The angel said to [the shepherds], “Do not be afraid; for see—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. This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.”Luke 2:10-12
We plan to have in-person worship on Christmas Eve, with limited seating and following all of our Sunday worship safety protocols. It will be a Lessons and Carols Service (music, but no singing). The Lessons being read are: Micah 5:2-5a, Luke 1:26-35, 38, Matthew 1:18-25, Luke 2:1-7, Luke 2:8-20, Matthew 2:1-11. Here is a written manuscript of the sermon I will be sharing, which is different from the Christmas Eve sermon I am sharing for our online worship service, which can be read here: Christmas Eve Sermon for Those at Home.
When you were a child, did you have a favorite story? One that you wanted your parents to read to you over and over again? Or a favorite tv show, or movie?
The story of the birth of Jesus is that kind of story, for all of us. It is a story that we want to read, and to hear, again and again.
And so, we have gathered today to do just that. To hear this story, this miraculous, amazing, life-giving, world-changing story. This story that is too good to be true, except that it is. To hear this story, and to listen to the music that it has inspired.
We aren’t quite hearing it the way we want to this year. We can’t sing our favorite carols together; we can’t receive the bread and wine of our Lord; we can’t spend time in fellowship in all the ways that we would like. But the story is still told. The birth of our Lord is still celebrated. Christmas still comes to us, in all of its wonder and glory. And there is no virus that can keep that away.
And so, here we are, to hear this story again, and to listen to these beloved carols. And each piece of the story we just heard – like pieces of a puzzle – teaches us something important and wonderful about the One in whose name we gather; the One whose birth for us and for our world we celebrate on this holy night.
Old Testament Prophecy
We started this story in the Old Testament, with the prophet Micah, where we learn that the Savior is to come from Bethlehem, the City of David, where the Messiah had long been expected. It is an important town only to God. It is not Jerusalem. It is not Rome. It is not a religious center, or a political center. It is a small town that is important to God because it is the town of King David. The little town of Bethlehem, a town whose name literally means “The House of Bread.” Which is wonderful, isn’t it? Even at his birth, we are reminded that Jesus is to be our bread of life. The one who would one day offer his own body and blood as our bread of life and cup of salvation.
The story then picks up in the New Testament, with Luke’s gospel, which takes us to another small town, Nazareth, and to the home of a young woman engaged to Joseph. The angel Gabriel visits this town, and shares the stunning news that this young woman, Mary, would conceive and bear a son, who would be the Son of the Most High. A miraculous conception, but perhaps even more miraculous that Mary believed the angel, and agreed to do as asked. A decision that would change her life forever, and that would one day lead to great heartache and grief, as she watched her son die on a cross. But a decision that she made not just for herself, but for all the world.
The story, as we heard in these lessons and carols, goes back and forth now, from Luke’s Gospel to Matthew’s Gospel, the two gospels that share the story of Christmas. Luke tells the story from Mary’s perspective. Matthew, from Joseph’s perspective.
Joseph, we learn from Mathew, was deeply upset that Mary was found to be with child. He had resolved to dismiss Mary quietly, the kind thing to do, because he was a righteous man. But the angel continues his work, now appearing to Joseph in a dream. And Joseph, like Mary, does as God requested. A decision that would also change the course of his life, a decision that he, too, made not just for himself, or for Mary, but for all the world.
The Trip to Bethlehem
And then, of course, we heard again the story of the trip from Nazareth to Bethlehem, a lengthy pilgrimage, but necessary, because that is where Joseph’s family is from – he had to travel there because of the decree from Emperor Augustus. And Joseph was descended from the house and family of David. This didn’t mean that he and Mary would get a nice room in the inn. We begin to realize that the world won’t always open its arms to receive this child. And so, Jesus enters this world in the place kept for animals, and is laid in a manger, a feeding trough for those animals, the most humble birth we can imagine for the Creator of all, for God’s beloved Son.
The Shepherds, the Angels, and the Magi
And then, the story begins to ripple out, first to the shepherds, those humble shepherds who were the first to receive the news of our dear Savior’s birth. Not kings, or priests, or anyone very important to anyone. But to simple, humble shepherds. They are told the good news by the angels, of course, as the story continues to connect heaven and earth. Angels who give glory to God and peace to earth as they, too, celebrate his miracle.
But the story can’t stop there. It ripples further, to the magi from the East; gentiles, like you and me, reminding us that this child would be the Savior of all, not just a chosen few. News which upsets King Herod, and results in the death of children, reminding us again that the world will not always open its arms to receive her newborn king.
We learn from the magi that the story even changes the stars in the sky, with a new star leading the magi to Bethlehem, where they kneel before the child and pay him homage.
Just as we do tonight. This story, connecting heaven and earth, changing the stars, and causing the angels to sing, always brings us back to Bethlehem, back to this simple, beautiful, heavenly birth. Born that we no more may die. Born to be our Savior, the one who is the Messiah, the Lord. We pay him homage tonight, with all those of all generations, who have faced countless challenges and hardships, and who have found hope lying in the manger.
The Story Continues Through Us
But the story doesn’t end, even there. We can’t just pay him homage tonight, and go home. This story is intended to continue, through us. Christmas, the birth of our Savior, is meant to get us involved in God’s plan for the world. Jesus wasn’t just born for us so that he could die for us, so that he could save us. He also wanted to teach us. He wanted to show us what we could do to participate in his mission to save this world.
We light our candles tonight, and we give thanks for Jesus, who is the light of our world. But, as we do this, it’s good to remember that Jesus also taught us how to be the light of the world. He challenges us, in fact, to let our light so shine before others that they may see our good works and give glory to our Father in heaven. He asks us to let his light shine through us into the darkness of our world; into the illness, the sadness, the violence, the skepticism, the doubt, the despair, into all that is facing our neighbors, our nation, and our world.
And we do this by doing what Jesus did. We do this loving others as Jesus loves us. We do this by feeding the hungry, by caring for the sick, by comforting the dying, by listening to the lonely. We do this by working for justice, and by loving all, regardless of what they have done, or even what they believe. Just like Jesus did.
And when we do this, the story of Christmas continues to be told, and continues to unfold. Just as Jesus intended.
The story began in such a simple way, with a humble birth, in a small town in Palestine, with hardly anyone present. But the miracle of that birth, and the gift of that child, continues to ripple through our world, sending wave after wave of hope and light and life and joy.
And this hope and light continue to come to our weary world whenever we participate in this miraculous story.
So, let us continue to find joy in this story, but also to share this story; to share our hope and our light with this weary world. Let us continue to do this until all this weary world rejoices.
And let us continue to hear the angels sing, even when we cannot, of the good news of great joy for all the people. For to us is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace, now and forevermore. Amen