Sermon for Christmas Eve - 2008
Preached at All Saints' Church - Thomasville, GA
I am not sure if anyone else here this evening as ever pondered this thought before, but I have often wondered why the ancient church ordered Scripture the way they did. I have been curious why Matthew’s Gospel is always first, with Luke third and Mark sandwiched in between. Then John’s Gospel follows and seemingly interrupts the flow of Luke and Acts. Scholars have offered many ideas as to why the order is as we have it today, but more specifically, I’ve often pondered the thought of John’s Gospel being first book in the New Testament. Why you might ask? Is it because John’s Gospel paints such a glorious picture of Jesus, who knows clearly who He is, where He has come from, what His role is, and where He is ultimately going? Or is it because of the rich symbolism that runs throughout the Gospel that provides such rich meanings behind the words. Or is it because the Prologue – the first 18 verses of John’s Gospel are some of the most remarkable in all of Scripture? Actually, the one reason I would give for having John first is the fact that both Genesis, and John start at the same place – In the beginning, God.
The creation story as recorded in Genesis, and the creation story as re-told through the lens of John’s Gospel begin with the source of all life and light. On the first day of creation, God as He moves and hovers over the chaos and darkness of the great void, he literally speaks a Word, and darkness is overshadowed by Light. The prophet Isaiah foreshadowed the coming of the Messiah when he wrote, “The people that walked in darkness have seen a great light: they dwell in the land of the shadow of death, upon them hath the light shined.” In creation everything was in great darkness, and in an instant, the Creator caused a new light to shine. Today, as in the ancient world, whenever one deals with issues of evil, chaos, confusion, turmoil we often hear the term darkness used to describe that experience. Many of you perhaps have experienced a sense of spiritual embattlement that many call a dark night of the soul. Perhaps some have come here this evening and this is the first Christmas without a spouse, or parent, or child, or long-time friend. If you are like me and have opened your IRA or 401k statement, there doesn’t appear to be much light there either, but a great deal of darkness. Instead of light, it seems like darkness is creeping in from every direction.
The words I proclaim tonight are not going to immediately make any of those thoughts vanish, but I do believe with all my heart that these words, this evening, this Incarnation might be a catalyst for healing and wholeness. Henry van Dyke in the hymn Joyful, joyful, we adore Thee speaks of God “driving the dark of doubt away” and “filling us with the light of day.” That is the message of the Incarnation and of Christmas. Jesus came so that we might be filled with the light the He shares with the world.
Christianity is unique in a number of ways, but none more important than how God interacts with the world He has created. One of the central tenets of our faith, and our celebration this evening commemorates the event that is perhaps one of the hardest for many to embrace and believe – the fact that God became a part of the Creation that He made. Dr. Peter Kreeft said that, “the eternal God has stepped into the world of time He created” (You Can Understand the Bible, p. 199). That is simply one of the most remarkable things about the faith that we proclaim and believe. We do not believe in a remote, detached, distant, uncaring, unfeeling God who is so many light years away from where we are, who we are, or what we struggle with. If that were the case, then there is ultimately no reason to have much faith in the first place because there would be no certainty that God would hear our pleas and cries for help, or worse, if He really even cared. Joy to the world would be such a foreign concept if we found ourselves in a hopeless situation as that.
No, we celebrate the glorious nature of a God who would personify Emmanuel – God with us. The great hymn of Advent O Come, O Come, Emmanuel is fulfilled tonight! As was proclaimed in Isaiah and then repeated by St. Matthew, a virgin shall conceive a son and shall call his name Emmanuel. That is a most remarkable assertion. We have received the greatest blessing in knowing that the very God who created everything became a living member of that very creation.
In the person of Jesus Christ, God faced the same temptations as we do. He shared the same emotions that we do. He experienced the same disappointments, failures, and shortcomings from those He loved just as we do. He faced loss, death, and abandonment. And through all of those things, he did not allow the darkness to overshadow the light that he came to bear. He did not place that light under a bucket or cover it up, but rather he let the light devour the darkness. In one person, we receive hope. The difference is we are not trusting in just a person; we are trusting in God who became Man. God who bore all of our weakness upon himself came in the most vulnerable of forms. He came as a baby. He came to us in the most unassuming of fashions in order that we might assume that same manner of life.
If we are going to bear the name of Christian, it means that we have to first bear the name of Christ. St. Paul in both his Epistle to the Romans and to the Galatians uses that same terminology – we are called to put on Christ. That is a very risky proposition. It means that we must know the very person we are called to be like. Putting on Christ means that as we celebrate Christ’s coming and birth we must also embrace His death. Even in the midst of life we confront the images of death and darkness that come at us from all sides. There is the temptation to cave into these forces of darkness and abandon the light that is within us. There is the reality of internalizing the events that happen to us and live in our own world in which we can only describe as lost. Jesus said, “For the Son of man is come to seek and to save that which was lost” (Luke 19:10).
We are those very lost sheep who are lost and have gone astray. We are the ones who seek to do things our own way, and feel like we have the world conquered. We are the ones who are in desperate need of a Saviour, and He comes to us again in a spirit of humility, and He bids us to follow him in that same fashion. Only with a humble heart can we fully comprehend the profound nature that our Redeemer “was made lower than the angels, crowned with glory and honor because of the suffering of death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for every one” (Heb. 2:9).Jesus’ very destiny was set from the moment he was conceived by the Holy Ghost. He most likely spent His first night on earth in a cave outside Bethlehem, and slept in a wooden feeding trough that served as a bed. He spent His last day on earth hanging on the hard wood of the cross, outside Jerusalem, and then laid to rest in a cave owned by a rich man.
Through Jesus’ Incarnation, death, and resurrection comes the sure and certain hope that Emmanuel has in fact come to give life, and he gives us that life in order that we might enjoy it abundantly. Jesus told the crowds one day, “But blessed are your eyes, for they see: and your ears, for they hear. For verily I say unto you, That many prophets and righteous men have desired to see those things which ye see, and have not seen them; and to hear those things which ye hear, and have not heard them” (Matt. 13:16-17).
In Jesus, we have the one and only gift we could ever hope to receive this Christmas. For if we have Him, we have received the life that was the light of men. We have received a gift that lasts for all eternity. And since our Lord Jesus said it is more blessed to give than to receive, our calling as Christians is to give that gift away. We must share what we have freely received. We must let the light so shine within us so that all might see what we do in love, and give glory, honor, praise, and worship to our Incarnate Lord and Saviour.