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Sunday, December 25, 2016

Christmas Eve Sermon (2016)

The Earth Shall See Salvation (Isaiah 52:7-10)

Christmas Eve, December 24, 2016, 5:00PM

            Good news!
            Break forth into singing!
            At the return of the Lord, sing and shout for joy!
            All the ends of the earth shall see the salvation of our God!  Among the other sentiments we share on this night, a reading from Isaiah sets the spiritual mood.  In celebrating the birth of Jesus, we recite the arrival of God’s salvation plan.  The prophet Isaiah bellows words that echo across history, and we Christians believe there is unique meaning in this Old Testament prophet’s expression, and that meaning is found in Jesus.  “God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life.”  Or as Isaiah says, “All the ends of the earth shall see salvation.” All need it because we are lost in sin, and God loves us and thus sent Jesus for all of us. 
            We sing of our salvation in our Christmas songs.  We also retell the story when we sing these songs. 
When we sing (tune of ‘O Little Town of Bethlehem’), for Christ is born of Mary, and gathered all above, while mortals sleep the angels keep their watch of wond’ring love, we are singing Luke’s story.  Luke’s telling of Jesus’ birth is the point of view that gives us angels and mangers and shepherds.  In Luke’s Gospel, the Father of John the Baptist, Zechariah, meets an angel.  An angel appears to Mary.  Joseph and Mary make the periled journey from Galilee, headed south but also climbing over mountains, thus headed “up” to Bethlehem.  Upon arrival, they find crowded inns and end up, probably in a family home, which included a feed trough for animals, the manger.  This is in Luke.
            Matthew tells of dreams.  Joseph dreams.  The wise men had dreams.  There is none of this dreaming in Luke.  Matthew tells of the visitors following the star and a flight to Egypt.  Wise men, Joseph, dreams, Herod – that’s all Matthew. 
Mark skips the birth stories altogether.  He begins his gospel with Jesus’ baptism. 
John, on the other hand, goes back, way back before even Genesis.  John says, that “in the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God.  And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.”  However, after John gives that cosmic perspective, he too skips ahead to Jesus and John the Baptist and the recruitment of disciples. 
            Of the four gospels, Luke provides most of the imagery we envision at Christmas and sing in our songs.  Matthew definitely finds his way into our Christmas songbook.  We three kings of orient are.  Bearing gifts we traverse afar.  That’s Matthew and there are others from Matthew.   But most of the Christmas hymns tell Luke’s story.  Including the ones we’ve sung tonight.
            The First Noel, the angels did say, was to certain poor shepherds in fields as they lay.  That’s Luke.
            Away in a manger, no crib for his bed.  The little Lord Jesus lay down his sweet head.  Again, Luke.  We sing the second chapter of Luke more than any other passage in scripture, except maybe the Psalms.  I find it beautiful.  To me these are some of the most familiar, comforting, and meaningful worship songs we have.  People will refer them as ‘Christmas carols,’ and that’s not bad thing.  I have no problem with that wording.  But I don’t talk about that way. 
To me, Away in a Manger is a worship song.   Be near me Lord Jesus, I ask thee to stay.  Close by me forever, and love me I pray.  In difficult times, I pray that prayer.  God, please be with me.  Guide me through this.  Help me with the struggles I face and the obstacles to be overcome.  I love that Luke’s moving storytelling has inspired songs so familiar, we can sing them by heart.  In doing so, we tell the story Isaiah prophesied – the joyous proclamation of salvation in the coming of Jesus.
I have to mention that my wife gave me a Christmas warning.  She said, “Listen.  I’ve had enough of the heavy sermons.  They’re good, but, it is Christmas.  I need baby Jesus.  I need Mary and Joseph.  I need a manger.  I need to hear about peace and joy.”  I have been so instructed, and not just by her.  Years ago, before I even started in ministry, I was exploring the idea of being a pastor.  So, I visited a seminaries across the east, including the Candler School of Theology at Emory University in Atlanta.  There, I sat in on the preaching class.  The professor told her students, would-be pastors, “When you’re preaching at Easter, talk about the resurrection.  Don’t try to get too creative.  At Easter, talk about the empty tomb.  When you’re preaching on Christmas Eve, mention Bethlehem and baby Jesus.”
Tonight, I have tried to abide by that professor’s instruction and more importantly, my wife’s direct admonition.  This is the night we celebrate Jesus’ birth.  This is the night we rejoice and thank God for Jesus’ coming.  On this night, we read Isaiah’s words – “Break forth together into singing you ruins of Jerusalem; for the Lord has comforted His people; he has redeemed Jerusalem” (52:9).  And when we read Isaiah 52, we link his promise with the fulfillment in the coming of Jesus.  It all comes together.
As it does, telling moves into confessing.  “To know the risen Lord is not only to give an account of something that happened in the past.  It is an interior knowing that transforms the knower.”[i] 
Church historian Robert Louis Wilken observed that 2nd century Christians felt that only by believing in God and following Jesus could they understand God.  Their theology proceeded from their belief before it was worked out in their intellect.  When they attempted to explain Christianity, it was never simply an academic exercise in which they developed their theology.  Origin, Tertullian, Augustine – their theology was a product of their personal faith.  In some cases, they died for their confessions of faith in Jesus and were glad to do so. 
The word martyr actually means witness.  Once we decide to follow Jesus, the story becomes our story, and every example of Christian witness comes in the first person.  Beyond sharing information, our telling of the great drama of scripture is our confession what God has done in our lives. 
This night, I have tried to recite the story of Jesus’ birth.  Through our favorite, familiar songs, we have rehearsed the story we know so well.  Even non-church people have some familiarity with it.  We have read the scriptures.  I have spoken of Joseph and Mary and the manger.
Now, in order for this to be true proclamation, more than mere quaint narrating, I have to be a witness.  I have to tell what I have experienced in my own life.  I have to bear my soul because for me Christmas Eve is more than tradition, more than habit, and more than a necessary task of being a church leader.  Christmas Eve worship is a part of my life as a follower of Jesus.  Apart from God, my life makes no sense.
The coming of the Lord in human flesh, Jesus of Nazareth, is the coming of salvation.  And I stand before you as a man who needs, or who needed, to be saved.  I won’t give a line item accounting of my sins.  There are too many – and at the same time, there are none.  I know I have lived of life in which I made mistakes that absolutely cut me off from God.  I know that. 
Yet, I do not dwell on it because this Savior whose birth we rejoice has saved me.  I have confessed those sins and Jesus has nailed my sins to the cross.  That’s where my sins and my death are.  I stand in joy that only grows deeper and richer over time because with each passing year, I grow in my relationship with God in Jesus Christ.  This is not my accomplishment.  I am not bragging.  I am testifying.  I am singing and dancing.  I thrilled.  The life I have in the Lord is a gift God gives and then renews all the time.  The joy that grows is something God is growing in me as a gift to me.  God offers that gift to all.  In addition to testifying, singing, and dancing, I am inviting you.
The birth of Jesus, the birth of my salvation, is the birth of yours too.  Christmas marks God’s announcement.  All who know they are sinners can turn to Jesus, be forgiven and be adopted as sons and daughters of God.  If you have never given your life to Christ and received His grace, you can do so tonight.  You can come talk to me afterward and together, we’ll pray for your heart to be opened and the Holy Spirit of God to come in.  Jesus’ birthday can be the day you are born again.
Then, the story of it will be your story – the memory of your new life.  When you share that story, you are right there with the angels and the shepherds.  Whatever baggage has weighed down your soul is lifted by God’s love as God makes you new.  And like me, for you, telling the story is no longer narrating.  It is confessing.  You become the martyr – the witness – who testifies that the Lord is good and that in Jesus His Kingdom has come.
I titled this Christmas Eve message “The Earth Shall See Salvation.”  This is how it happens.  People like you and me tell the story of God.  This Christmas Eve Bethlehem chapter is but one installment.  When we tell it, we tell it as confession because we are saved and the story is ours.  Our telling is testimony.  People hear our testimony and the Holy Spirit works in their hearts.  They realize their need for God.  They confess their sins, receive Jesus into their hearts, and are born again.  Then they are testifying witnesses.  God is good and we can have life in his name.  And on and on, the Gospel – Good News – spreads until the Earth has seen salvation. 

(We conclude our service by singing “Silent Night”).

[i] Robert Louis Wilken (2003), The Spirit of Early Christian Thought

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