people.
Listen to Isaiah: the boots of the tramping warriors and the garments rolled in blood will be burned for heating. This is even more potent than beating swords into plowshares. This child is the Prince of Peace, Isaiah says, and in his coming wars will end, and all the implements of war will become fuel to warm the children of this world. If this is true, if Jesus will do this, then there is real joy for all people.
This is the truth we seek tonight: how is the coming of this child the beginning of God’s ending of human violence and hate and killing? How is it God’s answer to our own fears and pain? How is God born as a baby any kind of answer to this dark world, to all people?
That is, does a vulnerable God – an able-to-be-wounded God – who lives as one of us, change anything?
It’s the only thing that can. If God came to clean house in a world of sin and pain, well, we saw what happened last time in the Great Flood. If God truly wants “endless peace,” as Isaiah proclaims, that can only happen with our transformed hearts and minds, not with violence and power and destruction. God as divine warrior and judge and punisher only means lots more garments rolled in blood, lots more boots of tramping warriors. God cannot be allied with the powers of this world that use violence and killing to achieve their ends, that think only force can change things.
So the Son of God doesn’t destroy, he allows us to destroy him. He shows the power of love by letting go of his divine power, starting with this birth. In his dying and rising there is a new order in this world: that those who follow God’s path can change the world. When we follow the way of the cross we find God’s grace and love in our darkness, and we become part of the ending of violence and hate. We can’t take such tools and make any good use of them. We can only put ourselves in their way and by our own wounding, like Christ’s, begin to change things. Begin to be light ourselves.
When we listen to the angel’s words about this unassuming birth in an unexceptional place to unremarkable people, and we really start to claim those words as our hope, our belief, then what we do tonight, what we hear tonight, what we experience tonight can stay with us.
Well beyond the disappointments of the day after, well into the slog of January, well into the darkness of this world, we are different because of this truth, and so is the world.
So listen to the angel.
Don’t be afraid, the angel says – of darkness, of pain and suffering, of the inadequacies of life – don’t be afraid. Do not be afraid, because in us, in all God’s people, God is making a difference through this child. Freed from our fear, our expectations, our addiction to power, we are able to see how it might be that we can bear the same self-giving, sacrificial love into this world of darkness and pain and be God’s light and healing.
We’re not here to escape. We’re here to marvel at the news and seek God’s grace to let it sink into our hearts and minds so we not only believe this coming makes a difference, but actually live lives that are part of that difference.
We leave here tonight changed, like the shepherds. Like them, we leave to make known what has been told us about this child. When we do that, when we live that, then as it was long ago it will be again, and all who hear us, see us, meet us, will be amazed. And light will shine in the darkness.
In the name of Jesus. Amen