Grace, mercy, and peace to you on this holiest of
nights from our heavenly Father, from the incarnate Son, Jesus Christ, and from
the Holy Spirit whose Word brought that Son into the flesh for our salvation.
So, here we are. Christmas Eve. One of those
services you can count on being considerably better attended than a typical
Sunday morning. And that’s both good and not good, depending on how you look
at it. On the one hand, it’s wonderful that more people feel drawn to worship
and praise God during the Christmas season. Some remember that it’s really
about something far more profound and significant than crass commercialism, a
glut of football games, or overindulgence in food and booze.
On the other hand, though, it makes you suspect that
for some, getting a little dose of Jesus a couple times a year is all they
think they need or can stand. For the rest of the year, they seem to want to
either ignore or enjoy their sinful state, and steer clear of the place where
God both calls them to repentance and gives out the gifts of His mercy and
grace, His forgiveness and restoration.
So, let me ask you all a few questions to reflect on
for a moment: Why are you here tonight? What made you step away from the
normal rhythms of your Wednesday evenings, raise your attire up a notch or two,
and make the effort to get into the car and come here to join in hearing God’s
Word, singing His praises, and receiving His gifts? Why are you
here tonight? Furthermore, who are you, here tonight?
I suspect that if you were pressed on those questions,
we would hear lots of different answers.
Some of you are college students, home on break.
Others are military personnel, here on leave. Some of you may be neighbors of
the church, people who live close by, and Christmas seemed as though it might
be a good time to check out what’s happening here at St. Paul. Many of you may
be from out of town, visiting family or friends here in the Austin area for the
holidays. A few of you are church members who have to work on most Sunday
mornings due to your secular vocations, but are relieved of your duties on
Some are members who find a variety of other things to
do on most Sunday mornings, but feel an obligation or a desire to come to
worship on the major holidays, as if God’s grace is somehow less important or
less necessary to you than other things are the rest of the year.
And—let’s face it—some number of you have come at the
urging, prodding, and cajoling of other family members, perhaps somewhat
against your will, but desirous of keeping peace and harmony in the family even
if all this “church stuff” isn’t your thing.
Whatever your circumstances, and whatever your
motives, it’s good that you are here tonight. Not for the sake of Christ or
His Church. Not for the harmony of your human relationships, either. Not even
because getting a little Christianity might make you feel better or make you
live a slightly better life on this earth; it could, but that’s not really its
primary purpose. No, it’s good that you’re here because—whether you admit it
or not—you so desperately need the gifts God gives you here. Without those
gifts, you have no hope and no future.
Those of you familiar with common Christian worship
practices have probably already noted that tonight’s homily appears far earlier
in the order of service than what we’re used to. In some ways that’s a
challenge, and in other ways, it’s an opportunity.
It’s a challenge because, if there’s one thing that
preaching ought to do, above all else, it is to both proclaim and explain God’s
Word—clearly, fully, and without apology for either the offenses or the wonders
that its truth conveys. Usually, though, the sermon follows closely on the
heels of the appointed Bible lessons for the day. The preacher has the
opportunity to help his hearers more fully understand and apply the truths of
those lessons just heard to their own faith and lives.
In this service, though, our Bible lessons all follow
the homily, so you haven’t heard them yet—at least, you haven’t yet tonight. So,
how to explain what you haven’t yet heard?
Well, tonight, instead of just elaborating on the
Scripture readings, I’m going to take this unique opportunity to give you a
preview of them. Consider that I’m your “coming attractions” announcer—just
like you might have for television programs or upcoming motion pictures, but
with a message that has infinitely more importance for you than any of the
drivel coming from Hollywood or the networks.
Perhaps by giving you a bit of an advance peek at
these lessons, you’ll be able to listen to their familiar words with fresh
In the lesson from Genesis 3, we enter the scene just
after the verses of the actual fall into sin, but we will hear about its
aftermath. God, who was in such close fellowship with His creation that He
came for evening strolls in the garden with the man and the woman, comes
looking for them. He knows where they are, of course, and He knows exactly what
has just happened. Yet, in His mercy, God asks His people some questions so
that they might have the opportunity to admit their sinful actions and repent.
Much like we do, Adam and Eve will play the “blame
game”—externalizing fault for their own disobedience and failings. For their
sinful actions, and for Satan’s evil, there will be consequences. We don’t
hear in our text tonight about the earthly consequences given to the man and
the woman, those things that make our daily lives so difficult sometimes. Those
consequences are given out in later verses.
Yet in God’s condemnation of the serpent we do
hear the first promise of the Messiah to come. The woman’s seed—and that’s a
singular Hebrew noun, meaning a specific individual and not just her
descendants in general—that seed would one day come to destroy the power of the
devil himself, freeing the people from the curse of the sin with which they had
now become infected. It’s the first proclamation of the Gospel.
In Isaiah 9, the prophet declares that darkness and
death will give way to a great light. We who are floundering about, stumbling
in the black void of our ignorance and sin, will receive the revelation of God’s
will. It will provide illumination and hope that the curse of death and
despair will be removed.
Moreover, this hope will arise out of the birth of a
child. Not just an ordinary child, mind you, but one who will carry all the
power of God Himself. Don’t get confused by the word “government” there; it
doesn’t mean that Jesus is going to set himself up in Washington and straighten
It really means that the Christ has the full power and
authority of God Almighty, to grant all the eternal blessings He promises us throughout
You’ll also hear a short list Isaiah wrote of titles
by which the Savior will be known. Each one of those terms describes an
important aspect of the work of God in Christ. But listen and look beyond
those limited human terms, recognizing that while they are fully accurate and
true, they don’t even begin to capture the breadth and depth and essence of
what God gives us in the birth of Jesus.
Micah’s prophecy gives us the detail about the
geographical location of the birth of the Savior—Bethlehem. This prophecy is
certainly of critical importance to validate the truth that the one who was
known as Jesus of Nazareth because of his upbringing there is really the
promised Son of David, born in royal David’s city.
But when you hear that reading about that little
out-of-the-way town, contemplate how God continually takes the small, and the insignificant,
and the ordinary, and makes amazing, divine things happen with them, and
to them: words, water, bread and wine and… you.
Listen closely to the other verses of that reading
from Micah, also—to how our alienation from God, the seeming abandonment of His
people, will be reversed through the birth of this child. A child whose
origins pre-date those of his ancestors. A child whose identity will become
known throughout the whole world, and who will bring people from all nations,
Israelite and Gentile alike, into one secure flock and brotherhood.
As we move into the New Testament readings, rejoice that
God chose the eloquent and detail-oriented Luke to record much of the story of
the Savior’s conception and birth. First, we will once again meet Mary, the
beloved mother of our Lord. I hope many of you had the opportunity to hear
Pastor Nuckols this past Sunday, when he reminded us that Mary was indeed a
sinner like you and I, but was chosen by God for His own particular purposes
according to His own will and His own time.
Listen as the angel brings Mary words of favor,
encouragement, instruction, and hope, and to her response of curiosity but not
doubt—“how will this be?” As the angel tells her God’s message and brings her
God’s presence, Mary becomes the first and only woman to ever conceive a child
just by listening. She expresses willing acceptance of both the burden and the
honor that it was to be the mother of God.
Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we also sought such a
close relationship with the Lord, and that we willingly accept both the
blessings and the responsibilities such a relationship brings!
The three excerpts from chapter 2 of St. Luke’s gospel
hardly need any introduction, do they? After all, you’ve heard Linus recite
them on “A Charlie Brown Christmas” for what—thirty, forty years? But don’t
let those familiar words just fall into a gray fog of background noise—not
tonight; not ever.
Marvel that God used Caesar Augustus’ vanity and greed
to require Joseph to take his beloved Mary to Bethlehem at just that time.
Consider that this tiny baby, brought forth in human flesh, contained the
wholeness of God. Connect those swaddling clothes of Christmas with the linen
grave wrappings of Good Friday. Imagine the Lord of heaven and earth, placed
in a manger where unclean creatures feed, and remember that feeding on His
flesh and blood is a privilege that bestows forgiveness and life eternal to us
Listen closely to the angel chorus, and realize that
they aren’t singing about peace between earthly nations or a “just-getting-along”
harmony among people. The angels are proclaiming the reconciliation of
humankind to God, and the unmerited goodwill He has shown us in providing a
Lamb to take away the sin of the world.
Go with the shepherds, those who were highly despised
and avoided. Let the message that has already reached you by the proclamation
of the Word lead you, too, to seek a greater understanding of this thing that
has happened, and a closer relationship with the Lord. Notice that these
shepherds didn’t just slink back into the isolation and self-absorption of
their own lives. After their encounter with the Gospel and with Christ, they
first spread the word concerning all that had been told them, and only then did
they return to their own lives, glorifying and praising God all the while.
So, that’s your preview of the lessons to come. Keep
your ears open. More importantly, keep your hearts open.
Because I suspect that, deep down, your answers to those questions I asked you
earlier are the same as mine. Who we are here tonight is this:
We are a selfish, rotten, miserable sinners, and complete liars if we deny it.
We are condemnable, and despicable, and without hope of our own.
But it’s in the “why” of our being here
tonight that all this changes. Whether you’re a regular churchgoer or a frequent
absentee, and whether you came willingly or begrudgingly, you’re here for a
very specific reason: God wanted you to hear His message of hope and salvation
tonight, and He used His Word—whether previously to you or through the
encouragement of others—to bring you here.
You see, God doesn’t like what you’ve become, on your
own. He wants to take your rottenness; your selfishness; your rebelliousness—and
wrap it not in swaddling clothes or grave clothes, but in the robe of Christ’s
righteousness: A pure, white, spotless robe, soaked in His sinless, precious
blood. That change will make you a brand-new “who,” and will give you
unlimited more “whys” to continue to seek His words, His wisdom, His love, and
So keep your ears open tonight. That sound you’ll
hear in the lessons and in the songs is the Lord God, walking through His
garden in the cool of the evening, asking, “Where are you, dear child?” Don’t
hide from Him; He’s coming to bring you good news, too. Amen.