December 24, 2021
Isaiah 9:2-7 Psalm 96 Titus 2:11-14 Luke 2:1-20
The wait is over – it’s Christmas! In the Jewish tradition, the day begins at sunset – thus the reason our Christmas season begins on Christmas Eve. Tonight, we celebrate new life – new life in the birth of Jesus and the new life that Jesus offers to those who follow him. Three of our four gospels tell of his coming onto the earth, each with a different focus. Tonight, we heard Luke’s account in which an angel appears to the shepherds and tell of Jesus’ birth. In Matthew, the three wise men from the East follow a star to bring gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. John is altogether different; I’ll talk about that on Sunday when we will read his gospel. Mark simply begins with John the Baptist announcing the coming of Christ, followed by the baptism of Jesus where a voice from above is heard to say, “You are my Son, the Beloved, with you I am well pleased.”
The stories in Luke and Matthew have been combined into one story that we know from Christmas pageants and plays. After Jesus is born, the shepherds (from Luke’s story) arrive, and then the three wise men (from Matthew’s story) come onto the scene riding their camels. When I was in grade school, I was a wise man – I was disappointed that I did not get to carry the gold, but I did get to carry the myrrh, I was disappointed, too, that I didn’t get to ride a camel. I was glad; however, that I wasn’t Joseph – all he did was walk onto the set with Mary. I got to sing a solo as I approached the stage – the third verse from We Three Kings: “Myrrh is mine, its bitter perfume …” The kid that carried the gold – a cheap costume jewelry necklace, didn’t sing very loud, so my teacher told me to join in if need be. Our Christmas pageants can be fun, and like the crèche, can serve as a reminder of the event that changed the world and that is still changing our world.
The story of the nativity is more than fun, each gospel story is filled with meaning. And, since I just read from Luke, let’s look at its message. Why the shepherds? An angel arrives to the shepherds who are watching their sheep in the fields at night and says, “Do not be afraid.” Then the angel tells them that the Messiah has been born, wrapped in bands of cloth, and is lying in a manger – a manger, which is a feeding trough for cattle. The Messiah is the promised one who they think will save them from Roman oppression, the one who will restore the people of Israel to power. Yet, here they are told he has been wrapped in bands of cloth – not royal blankets, but bands of cloth and he has been placed in a food trough. After the angel and the heavenly host leave, the shepherds go to Bethlehem to see what has taken place. They find Mary and Joseph and the child lying in the manger. They tell his parents about the visit from the angel and the heavenly host who said, “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!”
All who hear this are amazed – and rightfully so. Not only because the angel appeared to the shepherds, but because he appeared to shepherds, not the leaders of their faith. Shepherds were not well respected – they were dirty and unkempt. They slept outside and did not bathe often enough for regular church goers. As we read further into Luke’s gospel, we find that Jesus spends time with those who others looked down on – tax collectors and sinners. Jesus touches and heals those who are unclean, even on the Sabbath! On one occasion, Jesus is being criticized for eating with tax collectors and sinners and he replies, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance (Luke 31-32).” Those who are in need and neglected are the ones he favors. Jesus offers peace to those who need to experience his love. “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!”
The angel appears to the shepherds because they are like so many of us; they are in need of good news. They need to know that they are loved, and not forgotten by God. I think back to last Christmas and remember watching church online. Cathy and I were recovering from the Corona Virus and church was virtual for everyone. It was the first Christmas Eve I can remember since becoming an Episcopalian that I did not step foot in a church.
Tonight, we are together, but there are many who will be joining our services virtually because the pandemic is still affecting our lives. The Omicron Variant has become the predominate strain of the Corona Virus and even those of us who are fully vaccinated are at risk of getting it. The vaccine does significantly reduce our risk of serious illness – but the virus is again responsible for activities being cancelled or postponed.
Many today need to hear the message that was brought to the shepherds, God in Jesus, has come to offer us peace. It is no coincidence that Christmas comes on the heels of the longest night of the year – the winter solstice. The birth of Jesus represents the light of Christ which cannot be overcome by the darkness. The birth of Jesus represents for us the coming of the glory of God. He offers us the hope of new life for all who believe in him.
Our hope is not based on what we can prove, it is based on faith – faith that our lives cannot be extinguished, faith that the love of God will overcome the darkness, the pain, and the suffering that affect us in this life. Love is the light of Christ that will lead us to peace – the peace we can experience in our hearts and minds, and the peace we can experience with our neighbor when we follow Christ.
Let us pray.
Heavenly father, we give thanks to you for the gift of your Son, that we might experience your presence in our lives and learn the way to true life is the way of love he teaches us. Help us, we pray, to carry forth the light of Christ to others who are living in fear and who are lonely, that together we might experience peace. We offer our prayers in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.