This is an awful Christmas text. It is heart wrench and not at all in the saccharine mode of modern Christmas. In the words of Doctor Who – ‘its half-way through the dark.’
So far I’m finding Matthew tougher that either Luke or Mark to preach from. I think that is because of a couple of impressions of mine.
1) This could be take the wrong way, but I generally think that most Christians today, even those who claim a high view of Scripture, have a low view. When it comes down to it, we really question or hold suspect if the Bible is the Word of God. If we did think it was the very Word, we would struggle with it. We would argue over it. We would have bibles worn out. Fact is we don’t. The opposite of love isn’t hate but indifference. My impressions of Mark and Luke were that their stories stood on their own a little more. They were more about ‘Jesus is Lord’ which is a theme that can be made within the context of Jesus’ life. Matthew, as this sermon will talk about, has some different themes like ‘Jesus is the Son of David’ and ‘Jesus is the Nazarene/Suffering Servant’. Those are intensely biblical. If you don’t have a high view of scripture, and you don’t have a good knowledge of the basic salvation story, then Matthew’s “proofs” are meaningless.
2) Mark is supposed to be the gritty one, but Matthew in the infancy is the one that looks at the abyss. Matthew is the one that gives us our sin in all its horribleness – a tyrant killing babies. When one of your proofs that Jesus is the messiah is that he is the Nazarene/Suffering Servant, Matthew so far has some darker colors on his palate.
Here is the money portion or emotional payoff of the full sermon… Suffering Servant
The closest I can come to seeing it, is Matthew’s last “proof”. In order that he would be called a nazarene. That Jesus would be despised among men and rejected. A man acquainted with grief.
Sometimes, in fact in this sin crippled world most of the time, what we can do and accomplish is nothing. Sometimes the tyrants are too strong – including that tyrant sin within us. Sometimes there is no Egypt to run to. Sometimes there are no angels instructing a righteous step-father Joseph. Sometimes all we can do is bear witness. Bear witness that God is not the God of the philosophers distant and far off. God is not the cleaned up and sparkly God of the marketers and Christmas cartoons. We bear witness that God is one of passion.
That the babe in the manger grew up to a cross. That the God revealed to us in his Word does not spare us from life, but came to give us life. Right now, that life includes sorrow, it includes passion. But it also includes a God, a savior, who has felt it and knows it all. A God, a savior who remembers. A God, a savior who will comfort Rachel in the only way possible. Her children that are no more – will be. Because that savior bust the gates of death.
Now we might be Nazarenes, despised and rejected. Now we might be standing a Rama – the place of leaving for exile. But now we have hope – a God, a savior who is Christ the Lord.
Text: Isa 9:2-7, John 1:1-14 Christmas Eve Midnight Introduction
Most of you have probably heard me say that John is impossible to preach on. I broke my rule earlier tonight, but the only way it is possible is by picking one verse or one theme and then reflecting it through an epistle or some other scripture to help. Earlier tonight it was receiving. Christmas really is all about receiving. Receiving eyes to see. Receiving the light.
And that is what I want to meditate on a little tonight. Please forgive the cliché, but at midnight how is light a metaphor for Christmas, and how that light works on us. Life & Death
“Those who dwell in a land of deep darkness, on them a light has shined.” – Isa 9:2b
That word for deep darkness has been translated a bunch of ways. The King James divines translated it the land of the shadow of death. It is the same word as in the 23rd psalm. Modern attempts say deep darkness. One even tried death-shade. The word is used 17 times in the old testament. 10 of them in Job. 2 more in Jeremiah. And once in that burning prophet Amos. Just knowing where it is used tells you what “deep darkness” is about – death, destruction, exile. One of the psalms that uses it is about prisoners in chains in deep darkness.
That is where Isaiah puts us. A people who dwell in a land of deep darkness.
But on them a light has shined. In him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shined in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.
That is the start. Somebody told us about the light – a little baby in a manger, the man on the cross, the empty tomb – and nothing is ever the same. The Father and Spirit have moved us from deep darkness to light, from death to life.
And that is a dramatic event. In our age a digital event. For many Christians an unremembered event – being baptized as little babies. But we’ve had our mountaintop experiences, and have heard the dramatic conversion tales. Amazing grace that saved a wretch like me. I once was lost, but now I see. Goodness & Evil
“Of the increase of his government and of peace there will be no end, on 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 forevermore. (Isa 9:7 ESV)”
Another Biblical way we talk about light is good and evil. Nicodemus would come to Jesus at night – the original Nick at Night. Jesus would flabbergast him with talk of needing to be born again. “How can I a grown man re-enter my mother’s womb?” Jesus was talking more about that life & death metaphor. But Nicodemus wasn’t ready. So Jesus says to him,
“Light has come into the world, but men loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil. Everyone who does evil hates the light, and will not come into the light for fear that his deeds will be exposed.” – John 3:19-20
We understand the law. We might get it mixed up every now and then. We will try and mitigate its impact, but we get it. Bad men might glorify in their badness, but they know who and what they are. But in the midst of the land of deep darkness, there are Kingdom’s of light.
The promise of Isaiah, fulfilled in Jesus, is a new kingdom. A Kingdom upheld with justice and righteousness. We know these when we see them. Our literature and history are woven through with reflections – Camelot and Plymouth Rock, Cincinatus and Washington, Reagan’s shining city on a hill. They are always more filled with light in reflection and myth than they probably were in reality, but that is because they are reflections of the New Jerusalem. The New Jerusalem whose King was born tonight, whose government increases, like yeast in the bread, like the mustard seed, slowly, quietly until its final fulfillment.
Wisdom & Folly
The last way the Bible uses light is probably the toughest. People will envy you for your stuff or for your intelligence, for your looks or your luck, for almost anything. But rarely will you hear words of envy for someone’s wisdom.
I’m always amazed at the wisdom of the King James translators – which really goes back to William Tyndale who was burned at the stake for his wisdom. They had no tools compared to modern scholars who sniff at the texts they used – but they created a language that lasted really until it met the force of modern marketing that needed to sell bibles.
“And the light shineth in darkness; and the darkness comprehended it not.” (Joh 1:5 KJV)
The word they translated as comprehended has a wide area of meaning: more modern translations have tried overcome, understood, extinguish, and perceive. And those are all valid. The greek word is used in a variety of ways and he probably meant to evoke all of them, this being John. But here, he’s talking about a people not receiving. He’s talking about how the one through whom all things were made, was incarnated as a baby. Herod’s killing of the innocents is Matthew. To John, Jesus always knows what he is doing. Jesus puts down his life, and takes it back up again. This one came full of grace and truth. Not everyone sees it. Not everyone comprehends it.
In fact, the world looks at this baby and says foolishness. We have an inner light. We have our ways. God in this helpless child? God on a cross? God adopting us? God living with us? Impossible. The light shines, but the darkness – those living in a land of deep darkness – comprehend it not. Conclusion
But the true light, which enlightens everyone, came into the world. He shines in the darkness. The boots of the warrior and the uniforms bloodstained by war will all be burned. They will be fuel for the fire. We call him Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. The zeal of the Lord of Hosts has done this. The zeal of the Lord of Hosts has done this…for us.
Text: John 1:1-14, Heb 1:1-5 Trouble in the World
The presents are all bought, if not all paid for by now. St. Nicholas is busy putting stuff under the trees. We are all at that point of the gifting season where it is what it is. Boyfriend and girlfriend will exchange and find out who likes who better. Husband and wife will find out if the spark is gone or still there. The kids will find out who mommy really likes better.
I suppose I’m only partially kidding. Because we know those thoughts come along with our gifts. Those thoughts are probably the real driver behind most Christmas angst. How will everything measure out? Can I make it through one more year without a major faux paus…or one more year of guarding my heart from breaking.
Jesus once told his disciples that you had to receive the kingdom like a child. Christmas is a great time to see some of what that means. The kids do most of the receiving. They are happy about it – unless it is socks. They are not immediately weighing how to repay the gift. They are not attempting to hide disappointment. They will shout for joy.
After a certain age and enough good training, all kids turn into adults. And as adults we are better givers than receivers. We have a phrase – ‘it is better to give than to receive.’ The naïve take is just that we should be generous. The deeper reading is that as long as you are giving, you are never in anyone’s debt.
Charles Dickens’ tale of Ebenezer Scrooge probably has influenced our ideas of Christmas more than the Biblical story. Scrooge learns “the real” meaning of Christmas. The real meaning to Ebenezer and his three ghosts is how to be a generous giver. Don’t be a Scrooge, that way you never rack up the eternal chains of debt that poor Marley carried around. A Dickens’ Christmas is about balancing the scales. About finding the power within us to make things right. Gospel – Section 1
“He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him. 12 Yet to all who received him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God– (John 1:11 NIV)
The Gospel story is not about balancing the scales. And it is even less about guarding hearts or learning how to give. And it is not about the power within. The Gospel is about learning to receive.
The Father loved his Son, and the Father and the Son loved their creation. The creation that constantly broke their collective heart. “Long ago, at many times and in various ways, God spoke through the prophets.” And Israel would refuse to listen. They wanted a king like other nations. They wanted gods like other nations. They wanted to balance the scales. They wanted to be free and independent. They wanted their power. They wanted to be like God.
“but now, in these days, He has spoken to us by His Son…” For God so loved the world that he gave his only son. God sent the true light into the world knowing that the world would not get it. Knowing that even though everything had been made through this light, the world would not know him…that the world would not receive him. The cross was born for all mankind, knowing that some would not receive it. Didn’t matter…God would empty his heart. God would not guard his heart in his giving. He would open and reveal himself fully – in a child in a manger…in a peasant on a cross. One last gift given – no give backs…no possible way to payback.
Gospel – Section 2
The Gospel is about receiving. It is about understanding our own powerlessness.
The world looks at that baby and sees helplessness. The world looks at that cross and sees defeat. God looks at those and sees the son He loves. The son who willing put all the glory aside. Put aside the glory for a manger, for a cross, for us. And in the light of that gift, God sees us – he gives us the right to be his children.
But we have to receive it. We have to open our eyes. We have to understand that we are more helpless than that baby in the manger. We have to understand that there is nothing inside of us that can save us. We can’t bootstrap our way to heaven. We can never balance the scales. We have to receive it. We receive it like a little child. We receive Christ like the gift from the Father who loves us. Conclusion
The gospel is about receiving. Receiving eyes to see our true state. Receiving the love of God for us. Receiving the adoption as sons and daughters. Receiving the light that the world can never understand. Receiving the baby in manger, as a mirror of our state before God, and yet so much more than what these eyes can see. Amen.
This sermon owes a debt of gratitude to William Willimon whose theme I stole and reworked in a way I could deliver it.
We are having two Christmas Eve (Fri. Dec 24th) services this year.
The primary Candlelight service is at 7 PM.
We will also have an anticipation/midnight service starting at 11 PM. (There will be candles here also, but the tenor is a little different. I will not be singing this year, but if you would like to, please contact Ethel Louise).
Text: Matt 1:18-25
This text from Matthew has a really clear purpose – to explain how Jesus is the Son of David even though he is the Son of the Virgin Mary. But I have to admit that what this text was written to address is just not relevant to today. Now before anyone goes nuts (‘the Parson has lost it, he’s throwing out the scripture!’), I’m perfectly willing to say its scripture. It is interesting in and of itself. But it was written in an apologetic mindset. It was written to convince people that Jesus was born of a virgin and still the Son of David.
There must be something important about Jesus being the Son of David. Something that maybe just escapes me, but I’d bet escapes most Christians today. I suggest three things, but it is more of an open question.
My thoughts were: 1) The eternal throne of David is in the new Jerusalem. What goes on in the Old Jerusalem carries no special religious significance. (i.e. the evangelicals that encourage a pro-Israel policy because of religious prophecy are badly misguided). 2) The Son of David – the fact that Jesus was the Jewish messiah – says something about how important culture is. God incarnated himself in a very particular culture, and then he forms a new people and calls them his body. Christians are the body of Christ. It is our task to incarnate Christ to our very specific time, place, culture. 3) The Son of David was the first to hold the key (see Isa 22:22). That key was given by the Son of David to Peter and the Apostles (i.e. the church). (see Matt 16:18-19, and Rev 3:7). That key is our salvation from sin. The king has the authority to pardon. Jesus as the eternal King – the eternal son of David – can pardon eternally.
So maybe it is relevant, but not easy to think about. About as easy as how God was born of a virgin.
This is a link to the google labs ngram viewer. Google has been scanning books for a few years. The have roughly 10% of all books ever published scanned. This tool searches and graphs word usage in those books (or a representative subset). Interpretation is left up to you.
Well, here is proof. The Beatles were never more popular than Jesus, but sex is in the running….
I’ll leave the question of the idol of the age, or maybe publishing standards up to you…
We are scandalized by the patchy nature of the Kingdom of Heaven. It appears capricious. It appears unfair. Even the Baptist asked – “are you the one?” But isn’t the the real test of faith? When you trust in the goodness of God even when events look contrary? “Blessed is the one who is not scandalized by me” is what Jesus sent back to John in that prison hole. The restoration has started, but its not complete. The Kingdom comes where and when it wills. But the blessing of the Kingdom affix to the lowest – the good news is received by the poor. The one who is not scandalized is blessed.
To me, this gets at the core of modern problems. We are scandalized by a God who retains sovereignty. Even the authority to do nothing. We do not accept ourselves as poor. We can’t answer with Peter – “where do we go?” We have trouble seeing with Paul’s eyes – “If Christ is not raised, we are to be pitied.” We think we have better options.
Elizabeth Edwards died yesterday. From what I know she died of breast cancer and left two younger children in her philandering husband’s care. She lived her first 50 years in private and a very public final 11. And those last 11 include a book called Saving Graces and final good-bye that included the word faith. It is said we don’t speak ill of the dead, but Elizabeth Edwards is a perfect example of MTD or a faith I wouldn’t bother with.
Asked by Beth Corbin of Americans United for Separation of Church and State to explain how her faith beliefs inform her politics, Elizabeth Edwards gave an extraordinarily radical answer: She doesn’t believe in salvation, at least not in the standard Christian understanding of it, and she said as much:
“I have, I think, somewhat of an odd version of God. I do not have an intervening God. I don’t think I can pray to him — or her — to cure me of cancer.” After the words “or her,” Mrs. Edwards gave a little laugh, indicating she knew she had waded into water perhaps a bit deeper than the audience had anticipated. Then she continued:
“I appreciate other people’s prayers for that [a cure for her cancer], but I believe that we are given a set of guidelines, and that we are obligated to live our lives with a view to those guidelines. And I don’t that believe we should live our lives that way for some promise of eternal life, but because that’s what’s right. We should do those things because that’s what’s right.”
“We are given a set of guidelines…that’s what’s right.” – Moralistic
“It is hard not to wish for us all the peace that comes with that acceptance.” – Therapeutic (5 stages of grief)
“I do not have an intervening God.” – Deism
“I have been sustained throughout my life by three saving graces — my family, my friends, and a faith in the power of resilience and hope.”
To which I say Hope in what!?! What hope does any of that give you? “If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins…if in Christ we have hope for this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied.” – 1 Cor 15:17-19
Don’t give me any schmaltzy warm glow hope and faith and grace. I want the real thing. Because when that warm fuzzy meets a giant monster that still swallows 100% of the people I know, the light dies. “But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of them that slept…so also in Christ shall all be made alive.” – 1 Cor 15:20-22 I believe in the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come. That is the content of my hope.
There are things to admire about Elizabeth Edwards, but her theology is not on that list.