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Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Good News of Great Joy: The Expected yet Unexpected Gift

Christmas Eve Sermon 2016        
            Merry Christmas on this most beautiful, holy night.
            For some of us, this night brings excitement, anticipation and joy. I’ll bet for some among us it is even your very favorite night of the year, this night on which we hear the good news of great joy for all people – Christ, our Lord, is born!
            Some of us may be feeling content tonight, reflecting on sweet, sentimental memories and anticipating the new memories you will make this year. The sights and sounds of the evening may bring a bit of sweet nostalgia.
            But this is probably not true for everyone. Perhaps it is not true for you. Maybe you are among those whose memories are tinged with a bit of sadness for changes or challenges in your life.
For others, this season brings memories which include unhappy times that no amount of nostalgic gloss can repair. If so, you may be searching for healing peace, and I pray it will be yours this Christmas.
Still others of us are all too aware of the magnitude of grief and terror in our world tonight. For all our holiday joy, we cannot ignore the pain that surrounds us because, as our Bishop, Bill Gohl reflected recently on an icon rewritten to include the image of the wounded child of Aleppo, "Christmas is for the child in all of us - we just can't forget that every child is our child - not just the one in the manger."
The truth is that as we gather this holy night, we come from vastly different experiences of life and of Christmas. But from wherever we come, we gather in homage to our newborn king. Because, we share the good news of great joy for all people—Christ, our savior is born!
            I wonder, how many of us have arrived at Christmas Eve utterly exhausted? Exhilarated perhaps, hopeful perhaps, observant and even expectant, perhaps. But still, well and truly exhausted from all the preparations: the shopping, the decorating, the cooking, the baking, the gift-wrapping, the Christmas card writing, the music preparation and so many other things you have been doing while still living your everyday lives in the days and weeks leading up to this Christmas Eve.
            For some of you there has also been travel that brought you across hundreds of miles, to be reunited with loved ones this holiday.
            The exhaustion of which I speak may come from our busyness, or from a deep well of grief and sadness that is only accentuated by the frivolity of the celebrations surrounding you.
            Indeed, this joyful season can take its toll.
            Yet, here we are tonight, surrounded by the glow of thousands of lights and regardless of what other feelings you may have brought with you, it is my prayer that you will be blessed by a profound sense of godly peace.
            Take a deep breath. Breathe in the tranquility of this moment.  And as you do, breathe in the good news of great joy for us all: the Messiah, the Lord, has come among us. <p>
            As we gather together tonight, let us remember that the blessing of peace for which we hope and yearn is brought to us not by the beautiful candlelight in which we delight, nor by the wonderful Christmas hymns we love to sing, nor even by the prayers we pray this night.
Rather, it is God who brings us peace, of God’s own will and through God’s love, not because our preparations and celebration bring God to us on this night, but because God chose long ago to be with us, to abide with us, to be present among us always, to save us from sin, and evil, and death for eternity; and God blesses us as God’s love incarnate, Jesus Christ, comes to us in this blessed birth to bring about the fulfillment of God’s promise.
            Therefore, even and especially if you come from a place of sorrow and sadness, the Christmas message is for you. You have a place in this Christmas gathering. God’s word of grace and hope for all who long for peace and joy.
            In the birth of Jesus, God comes among us to fulfull God’s commitment to peace and justice with God’s own righteousness. And so we sing out this good news of great joy for all people, Christ the Lord, is born!
            Through this human birth – God takes on human flesh and form. It is an unexpected, awesome, miraculous, magnificent gift of pure love and grace for all people. 
            The birth itself is humble, and scary. The child’s mother is young and inexperienced. She is not surrounded by the knowledgeable and loving ministrations of her kinswomen as she gives birth to the Messiah, but is likely attended only by strangers, and perhaps her betrothed, Joseph, while laboring on her birth mat. What an unprecedented – and perhaps uninspiring? - nativity.  
            The Messiah, God’s anointed one comes to us not with a mighty army or with superhuman powers, or with well-honed weapons and zealous warfare as we might expect, and even desire.
            Instead, God comes to us in a messy, noisy, complicated human birth. God comes to us as a helpless infant, born to an unwed couple - homeless travelers, strangers without a place to stay in the city, surrounded by the sights, sounds, and smells of a stable, born into a time and place in human history marked by instability and oppression. What an odd setting in which to deliver God with Us, Emmanuel, Our Lord and Savior.
            Our text tells us that when Jesus was born, the first to hear the “good news of great joy for all the people” were lowly shepherds, living in the fields. They were the first to hear the glad tidings, from an angelic visitation, that the fulfillment of prophecy had come to pass; “born to you this day in the city of David, a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.”
            The shepherds are sent to find this child, to pay him homage, and to witness this wondrous event.
            The angels tell them: the baby will be wrapped in bands of cloth; he will be lying in a manger – the feeding trough for animals--homeless as he is. And yet, the angels confirm, he is truly the Messiah, the Lord.
            All these details are so familiar to us – we’ve heard this story time and time again, and yet it still seems so unlikely. It must have seemed impossible to these simple shepherds.
            Yet God being God, the story of Jesus’ birth is all about the unlikely, seemingly impossible and even scandalous ways in which God operates, which is truly good news of great joy for all people – for God defeats the powers of earth—coming to us as a little baby to dwell with us, to teach us and lead us, and ultimately to die for us. Then he will once again be wrapped in bands of cloth and laid in a borrowed vessel –just like at his birth.
            But Jesus the Messiah will rise again, leaving behind those pieces of cloth that bound him in death – for nothing could keep him from his mission to ensure salvation and eternity for us.  
            My friends, this is indeed good news of great joy for all people, because – the Savior, Jesus Christ has come – and it changes everything.
He comes to bring healing, and peace, joy and mercy, forgiveness and grace, and everlasting love and life.
            The thing is that God redeeming the whole world through this birth, making not only the unlikely, but the impossible happen, may seem strange to us, but it is so in character for God. 
            The same God who created the universe out of a shapeless void, who freed the Israelites from hard-hearted Pharaoh, who parted the Red Sea, brought forth food from the sky and water from a rock, who made barren women like Sarah and Hannah and Elizabeth bear of their own, is certainly capable of bringing about the birth of the savior of the world in just this way: as good news of great joy for all people.
            Whoever you are and from wherever you come this Christmas night, may the insurmountable peace of Christ be with you. Know that Jesus is truly God’s love made manifest, for you; Jesus is savior of the world, for you; Jesus defeats sin and death, for you. And his coming changes everything, for you.
            God speaks to us through the great good news of this gospel – you who are weary, I will give you rest; you who are struggling, I will bring you strength; you who sorrow, I will increase your joy; you who feel excluded and isolated, I am with you; you who walk in darkness – the light of Christ shines for you and on you; you who mourn – you will rejoice as with joy at the harvest; you who are burdened, put your yoke upon the Lord, and he will give you rest. And for you who are jubilant, excited, expectant and hopeful, God bless you as you share your joy and this good news.
            For this child, of humble birth, will establish God’s kingdom with justice, peace, and mercy.
Now let us continue our celebration as we praise and glorify him with song and prayer. And may the blessings of peace and joy of this Christmas-good-news unfold in your lives day by day. Amen.

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