We are sentinels on the lookout for signs of God’s presence in the world, and we joyfully share the good news of Christ’s presence with the world.
Vicar Bristol Reading
The Nativity of Our Lord
Texts: Isaiah 52:1-3, 6-10; John 1:1-14
Even though we spend four weeks of Advent getting ready for Christmas, it’s hard to really feel ready when Christmas actually gets here. It’s hard to take in the true meaning of this day. Maybe it’s because December is so full of holiday festivities and time seems to speed up as the month goes on. Or maybe it’s because the message of the incarnation gets lost amidst the cultural messages about Christmas.
But set all that aside for a moment, and hear this incredibly good news again: the light of Christ is here, dispelling all the world’s darkness. The light of Christ is here! This is what you’ve been waiting and watching for all Advent. Are you ready for it? What will you do with this news?
If you need a model for how to respond to long-awaited good news, you can look to the Isaiah text we read this morning.
In Isaiah’s context, Israel has been invaded and conquered by a foreign empire, Babylon. The Babylonians have destroyed the holy city of Jerusalem and forcibly exiled many of the Israelite people. Beyond the sheer physical destruction of this war, the people are also suffering spiritually: they’re afraid that God has rejected and abandoned them.
There are some, though, who are hopeful that God will still come and save them. Like sentinels, they keep waiting and watching for a word from God.
Sentinels were in charge of the city’s protection. They stood watch through the long nights, peering into the dark, hoping for dawn. Others could rest in safety because the sentinels were on guard. If the enemy arrived, they would sound the alarm and raise the city from sleep. But they hoped that, instead of attack, they would see deliverance. So they waited.
To be clear: the ancient Israelites waited for God a lot longer than four weeks. They waited for generations.
But eventually, a herald arrived bearing a message from God. Having traveled hundreds of miles over mountainous terrain, the messenger is too tired to manage more than succinct sentences. The Hebrew conveys just single words: “Peace,” “Good News” “Salvation”! This is God’s word for the beleaguered Israelites! Can you imagine how it would have felt to receive this news of victory after so many years of waiting?
This means the end of war, the end of exile. This means return and rebuilding. It had looked like all was lost, but now this messenger proclaims that God still reigns. No enemy, not even Babylon, is strong enough to defeat God.
Now, the sentinels are ready to respond to this good news. They raise their voices, but instead of calling the people to battle as they’d expected, they call the people to celebration: “Wake up! Get dressed, get going! God is here!” For so many years, their plea had been, “O come and ransom captive Israel,” but now they cry, “Rejoice! Rejoice!” What has been subjugated is made free. What has been broken is made whole. God has spoken, and God’s word proclaims liberation.
The sentinels don’t just tell the good news; they sing it, as loudly and joyfully as they can. Their song is so persuasive that even the ruins of Jerusalem find a voice and join the chorus, and that music can be heard even to the ends of the earth. Everyone everywhere will know that God has been faithful.
Now that’s how you respond to good news: You join all of creation in a mighty anthem of praise to God! You sing a song so joyful that it brings ruined places to life.
This Christmas morning, we’re a long way from ancient Israel, but there are still so many ruined places in our world, even in our own hearts. Babylon, the imperial enemy of the Israelites has long since turned to dust. But, other oppressive empires have arisen in its place throughout the centuries. Other peoples have been exiled. Other nations have faced war. The powers of evil still threaten. The question is still asked in the darkness: Has God abandoned us? Will God come for us?
But, like Isaiah’s sentinels, you have received a message of good news in the midst of a hurting world: God has not abandoned you, and God has come for you, bringing peace, goodness, and salvation!
God has come in a surprising and unexpected way, to be sure. God has come as a baby, the word made flesh as John says, a living, breathing person who dwelt among us and showed us the face of God.
That person brought life and light for all people, even though the world rejected him. Even the enemies of sin and death are not strong enough to defeat God, and no amount of darkness can overcome the light of Christ. Nothing can ever separate you from the love of the Triune God. Emmanuel, God-with-us, means God with all of us, God everywhere, forever. What good news!
So go share this good news!
The promise of the incarnation isn’t only about Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem all those years ago. Christ is still coming into the world, this and every day. All of creation is “charged with the grandeur of God,” as the poet says.¹ God’s presence is everywhere.
You are the sentinels on the lookout for signs of that presence. And when you find it, you are the ones who call out to everyone: “Wake up! See that God is here! And here! And here!”
Do not stay silent: let your words and your actions proclaim what God has done for you. Let your life embody God’s shalom. You have seen God’s face in the person of Jesus, so now you are called to live with the same compassion that Jesus did. You are sent out to do that work of healing and liberating, to be part of God’s mission to bring wholeness and freedom to all people in all places. God’s mission set in motion here at Christmas, with a tiny baby, salvation in the most unlikely way.
You’re ready for this news: you know what to do in response. You celebrate it! You give praise to God with your whole heart, with your most joyful song. The waiting can feel long, but the good news always arrives. God always shows up. God’s love always wins.
Believe that this good news is for you and for all creation: God is here, with you always, and God is bringing you peace, goodness, and salvation. Go bear that news to the world.
1. This is a line from Gerard Manley Hopkins’ poem “God’s Grandeur.”