Christmas Eve Sermon 2018

Fear Not, A Light Shines in Times of Darkness

 Every Christmas Eve I include a reading from the Gospel of John’s first chapter. For me, Christmas is fundamentally about the incarnation. There’s really no other way to describe it. The Christmas story is quite simply the story of how God came to dwell with humanity. So, every year I get the opportunity to try and speak to what this actually means for us. Most people in our society are familiar with parts of the story – the baby in a manger, the wise men, the shepherds, and maybe even other parts like the flight to Egypt and the Slaughter of the Innocents. And yet, I still think that there is less reflection of what these stories actually mean for us beyond the traditions we have created in manger scenes and candle-light services.


So, tonight I am going to reflect a little but on what I think Jesus’ birth can really mean for us. To do this, I am going to use a few of the scriptures that we heard this evening. The first scripture we heard was from Isaiah 9:2-7. This passage has a lot of strong imagery about light and darkness and it tells us that a child has been born to redeem us. It’s a scripture that was written in a period of great darkness, namely the Syro-Ephraimite War of 734 BCE. The Northern Kingdom of Israel had fallen and been conquered and the Southern Kingdom of Judah was in a very precarious political situation. Superpowers surrounded the tiny kingdom and threatened to devour a small nation that had already been wrecked by civil war and many other calamities.


Everyone here in this room has things that relate to this passage, even if we have never lived through a Civil War or been subject to the appetites of a superpower. We all have been in lands of great darkness, whether they have been of grief, loneliness, betrayal, or temptation. But in all of those moments a light still shines like the light that the Wise Men followed. Isaiah’s main question to us is whether or not we will make room for the Prince of Peace in our hearts so that we can follow the light and escape the darkness.


The passage from Titus is also interesting. For many of us, we may not have immediately thought of Christmas when we heard this passage read. And yet, this short passage helped explain the essential essence of the Gospel. The island of Crete (the original audience) was not too dissimilar from our own world. The people on that island nearly two-thousand years ago struggled with many of the things we struggle with and one of those things was the need to see and feel grace in our lives.


The message of Titus is, essentially, the message of how God’s grace transforms us. We can find liberation from our enslavement to fleshly and worldly passions, and perhaps even other concepts like alienation, because of Christ’s incarnation and his continuing work to transform us as a people through the work of his Spirit. And this is kind of a difficult thing to grasp sometimes and perhaps an even more difficult thing to feel because grace is invisible. It is a concept, an idea, like goodness, friendliness, hope, patience. In life we experience and observe such ideas and concepts only in bits and pieces. For example, when a person extends a hand to shake yours, you glimpse friendliness. When a person acts unruffled and unperturbed after you have made the person wait, you catch a vision of patience. But the idea itself does not itself ‘appear.’ However, that all changed in the incarnation. When Jesus was born in Bethlehem’s manger, he embodied the character and communication of God, now enfleshed for all to see.”[1]


We’re not too different from the people of Crete. “In spite of our lack of self-control, our disobedience, our passions and pleasures, our malice and envy, our controversies, divisions, and basically worthless lifestyle, God [came] to Crete! [And] God has come to us through Christ!”[2] “In this Bethlehem-born Christ, God makes grace visible by taking away our sin, forming us as a new people, and offering us a glorious and endless future.”[3] That’s what Titus makes of Christmas. For him, it’s a message of grace.


 Finally, we have Luke. This Christmas story has a lot to say, but there are some simple parts. First, it tells us that God is capable of dwelling among his people. Not only that, but God chooses to dwell with his people. He didn’t remain in an abstract realm of principles and universals, but came to live and die with mortals – even poor and outcast mortals. God with grace to our hardest times and our most vulnerable moments. Jesus knows our weaknesses and chooses to love us anyway. Jesus’ birth heralds a time, “characterized not by fear, but by the freedom and joy of the announcement ‘Do not be afraid,’ which is repeatedly proclaimed… political powers, in both Jesus’ day and our own, play on fear to get their way – whether it be the fear of the emperor, the fear of terrorists, the fear of the ‘other’ (the immigrant), or the fear of death.” But the new day that Luke announces, offers new possibilities. We are encouraged, just like the shepherds to “fear not” because God has a plan for us. And that is a light for our darkness.


That is, fundamentally, God’s grace. The grace that we see in Christmas is different than a lot of the religious notions we find elsewhere. It’s not like the cause and effect ideas intrinsic to early Judaism, covenants, or karma. With Jesus we don’t earn what we receive. Grace is different. It is unmerited love given to the undeserving. As Bono, the lead singer of U2 says, “Grace defies reason and logic… Love interrupts, if you like, the consequences of your actions.” None of us deserve the grace of Christmas. We didn’t earn it because we’re smart or socially well off. We are all equal in front of God. That’s why Jesus railed against dogmatism and self-righteousness.


Christians strive to be transformed by the grace that Jesus offers us in the incarnation. We, like Jesus, strive to have a special place in our hearts for those living in dark places – the shadows of society. But this can be hard. It’s hard to escape our natural inclinations. We all probably know people who have scars of ungrace inflicted upon them by a church. I, like you, mess up often. That’s why I look to the baby we remember tonight. That baby, who grew up to be a man showed us what grace means. It’s a weird combination of generosity, kindness and forgiveness, and empathy given without merit and that’s precisely why it’s powerful. May this grace of Jesus ease our fears and shine through all our dark places. Amen.

[1] Jack Jaberer, “Theologica Perspective on Titus 2:11-14” in Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year C, Vol. 1 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press), 112.

[2] Steven P. Eason, “Pastoral Perspective on Titus 2:11-14” in Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year C, Vol. 1 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press), 112.

[3] Jack Jaberer, “Theologica Perspective on Titus 2:11-14” in Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year C, Vol. 1 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press), 114.

Kadin Williams