[Note: It’s called a homily when it’s under ten minutes! I preached this message at the kid-friendly 3:00 Christmas Eve service. It’s based on Luke 2:1-20. You might recognize that this homily is mostly a Reader’s Digest version of last week’s sermon in Vinebranch. ]
When I was a child of eight, nine, ten, and eleven years old, I made it my mission to identify all of my Christmas presents before we opened them on Christmas Eve. I would look in closets, under beds, in drawers, in the trunks of cars—wherever my parents might have hidden things. I only had a brief window of time, however, in which to find presents before they were wrapped up and put under the tree.
After they were wrapped up, when no one was around, I would take the present from under the tree and hold it underneath a bright lamp light to see if I could make out any words or letters or pictures beneath the wrapping paper. Thank heavens for cheap, thin, nearly transparent wrapping paper! I would never unwrap the present and re-wrap it; I didn’t know how to wrap presents back then.
The point is, I was not a very patient child. I wanted to know what I was getting when Christmas Eve or Christmas morning rolled around. I didn’t like waiting.
In the background of today’s scripture, God’s chosen people, Israel, had been waiting a long time. They had been waiting a long time for an ancient promise that God had made to Abraham so many centuries earlier to come true: that God would bless Abraham with children and that through his descendents the world would be blessed. The Old Testament tells the story of Abraham, his descendents, and how this ancient promise was carried forward in time.
It’s a story filled with turmoil, strife, and military defeat, in which Israel’s existence is threatened time and again. There were times when it seemed as if God had forgotten that ancient promise, or Israel had proven too unruly and disobedient, but God remained faithful through it all. In fact, God sent prophets like Isaiah and Daniel to describe a better future that God had in store, not only for Israel, but for the world—one ruled by a different kind of king, a Messiah, who through his own suffering and death would defeat God’s enemies and establish God’s kingdom of justice, peace, and love. Isaiah describes this Messiah: “He shall judge between the nations, and shall arbitrate for many peoples; they shall beat their swords into ploughshares, and their spears into pruning-hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more” [Isaiah 2:4].
In today’s scripture, the children of Israel—including Mary and Joseph and these shepherds abiding in the fields—were waiting for this promised future to come to pass. And they understood that through the birth of Jesus, God’s promise was beginning to come true. That’s the good news. Or, as the angel announces to the shepherds, it’s “good news of great joy for all the people.”
Have you experienced this joy for yourself? You can! I first experienced this joy when I was 14 years old, on a youth group retreat in Black Mountain, North Carolina, near Montreat. On this retreat, I was overwhelmed by a sense that God loved me, that God accepted me, and that God wanted me to be a part of God’s family. I was aware that I was a sinner, but I also sensed that through Christ, God was offering me forgiveness. I made a profession of faith on that retreat, which means that I made public my decision to follow Jesus Christ, and I was later baptized. I knew at that time—and I’ve known ever since, through good times and bad—that God loves me, and that nothing, as Paul says, “neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate” me from this love in Christ Jesus our Lord [Romans 8:38-39]. And this promise is true for all of us who place our faith in Christ and are baptized.
This joy that we experience in Christ right now, however, isn’t yet complete. As we know too well, we still live in a world in which we are far from beating swords into ploughshares and spears into pruning-hooks. But we know that that day is coming because God has shown us our future in the resurrection of Jesus Christ, and we know that this future is good.
Knowing our good future on the other side of resurrection changes the way we live now. You know what it’s like? It’s like when I was a kid, before Christmas. I would take that wrapped Christmas present, which was addressed to me, and I would hold it under the bright lamplight, and I could see what was underneath the wrapping paper. I could see that, yes, I was getting that handheld Pac-Man video game that I wanted more than anything! (This was the early ’80s, mind you!) And it was such good news I couldn’t wait to call my friends and tell them all about it. I couldn’t keep it to myself. I wanted others to know about it!
In the same way, we Christians spend our lives sharing this good news with others. We do it, for example, the way a group of men from our church did it last weekend: by volunteering our Saturday to rebuild a dormitory down at the Methodist Children’s Home in Decatur. We do it by feeding homeless people under bridges in downtown Atlanta. We do it by going on mission trips to places like Honduras, Paraguay, and Mexico. We do it by inviting friends and neighbors to church, where they may experience for themselves this joy that we’ve experienced.
How is God calling you to share this “good news of great joy”? Having received this great gift, may God make us faithful in giving it away to others.