A Feast Juxtaposed: A Sermon for Christmas Eve

Click here to read Isaiah 9:2-7, and here to read Luke 2:1-20.

Christmastime is a delight for the senses. There are dear friends to embrace. There are plates full of peanut butter cookies crowned with chocolate kisses to devour, and neighborhoods decked with twinkling lights. There are the sounds of children giggling as they shred the paper that stands between them and the package from Grandma. There are the soaring Christmas carols, the jangling bells, the sticky peppermint sticks, and the itchy warmth of new socks. And my personal favorite: the sweet-potato casserole my friend Rosamond bakes. It is clearly a dessert, but on Christmas it counts as a vegetable. Christmastime is a feast of rejoicing, a banquet of joy that rends the dreariness of the darkest nights of the year.

In the midst of this, there is a child. The child is born into painfully spare circumstances, into the darkest of all nights. His mother endured contractions on the back of a donkey, and after the 90 mile journey to Bethlehem mandated by a cruel and oppressive regime, there was nowhere but a barn to complete her labor. As we imagine the nativity, we can’t ignore that the scent permeating the air around the manger is not sweet with sugar and mint, but heavy with the smell of manure. And while we like to envision this baby asleep, serenely cradled in his mother’s arms, he surely spends his fair share of time bawling like the newborn he is. If we happened upon a birth like this today, a labor fulfilled in the filth of an alley or garage, our eyes would smart with tears, and we would murmur, “Such a shame, such a tragedy.”

And so a miracle unfolds in the guise of an ordinary misfortune. The delicate membrane that segregates heaven from earth is torn asunder, pierced by an infant’s cry.

The angels are singing, reminding us that this baby is God’s response to our hope, that this is the child promised to frustrate the darkness with divine light. The shepherds are on their way, sprinting toward the star. The angels convert their terror into jubilation, with a message of Good News that never fails to quicken the pulse of believers: this child is God enfleshed, the Holy of Holies born as a human child. The Prince of Peace, born in a land at war. The only hope for a hopeless people. I imagine that Mary greets the shepherds’ intrusion of praise with a tired amazement. So this is how it shall be.

The angels summon us to receive this child as a gift. But there is nothing harder than learning how to receive. Receiving this child means admitting our utter weakness, our total poverty. To call a helpless infant our Savior is to confess that we need to be saved, that we are desperate enough to hang our hopes on a newborn whose eyes are so immature that he cannot yet make out his father’s face. It is humbling to kneel before a tiny baby and call him King. But how much more humbling is it for the baby, who is the very Son of God?

We cannot forget why God transgressed the boundary between heaven and earth to show up in the person of Jesus. Perhaps the only aspect of the Christian faith that is more likely to be lost in a fog of familiarity than the birth of Christ is the reason for his birth: God loves us. Oh, how trite that can sound, if we don’t ponder in our hearts what that really means. God loves us, with unconditional, passionate, creative love. God desires to embrace this wayward Creation so keenly that he startles the universe by showing up cradled in a feeding troff.*

We have spent the last four weeks remodeling our hearts to make room for this child, and preparing our homes for the celebrations that honor his birth. We knew he was coming all along; the season of Advent is much more than a “season of Make-Believe… a wink-wink, nudge-nudge approach to experiencing the story of our faith” (JWD). Our anticipation for the Christ-child’s birth is more nuanced than that. In the weeks before Christmas, we rehearse the hope of the prophets. We pray for a lasting peace. We contemplate the terrific joy of Mary. And we revel in the gift of God’s brilliant love. Just as Mary knew she would bear the child after nine months of pregnancy, we knew we would gather on this night and sing of his holiness. The joy of Christmas is inevitable, for a Savior was born to us in the city of David, long ago.

Advent isn’t about pretending we don’t know that the baby will grow into a man named Jesus, who will teach us how to live and move and have our being in God. No. Advent molds our hearts into sentinels, watchmen charged with the work of waiting and hoping for God’s next move. Advent names the darkness in which we live. It gives us permission to consider the dark night of Creation’s soul in which the light of Christ appears. It readies us for a more authentic Christmas elation: joy that is wrought from the fires of sorrow, praise that is coaxed from the flames of lamentation.

On Christmas Eve, we stand in the thin and holy space between the history and the future. Everything is different after that First Noel. The impossibility of lasting peace and goodwill among all of God’s people is abruptly made possible. The reconciliation of God and his wayward creation is determined by God’s waylaying love, love that is distilled and embodied within the person of Jesus Christ, who is our King, our Savior, our Brother, and our Friend.

We know full well that the work begun in that manger is not yet complete. Christmas is, for the time being, a feast of light juxtaposed with darkness. We brighten our sanctuary with candles, but the night persists beyond these walls. Though we wipe our tears away to join in the yuletide celebration, we are still a people who mourn. Though we have seen the light of God’s love and been utterly transformed by it, we are still a people who walk in darkness. Heaven and nature sing, but God’s beloved creation is still ravaged by violence and death.

Mary has suffered her last contractions and rallied for one final push, but the final cadence of our redemption has not yet been delivered. The Son of God came to earth, preaching of an everlasting Kingdom. And all of Creation is still groaning in labor for the nativity of that peaceable realm. The promise of incarnation—the gift of Christmas—is the assurance that soon and very soon, God’s will shall be done on earth as it is done in heaven.

Our Christmas merriment – with all its joyful visions and melodies and aromas – is but a hint of the feast we will experience when God’s fierce and radical plan for reconciliation is fulfilled. Tonight we revel in the foretaste of what it to come. The extravagance of Christmas—the home cooking, the laughter, the generosity—these are but reverberations of the Kingdom of God. On this night, we experience a sliver of what it shall be like when the consequences of the Incarnation are fully aglow.

The success of God’s plan to redeem Creation through the Christ-child is a foregone conclusion. The light that perforates the darkness on the first Christmas night will overcome the darkness. The wonders of God’s zealous love are chasing the shadows of sin and death away, even in this year saturated by grief.

And so in the company of shepherds and angels, we sing. In the face of sorrow, we sing of joy as scandalous as the incarnation. In the shadow of war, we sing of peace as lasting as the North Star. We glorify and praise God for all we have heard and seen, for we have witnessed the hopes and fears of all the years converge in a swaddled bundle of blood and bones and skin. Thanks be to God!

*I know this is spelled incorrectly. I have to spell it that way on my preaching manuscript, or I will accidentally make it rhyme with cow.

Please do not plagiarize.

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