The Newborn Promise

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Sermon #880

December 24, 2017 (Christmas Eve)

Indian Hill Church

Cincinnati, OH

Isaiah 9:2-7

Luke 2:1-14

“The Newborn Promise”

Reverend Dr. Stephen Caine

 

2:1 In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. 2 This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. 3 All went to their own towns to be registered. 4 Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. 5 He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. 6 While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. 7 And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn. 8 In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. 9 Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. 10 But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for see — I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: 11 to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. 12 This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.” 13 And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying, 14 “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!” (Luke 2:1-14, NRSV)

 

Let us pray: God of all ages, in the birth of Christ your boundless love for all people shattered the power of darkness. We pray that Jesus will be born in us with that same love and light, that our song may blend with all the choirs of heaven and earth to the glory of your holy name. Amen.

 

Last Sunday we gathered here in this sanctuary for the annual Christmas Pageant.  It was a wonderful worship service complete with excitement, joy, and beautiful music.  It was a glorious retelling of the Christmas story complete with fidgety children, proud parents and weeping adults.   What more can one ask for from a church service?  We left with such positive moods and uplifted spirits.  One thing, however, surprised me and that was just how calm the baby Jesus was (baby David O’Maley).

 

He was perfect.  His eyes were big and wide as he stared around the chancel at the other children singing and the music playing.  He scanned the congregation and he didn’t even wiggle to much in (Emma Eisenhower’s) Mary’s arms.  I understand that his parents (David and Jenny O’Maley) were nervous that he might not make it. That he might cry or fuss or want his mama or be afraid of all the new sounds and all the people or of the moment.  But he wasn’t.  He so tranquil.  He was perfect. Perfection in behavior, presentation, in his onstage presence.

 

It was a wonderful rendering of the Christmas story, except for one tiny little thing, you see, that whole perfection thing.  Think about every birth of a child you have ever witnessed.  It is anything but perfect.  It is messy, it is noisy, and the baby is crying at his or her new surroundings.  So, you know that the baby Jesus had to cry.  Yet we never think of him in that way.  And that is the problem, it is the oldest heresy in the Christian Church.  Our resistance to Jesus being fully human.  We don’t want the baby Jesus to squirm, wiggle and we especially don’t want him to cry.   Think about it— have you ever seen a depiction of the nativity scene where the baby Jesus wasn’t looking completely angelic?  We imagine the new born Jesus was perfectly still and absolutely silent, with a warm glow around him. Of course, no human baby ever does this for very long, except for (baby O’Maley).  So, Jesus wasn’t either.  We unconsciously have a hard time accepting that Jesus was fully human.

 

It is a very common heresy that, almost from the beginning, threatened to destroy the Christian faith and is just as popular and dangerous today as it was in the first century.   It’s the heresy of Docetism/ Gnosticism that Jesus just seemed to be human but not fully human.  That God was just pretending.  It’s the notion that God is a purely spiritual being and would never become subject to human limitations, human emotions, and human life.  But the truth of the Gospel is that God takes on a human body in Jesus Christ, experiencing all the beauty, the joy, but also the messiness and that pain that comes with being human.

 

When we fall victim to believing in this heresy it is because we cannot imagine the possibility that God made flesh in the baby Jesus would be so human as to wet his diaper or scream in frustration when he was hungry or did not get his way.  This heresy wouldn’t allow Jesus to disobey his parents as a young boy.  It would not allow him to lash out in anger at the moneychangers in the Temple.  This heresy would not allow Jesus to ever be hungry or thirsty or overcome with doubt or experience any other human emotions.  This heresy does not think Jesus cried real tears or in any serious way suffered on the night he was betrayed by his disciples.  This heresy doesn’t believe that God could really be born in a manger, or that God would actually become human.

 

This heresy I have been describing is the most insidious heresies of them all, because when we focus so much on the divine nature of Jesus and we exclude his humanity we miss out on the very good news that makes the Christian faith, well Christian: the good news that Jesus of Nazareth is God incarnate and, therefore, he really comes into this world and really does share our lives and really is human.[1]

 

The story around which we gather this night is the story of a God who becomes little, weak, poor, powerless, and human, so that our lives with all our limitations, our struggles, and our brokenness, may be affirmed, defended, protected, valued and saved.

 

This is the night God comes to earth; God really does come to enter our history, to share our lives. This is the Good News of Christmas is that yes, God is born in a manger, in real human skin.  Jesus is born, not only like all of us, but particularly like the most vulnerable of us.  Jesus comes to redeem all, and God starts with those most in need.  And so, Jesus is found not in the capitol city but in a backwater town of Bethlehem, not in the inn but in the stable, not sleeping on fine linens but wrapped in swaddling clothes and laid in a manger, a feeding trough.

 

There is, of course, much about the world and our lives that seems to contradict the Good News of Christmas.  The headlines scream at us; the Middle East is still at war, ISIS is still terrorizing, Russia is still hacking, closer to home, Rich and Powerful Men are behaving badly, violence continues to rise, the hungry and homeless are still with us, and church attendance continues to decline. The world seems closed to the Christ Child.

 

Not only the world but even our lives seem closed to the Christ Child. The darkness is deep this night in families where there is grief and mourning. The traditional gathering around the tree and then at the table for the Christmas feast won’t be the same tomorrow.  Someone is missing.  A husband, a grandparent, an Aunt, a brother, a sister, a son, a daughter, your best friend.  It seems like a cruel trick to have this hope-filled story read at such a difficult time of grief and darkness. I agree it seems that way.  But then I am reminded of this night, this story, and its message…

 

The highlight of Christmas Eve for me is the lighting of the candles.  I almost believe that if we had this and nothing else tonight, it would be enough!  When, as we sing the ancient carols in the darkness, the light begins to spread, I can feel it, can’t you feel it, too?   That transformative moment when we lift our candles and light fills the sanctuary, hope is born anew.   The darkness of heartache and loss and grief and disappointment is pushed back by the light!  The light that shines in the darkness and the darkness did not overcome it.[2]  It will be that way forever.  Merry Christmas!

 

Let us pray

 

[1] Reverend KC Ptomey, a sermon he preached on Christmas Eve 2000 as he quoted, Shirley C. Guthrie, Christian Doctrine, Revised Edition, (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1994), p. 23

[2] Reverend KC Ptomey, a sermon he preached on Christmas Eve 2000