Sermon for Lessons and Carols on Christmas Eve, preached on December 24, 2020, by the Rev. Daniel M. Ulrich.
This is the day that many of us have been looking forward to. We’ve been looking forward to it for a long time. I’ve been looking forward to it ever since Easter. All of us hoping that this Christmas would be the joyful end to 2020 and we could all get back to “normal.” But, that’s not the case. Instead of feeling joy and peace and merriness, it’s more of the same. We’re filled with angst, uncertainty, and fear.
2020 has been a year marked with fears. Fears of riots and violent protests. Fears of a virus. Fears of shutdowns and quarantines. Fear of running out of essential supplies, like toilet paper. Fears of economic collapse. It’s all there. Every night we turned on the TV hoping for some good news, and all we got was more to be afraid of. Fear is the emotion of the year. We’ve all felt it. We’ve feared the unknown, much like everyone who was present for Jesus’ birth that first Christmas.
I. When we picture the nativity of our Lord, we think of it as a peaceful scene. Mary and Joseph looking over baby Jesus lying in the manger. Barnyard animals quietly surrounding them. Shepherds and the sheep kneeling before the newborn King. Everything seems right and perfect. But this peaceful image that we’ve come to treasure and love ignores the reality of fear that was felt that night.
There’s always a certain amount of fear that parents have when a child is born. I know I felt it when my two girls were. There’s fear because there’s always a level of uncertainty, not knowing exactly what will happen. If we feel fear today with all the modern technologies we have in hospitals, how much more do you think it was felt in that stable in Bethlehem?
Joseph and Mary were in a frightful situation. The law required them to go to Bethlehem for a census. So, while Mary was 9 months pregnant, they made that 90 mile trek from Nazareth. Today, 90 miles doesn’t seem like that far. Hop in the car, set the cruise at 75, and be there in a little over an hour. But there was no I-24 for Mary and Joseph. They had to walk it. Imagine that, walking 90 miles while you're 9 months pregnant, having to carry with you all your stuff to camp on the side on the road as you made the journey. This isn’t something that many of us would be happy to do. And then imagine the level of fear they had once they got to Bethlehem and realized there was no place for them to sleep. And then imagine how that fear must have grown when Mary’s water broke and contractions started. Talk about a frightful situation, not knowing what would happen. I can only imagine the level of fear Mary and Joseph had as they had to quickly turn a stable into a labor and delivery room.
But they weren’t the only ones who feared that night. Those shepherds that we picture peacefully kneeling at the manger, they also were afraid. These men were used to sleeping outside as they watched after their sheep. They were used to the night air and the sounds of the open country. It wasn’t a terrifying thing for them to be out there, not fully knowing what was in the dark. But that night, they did become terrified, not because of what they didn’t see, but because of what they did see.
As they watched their flock, an angel appeared to them. This of course wasn’t a normal thing. We all like to think it would be wonderful to see an angel of God, but everytime one shows up in the Bible, there’s always fear. Joseph feared when the angel appeared to him, telling him to marry Mary. Mary was troubled when the angel showed up in her house, telling her she would be the mother of God. Whenever there’s an angel, there’s fear. There’s fear because there’s uncertainty. Why is the angel there? Were the angels there to help the shepherds, or harm them? Were they a sign of something good, or bad? You can never tell just by the appearance of angels, because they can bring good tidings or judgement. Seeing the glory of the Lord reflected in the angels, the shepherds feared the unknown. And that’s what we ultimately fear. We fear the unknown. We fear the unknown of death.
That’s why 2020 has been so fearful for us. We’re living with an uncertainty in life. We don’t know what will happen from day to day. There doesn’t seem to be any security anymore. We’re fearful of catching a virus that’s difficult to track. We’re covering our faces and staying away from people because we don’t know if they’re safe. We stay away from gatherings because we’ve been told they’re inherently dangerous. How many church buildings stand empty tonight because of fear? We’re afraid of death, and rightly so because of our sin.
Death isn’t a good thing. It’s not simply part of the circle of life. It’s contrary to life. It’s not supposed to be, but because of our sin, that’s what we have. We have death, we have to deal with death, we fear death, because of our sin. When our first parents disobeyed, they brought death into our world, and we’ve been living with the consequences of it ever since. Death is literally all around us. This is something that a few of us have had to face recently as loved ones have died in recent weeks. But death isn’t something that we have to fear because we know our Savior who was born to overcome death. We know our Savior who was born to give you life.
II. The angels weren’t there to harm to the shepherds, they were there to quiet all their fears. They brought the message of good news about the birth of the Savior that God had promised all the way back in the Garden. “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom He is pleased!” (Lk 2:14) The Savior is born. He is here. The One who’d crush Satan’s head, the One who’d overcome death and sin with His own death and resurrection, the One who’d give His life to you is here! This is the good news that we need to hear right now. This is the good news that we look forward to hearing.
The reason why we’ve all looked forward to this evening isn’t because we simply hoped it would mark the end of a year that all of us wish we could forget. No, the reason why we’ve looked forward to this evening is because this is the evening that we celebrate our Lord coming to us to save us. We looked forward to this evening because of that message the angels sang to the shepherds, that message that continues to be sung to us. We look forward to this night because the birth of our Lord answers and quiets all of our fears. Even in the midst of all the uncertainties of death, even in the midst of a world that’s been thrown upside down and turned inside out, even in the midst of not knowing what will happen tomorrow, by faith you know your Savior and by faith you know the final outcome. Death isn’t your final destination, everlasting life is. Jesus’ cross and resurrection guarantees it and your baptism seals it. Everlasting life is a certainty that is yours, no matter what fearful uncertainties surround us.
So tonight, let the peace of God quiet all your fears. Tonight, hear that message of the angels. Tonight, know you have life because the Savior is born, He has died on the cross, and risen again for you. In Jesus’ name...Amen.