I was born in the 1960s, and so I was approaching my teen years when the Vietnam war ended. Shortly thereafter, the Iran hostage situation happened, and the Marine barracks in Beirut were attacked, and we invaded Grenada, and, while Karen and I were on our honeymoon, in April, 1986, we bombed the heck out of Libya. But, thankfully, none of these situations involved on-going long-term deployments and fighting. So when I became a parent in the early mid 90s I thought that I would be raising my child in more or less peaceful times. 9-11, 2001 changed all that. And for a full 2/3 of her life, my child has lived in a world that is anything but peaceful.
With that in mind, we hear again tonight, as we hear every Christmas Eve, this reading from Isaiah about how God’s zeal is going to consume – is going to burn up – the warrior’s boots, and all the garments rolled in blood.
O how I long for that day to come, for that promise to be fulfilled, for God’s kingdom to be fully realized in the here and now, even as I have to remember what Isaiah says in verse 7 of our first reading tonight about this child who is born to us – this son who is given to us – that his authority will grow continually, and there will be endless peace. And I remember that I have to pay attention to the language used, to the tenses used:
- His authority will grow
- There shall be endless peace
These promises are still out there in the unknown future somewhere, promises made to us that are sure and trustworthy, because the One who made them is sure and trustworthy above all else, but, nonetheless, promises not yet fully realized.
And I have to remember what we heard back on the First Sunday of Advent: Did the sun come up this morning? Did the night come to an end at its appointed time? Ok then, God’s promises are as sure as that!…
Paul, writing to Titus, in our second reading for tonight, says in verse 11: The grace of God has appeared bringing salvation to all, and this is what this night, this 12-day Feast of the Incarnation, this 12 day festival called Christmas, is all about. God’s grace has appeared – or literally, in the Greek, God’s grace has shone forth in the birth of this Christ-child. And in this shining moment, God is revealed for who and what God is – the one willing to go to any depths in order to save us from sin and death.
I mean, check out what the angels say to the shepherds in Luke 2 about the sign of this miraculous birth. Well, but first, notice what they don’t say.
They don’t say: And this will be a sign unto you. God’s gonna appear as a pillar of fire again, like in the Exodus, and it’s gonna be amazing!
They don’t say: God’s gonna cause some sort of a cosmic event, shaking the earth at its foundations, so that everyone will notice and pay attention and get scared straight, as it were!
They don’t say, well, anything anyone might expect to be said about the coming of the King of all Kings who is the one and only true God, the creator of all that is, becoming part of his own creation – becoming truly human.
No. None of the above.
The angels do say: And this will be the sign for you. You’ll find a newborn baby wrapped up in rags and lying in a feeding trough.
God’s grace is revealed in the lowest of the low. God’s love is revealed in that God will go to the deepest depths, even being born into poverty and obscurity, in the most humiliating of circumstances, in order that he might redeem us from all iniquity and purify for himself a people of his own who are zealous for good deeds…
I was studying these readings with a group of pastors I meet with weekly and one of them asked: “What does this coming mean for those who’ll gather on Christmas Eve?” And two things popped into my mind, one right after the other.
My first thought was: What does this mean? Well, everything! This coming of God in Christ means salvation for all, as Titus says. This coming of God in Christ changes everything forever. It is the final straw that breaks the back of all that is dark and deadly in the world, and ushers in the fulfillment of God’s eternal promise to save us humans, and all things! That’s literally what Titus says in the original Greek: The grace of God has shone forth, bringing salvation to everything!
Even though that promise remains as yet not fully realized in our daily lives and in our daily experience of the world, it is still God’s promise, and God’s promise is still as sure as the rising of the sun.
So, my first thought was: This coming means everything!
But like a nanosecond later, virtually at the same time I thought: What does this coming mean? Well, nothing. This coming means nothing at all if it doesn’t have an impact on how we, God’s people here and now, live our daily lives. Titus says the redemption of God in Christ purifies us and makes us into a people who are zealous for good deeds. If we don’t manifest, in our daily living, in how we love one another, our neighbor, and, yes, even our enemies, then this coming really does mean nothing. If we go out from here tonight and go about the routines of keeping this feast of the incarnation of God, and it doesn’t make us more loving, if it doesn’t increase our zeal
- To welcome the stranger
- To visit the sick and homebound
- To feed the hungry
- To clothe the naked
- To shelter the homeless
- To protect the innocent from abuse and violence
- To work for reconciliation and peace with people of different faiths
- To strive for greater justice in our criminal justice system
- To join in efforts aimed at ending the scourge of racism and healing the scars of that great evil in our society
- If it doesn’t compel us to do what we can to support in real, visible, tangible ways, those living with chronic diseases, and the family members who care for them
- In short, if it doesn’t change the way we live, and love, and serve, as Christ’s Body in the real lives of real people living in the real world then, indeed, this coming means nothing…
My deepest hope and prayer on this night is that this coming will have meaning in our lives,
- that it will be good news of great joy for all people,
- that it will bring glory to the most high God and peace to all the earth,
- that when my baby has babies, she will be able to do what Karen and I could not – raise them in a world marked by justice, reconciliation and peace
- that this coming will be the appearing of God’s grace not just in a baby’s flesh in Bethlehem some 2000 years ago, but that God’s grace will come here and now in our own human flesh –
- that God’s grace, and love, and mercy, and forgiveness will be lived out in the lives of God’s people, not just on this one day of the year, or this one season, but in our everyday lives as we live as God’s people for the good of all the needy world!
And Merry Christmas!