By Bruce Robison
In the name of the One who is Emmanuel, God with us, the child whose birth we remember so richly this night, who sits enthroned at the Right Hand of the Father, who with the Father and the Holy Spirit lives and reigns now and forever. Amen.
Friends – grace and peace, and always, always to wish you a Merry Christmas. Much merriment and warm hospitality, tender memories. May this holy night and the birth of our Savior be a sign for us of all joy, healing, renewal of life: turning a corner, a new page, fresh beginning.
He was born for us as perfect gift; of the Father’s love begotten. The gift of his own person, God from God, Light from Light, very God from very God. He lived for us. He died for us. His “one oblation of himself, once offered, a full, perfect, and sufficient sacrifice, oblation, and satisfaction.”
In his victory over sin and death, in his resurrection life, there is the one and only victory of our lives. Chosen by him, names inscribed in the Book of Life from before time and forever. Living in him, dying in him to the old world of sin, setting aside the rebellion of our hearts, lifted by him from the realm of the prince of darkness and raised in him to new and everlasting life. In him, grace and peace, forgiveness, and the sanctifying gift of his Holy Spirit. To strengthen us in all goodness, to prepare us in heart and mind for the life of the world to come, a world where Christmas is no longer simply a day on the calendar, but a present and everlasting reality and state of being, around the throne of the King. Where it is always Christmas.
In our reading from the Old Testament we find Isaiah the Prophet, standing in a moment of crisis and conflict, looking forward to a certain immediate future of defeat, devastation, exile. Enemies from beyond the borders are pressing down with relentless and overwhelming ferocity. And a corruption is eating away from within. It’s just as bad as it can get.
The ancient heritage of God’s chosen people, the memories and values and loyalties of the patriarchs, of Moses and Joshua, of Samuel and David, are all passing away. Greed, deceit, false dealing are in the highest places, and an insidious disease and rebellion in the hearts and minds of men and women of every station of life. Every false god. Moral failure. Loss of faith.
Sin is a condition, but it is also a choice, and with consequences, and those consequences now about to cascade upon them. A massive implosion. The falling of the House of David and the ruin of Jerusalem is not simply a geo-political disaster, though it is that – a national catastrophe, defeat, the brutal destiny of slavery and exile. But a catastrophe for thousands upon thousands, home by home, family by family. The end of every hope and plan and dream. The Holy City in flames. All in ruins.
And yet even as this horrible darkness gathers, for Isaiah, looking far ahead with confidence in God’s goodness and God’s faithfulness, there is hope. So, the vision of the prophet, which looks beyond the catastrophe. “How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of the messenger who announces peace, who brings good news, who announces salvation.” Even as the darkness gathers, he can see them. The early sentinels, the dawn of the new day and the dayspring from on high, the return of the Lord to Zion. God himself is entering his throne room, ascending in glory. restoring the ruins of Jerusalem, raising them to a new magnificence. And not just that Holy City. All creation. Time and space. Eternity itself.
And this is where it happened. Returning to the source, to the place of beginning. The great convergence, every holy promise and prophesy. This holy night. And Bethlehem, where the ancient prophet Samuel saw the hand of the Lord rest upon a shepherd boy, and where God’s chosen, David, was anointed to serve and lead God’s people. Here are Mary and Joseph, shepherds abiding in the fields, angels singing, a Savior who is Christ the Lord. The King shall come when morning dawns and light triumphant breaks; when beauty gilds the eastern hills and life to joy awakes.
And here he is. As Isaiah said, foretelling. Tonight, in majesty. Ruling heaven and earth from his manger throne. For his royal court, the rustic shepherds; for his palace, a stable. Don’t let appearances deceive you, even for a minute this evening. He is turning upside down and inside out all our expectations: power in weakness; to win victory by forgiveness; whose absolute power is known as perfect mercy. To rule by blessing. To govern in love.
The Law and the Prophets in grand procession, all shown this night to be true and reliable and given for us, for our encouragement and our benefit. The word to Eve in the Garden. The promise to Abraham. That through his seed all nations would be blessed. In fact, every word of Scripture is pointing us to this hour. In all truth. To guide our lives and to fill our vision. When darkness gathers, hope. Fulfilled on this bed of straw. Wrapped in swaddling cloth. The ancient story not distant anymore, but now perfectly present. It’s not about people long ago and far away, but about us, about the world we live in. Who came for us, to die on the Cross, taking in himself our brokenness, our sin, and then to rise from death. In the mystery of this midnight hour of Christmas, the fullness of Easter. For us, for our salvation, he came down from heaven.
So, St. John: “He was in the world, and the world was made through him, yet the world knew him not. He came to his own home, and his own people received him not. But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to come children of God . . . .”
This is not a children’s story, though it is the story of a child. Encountering and mastering every hard reality of our lives and of our world. Bending back the darkness, overcoming the force of evil that rides so high in the world around us and in the secret corners of our hearts. Forgiving sin, as we return to him in faith, bringing peace and reconciliation.
Come “bow down and bend the knee and kneel before the Lord our Maker,” like the shepherds. “For we are the people of his pasture and the sheep of his hand.” “Worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness. Let the whole earth stand in awe of him.”
To know that this story is our story – not because we try through some act of will to make it true, to convince ourselves – but because his Spirit has prepared us, come to dwell in us, cleared a space for this gospel good news to be planted and to take root. To know who we are by knowing first whose we are. Is there a place prepared in you, ready to receive him now?
An invitation. If we’ve never heard it before, perhaps we will hear it now. There is a right time to receive this gift, a providential moment. And perhaps tonight, as we listen carefully. Scripture and song and the ancient prayers of his holy Church. What do you hear? What is the news? “For to us a child is born, to us a son is given; and the government will be upon his shoulder, and his name will be called Wonderful, Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. Of the increase of his government and of peace there will be no end, upon the throne of David, and over his kingdom, to establish it and to uphold it with justice and with righteousness from this time forth and for evermore.”
Blessings this night. Peace in Bethlehem and in all the world. Let this invitation be fresh and new for each of us this evening. Listen carefully, as the angels sing. He comes to us so that we might come to him. Christ the Lord, the Newborn King.
The Rev. Bruce Robison is vicar of All Saints,’ Brighton Heights, Pa.