Sermon for the Nativity of Our Lord, Christmas Eve, preached on December 24, 2011.
Last year, those who headed into New York City by way of Lincoln Tunnel were confronted by a billboard showing a manger scene and underneath it all "You know it's a myth." Those same folks headed out of the city, they saw another billboard with the same manger scene but under this one it said, "You know it's real." So, which is it? Real or myth? You are caught coming or going – what do we believe? Every Christmas the media trots out specials that attempt to tell us the real story of Christmas but seem to leave us with more questions than answers.
Is that all we have to go on? A guess? A hope? A dream? I have no clue how many of you really believe and how many of you are here either because it is tradition or your spouse dragged you here. I am reminded of the book Spiritual Envy in which the unbelieving author admitted that he once believed in God but lost his faith to skepticism and doubt. His story is pretty typical. "I wanted it to be true, " he writes. "I wanted to believe in God; I miss the comfort my faith provided; I wanted to believe but it wasn't there anymore..."
Maybe this is you. We want what Christmas offers and so we come even when we are not sure we even believe anymore, when our lives are tested and tried by the ups and downs of real life. We want it all to be true but we wonder how we can be sure. The British author Julian Barnes once said, "I don't believe in God anymore but I sure miss Him..." May that is you. In search of a lost faith, in pursuit of a reality to balance off the harsh reality of a world with too many detours and dead ends, too many disappointments and defeats. In this we may be all the same – all in search of a hope and a truth to counter the disappointment and disillusionment of too much of life.
Everyone of us has borne the scars of life and everyone of us has been buffeted by the seas of change and uncertainty. We have carried too long the shame of our failures. We have the hard callouses of disappointments too many to count. We hide the dark secrets of thoughts, words, and deeds we pray will never be revealed. We turn off the news because it is always bad. We want to believe in God. We want to believe that He is there somewhere. We want to know comfort stronger than our pain and a God who does more than just watch us screw things up.
That is exactly what tonight is about – not our search for God but God’s search for us. This is not about what we think of Him but His loving heart toward us. Here is the God who knows and sees our hearts – the good and the bad. Here is the God who loves us not for what we can do for Him, but for what He can to do for us. Here is the God who comes to keep His promises, to dwell with us sinners no matter how bad it gets, and who can do something to fill the emptiness we carry around inside. We may have come tonight asking if this God is real, if we can trust in Him, if we can count on Him, but this night is about the God who came to us and for us – who saw us in our need and became incarnate to rescue us from sin and its death.
What happened? The prophets sketched out a plan and a promise laid out over centuries. The script for Christmas was not written when Jesus was born. It was written thousands of years ago. What we are here to see is not the promise we have to wait for, but the pledge kept and the promise fulfilled. What happened? God came to us in the flesh of a child planted in Mary's womb by the Spirit. What happened? Joseph in his broken heart was ready to walk away from the pregnant Mary until the Spirit convinced his fearful heart to trust. What happened? Mary pondered the unbelievable words of the angel and kept these words in her heart - God has come for You. What happened? Elizabeth who had given up hope for a child had the baby in her womb jump when Mary came by with Baby Jesus in her womb.
What happened? A village closed its heavy eyes in sleep while the child they had no room for entered the world like every other child and yet like none of them. Shepherds found their lonely life interrupted by angels's song. What happened? Wise men from the East took the journey of a lifetime to be shown the Savior who was come for them and for all people.
Our big worry is what we can see of God – but this night is not about your search for God. It is about what God saw. And God saw YOU. He saw right into your heart, into the regrets and disappointments, into the shadows of sin and the mark of death upon you, and the tears that flow down your cheeks. God saw YOU and acted decisively, deliberately, with plodding precision over eras and epochs to bridge the great divide. He came to us, as one of us, wearing our flesh and blood. He was born as the second Adam to undo what Adam did to us and for us by a simple choice that destined us all for death. He came for us as the arm of God, reclaiming for our heavenly Father the lost and prodigal children whom He could not let go.
What happened? God saw YOU and your suffering and He took your place in suffering and bore the weight of your sin and its death. He opened up the dark night of your disappointment to the light of His love and His abiding presence. He made known to us the hidden face of God. What happened? God saw YOU. And came for YOU. You may not be sure of any thing right now – except the hurts and wounds and fears you carry within you. You may be afraid to believe, afraid to hope, afraid to trust. But this night is not about your search for God or for hope; it is about the God who sought you out, who came as one of you, to redeem you from your fears, your sins, and your death.
Now don't get me wrong. Faith is not easy. It is much easier to live within your doubts and fears, to let the bitterness of your disappointments keep you from hope. Faith involves the great risk of trusting in something other than what you see or control; in someone other than your self. The marvel of this night is the God who saw you in your need and who came for you.
This is no fairy tale. There are no sentimental happy endings. What you have is not the what if of a magical world but the reality of sin, death, and disappointment met and borne by the Savior who lies in the manger. The crosses you think you bear, God has determined you shall not bear alone. He has come to take over the load of our discontent and the drag of our sin even if it means death on the cross. This God is not a God of good words but of deeds. His Word tells us what He has done, how He came for us, to save us from ourselves.
A long time ago when the promise of this was just unfolding, somebody was afraid of the disappointment of life just like we are. He was too afraid to ask God for anything. God kept inviting him to ask but Ahaz the King refused. He may have cloaked it all in a veneer of piety but I think it was because he was afraid of God’s answer, afraid of being disappointed one more time. It is always easier to bear the burden alone or to spend your life blaming others for it all. Yet all the while God kept saying "Ask Me... ask Me... Ask Me!" Finally, the Lord refused to wait and gave the sign. “A virgin shall conceive and bear a Son and shall call His name Immanuel, which means God with us.” The sign of YOUR future lies within the manger, within the flesh and blood of a child so like us and yet unlike us, the Son of God incarnate, whose blood washes us clean, whose sacramental food feeds us eternal life, and whose Word does everything it promises.
We assume that tonight is about our search for God... But it is really about God’s search for us. This night shines with the brightness of the one true and unchanging Light of Christ. Darkness and death cannot overcome it. So come and meet Him in this manger, the God whose love has planted us in hope, forgiven us all our sins, lead us through death’s shadow, and right into His presence... Merry Christmas! Amen!