Monday, December 25, 2023

With great joy. . .

Sermon for the Divine Service for the Nativity of Our Lord, Christmas Eve, December 24, 2023.

    For 31 years I have celebrated Christmas with you.  Well, not all of you.  Some of you are new within the last years and others new tonight.  Still others of you who were here are gone from us, planted in death like a seed to be brought to miraculous flower by our Lord Jesus Christ.  The you of whom I speak is the Church.  You have been my holiday family for more than I have spent Christmas with my parents or grand-parents.  I cannot recall a Christmas without you and maybe you without me.  But things change.   And things remain the same.

    Things change.  My children are grown.  I have buried hundreds of those who once gathered with us in darkened sanctuaries with candles and Silent Night.  It might seem that sadness steals our joy but the gift of this night is joy that remains the same – in loss and in gain.  The joy is not that life is without sorrow or pain or even that it goes on after trial and trouble.  The joy is that Christ is born.  Not that He will be or was but is born.  He is born for you and for me.  For the rescue of our lives from oblivion and for the redemption of all our sins through forgiveness.  Tonight is joy.  This joy comes not in the absence of pain or loss but in the midst of it all, reminding us that we do not mourn the past but look to the future and the finish of what the manger began.  This day, though it is not quite the beginning of the end, it is the end of the beginning.

    The works of our salvation are done.  The words of the prophet fulfilled.  The demands of the law kept.  Our forgiveness has been purchased with suffering.  Our redemption has been accomplished by the holy Child of Mary.  Our joy is that the future has been accomplished and though we wait for the finish of what God began, we already know the outcome.  The holy Child born of Mary has many brothers and sisters and tonight we carry our candles and sing the carols to remind ourselves that we rejoice in what has been accomplished for us.

    It could be that the angels expected an earthly host to match the heavenly host that sang on the night of our Savior’s birth.  But their holy joy was not betrayed by the quiet reception of a sleeping world while Christ was born.  Their joy anticipated the day when sinners would repent, when what Jesus accomplished would be given to a people who deserved none of His kindness, born of water and the Word in baptism, to a life that death cannot end.  They sang not for the night only but for what was begun when the long promised Savior was born.

    The shepherds did not know what to expect.  They should have been fearful by the appearance of the heavenly beings interrupting their quiet night with the flock.  The angels came saying “Do not be afraid.”  They came telling the good tidings of great joy for all the people.  They came to tell shepherds to lay aside their staffs and be gathered by the Good Shepherd who was born to bring the flock to the Father.  They came singing because singing is what you do when joy over takes your heart.  They sang “Glory to God in the highest and peace to His people on earth.”  The miracle is that the shepherds did not run and hide but went to see what the angels had described.  They were in search of joy that would not abandon them when life offered them no happiness.  And joy captured their hearts, flowing from a manger where the face of God shone with eternal light.

    We keep delaying the start of joy in our lives and postponing contentment.  We make our happiness contingent upon what others do or say.  We refuse to be consoled and prefer to live with our anger, disappointment, and resentment.  The world is not a pleasant place though we have more amusements and  entertainment available than in any age before us.  What we need is honest joy.  The joy of sins that are forgiven never to be counted against us again.  The joy of a clear conscience not because we have never done wrong but because we have a Savior whose forgiveness is bigger than our every sin.  The joy not of a perfect life but a perfect hope and a life which here we cannot even imagine.  The joy not of no one missing but everyone restored in the blest reunion of the saints on high.  They joy of the God who loved us once enough to send His Son and who loves us still enough to preserve us to that day when time shall end and life shall never end.

    We all have regrets.  We all have things we wish we could undo.  We all have words we wish we had not said.  We all have losses, painful losses that in this holy season of our Savior’s birth become more painful than we think we can bear.  Our joy lies not in quick fix for an ancient problem but in the fullness of time when the Son of God was born of Mary’s womb and the Savior came to rescue us from the past, to release us from the present, and to bestow upon us a future we never thought we would have.  Most of us do not know what we are doing and it shows. We fear how things will end.  Fear not.  You are not in control but God is.  He is a God of goodness and mercy, grace and kindness.  He knows what He is doing and He knows what we need.  He does not ask us to figure it out but to trust in His Son who has accomplished all things for us and our salvation.  This is also the source of our joy.

    Sure, we make our plans and dream our dreams but if they fail and our lives seem to fall apart, God is still with us.  The Lord gives, the Lord takes away – not as a God who seeks to hurt but as the God who saves us – no matter what the cost of our salvation.  The angels still sing and we sing with them the song they have taught us – Glory to God in the highest and peace to His people on earth.  We sing because everything He promised has been fulfilled.  The Savior was born.  The shepherds came.  The manger was filled.  The cross was conquered.  The grave had its sting taken away.  Whatever the world seems like it can do, it cannot take this from you or from me.  This is our joy.

    Ours is not the fragile happiness of a what if that might happen.  Ours is not a gamble on how something might turn out.  Ours is not a game to see if we can win at life before death claims us.  All of these have been done by the Child of Mary who proved to be the Son of God.  We may not find happiness but we will find contentment.  Christ is our contentment.  In plenty or in want, we have learned the secret of contentment and it turns out it has nothing to do with what we do or earn or accumulate and everything to do with what Jesus has done for us.  We may not always laugh but joy occupies our hearts.  We will die but the grave has become nothing more fearful than a bed from which we will be raised to new and everlasting life.  We came with empty hands but we leave full hearts.

    You are Christ’s.  Christ is yours.  This is the secret of our joy.  Because of this, whatever this Christmas will be, it will be the best Christmas we can have.  For God has decided to give us the good we do not deserve and has born upon His Son the punishment for us all.  These are the tidings of great joy of which the angels sang, the shepherds saw, and the night sky shone.  These are the bright morning stars that still beckon us from our sorrows, pain, and loss.  If these are the focus of this night, believe me.  Joy will not disappoint you.  Yet even the best joy you know now will pale in comparison to the joy that awaits us next year, whether it be here in Clarksville or in heaven.  In the Holy Name of Jesus.  Amen

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