A Christmas Eve Sermon by Nate Kerr.
In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. All went to their own towns to be registered. 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. He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. 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. In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. 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: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.” And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!” When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.” So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger. When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child; and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them. But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart. The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them. After eight days had passed, it was time to circumcise the child; and he was called Jesus, the name given by the angel before he was conceived in the womb. (Luke 2:1-21)
During this advent season, I’ve spent quite a bit of time thinking about the name that is given to this one that is to be born of Mary, this Savior, this Lord. The name is “Jesus.” Yes, this is the name – “Jesus” – that my mind has been given to think over and over these past few weeks, not “Christ.” (I’ll have to admit, in my own mind and thought, I haven’t been doing my part to keep “Christ” in “Christ-mas.”) It is not that I don’t think Jesus is the Christ! Indeed, I do! But it is because I am convinced that Jesus — this child who grew up to be a man, this human being born of the virgin Mary, this one who was born in a town called Bethlehem and whose life really was threatened by a king named Herod in childhood, and who eventually was hounded by the religious and political powers of his day to the point of death – it is because I am convinced that it is this Jesus and this Jesus alone that is the Christ that I’ve been thinking so much about this name “Jesus.” Specifically, I’ve wondered why it is that the story of this one’s birth culminates with giving him this name. And so as I’ve given myself to thinking about this name “Jesus” during this advent season, I’ve spent a considerable amount of time in that part of the gospel story where Mary is visited by the angel, and is told that this one to be born to her should be named “Jesus,” for “he will save his people from their sins.” This is what Matthew tells about the importance of the name “Jesus.” And this makes perfect sense. For the name “Jesus” just means, after all, “the one who saves.”
But what does this mean? Certainly, we could think of all kinds of ways in which we use the phrase “Jesus saves.” And if we were honest with ourselves, we’d probably have to admit that more often than not the way we use that phrase has more to do with our own hopes and dreams and fuzzy warm feelings than with what Jesus’ life itself tells us about the nature of “salvation.” So thinking about this name “Jesus” leads us immediately to ask: What is the nature of the salvation that we are to expect from this one whose name means “the one who saves”? And this question leads us to another passage that is at the heart of the Christmas story, that of the annunciation or the visit of the angel to Mary, which is a story that we often read early in advent season as a way of getting on to the good stuff – the birth itself. But if “Jesus” was the name given to Mary by the angel, perhaps we should go back and consider from the beginning what Mary herself understood this name to mean. And so we are led to Luke 1:38-55, which includes the famous “Magnificat” or “song of praise” which Mary offered up to God upon receiving the news that she will give birth to the Savior. And these are the words that we read:
In those days Mary set out and went with haste to a Judean town in the hill country, where she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth. When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leaped in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit and exclaimed with a loud cry, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me? For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leaped for joy. And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.” And Mary said, “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed; for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name. His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation. He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty. He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, according to the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever.”
It hardly needs comment; and it is rather sad that it needs saying. But we should not just say it, we should proclaim it: This is the gospel! This is the good news of Christmas! This is the salvation that we speak of when we say that Jesus is the Christ, that Jesus is Lord! Salvation means justice! Salvation means peace! Salvation means healing and reconciliation! In a word, salvation means liberation, freedom – freedom from the death-dealing powers of this world and freedom for a new world, a new creation in which the dead have life, the poor have hope, the sick have healing, the oppressed and captive have release!
And this is what is so important about the name “Jesus” – the name Jesus tells us a story, a story about the concrete ways in which salvation happens, about when and where Jesus’ Lordship is proclaimed and embodied. I mean, think about this story: To be born, God inhabits the belly of a virgin and in the form of Mary and her faithful husband walks right into the middle of Bethlehem, during tax-season, right into the middle of the worst economic oppression imaginable, where the poor get poorer and the rich get richer. God in the form of the wise men walks right into the palace of Herod, perhaps the most blood-thirsty and power-hungry king of his time, and announces that a new King has arrived on the scene. God in Jesus becomes an emigrant from his homeland, escaping to Egypt and eventually to Nazareth, so that upon his return to Jerusalem he might be crucified as nothing but an immigrant Jew. This is the story of Christmas, this is the story of Jesus – in Jesus, God identifies with the economically oppressed, the poor; God identifies with an oppressed people under the rule of a tyrant government; God identifies with the immigrant and outcast, the oppressed races of an increasingly racist society. And to these oppressed people Jesus grows up and says: “The Kingdom of God is coming! And it is coming for you!”
So, you might be wondering, what does all of this have to say about how we as a church “celebrate” Christmas? Tonight we gather in anticipation of Jesus’ coming; tomorrow we will celebrate that coming. But listen closely to Mary’s song. Mary does not say that Christmas is a time for us to celebrate with soothing upbeat pop songs and shiny wrapping paper, but with the scattering of the proud. Mary does not say that Christmas is a time for us to feel good and to think “everything will be okay,” but for the powerful to be brought down and the lowly to be lifted up. Mary does not say that Christmas is a time for those with full stomachs to fill their plates with second helpings, but a time for the hungry to be filled with good things. Certainly, many of us will experience all of these things tomorrow – we will exchange gifts with shiny paper and bows; we will listen, sing along with, and perhaps even dance to familiar and joyful songs; we will feel good and upbeat for a few hours in the midst of what might otherwise for many of us be a most miserable and depressing time; we will eat good food and we will enjoy it shamelessly! And this is all right and good, to the extent that in doing all of this we are celebrating the fact that indeed Jesus has come, the Kingdom has arrived, and indeed we are called to remember that we were once lost and now are found, that we were once slaves to powers from which we have been liberated! But this celebration is only truly a celebration as long as it includes genuine anticipation – anticipation of the ways in which Jesus today, just as he did 2,000 years ago, walks into the midst of the powers of this world and brings liberation, healing, and the transformation to lost and broken lives. And so we will only celebrate faithfully tomorrow if we celebrate in the mode of what Mary calls the “fear of the Lord.” We will only celebrate faithfully when we recognize and remember that there are those amongst us – perhaps sitting right next to us – who will not be given presents with shiny wrappers; who will not sing songs and play games and laugh; who will not eat to fullness. And in remembering this, we will only celebrate faithfully when we realize that this isn’t really our true Christmas celebration, that our celebration does not end here but only begins, and that our true celebration happens beyond the walls of our churches and homes. We will be celebrating faithfully tomorrow when we remember that the church celebrates Christmas when, in the midst of an increasingly failing economy, the church understands ‘property’ as that which is to be given away rather than being hoarded for the sake of securing profit and comfort; or when, in the midst of an increasingly broken healthcare system, she attends to the broken bodies in her midst and makes sure of their healing; or when, in the face of an increasingly unjust penal system, the church visits prisoners and speaks a word of unheard of reconciliation; or when, as citizens of a country increasingly concerned with securing its borders and keeping out foreigners, she welcomes the immigrant (legal or not) into her homes and buildings; or when, or when, while as inhabitants of a political world order determined to identify its enemies in order to kill them, the church embodies the gospel truth that the only enemies one knows are those that are to be loved and forgiven.
That is the good news of the gospel. That is the Christian message. That is the life that this one man named “Jesus” lived. And that is how the church, as the body of Christ, celebrates Christmas today – no matter what we may do in our homes and with our families tomorrow. This is how the church is to celebrate Christmas: the church itself comes to be identified by story of Jesus – in Jesus, the church identifies with the economically oppressed, the poor; in Jesus, the church identifies with oppressed people under the rule of tyrant governmental powers; in Jesus, the church identifies with the immigrant and outcast, the oppressed races of an increasingly racist society. And to these oppressed people the church stands up and says: “The Kingdom of God is coming! And it is coming for you!”