[The Nativity, John Singleton Copley, circa 1777]
Year C, Christmas Eve, Luke 2:1-20
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost.
It may not be going to far to say that Christmas has always been an extremely difficult time of the year to preach the gospel. And that is because “It’s the most wonderful time of the year… With the kids jingle belling and everyone telling you Be of good cheer… It’s the most wonderful time of the year…”.
A lot of families and old friends are together again, generosity is at an annual high, even the hearts of Scrooges of the world open up, ministries of soup kitchens flourish, Christmas cards exhorting peace on earth and seasons greetings pack our mail boxes… and we are easily convinced that this is what Christmas is all about. So it’s simply difficult to preach the gospel because who wants to hear about sin with this around us? The gospel is about forgiveness of sins which, the Bible teaches, lies at the very heart of the Christmas message- “from the manger to the cross.”
Dietrich Bonheoffer, pastor and resistance fighter in Hitler’s Germany said in a letter from prison we have preserved, “If I should still be kept in this hole over Christmas, don’t worry about it.” And he went on to say he could keep the real meaning of Christmas more easily in prison than at home. What profound insight! It is not the human spirit that is rightly celebrated on this Holy Night, but the birth of the Incarnate Son of God who lived and died for our sins and rose again that he might deliver us from bondage.
One of the traditional readings for the last Sunday before Christmas is where we are told that the Angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and told him that Mary would bear a son, and that he should call his name Jesus. Why? “For he will save his people from their sins” (Matt 1:21).
Let me tell you a true story submitted too long ago by a mother. As Christmas approached each Sunday School student was asked to create a Christmas banner. The best banners were to be selected for the Children’s Christmas Pageant. On the Sunday the selections were made, the mother’s daughter, Vivian, returned home in tears. The other children in the class had laughed at her because her banner had missed the mark. What did the banner say? It said, “Mary had a little lamb.”
Now whether little Vivian had a full understanding of the profundity of her creation, I do not know. But when she said those words about Christmas, Mary had a little lamb, it was perfect praise and wisdom, because this little child in a manger, who was born for us, would indeed become the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.
It is helpful to remember that all through the long years of animal sacrifice God had driven home the lesson that in the divine purposes there could be transference of sin and guilt from the head of the guilty to the head of the innocent. Whenever a sinner brought the animal to the altar and laid his hand on the beast’s head, the lesson was plain: this stands in my place; this animal bears my sin. Yet the substitution was incomplete, for the will, or the conscious choice of the uncomprehending animal was not present. Jesus could do what no other animal sacrifice could ever do. In willing obedience to the Father, he tasted death for everyone.
Suppose all this is true – God taking on human flesh, entering time and human history for the primary purpose of dying a sacrificial death to take our sins once and for all- suppose it is all true. “By this, I don’t mean to suggest it is true only for those who believe it to be true, but what if it is objectively true. What difference would it make in your life?”
If you’re a regular to the Advent, then you know we often pull from life and ministry of Charles Haddon Spurgeon. He’s been called the Prince of Preachers, an Englishman born 1834. It’s estimated that he preached to over 10 million people in person and sometimes 10 thousand at one time. Now this was before preachers had the benefit of sound systems. In the late 1850s, a day before preaching before a large throng of people at the Crystal Palace (a 990,000 square foot cast-iron and plate-glass building erected in Hyde Park, London) Spurgeon went into the platform to test the acoustics. Now I would have said, “Testing 1,2,3,4” or whatever. Instead, with his famously strong voice cried out: Behold the Lamb of God which taketh away the sin of the world.
Well, there was somewhere in the palace space a workman who heard Spurgeon’s voice. And the workman would later tell how they were words sent from heaven. He had been smitten with guilt on account of all his sins, (which, by the way, according to the Bible, is the first work of the Holy Spirit, to convince each of us of our sins) and God had apparently been working on this man because these words grasped the man’s soul and not too long later, he found peace by understanding Jesus as the Lamb who took away his sin. The workman told his story to Spurgeon on his deathbed.
Someone told me recently, “I just don’t get all caught up in theological dogma.” As the days of our lives slip by, it is possible that a person might not get all caught up in the true theology behind this “most wonderful time of the year.” And with eggnog in hand still want his or her Christmas to be a time for proclaiming peace and good will (not peace because of the birth of Jesus as the Lamb of God who takes away our sin giving us peace with God; not that, just “peace and good will”, a kind of mantra for postmodern America.)
So it is possible, at least for a while, to ignore the real meaning of Christmas. That is, as long as the internal and external events of my life proceed according to my plans; as long as I can keep at bay all forms of guilt from years of things done and left undone; as long as I can gloss over the world’s darkness to which the prophet Isaiah has alluded; as long as I can fend off the awareness that one day I too will die. For that long I can get by in this world without concerning myself with the truest meaning of Christmas.
But as soon as anything breaks through my delusional reality; as soon as guilt robs me of my peace, as soon as death threatens me, then absolutely nothing will matter more than the theological truth behind the Nativity.
Few have summed it up better than Martin Luther in the concluding words of a sermon written in 1535: Look at the Holy Child… a babe, playing in the lap of his most gracious mother… Who is there, whom this sight would not comfort? Now is overcome the power of sin, death, hell, conscience, and guilt, if you come to this gurgling babe and believe that he has come, not to judge you, but to save.
There, at the heart of the church’s faith, we will rediscover the true inspiration for Christmas and its lights and trees and jingle-bells. There we will understand why we should indeed sing gleefully, feast in our homes and work in a soup kitchen. There we will understand the source of all love and opened hearts. And then, even living in a broken and confused world, facing the possibility of diseases, loss of loved ones, terrorist attacks and Lord knows what else, we can, thanks to hope offered by the real meaning of Christmas, ‘sleep in heavenly peace’.
May God draw reluctant hearts and now give doubting souls courage to believe this, for Jesus’s sake. Amen.