Scripture Readings: Isaiah 9:2–7 | Psalm 96 | Titus 2:11–14 | Luke 2:1–20
The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light;
those who lived in a land of deep darkness— on them light has shined.
It’s almost become a cliché to speak of 2020 as a year of bad news. Of running through a growing list of reasons we might have to complain. True, it has been a crazy year… one chalk full of uncertainty, and disruptions, anxiety, disappointments, and startling surprises. Looking back, it’s easy to long for days past that seemed far simpler, and calmer... to turn to our cherished memories, in search of some much needed comfort. I think those are some of the gifts that this time of year often has to offer: the gifts of happy memories, and treasured traditions.
But this year, as we know, Christmas will look quite different for most people, as the COVID-19 pandemic continues to play out. Social gatherings, travel plans, family meals, even singing, have all been discouraged in order to keep the risks of infection down. Here in New Brunswick, we have at least a shaky sense of safety and freedom, but beyond the Maritimes, many of our fellow Canadians are facing serious shut-downs. And sadly, many nations around the world face even more dire days ahead. Now is not the time to be dismissive of the fearful situation so many people are having to deal with this Christmas and beyond. We do well to remember to pray for those struggling and suffering today, and also to offer them whatever help we can.
Surrounded, it seems, by this gloomy cloud of darkness and ‘bad news’, it can be tempting to focus on all that has changed over this last, crazy year. To dwell on all that now feels so uncertain and broken… all that we have lost… and all that we fear. Without being able to practice many of our treasured traditions, it may feel quite hard to truly celebrate the holidays this year.
But as we listen again to the familiar story of Christmas, the story of the birth of Jesus, the Christ, we may find ourselves encountering the Good News of God. Not just a nice distraction from all of the darkness, but a light which drives it’s power away, and shines to set us free.
We hear of Mary and Joseph: two first century Jews whose lives were upended by the distant decree of Caesar Augustus. We can imagine just how powerless this couple must have felt, forced to travel to Bethlehem while Mary was due any day… feeling forsaken as they found no room for them in the inn. And yet somehow they were still drawn into the surprising story the LORD was weaving with their lives, as the child Mary bore was the Son of the Living God, born among us in total vulnerability… and humility. To Mary and Joseph, to those with no earthly security, Jesus had come. In their midst is where Almighty God chose to take on flesh and dwell on earth. Sharing in their life of uncertainty, the Prince of Peace took his first breath, and began His mission of mercy.
We hear that the shepherds too were being drawn into this story, with their own part to play. Rough, uncultured, uneducated, overlooked by most of society, shepherds were easy to ignore… easy for those with power and status to completely disregard. Working as they did in a difficult, harsh, and often looked down on profession, shepherds would not have been on anybody’s guest list. And yet the angel choir does not descend to a palace with heavenly songs, but instead a handful of startled shepherds are chosen to hear their anthem. It is to them the angel of the LORD says “Do not be afraid…” It is to them the “good news of great joy for all people” was first entrusted. Those who were neglected and dismissed, God singled out to share in heaven’s joyous celebration… to bear witness to the birth of Jesus the Christ.
And though these words were written down many centuries ago, we too today are drawn again into this familiar story. Our lives are also being weaved into its joyous narrative.
In the midst of our uncertainty, vulnerability, confusion, our feelings of forsakenness, and unworthiness, God’s Son was born, long before all of our treasured traditions and plans, to share in and bear our burdens as well… to draw near to us all in the heart of our deepest distress. But more than simply sharing in the sufferings of the world, Jesus was born to bring to light the salvation, the rescue, of God. He came, not only to weep with us, but to wipe away our sorrow. Not only to keep us company, but to shatter the chains that keep us bound. Not only to bring us to heaven one day, but to bring God’s grace to us even now. Not only to warm our hearts once a year, but to fill us with His love forever.
Despite how different and difficult our Christmases may be this year, at the heart of it all we have been offered something that can never be taken away. We have the Good News of God’s great gift of self-giving love: that in Jesus, God has given Himself… to you… to me… to us all.
Nothing, no plague or pandemic… no distance or loneliness or loss… nothing in all of creation can ever undo this wonderous gift of love.
So whether or not our holidays feel familiar or special this year, may we remember and cherish the Good News that the story of Christmas shares: the message that God has given Himself to us in Jesus, His Son… to set us free from darkness, fear, sin, and despair, that we might dwell with Him, in the light of His hope, peace, joy, and love, now and forever. Do not be afraid. Hear and believe the Good News for all people: Jesus was born to be our Saviour, and that’s worth celebrating.
I’ll end now with a Christmas poem by the author Madeleine L’Engle, entitled “First Coming”:
First Coming by Madeleine L’Engle
He did not wait till the world was ready,
till men and nations were at peace.
He came when the Heavens were unsteady,
and prisoners cried out for release.
He did not wait for the perfect time.
He came when the need was deep and great.
He dined with sinners in all their grime,
turned water into wine. He did not wait
till hearts were pure. In joy he came
to a tarnished world of sin and doubt.
To a world like ours, of anguished shame
he came, and his Light would not go out.
He came to a world which did not mesh,
to heal its tangles, shield its scorn.
In the mystery of the Word made Flesh
the Maker of the stars was born.
We cannot wait till the world is sane
to raise our songs with joyful voice,
for to share our grief, to touch our pain,
He came with Love: Rejoice! Rejoice!
Merry Christmas everyone. Amen.