Merry Christmas! I delivered the following homily last night at HUMC for our Christmas Eve services. I’ve emphasized on this blog recently that we don’t have Christmas without the cross, which is a theme of this sermon.
Sermon Text: Luke 2:1-20
So, if you were here last Sunday, we looked at the movie Miracle on 34th Street, the original with Natalie Wood. At one point in the film, Kris Kringle gives his enemy a well-deserved whack on the head with an umbrella. We don’t think of Santa having “anger management” issues, but apparently he does.
But maybe we shouldn’t be surprised by this: I heard something just last week that I had never heard before: It turns out that St. Nicholas—the one and only St. Nick, a fourth-century Turkish bishop who we now know as Santa Claus—attended the Council of Nicaea in the fourth century. The Council of Nicaea was where the Nicene Creed came from. It’s where the church formulated the doctrine of the Trinity. The council had to meet in the first place because a pastor from North Africa named Arius—who we now know as the most important heretic in church history—was preaching and teaching that Jesus wasn’t fully God. And people were believing him. So the church called a big meeting to work it out theologically from scripture.
My point is, while he was attending this council, the one-and-only St. Nick apparently punched Arius in the face.
Now, I know… Someone who’s a saint ought to “turn the other cheek” and all that, but if anyone deserved to be punched, surely it was history’s worst heretic, right?
St. Nick punched someone. It’s surprising, isn’t it?
Tonight’s scripture is full of surprises. It’s surprising that the world’s true king, Jesus, was born not in a palace fit for Caesar in the world’s capital, but in a barn in a small town on the eastern frontier of the Empire. It’s surprising that Caesar’s plan to increase tax revenue in his empire was being used by God as the most important part of God’s rescue plan for the world. It’s surprising that the angels didn’t announce the good news of Christ’s coming to the rich, powerful, well-educated elites but to poor, dirty, and smelly shepherds. I’m the sure the shepherds were surprised that during what should have been just another day at the office, they would instead have the most profound encounter with God. And then Mary and Joseph were surprised when the shepherds came to them and told them about the spectacular angelic light show they’d just witnessed!
Christmas is full of surprises…
Please notice that our scripture doesn’t begin, “Once upon a time.” And even though it features a powerful emperor who’s been corrupted by the “dark side,” it doesn’t even begin, “Long ago, in a galaxy far, far away…” No, Luke wants us to know that the story he’s about to tell isn’t a fairy tale or a fantasy: it took place at a certain time in history, in a certain place, involving these real, historical figures. If you’re tempted to imagine that the Christmas story is some sort of cozy fable meant to make us feel warm and fuzzy about “peace on earth, good will toward men,” think again.
God sent his Son into the real world—our world—and although much has changed in 2,000 years, well… unfortunately, much has stayed the same.
As you probably know, we’re celebrating a terrible anniversary this season. This time last year, Christmas took place in the shadow of the events of New Town, Connecticut. I have a high school classmate and Facebook friend—who at the time was just barely hanging on to Christian faith—who sent me a message on Facebook, desperately wanting to know: “How can I celebrate Christmas in the face of what happened in Newtown yesterday?” To which I said, “Well, the same way that Mary and Joseph, and the shepherds, and the wise men celebrated the first Christmas—in the tragic shadow of sin, and suffering, and violence, and death.”
Think about Caesar’s local representative in the area, King Herod. When he found out that a “rival king” had been born, he dispatches his soldiers to kill every male child in Bethlehem under the age of two—probably dozens of infants. Doesn’t that sound like Newtown and a thousand other places in our world?
No, the Christmas story takes place in the real world, a broken world like ours, so often filled with senseless violence and suffering and injustice—a world into which God sent his Son Jesus to save… to heal… and to judge. Among other things, Christmas means that there will come a day when the Herods of the world will finally receive the justice they so richly deserve.
I confess this aspect of the Christmas story gets easily lost in our secularized, feel-good, pop-culture Christmases… Notice all these TV shows and movies talk about finding the “true meaning of Christmas”—and by that “true meaning” they usually mean what? Valuing one’s family… helping those in need… being generous rather than greedy… putting people ahead of possessions… making the world a more peaceful place. And all these things are perfectly good, but they actually don’t get at the heart of what Christmas means.
You know what does get at the heart of it? This song that the angels sing in verse 14: In the familiar King James Version it reads, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.” That makes it sound like the angels are just so happy, that they’re pronouncing peace and good will toward everyone everywhere. But if that were the case, what good would it do us now? After all, where were peace and goodwill in Newtown a year ago? Where are peace and goodwill today in war-torn areas like South Sudan or a dozen other nations? Closer to home, where are peace and goodwill when we lose our loved ones, when we lose our jobs, when our hearts get broken, when we face divorce or bankruptcy or troubling news from the doctor?
Whatever this peace and goodwill is, it better be something deeper, more permanent than what we normally think of when we think about peace and goodwill!
Fortunately it is… We now know that “peace on earth, good will toward men” in the King James isn’t the best translation. Today, nearly every modern Bible translates the angels’ song, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace”—but not to just everyone. But to those on whom God’s favor rests!”
And who exactly are those people? The people who receive the gift of love, and forgiveness, and reconciliation, and eternal life that God made possible by sending his Son into the world at Christmas!
Think about it: From the beginning of the Christmas story, even when Jesus was this sweet little baby, the world could not make room for him—“No room at the inn.” So he was sent outside, to a barn, a stable, a place of humility and shame… Rejected by the world from the beginning… When Christ came into the world it was as if Satan said, “This world isn’t big enough for the both of us… One of us will have to go.” And Satan conspired with all the evil forces in the world so that this child, rejected by the world, wrapped in strips of cloth and laid in a humble wooden manger would grow up to be a man rejected by the world, laid on a humble wooden cross, wrapped in strips of cloth, and laid in a tomb.
It must have seemed to Satan that he had won… Wasn’t he in for a surprise?
On the cross, God the Son, Jesus Christ, endured the greatest possible evil in the world in order to transform it into the greatest possible good: Jesus Christ lived the life we were unable to live and died the death that we deserved to die. And he was raised in order to give us new and eternal life.
Now, we who Paul says in Romans 5 were “enemies of God” now have peace with God. Peace with God. We are now the ones on whom God’s favor rests—not because of what we’ve done. We can’t earn God’s gift of salvation! It’s a completely free gift. God’s favor now rests on us because of what God has done.
And this is the kind of peace that those angels were telling the shepherds about.
Notice the words that the angels use to describe Jesus include Savior and Lord. You probably didn’t know that Caesar Augustus also used those titles. So from the world’s perspective, Caesar was Savior and Lord.
So the scripture is presenting us with a choice: Will we place our trust in our true Savior and Lord, or one of the world’s many inferior rivals?
It doesn’t have to be a another person or god that we worship. One “rival” Lord and Savior for me, especially this time of year, is electronic gadgets. Just last week my wife, Lisa, hinted that she might want a particular gadget. She said, “You think we need this?” And I’m like, “Absolutely we do! Are you kidding?” I do this all the time. If Lisa said to me, “Brent, I think we should get an LG 84-inch Cinema 3D Smart TV with six pairs of 3D glasses,” and I’d be like, “Absolutely we should!” “But it costs $16,999 on Amazon.” And I’d be like, “Yeah, but we get free shipping so… it’s totally worth it.” I’m tempted to do this all the time… I think, “If I have this electronic gadget, then I will be happy and fulfilled and at peace. Why do I think those will satisfy me? So that’s a rival
Are there things in your life are acting as rival “saviors” and “lords”? If so, come and see the sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger.
Do you see the sign?