Luke 2:1-20 I preached on Christmas eve:
Imagine someone who knew little or nothing about Christmas trying to make sense of it given the mixed messages in American pop culture. Imagine for example, a Chinese exchange student who has just returned home after one semester here. He has been here for a little over half of December. He has seen lawn decorations. He has heard Christmas music at the mall. Maybe he’s seen a Christmas special or two on television. Let’s imagine his name is “Hu Zher”. How might Hu Zher try to describe the Christmas story to his friends back home who similarly know next to nothing about it? Given the competing stories and images floating around, maybe something like this:
A celestial being appeared on top of a tree to some shepherds announcing the auspicious birth of a boy-child of great destiny. The celestial being was so bright and colorful as to make a deep impression on the shepherds. They immediately cut down a tree and decorated it with lights. Ever since, Christians put trees in their homes as a memorial of this event and the birth of the boy-child, Jesus.
Jesus was born in a stable with a cow, some sheep, a donkey, and a deer with a bright red nose.
The baby Jesus is full of magic and glows. In his presence the animals talk, the deer flies, and piles of snow come to life and dance and sing and play.
Sages from far away came to honor the destiny child. They knelt before him and offered him gifts. The most famous sage who came to kneel before him was from the far north. He wore a fur-lined red suit. He brought a large bag of gifts for the baby Jesus. In return, the baby gives him the red-nosed deer. And ever since, in honor of this event, that sage, Santa Claus, who appears to be something like one of the immortals, roams the earth in December to give gifts to good children.
The baby was born to deliver people from a mean green monster called a Grinch who wanted to steal people’s joy.
Unlike Hu Zher, most of us are able to keep the several competing stories associated with Christmas a little less garbled and confused. But there are other stories that compete for our attention as well at this time of year. The pervasive story of consumption insists that our happiness – and the happiness of those we love – depends on buying and having the right things. More personally, many of us have been given stories about ourselves that might play more loudly this time of year – stories about our own inadequacy, our being unlovable, or our never quite measuring up. These stories can also confound our ability to hear clearly the Christmas story and leave us feeling garbled and confused.
Other things make this season feel garbled and confused. We hear about peace, and love, and the hopes and fears of all the years. But, the frenetic pace of the Christmas rush makes for little peace. We hope things will turn out wonderfully at our Christmas gatherings, but fear they won’t. And often enough, our gatherings remind us of the fragility or brokenness of our relationships, of our love.
I wonder if December isn’t just an intensification or a condensation of the condition of our lives more generally. The story of our lives is full of hopes and fears, of deep yearning for love and peace and joy. But often our lives and the world around us seem as garbled and confused as Hu Zher’s version of the Christmas story.
If we look at the ungarbled version of Jesus’ birth as recorded in the first two chapters of Luke, we have a sort of condensation of the whole gospel. They are a sort of overture of the essential themes that will be played out in the rest of the story of Jesus. This is particularly true of the angelic appearance to the shepherds: “An angel of the Lord stood before the shepherds, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. ‘Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.’” After declaring this good news and sending the shepherds to Bethlehem to see for themselves, the angel is joined by a heavenly choir singing, "Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!" And there we have a summary of the gospel. Through the angel, good news is made known to us that God favors us and has come to us as savior bringing peace and joy.
The first thing the angel says to the shepherds is the first thing God or God’s messenger always says when appearing to humans: “Do not be afraid.” We are finite creatures vulnerable to loss and pain and death. Confusion, fear, and anxiety – real and imagined – are part of our natural condition. At times they seem overwhelming, casting a shadow over our lives. But into the midst of our fear and anxiety, Jesus is born bringing the promise that God is with us in all things to strengthen and encourage and, ultimately, to deliver us from all that we fear. And nothing – nothing – can separate us from the love we know in Jesus. If this story is anything like true we can begin to live beyond fear. Brothers and sisters, hear it clearly tonight and carry it in your hearts forever: Do. Not. Be. Afraid.
But why do you suppose the shepherds were terrified in the first place? Given that they were probably not the most pious characters, maybe they felt the way we feel when we see a police car in our rear view mirror – have I done something wrong? And isn’t that often how we think about God? A cosmic ‘gotcha’ moment would be terrifying. But I wonder if it was something else: the glory of the Lord shown round about them. To be engulfed in the glory of the Lord would mean being engulfed in overwhelming power and goodness. But it would also mean being engulfed in the splendor of unbearable beauty and joy. I suspect Dante has it right when he suggests that being in the presence of those like the angel of the Lord, or in Dante’s case, Beatrice – to be in the presence of those who are saturated with divine glory would undo us. It is the bright, unbearable splendor of God’s beauty, goodness, and joy that overwhelms and terrifies the shepherds. Part of the good news the angel brings is that that beauty, goodness, and joy has been born in Bethlehem and this baby will make it possible for us to bear, and enter fully into, God’s beauty, goodness, and joy.
This is good news to all people. In Jesus, God has shown his favor – his loving, tender, attention. "For God so favored the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life” (John 3:16). God favors you. God cherishes you. God delights in you. God favors you and desires goodness, joy, and peace for you. Ponder that in your heart. God has demonstrated his favor towards us by being born in the midst of our sin-garbled and confused world as Savior, Messiah, and Lord that we might have life abundantly and eternally. That is good news of great joy for all the people.
This is good news of great joy. Jesus said he came that his joy may be in us, and that our joy may be full (John 15:11). God desires for you to be full of joy – not mere happiness or pleasure, but the deep and abiding sense of well-being knowing that life – your life – is good. With Jesus comes the promise that all that is unjoy in our lives and in the world can be undone.
This is good news of peace. Jesus said, “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid” (John 14:27). It is telling how often Jesus says “Peace be with you” or “Go in peace” or encourages people to focus on “the things that make for peace” (Luke 19:42). God desires peace for you and for the world – deep and abiding personal peace and contentment of spirit as well as peace between people and the end of violence. With Jesus comes the promise that all that is unpeace in our lives and in the world can be undone.
We will not go too far afield if we understand sin as the attitudes and behaviors in us and in the world that block, deny, or diminish joy and peace from our own selves and from one another. It is to address the unjoy and unpeace of the world, that Jesus was born. In Jesus, God’s favor, joy, and peace are manifest and made available to us. He has come to save us from all that is in us and all that is in the world that keeps us from entering fully into God’s favor.
We are like the shepherds – good news has been brought to us. The scriptures, the saints, and other witnesses are our angels. We can again and again go to the One born in our midst. His favor, joy, and peace can be born in our hearts, shape our lives, and transform our world. If you have never knelt before him, I encourage you tonight to come. If it has been a long time since you knelt before him, I encourage you tonight to come. And may we all, like the shepherds, leave tonight glorifying and praising God for all we have heard and seen. Let us make known what has been told to us. May his light shine in the garbled darkness and confusion of this world.
In the light of this story the stories of our lives become less garbled and confused. In the light of this story, new light shines on all other stories. All good stories reflect something of the light of the good news of great joy contained in this story – including those stories that compete with it this time of year, the stories that confused Hu Zher. For all who have felt like Rudolph – outcasts who have been laughed at, called names, and been excluded from joining in any “reindeer games,” you are welcomed into God’s favor, joy, and peace. For all who have felt frozen, cold, or lifeless, new life is possible. And all that is within us and in the world that blocks, denies, or rejects the favor, joy, and peace of God – all that is Grinch-like – can be transformed. Our hearts can expand threefold and more. Let there be no confusion. This story, the story of the birth of Jesus, is the assurance of God’s favor and the promise that all that is unjoy and unpeace is undone.
And that is good news of great joy for all the people.