This was never preached. Our associate pastor preached Christmas Eve and did a wonderful job. In a post coming up, I will talk more about how difficult it has been to preach this Christmas-Advent of 2012.
Monday, December 24, 2012
We have journeyed through lent with Old Testament prophets Jeremiah, Malachi, Zephaniah, and Micah as our guides. Jeremiah showed that God is judge, but not just for condemnation. Malachi spoke of God refining those who will come in repentance, and Jesus is the primary means by which this purification comes about. In Zephaniah, we see God as victorious Lord and King. And Micah gives us word of the protecting God who watches over us.
It is time to move from the prophets to the Gospel – and we need good news as much as we ever have. We are little more than a week removed from the horrific school-shooting in Connecticut. Former Arkansas governor and presidential candidate Mike Huckabee who was a pastor before he became a politician said that the tragedy should not surprise us because we have kept God out of our schools and government and military. By keeping God out, we invite Hell to break loose.
Huckabee’s comment might be seen as a crass move; he used the senseless awful death to promote his political agenda that marries a certain type of Christian expression with a certain type of political expression. I think Huckabee is probably sincere in his desire to see a ‘Christianizing’ or he might say a ‘re-Christianizing’ of public institutions in America. While his statements in my view were poorly timed and as a pastor he should have taken a more caring approach, I don’t question his sincerity.
I just don’t see things as he does. But, I completely agree with one comment he made although I probably mean something different than what he intended. Huckabee said, “We don’t have a crime problem, a gun problem, or even a violence problem. What we have is a sin problem.”
I heard left-leaning political opinions react the shooting with the opposite position of Huckabee, declaring this tragedy was exactly the result of a gun problem. Lack of gun control was the cause. I don’t agree that what happened in Connecticut was a result of poor gun control and I am not getting into gun control politics this evening. I merely point it out to show that both sides of the political aisle weighed in the wake of the tragedy when in fact prayer and caring were needed more than politicizing.
Back to Huckabee though, I agree 100% with his “we have a sin problem” line. I suspect when he said “we,” he meant “America.” When I say we have a sin problem, I mean all of humanity.
The Connecticut school shooting makes this glaringly obvious. So too does a story that was in the Raleigh News and Observer the same day as the reporting on the Connecticut tragedy. A homeless man was found dead – murdered and left in a trash can. Five people were arrested for murder but none were named in the paper because they are each minors. Four are 15 and one is 13. When I was that age I was afraid of sassing my parents or disrespecting a teacher. These are children, and they’re under arrest for murder.
The story is local, not national news, but it is just as tragic. So too is the fighting in Syria and the Gaza strip – two separate wars, and both awful. That children suffer from hunger and malnutrition is just as bad. We could go on and on. Yes, we need to tonight, this very moment, move from the prophets, and they also contain gospel, to the four gospels. Since it is Christmas Eve, we specifically must find comfort, hope, truth – all of in Luke chapter 2.
There we meet those who are near the bottom of the social ladder – the shepherds. Their work made them ceremonially unclean. By doing the work that put bread in their mouths – work with sheep, work needed by everyone in society – they were disqualified from worship. And no one in the temple missed them or questioned how the system had become so unfair and unjust that human beings were seen as unworthy of coming before God for prayer and worship.
The shepherds are spending the night outside, watching over the sheep, doing their thing. They did this in the rain. They did it on cold nights. They are out on this night, and heavenly beings come calling. My nights are spent in an extremely comfortable bed. I have done my share of camping. I know what wonders and sometimes deceptions the wilderness at night can bring, but I am softened suburbanite who would have trouble with the toughness of these shepherds. They handled much that would either scare me or kill me.
But Luke is quite clear in his telling of their reaction to the angels. The glory of the Lord shone on them and they were terrified. I don’t know how you act when fear becomes the dominant and only discernible feeling in you. I lose my ability to think clearly. These hardened shepherds did not have their wits. They trembled violently and were out of control. But the angel told them he was bringing good news of great joy for all people.
Then the angel said something they would have probably found surprising. “To you is born this day a savior in the city of David who is the Messiah, the Lord.” There was plenty of messiah talk. It means ‘anointed one.’ Many would-be messiahs had been crucified by Rome in the years leading up to this night. Messiah-talk was not uncommon, nor was it uncommon to associate the Messiah with David.
What was not so common was to call this Messiah “the Lord.” The first century expectation was that the Christ, a translation that means Messiah, Lord’s anointed, would be set apart by God. They did not think the Messiah would come from God or would be God. They weren’t thinking they would be calling this one “the Lord.” Nor is it clear what is meant by ‘Savior.’
But, when we read the story of Christ’s birth with the thoughts of all Jesus did and does, then we realize Luke 2:11 is right at the center of this story. The idea of the birth of a Savior, the Savior is at the heart of Christmas and is the hope for all people. For left-leaning political voices who want guns banned, Jesus is savior. For right-leaning politicians who demand that God – their version of God – be allowed back in school, Jesus is savior. For the victims and victims’ families in Connecticut, Jesus is savior. For the five young teenagers who face murder charges, Jesus is savior.
Turn in Luke, just two chapters over to Luke 4. He begins his public ministry saying “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free,19to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” Of course he is quoting the prophet Isaiah, words expected to come true when the Messiah arrived. He follows up this audacious prophecy with the simple announcement that the day Isaiah anticipated has arrived with his arrival.
The angel told the shepherds a Savior had been born. In Jesus we see what kind of salvation the Savior brings: … release to those in bondage; … recovery to those who hurt and suffer; … freedom from oppression.
A passage that accompanies Luke 2 in the lectionary readings for Christmas Eve is from Paul’s letter to Titus, Titus chapter 2. Verse 11 says the grace of God has appeared bringing salvation to all. Continuing into Titus 3, “He saved us … according to his mercy. … He poured out [His] Spirit on us abundantly through Jesus Christ our Savior.”
Through the forgiveness of sin and the giving of mercy without end, through the pouring out of the Holy Spirit, and through word we have in the Gospel, God has extended the gift of eternal salvation to all of us. All people who will respond to his gift of grace are saved.
What does this mean in the wake of tragic events like the ones we have mentioned? Those of us who have become followers of the Savior come alongside the sufferers in Connecticut. We are a hand to hold and a shoulder to cry on. We visit and pray, and we do this for the victims and for the wounded family members of the killer. They are horrified at an entirely different level. We Christ-followers, filled with the Spirit and filled with grace, come alongside the families of these teens who are likely facing prison time for committing the ultimate of crimes – murder.
Sin is still in the world, cooperating with Satan to wreak havoc on humankind. Mike Huckabee is 100% correct. Our primary problem is a sin problem. What it means that the Savior has come is that His followers, the people who make up His church, are in the world to show the way to Him. And we make special time and effort to do this in times of tragedy.
It means also that we have good news when we go through difficulty. I wonder, who is going through their first Christmas after the divorce? Bringing up that issue is not a statement of judgment on your particularly, if you are in that situation. Divorce is one result of sin in the world.
Another sign of sin is death. Who is going through their first Christmas after the funeral, after the beloved family member has died? Christmas this year is different than it has been in a long time. Or Christmas is hard because a relationship with a son or with a brother is in crisis. Many who are already in pain feel their hurt magnified by the Christmas joy everyone else seems to feel. How can everyone be so happy when I hurt so much?
The angel who terrified and then amazed the shepherds is here for you with a message of good news about great joy. Jesus is Savior and He came for you. His Spirit comforts. He promises that death is not the end. If sin is destroying your life, he reminds that He forgives all sin and His grace is sufficient for you. It does not mean the hurt evaporates magically. Wounds take time to heal and some don’t clear up until we get to that transformed place, the new Heaven and Earth that come together and there are no more tears. Some pain is not assuaged until then.
But, we have the promise of Heaven and the hope of Jesus’ return. We can count on those things. We can also count on his Holy Spirit carrying us through the hardest of times. He will work through the church. And this night, He works through Christmas Eve worship where we sing the familiar songs and hear the story that even non-church goers know a bit.
It is the story of a savior. It is a very specific story about something very specific that God does. God accomplishes this in a particular way. We don’t proclaim a kind of general, nondescript good news. God saves in coming to us, God in the flesh, Jesus. His birth is the birth of the Savior. If this Christmas is hard for you, you can count on this. God saves. If this Christmas is awesome for you and you are full of joy, then you have a story to share. God saves.
May we, as we worship recognizes our need for salvation. And then, may we know with certainty that our need is met in Jesus, the God who saves.