By Jacob Smith
A very Merry Christmas to all of you on this blessed and holy night, as our hearts are once again gladdened by the remembrance of the birth of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. I have this year been particularly interested in the emergence of Christmas, and not Easter, as this giant secular extravaganza. Particularly because until the 1800’s, while noted, neither day was particularly celebrated in England or the United States.
There are several historical and cultural reasons for this, however, Tara Isabella Burton, in a 2018 article she wrote for Vox entitled, “Why Easter never became a big secular holiday like Christmas” astutely observes that the primary reason has always been theological. Burton writes:
“Christmas, with its celebration of the birth of a child, is a natural fit for a secularized celebration. The subject matter of Christmas makes it ideal for a child-centered holiday. The centrality of family in Christmas imagery, the Nativity scene, portraits of the Madonna and Child, allows it to translate easily into a holiday centered around children and childhood. But the message of Easter, that of an adult man who was horribly killed, only to rise from the dead, is much harder to secularize. Celebrating Easter demands celebrating something so miraculous that it cannot be reduced, as Christmas can, to a heartwarming story about motherhood; its supernatural elements are on display front and center. Easter is a story about death and resurrection.”
What I want to do in this sermon is bridge the gap between Christmas and Easter. Theologically they cannot be separated and when understood properly Christmas ultimately drives us to Easter. The manger drives us to the cross and the empty tomb. I want to make three brief points: first, who do we encounter at both the manger and consequently the cross, second, what does God do to us in that encounter, and three why all of this is Good News for you tonight and always.
All month long my family has committed to spending family time together and so at the end of November we bought Disney+. We have been watching High School Musical and Marvel non-stop. The saying is true, “the family that watches TV together stays together”…until, of course, they have to talk. One show we all love is the Star Wars spin off “The Mandalorian” and not because of the acting, but Baby Yoda. We cannot help but in unison say Ahh! every time we see that adorable little creature.
And I know we are not the only ones who find it adorable because Baby Yoda sales are booming. As a result, I have been thinking about the draw to babies. I know there are biological reasons. However, maybe we are drawn to babies, because while we are always busy depicting control and power, babies remind us of who and what we are as humans. This is where we begin to get beyond the sentimentality of Christmas and get to the profundity of Christmas. Ponder this: we worship the one God whom no one in the Old Testament was allowed to see or come near because of his holiness. The one God who is actually all powerful and in control yet has revealed himself to the world in that same state we are all naturally in, defenseless, helpless, and in flesh.
This is my first point: Christmas and Easter, the manger and the cross are connected because in these acts of God, we experience how God actually works. You see we are always looking for power and control, yet tonight we encounter the living God who in Jesus Christ always displays his strength and power by emptying himself of his and giving away all that he is, the fullness of himself to you, by grace, in order to meet us and save us as we actually are: defenseless, helpless, and in flesh.
Now, because we believe that we are powerful and in control, we are always trying to make God into something He is not. How many times have you heard someone say, “well I just believe or feel that God is this way”? Or how many countless well-meaning books on spirituality are out there giving people a formula on how to make God something? Yet, notice in the text, the angel didn’t tell the shepherds how they can make Jesus their Lord and Savior. The angel tells the shepherds that Christ their Lord and Savior had been born for them already that day. The angels herald a message right from heaven and whether you assent to this fact or not, Jesus is your Lord and Savior.
What we learn tonight about God in Christ- from the manger in Bethlehem to the cross and empty tomb- is that God in Jesus Christ, unlike some of the gifts you are going to receive tomorrow, comes to us with absolutely no formula or condition. Rather instead the gift of Jesus is free and comes to us by way of a declaration.
This is my second point: One of the amazing things we learn about God tonight is there is nothing to figure out. Rather instead tonight we learn that God comes to you as a declaration. And that declaration – Jesus is your Lord and Savior – becomes the object of your faith; and by the Holy Spirit that divine declaration creates faith within you to believe that God in Christ is your Savior. Because of him in your helpless and defenseless state God justifies you because of Jesus, and God makes you righteous and able to stand before him because of Jesus.
And in a world where so much of what you see and experience is anything but righteous, the shepherds illustrate the action that this faith stirs up within you. St. Luke tells us they went to Bethlehem to see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord had made known to them. In other words the shepherds ran to the object of their faith, they ran to the object of the angelic declaration and there they encountered God and man perfectly united in one person, there they encountered the eternal majesty of God joined forever to our own flesh and blood.
This is my third point: Like those shepherds here you are. You have come tonight to Jesus, the object of your faith. However, this time, not as a babe in a manger, but, nevertheless, just as humble, meek, and unnoticed as a baby in Bethlehem. For as we gather around this altar tonight, by faith, we have come to the very Son of God who sat on Mary’s lap, suffered for you, died for you, and in bread that is his body and wine that is his blood, God, who takes on flesh joins himself to you. In that humble act of eating and drinking, God once again assures you that he loves you and forgives all of your sins.
For tonight is not just about remembering a great story of a lowly mother and her little boy out in the cold, with no crib for his head. Rather Bethlehem-Calvary, Christmas-Easter, Manger-Cross is about what God does for us: faith inspiring worship: that God has revealed his eternal kindness to us by assuming our flesh as his own in the person of his Son, and that he is our very righteousness before God.
The Rev. Jacob Smith is the rector of Calvary-St. George’s in Manhattan and is the co-host of Same Old Song, a lectionary preaching podcast.