Christmas Eve Sermon 2012: “A Christmas Kind of Faith”

A young parishioner made this for me during my sermon on Sunday.

Sermon Text: Luke 2:1-20

Click here to listen to an .mp3. The following is my original sermon manuscript.

Since I became an adult, I have been afflicted with recurring bad dreams. They’re mostly related to academic insecurities. For example, in one of these dreams, I get a call one day—out of the blue—from the principal of my high school. I’m sure he’s long since retired now—and, in fact, my high school is now a middle school—but in my dream it’s still a high school, and he’s still the principal. He informs me that there was a mistake in the record-keeping back in 1988 when I graduated, and, as it happens, I’m going to have to go back to high school in order to receive all the necessary credits I need to earn my diploma. And, oh, by the way… If I don’t go back to high school, they’re going to call Georgia Tech and call Emory University and have them take away the three degrees that I have between those two schools. I’m pretty sure my high school can’t really do that, but in my dream they can.

Some of you are like, “I would love to go back to high school—knowing what I know now! Youth is wasted on the young!” And I know what you mean. It might be fun to go back if I could be 17 again, but in my dream I have to go back as a 42 year old! That would not be fun. 

So here I am in my dream, a 42 year old man walking the halls of my high school— trying to remember my locker combination, cramming for a History midterm, rushing to class before the bell rings. It’s ridiculous, right? But it’s so real… This is hardly a terrifying nightmare or anything, but when I wake up—after I slowly regain my senses—I am so relieved that this was only a dream. Whew! It was just a dream! 

I didn’t read from Matthew’s Christmas story just now, but you probably remember the highlights: Mary tells her fiancé Joseph that she’s pregnant—and, of course Joseph knows that he’s not the father. And he knows the facts of life. Sure, Mary said something about an angel visiting her, and God working a miracle within her, and how she’s going to give birth to the Son of God—but Joseph didn’t believe her. Who would? So he decides to quietly break off their engagement. Before he can do so, however, an angel visits him and convinces him otherwise—that Mary’s story, as hard as it is to swallow, is true.

Except… there’s a little more to it than that. You see, the angel doesn’t just show up one day out of the blue, nicely backlit with a halo, like Roma Downey in Touched by an Angel. No. The angel comes to Joseph the same way the principal from my old high school comes to me… in a dream, in a crazy, crazy dream. Yet somehow, Joseph had to have the faith and the insight and the wisdom to discern that this wasn’t just another crazy dream like so many others—that the messenger in his dream wasn’t the result of some spicy food he ate the night before but was actually the voice of God,telling him that his new mission, should he choose to accept it, was going to completely turn his life upside down.

Here’s what I can’t get over: What prevented Joseph from waking up from that crazy dream—the way I wake up from my crazy dreams—and thinking, “Whew! It was just a dream!” No one could blame him if he did. His life certainly would have been easier! Instead, he took the risk to believe, which wasn’t easy. But the truth is, a Christmas kind of faith is never easy.

Or consider Mary. We remember from Luke chapter 1 how faithful she was in responding to the message from the angel Gabriel. Because when Gabriel told her the startling, frightening, incredible news that she would be God’s chosen instrument for bringing the Son of God into the world, she responded with those poignant, inspiring words of faith from Luke 1:38: “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” In Mary we have no shadow of doubt, no wrestling with angels, no dark night of the soul. God calls, she answers, and she lived happily ever after, right? Yeah, right! In fact, I only just noticed recently that there’s this second part of v. 38 that no one ever talks about. After Mary says, “Let it be with me according to your word,” the text reads: “Then the angel departed from her.”

And guess what? This is the very last time that Mary would ever see an angel. The shepherds see angels on Christmas night, according to the text I read earlier, and they tell Mary and Joseph about it. But Mary will have no more miraculous experiences at least until the resurrection of her son. Instead, Mary is left alone with her thoughts. Left alone to contemplate what will at times be the difficult and dark journey ahead of her—a journey that, unfortunately, she will mostly have to take alone. Remember what Simeon tells Mary in the temple, shortly after Jesus was born? “A sword will pierce your own soul, too.” Mary was destined to experience a lot of pain as part of her journey of faith…

And the pain was going to start right away—for instance, when she had to have that difficult conversation with her fiancé: “I’m pregnant, Joseph. But let me explain!” And when Joseph was deciding to break up with her, there were no angels around to comfort her, to reassure her, to remind her that she’s playing an important role in God’s saving plan. No. She must have felt very alone. Do you think that was easy? No. But a Christmas kind of faith is never easy.

A week ago Saturday, after the events of Newtown, a high school classmate messaged me on Facebook. She knew I was a Methodist pastor, and she herself was a lapsed Methodist. Not a churchgoer anymore but still struggling to believe. She messaged me and said, “I’m asking this in all seriousness: How do you begin to celebrate Christmas in the wake of what happened in Connecticut yesterday?” Well… It was a good question. After all, a Christmas kind of faith is never easy.

I reminded her first that Christians ought to be the most realistic people on the planet about evil—about its reality, its pervasiveness, its intractability. This is the very evil, after all, that God sent his Son into the world to defeat. And on the cross he defeated it. But someone might object: “Yeah, but evil is still here. It’s not clear that the world is any better than it was 2,000 years ago. We’re not making much progress as human beings.” And I agree, but that’s beside the point: The Bible also teaches us that we won’t experience the victory that Jesus won over sin, evil, and death in all its fullness until the other side of resurrection.

One pastor and blogger, reflecting on Newtown, said that he believed that the first second in eternity will undo the very worst that evil can do in a lifetime. All I can say is, I hope so. But one thing I believe, deep in my bones, is that God is going to make this right. After all, isn’t Newtown at the very center of the Christmas story: when King Herod, hearing reports of a rival king born in Bethlehem, sent soldiers there to murder every boy two-years-old and younger? And God knows there have been Newtowns every Christmas since then.

You may have seen that a week ago Sunday, when the New York Giants played the Falcons and lost, Giants’ wide receiver Victor Cruz wrote, “Jack Pinto, ‘My Hero,’” on his cleats and gloves.This six-year-old child, a victim of Newtown, was probably Cruz’s biggest fan. Last Tuesday, with as little publicity as is possible for a celebrity athlete, Cruz visited Jack Pinto’s family. He played touch football with Jack’s brother and family—and the kids in Jack’s neighborhood. I’m deeply moved by that gesture. That’s love, isn’t it? And it’s powerful. I was fighting back tears when I read about it.

And, look, I know… maybe this visit by Cruz was only a small gesture in the grand scheme of things. But consider this: If even this one small gesture of love—this tiny baby step in the direction of Christ-like love—can be this powerful, just think what the cross of Jesus Christ can do. And just think what we the church can do—armed as we are with the very Spirit of this same Jesus Christ, this Spirit of perfect love, each of us working together to shine God’s bright, invincible light into a darkness that can never snuff it out.

Brothers and sisters, all the Herods of the world put together don’t stand a chance!

So, in this very first Christmas, which we remember and celebrate this evening, God proclaims hope in the midst of tragedy and suffering and unspeakable evil—and tonight we gladly and joyfully do the same! We join the multitude of the heavenly host, and we join those shepherds abiding in the fields, and we offer our loud and grateful praise as we hear the herald angel’s good news once spoken once again: “Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord.”

Lord Jesus, by the power of your Spirit, let each one of us know this joy, today and throughout our lives. Amen.

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