First Sunday After Christmas – Series A
The 12 days of Christmas, made famous by the song, start on December 25 and conclude with January 5. If you have not found one of the many children’s books or other resources which recount the origin of that song, you might want to. It came from the persecuted catholic minority in post-reformation England. They had been driven underground and this song was a way they could teach their children the elements of their faith. It was originally a catechism song. I wonder if the many secular folks who sing it now have any idea.
That is really the task of the Christmas preacher. The whole world is celebrating. Even when we ascend the pulpit on this Sunday the world will be gearing up for another party on the 31st. Our job is to tell them what they are really celebrating. The birth of Jesus in time has hallowed all time, his arrival as a baby has sanctified every childhood. His labor in his father’s shop has hallowed every vocation. His death has overcome every death. They are all happy now, and well they should be, but many of them haven’t a clue why they are happy. Our job is not to make them less happy, but to articulate the reason and the meaning of their joy.
An observant student of the liturgical year will notice that these days after Christmas are filled with a number of minor festivals, days which we seldom observe unless they happen to fall upon a Sunday. But the preacher will do well to read the readings assigned for these days as he prepares for this Sunday’s sermon. The emotional fuzziness which obtains on Christmas Eve does not sustain for long. In fact, most families are pretty well done with it by the 26th. But Christmas is so much more than that, and these readings help us understand just what this birth in a manger means.
The 26th is the feast of St. John the Apostle. He of course wrote the Gospel and other books in our NT. His life was one of length and devoted service. He is the Apostle of Incarnation, struggling to get his people of his day to see that the enfleshment of God in Christmas was vital to the Christian faith. God really does love this physical world and by taking up the flesh of a broken humanity he has redeemed the whole of this physical world.
The 27th is the feast of St. Stephen, the traditional end of the big party that was Christmas. And when Advent was penitential and the celebration did not start until Christmas Eve, that party would go for several days. Of course, this festival really seems out of place for the fuzzy sentimentality which marks commercial Christmas. This is the tragic death of an innocent man, stoned outside the walls of Jerusalem. Yet, this babe who lies in a manger will come to a cross, and he calls all his followers to take up a cross and follow him on that dusty and dreary road to Calvary. Stephen did.
The 28th is the feast of the Holy Innocents, the children who were murdered by Herod in Bethlehem at the time of Jesus birth. Paul Maier estimates that this was about 24 children considering the size of the community. This dark day also stands in stark contrast to the bright cheerfulness of Christmas but is quite necessary. The Savior came because the world in which 2
we live is so dark. The darkness has not overcome it, but the darkness can be very dark. By insisting that the world is bright and cheery, we often cause people whose lives are darkened by sin to despair. We need in this time of Christmas to remember that Jesus came because our lives are indeed in need of the very salvation which he wrought.
Enjoy the season of Christmas, let it be real. Christmas is about solving the big problems, the physical, emotional, spiritual problems of the world, all of them.
Collect of the Day
O God, our Maker and Redeemer, You wonderfully created us and in the incarnation of Your Son yet more wondrously restored our human nature. Grant that we may ever be alive in Him who made Himself to be like us; through Jesus Christ, our Lord, who lives and reigns with You and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.
When we screw up, do we not say “I’m only human”? Should we not rather say, “I’m not yet fully human – that is why I messed up?” The difference between the two expressions is that one of them assumes that messing up is innate to our humanity. To err is human. But is it really? Is it innate to our humanity or is it really part of the brokenness of our humanity? The second phrase, which I don’t in truth recommend you use, points to the fact of God’s ongoing work in our lives and its end. God is not content to leave us the sinful people he loves, but he completes us in our true humanity, the humanity which he created in the garden and which he restores in Christ.
Apotheosis is the Greek Orthodox metaphor for salvation. While most western Christians are deeply indebted to Augustine/Luther for a legal metaphor, justification, the East uses this participation metaphor to describe the salvific act. Jesus has come into the flesh, to unite himself to it, so that in his exultation, we are brought along with him, exalted, “deified” this way, made like God. This metaphor may be a better metaphor for the Christmas season than justification.
The Incarnation draws our attention to the connection between the first and second articles of the creed. God who made the creation now unites himself with His creation in order to redeem the whole creation. Had he been only interested in saving our souls, he would not have had to shed that real, salty, red blood on the cross, but that is exactly what he did do. He came in the flesh to save the flesh. God made this world in all its physicality and he loves it as a physical creation too. We are so used to seeing the corruption of the physical world around us that we imagine that salvation must somehow be an escape from it. Most of the other religions of the world are based on just such a principal. This makes Christianity somewhat unique. We also see the corruption of the world and look for the restoration of Creation to its pristine perfection in Christ. He came to restore his own creation, or as this prayer says it our human nature with all the lung breathing, heart pumping, emotions and senses and intellect. I really struggle to imagine my human life without its sin. In fact, I cannot. But God can, he always has imagined it.
Right now, we want to be alive in Him who made Himself to be like us. This sentence deserves a little unpacking here. To be alive in Christ is one of those mushy phrases that is easy to gloss over and think we know what it means but when put to the test we don’t really understand it. How is one alive in Christ? What does it mean to be alive in Christ? How would one tell that one is alive in Christ? What does it mean to be dead in Christ? Can one be walking around, breathing and taking nourishment and still be dead in Christ? I would think so. But that means we are going to have to talk about death in a new way and life too.
This life is connected somehow to Him who made Himself to be like us. It is in that very “like us” part that the real life starts to take shape. You see, we are not talking about some sort of a “spiritual” life as opposed to a physical life. Remember, always remember, Jesus died a physical death to save physical things. He loves our bodies, even though we often are not happy with how fat or thin, how wrinkled or fragile they may have become. Even though we don’t measure up to the folks our culture idealizes, he still loves my body. That is why he became like us, in fact he became of one us and one with us.
That perfect and redeemed life, the life that we are given to live in Him, is not a life in some ethereal realm, but is a life with eyes to see and hands to manipulate and interact with the world around us. True spirituality is a physical thing and so is the life that we live in Christ, because he took on flesh.
The other thing to notice about this prayer is that it is a Christmas collect. The assumption is that we are talking about things right now. We are not in the anticipatory mode of Advent. Now we are talking about the good deeds God has already done. There really is a Christian life to which all of us are called, a life that is alive in Christ. By the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, we can live that life. This is not the time for the penitential, “I am a worm!” sort of talk that Lutherans really excel at. This is time for the embracing of what God has said about us. He has sent his Son, we are His children (John 1:1-18) and that is a very good thing. Rejoice in it!
7 I will recount the steadfast love of the LORD, the praises of the LORD, according to all that the LORD has granted us, and the great goodness to the house of Israel that he has granted them according to his compassion, according to the abundance of his steadfast love. 8 For he said, “Surely they are my people, children who will not deal falsely.” And he became their Savior. 9 In all their affliction he was afflicted, and the angel of his presence saved them; in his love and in his pity he redeemed them; he lifted them up and carried them all the days of old.
10 But they rebelled and grieved his Holy Spirit; therefore he turned to be their enemy, and himself fought against them. 11 Then he remembered the days of old, of Moses and his people. Where is he who brought them up out of the sea with the shepherds of his flock? Where is he who put in the midst of them his Holy Spirit, 12 who caused his glorious arm to go at the right hand of Moses, who divided the waters before them to make for himself an everlasting name, 13 who led them through the depths? Like a horse in the desert, they did not stumble. 14 Like livestock that go down into the valley, the Spirit of the LORD gave them rest. So you led your people, to make for yourself a glorious name.
This is a much less familiar passage from Isaiah than we are used to, but that is a shame on us. This is a marvelous passage which is worthy of a very good Christmas sermon. Notice verses 8-9 in which Isaiah describes the work of God in the Exodus. He was afflicted with all their afflictions. That is a picture of the incarnation! Isaiah already is seeing the incarnate God in His work of saving the people from bondage in Egypt. Of course, this will be picked up much more fully in the festival of Easter.
Notice too in the next verses that the cause of the affliction for the exiled people of God is not that God has failed or that he has become weak, but that they themselves have rebelled and now God is working against them. But not all is lost, he also remembers the Exodus and the mighty deeds he has done for them in the past and will reprise them.
The image at the end is interesting. They shall rest like the livestock that descend into the verdant valleys after a summer in the high lands. The rains have returned, and the rocky paths and the dangerous places are behind them. Now is time for rest. That theme might play very well for people who are really frazzled after a holiday and who are looking at the grim task of making enough money to pay for their holiday excess. The idea of rest may also be very appealing for the folks who find the whole holiday season very stressful.
These words of Isaiah also serve as an excellent example of the limitations and problems we have when we only read the provided pericope. The passage needs to be located inside a movement which takes place within this chapter of Isaiah. The verses which immediately precede it are very dark. God is angry, his robes are stained red with the blood of the nations as he treads up on the winepress of his wrath. No one helps him, they are utterly destroyed. It is by his strong and mighty arm that he accomplishes this. Then, in the verses which follow, Isaiah prays for mercy for this generation from God. He begs God to look down from heaven and see our plight, to remember us even when Abraham and the patriarchs cannot. God is their Redeemer from of old.
Clearly, the passage we are reading today is part of the development for this earnest prayer on the part of the prophet. He wants God to answer the prayer which starts in verse 15 and the verses that lead up to this are all focused on that reality. The verses before our text are setting up the situation, the verses we have are reminding God of his great merciful action in the past, and now we are looking for more mercy today.
For the preacher this has some bearing. We are looking about us today and remembering that when the darkness of the world seemed great, when the people of God seemed small and insignificant, God came, humbly and gently, born in a manger. He showed great mercy on that day when he was born to Mary and held in her arms. Like Isaiah, however, that mercy is hope for God’s merciful action today. The Jesus who was born long ago has not set aside his humanity but has translated that humanity to the very throne of heaven. The ruler of the universe sees also with very human eyes, he feels, he walks, and he has taken up to himself the fullness of a human nature. Our plight is not alien to him or a matter of indifference. We have great hope for his mercy today.
Praise the LORD! I will give thanks to the LORD with my whole heart, in the company of the upright, in the congregation. 2 Great are the works of the LORD, studied by all who delight in them. 3 Full of splendor and majesty is his work, and his righteousness endures forever. 4 He has caused his wondrous works to be remembered; the LORD is gracious and merciful. 5 He provides food for those who fear him; he remembers his covenant forever. 6 He has shown his people the power of his works, in giving them the inheritance of the nations. 7 The works of his hands are faithful and just; all his precepts are trustworthy; 8 they are established forever and ever, to be performed with faithfulness and uprightness. 9 He sent redemption to his people; he has commanded his covenant forever. Holy and awesome is his name! 10 The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom; all those who practice it have a good understanding. His praise endures forever!
Americans are not always very good at celebrating. We are far to focused on productivity. We have this sense that when we do something there should be a result, a product. We should go somewhere, do something, or fix something. This Psalm is a bit of an antidote for that. The psalm has the man or woman who sings it simply stand there and marvel at what God has done. The preacher could, I suppose, try and get the hearer to imagine his or her need for these things. He could remind me of my current need for mercy and redemption. But the Psalm doesn’t do that. It is the song of heaven in a sense. The psalmist simply looks back and stands in awe at what God has done.
This is a hard sermon to preach because we are not used to doing this. But I wonder if that is not reason enough to give it a shot. This Christmas time we are not called upon to do something. We do not always have to wrestle with sin, death, and Devil. There are days when we can simply rest in the fact that God has won the victory and redeemed his people.
I mean that the heir, as long as he is a child, is no different from a slave, though he is the owner of everything, 2 but he is under guardians and managers until the date set by his father. 3 In the same way we also, when we were children, were enslaved to the elementary principles of the world. 4 But when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, 5 to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons. 6 And because you are sons, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, “Abba! Father!” 7 So you are no longer a slave, but a son, and if a son, then an heir through God.
This passage from Galatians is a regular in the Christmastide, it is one of the few passages from Paul’s letters that really addresses the birth of Jesus.
In an age when most people think about an heir and the first thing that comes to mind is Paris Hilton, we might need to exercise some serious caution here. Do we have a good idea of what it means to be an heir? Do we have a positive image of heirs? Paul certainly did, do we? Or do we see them only has spendthrift, self-centered, ne’er-do-wells? Does the preacher need to do a little hard work here simply to paint the picture of what it means to be an heir? A Thrivent rep I talked to a while back said that the average time before an inheritance was spent was measured in days, not months.
I have given us the preceding words in the chapter, just a few verses, but I think they make a big difference for the reader. Paul is talking about the freedom that is ours in Christ. He asks us to think of a child and a slave. The child in appearance is no different than a slave. He or she must do what the master/parent says. But Paul notices that we were enslaved to a cruel master, the elementary principles of the world. Do we look back on our teen years, “sex, drugs, and rock and roll” and see slavery of a sort? Is that the enslavement that Jesus has broken by taking up our human nature to himself? Is the real enslavement one to our human passions? ‘If it feels good, do it” is that the elementary principle to which Paul refers? Is the real enslavement our people will understand really the addictions and alcoholism? This is tough, because many who are thus enslaved are completely oblivious to it.
Who will be our audience on this Sunday? Will they be the addicts or will they be the folks who are praying desperately for that addict? The result of this enslavement/child metaphor is really to bring us to the language of baptism. Baptism was modelled after the Roman rite of adoption. The old parents are renounced, the new parents embraced. “Do you renounce the devil, all h is works and all his ways?” we ask of the baptismal candidate. That is right out of the adoption formula in Roman law.
The words which we will read on Sunday are tucked into an important argument which Paul is making to the folks in Galatia about the keeping of the Law. The Savior has kept the law which we could not keep. He has been born under the law in order to redeem those under the law. He did not keep the law to show us how it can and should be done, he has done it to free us from its bondage. Now we are sons. Yes, we might be out there working pretty hard in the father’s field, but our hearts are completely different. Before we slaved away at the deeds of God because we had to, now we engage in the same service because we may do it, it is our father’s field.
Now, if you have kids like I have kids, you know that your sons probably don’t leap at the chance to go out and mow the lawn or wash the car just because old dad suggests it to them. Often this is a scene of grumbling and perhaps even some comments about “slavery.” But Paul is asking us to imagine a world in which we might jump in and help out our father because of love, because of the relationship which was established between us when he held us in his arms while we were infants, when he showed us how to drive a car, or fixed our bicycle. Paul is thinking of the grateful response we ought all to show our fathers on more than just Father’s Day in June. This may take some preaching considering that our culture has idealized and lionized the rebellious son.
The important incarnational point again is that God has come into the strictures of the law himself. He has not lorded over us, but has jumped in and experienced the bitter dregs of death itself. This action by God has changed the reality in which we live today. We may indeed be still doing some of the same things, but we are doing them for very different reasons. We are doing them as the sons of God.
(Important to keep that masculine here – a daughter in Paul’s time and even to our day is not quite the same thing. In Paul’s time they did not inherit the same way, but even in our day most women still adopt the surname of their husband upon marriage. For most women in the world this is even more the case. In Asia, Africa, and many parts of the world, the idea of a single woman who is successful and independent of a man is simply unthinkable. It is a different thing to be a daughter than a son. Paul is actually making a radical statement in calling all his hearers “sons” even the women in the midst of that congregation. I would encourage you not to classify your members by using the neologism: sons and daughters, even though some will approve of it.)
13 Now when they had departed, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, “Rise, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you, for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.” 14 And he rose and took the child and his mother by night and departed to Egypt 15 and remained there until the death of Herod. This was to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet, “Out of Egypt I called my son.”
16 Then Herod, when he saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, became furious, and he sent and killed all the male children in Bethlehem and in all that region who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had ascertained from the wise men. 17 Then was fulfilled what was spoken by the prophet Jeremiah:
18 “A voice was heard in Ramah, weeping and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be comforted, because they are no more.”
19 But when Herod died, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt, 20 saying, “Rise, take the child and his mother and go to the land of Israel, for those who sought the child’s life are dead.” 21 And he rose and took the child and his mother and went to the land of Israel. 22 But when he heard that Archelaus was reigning over Judea in place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there, and being warned in a dream he withdrew to the district of Galilee. 23 And he went and lived in a city called Nazareth, so that what was spoken by the prophets might be fulfilled, that he would be called a Nazarene.
This text brings us right back to earth from the warm fuzzy scenes of Christmas. Matthew has already been keeping us grounded. We noted just last week that Matthew seems to be addressing legal questions which arose concerning Jesus’ lineage. But tucked away in all this is a much more important theme and message for the feast of the Incarnation. Already in the first verses of the first chapter, in the genealogy, Matthew has clued us into some interesting features. He included four women in the list of Jesus’ ancestors. This was highly unusual and these four women are also highly unusual. Tamar seduced her father-in-law by disguising herself as a prostitute. Ruth was a Moabitess, a people hated by the Jews. Rahab was a Canaanite and a prostitute at that. Bathsheba is not named, but her somewhat dicey past is highlighted by the fact she is called “Uriah’s wife”
This account of Herod’s slaughter of the innocents of Bethlehem seems to serve as the other side of the frame for the story of Jesus birth. He has come out of a troubling line of folks and into a very troubling time when evil old men can and do slaughter children. It is an ugly world which Matthew paints for us. This does not seem to fit into the commercial picture of Christmas which is designed to loosen our wallets. This is grim and difficult to bear. In fact, we cannot bear this picture. Yet, it is this very world, with its many versions of evil king Herod and its weeping mothers into which Christ was born and which he came to save, transform, and redeem.
This text is great for letting us cut through all the fuzzy sentimentality. This is a good day to articulate the disjuncture between the popular conception of Christmas and its grim reality. We can do that because the Babe of Bethlehem has indeed come to be the solution to every problem. We can be real, not deceptive nor saccharine when we talk about the world. We can face its problems unflinchingly. Christ is born; the solution is greater than the problem.
The preacher will want to ask how we are going to say this. Too stark and we will turn our hearers off by sounding like some gloom and doom sort of prophet, and our law may overwhelm our Gospel. Yet if we go too soft on this we will come off sounding like we are missing the really hard things that our folks are really dealing with.
I think the text itself and our own people are able to solve this for us. The text introduces us to one of the most barbarous acts of history. We don’t need to introduce this, the text does it. The second piece is that our own people are probably already crashing after the holiday. A moment’s silent reflection may do more for us than any words we say. Your hearers are already where you want them. You don’t need to bring them there.
I would also point you to another way to read this text. Jesus is the nation of Israel reduced to one person. He is the fulfillment of the whole OT. The slaughter of these children is horrific and a reminder of the slaughter of all the children by Pharaoh in the days of Moses. Why does God not find another way to stop Jesus’ death? Cannot he stop the cruelty of Herod before it slaughters these children? Jesus is spirited away, but these poor children have their lives wrenched away. But somehow the answer to the death of these children in Bethlehem is tied up in the eventual death of this baby who got away, or in the words of J. K. Rowling, “the boy who lived”. He will not run from death when he is a man, but bravely, meekly, and obediently go to his death that we all may live. (This is exactly the narrative arc of the Harry Potter series.) 10
To introduce the Pauline metaphor, Jesus is not a slave to the elemental principles of the world, but he goes willingly, freely, as a Son of God and contradicts those worldly principles by laying down his life for these children and for us, to right this wrong and every wrong. Have we been thus set free? That could be frightening.
1. The holidays are great, but what if you are not feeling so great? What if you are alone? What if your life isn’t so great? Is your sadness in this time of year a sign that you have no Christmas spirit? Is depression a problem? Does God care?
2. This is the last Sunday of the calendar year. We are inundated with retrospectives on the past year, the pictures may not always be so good. For many of our people, especially those who have experienced a death in their circle of family or friends, this may be a really painful time of the year.
3. Frankly we are exhausted. The demands of the season, on top of the usual routine of life, have left many of us utterly wiped out.
4. There are rules which govern our lives which often feel like a terrible trap. We dare not transgress them. The bills must be paid or the lights get turned off, and I am not just talking about the Christmas lights. The reality of this is that we work so hard to earn the money we need to do the things we enjoy that we often find ourselves too exhausted to want to do them anymore. Is there any escape from this?
5. How much of this trap is of our own devising? The car payments, the television payments, the house payments, the Christmas bills, are these things really making us happy? God’s people of old incurred his wrath because they did not obey. He took the side of their enemy against them at the time of Isaiah.
6. Some of this is not just of our own devising however. There is also a strong and dark evil in this world. Children continue to die today for no better reason than tyrannical old men can’t find it in their hearts to stop fighting and stealing and feed them.
1. Jesus is the reason for the season, and that means your feelings of depression and pain are exactly what brings him to earth. If all seems lost, the reality is that he loves even the broken folks in this world. He has endured all that you have endured and understands our afflictions far better than even we do. His compassion for you has no bounds.
2. There is no problem in your life that is bigger than his solution. We can laugh amid our tears, and hope amid our sadness. The losses we have experienced over the past year, the difficult days of pain and sorrow are all met in the reality of this babe. God not only cares about our pain, he has done something very concrete about it. He has sent his Son into this world to consecrate our birth, our death, our suffering and our joy. They are all holy in Him. The death is undone, the sorrows are turned to joy, the hurts are healed.
3. God never judges your Christmas lights or the sort of Christmas you have just experienced. He does not hold you to some Martha Stewart standard, but delights in you. There is no effort which can make him love you more. There is a rest for the people of God. That rest in turn invigorates the Christian life, but this is a day to remember the rest, the leisure, which is ours. God’s love is a gift given, unwrapped in Jesus, and permanently ours. There are no bills to pay, no debt to work off, no obligations laid upon us. He simply is our God and we simply are his people. And this transforms every deed and every work.
4. Even though we may still be ensnared in the debts and the families and the workplaces and the stuff of this world which torment us, these are never signs of God’s disfavor, nor are they ever problems bigger than God’s solution. Even the firm grasp of death has been broken by Jesus. The children whom the Herods of the world slaughter have not been forgotten by God, the lives cut short by this world’s evil have their days given back to them and more in the death which Jesus died and the life which he now lives. One day that truth will be evident for all to see, for now our eyes struggle to see that because it lies hidden in Him.
1. Praise the Lord, You Sons and Heirs of God! (Psalm and Epistle: That the hearers would rejoice in the wonderful works of God.)
This sermon is not really trying to solve a problem. It is trying to articulate a truth which our busy lives often put so far out of mind that we forget about it. So I suppose the problem is our own forgetfulness, but it is not really a problem as much as it is a sad truth about us. We have so much to celebrate and often we walk gloomily through the world instead of joyfully. We have every right to be joyful.
Paul calls us all sons of God. Don’t spend too much time on this, if you do at all, but also don’t simply succumb to the pressure of the day and say that God has sons and daughters. See my notes above. Daughters, even in our modern and industrialized western world are not the same as sons. As much as we would like them to be. For most of contemporary humanity, the distinctions are even clearer. Paul calls all of us, men and women, sons of God. That is what we are, not something we achieve or for which we work. It is an adoption, a deed of the adoptive father, legally binding and true. We are sons of God. 12
But that adoptive work of God is almost a cliché for folks who go to church regularly. I think the preacher would do well to take the congregant through the Psalm of the day, which I reproduce here, and which will serve as the outline for the sermon after an adoption introduction (note the inheritance language in verse 6 below for a connection.)
1 Praise the LORD! I will give thanks to the LORD with my whole heart, in the company of the upright, in the congregation.
The Psalmist starts off by acknowledging his task. The first line of the psalm is really “Halleluiah!” and that might be a better way to say it. The Psalmist is vowing to give his whole self to this thanksgiving act. It is not a private act but one which takes place in the context of God’s people.
2 Great are the works of the LORD, studied by all who delight in them.
God has done great things but more than that, these things are the focus of the attention of all who delight in him. People who delight in the great deeds of God think about them, ponder them, dig deeper into their meaning, and write books about this. God’s great deeds have inspired this uniquely human of all acts – thinking.
3 Full of splendor and majesty is his work, and his righteousness endures forever.
God’s great work is full of splendor and honor, but notice it is his righteousness that endures forever. Now we start to see what it is that God has done. He has created, maintained, restored, and given righteousness to people. Jesus birth in that manger was purposeful. He came to make a broken world right again.
4 He has caused his wondrous works to be remembered; the LORD is gracious and merciful.
God’s great work is memorable and has been remembered. The Christian church is the largest and oldest institution in the world. God has caused over 2 billion people in the world to remember and give thanks for this birth of Jesus. Why do so many remember? Because this was God’s grace and mercy at work. This was and is amazing. God did not have to and should not have done this. He owed this world nothing and in fact it should have been the object of his wrath. But that is not what he did. Instead of raining death upon our heads he came to be one of us and one with us, humbly and gently that we might live.
5 He provides food for those who fear him; he remembers his covenant forever. 6 He has shown his people the power of his works, in giving them the inheritance of the nations.
The preacher here will want to remind the congregant of the Exodus connection here. The food provided was manna in the wilderness when the Psalmist wrote, but for those of us on the other side of Christ’s incarnation we cannot but remember that he is the bread of life. Yes, this is a chance for a sacramental connection, but the sacrament is better understood to be about John 6 than the other way around. Jesus is the life giver and sustainer, like bread which nourishes us. He is the one who gives us life in this dreary and desert world. He leads us to the promised rest and inheritance of the nations, heaven itself.
7 The works of his hands are faithful and just; all his precepts are trustworthy; 8 they are established forever and ever, to be performed with faithfulness and uprightness.
The hearer may at this point be wondering if he/she can trust this promise of God. The psalmist assures us that we can. The words of God are trustworthy and true. Joseph and Mary discovered that as promises about this child proved true. He really is God with us and he has saved his people from their sins.
9 He sent redemption to his people; he has commanded his covenant forever. Holy and awesome is his name!
Here is the Christmas connection explicitly stated. He sent redemption to his people. He did not sent judgment, wrath, punishment, or anything else we deserved. He sent redemption. He bought us from the slavery to sin and death into which we had fallen and could not escape. He paid the price to free us. Like freed slaves we turn to the one who has set us free and declare him to be holy and awesome.
10 The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom; all those who practice it have a good understanding. His praise endures forever!
This is just smart. We are the people whom God has redeemed. Don’t forget that. It is the beginning of wisdom. We have no powerful claim on heaven, we have something better, the gift given to the powerless by the true Lord of heaven. We are therefore properly afraid. We are strange people who do not belong here by right. But that is only the beginning of wisdom, not its end. As John tells us in his first letter, God’s perfect love drives out all fear and when it does, all that remains is praise.
2. The Spirit of the Lord Gave them Rest (OT/Epistle Lesson – that the hearer would rest in the promise of God – he has saved, he has rescued, he has our lives in his perforated hands. Our striving will not accomplish this, but his holy and mighty arm has accomplished this for us.)
This sermon is preached for the exhausted saints who have felt the burden of Christmas, and are looking with some dread for the bills of Christmas to start showing up on their doorstep, bills which will have to be paid. There is a serious let down for many folks after the festivities of the season. The family is heading home or will be soon. The house which was filled with life a few hours ago is large and empty now. We are weary.
The preacher today wants to remind the hearer and encourage him/her with the good news that Jesus has come into this flesh to bear its heaviest burdens. Our ancestors among the Saxons and Franks and Celts of Europe spent these days in great terror, and made tremendous sacrifices. They believed that the sun might continue its descent into the south. These were the days of great anxiety – for their primitive astronomy did not yet have the ability to measure the gradual return of the sun after its solstice.
Their sacrifices and wild pagan worship did not bring the sun back year after year. God did this for them, he did it every year as he had set the planets in their orbits and wrote the very law of gravity.
Likewise now as God’s Christmas people we can rest from serious labor. We do not bring the sun or the son, he has come all on his own. Jesus has run the human race, mercifully, fully, beautifully, and we are saved. Our lives rest in the security of his hands.
That changes the feasting for us, and we can rejoice in what it has become. We welcome our family and friends into our home, secure in the truth that they too are in God’s hands. We don’t make them God’s children any more than they themselves do that. God does that, has done that in the very human death and the godly resurrection of Jesus. Our celebrations are but a statement of that fact.
Yes, we are weary today, but weary with another sort of weariness than our ancient forebears felt. And yet, both sorts of weariness are self-inflicted. A great burden has been lifted from our shoulders. We still worship, we still strive, we still work, even here in this place we call Church we work. But it is not to earn or to buy or to gain from God, but as the sons of God, striving in our father’s vineyard. It is ours, we are heirs, we are the sons of God. We can say “daddy.” 15
3. The Light in the Darkness (Gospel lesson – that the light of the incarnate Christ would shine in the darkness of the hearer’s life, bringing hope, joy, and peace.)
The slaughter of the innocents may seem like a macabre theme for the day after Christmas. Herod clearly was due for some coal in his Christmas stocking. Can’t we just let the season be and forget all this nasty stuff? I just want him to be like Ebenezer Scrooge, repent, and be saved. Instead he dies with the blood of these children, even his own children on his hands. Augustus said he would rather have been Herod’s pig than his son. (Herod did not eat pork – but he did kill his own sons when he thought they were plotting to kill him and cast him from the throne.) When Herod died the whole of Palestine was genuinely relieved until they realized that his psychopathic sons were going to take over. Even the Romans, normally quite tolerant of despots, could not handle Archeleus, Herod’s son who inherited the region of Judea. They quickly deposed him and installed a governor.
It would be nice to continue the sentimentality of Christmas and just leave this story unready. But to do so would be to miss Christmas’ greatest point. Jesus came into this world because sin is real, evil is real, and we desperately needed him then and need him now. Christmas is not about forgetting the evil, distracting us from it, but Christmas is the very solution to evil’s reality.
Did you see the Narnia movies? They come out at Christmas. I was really disappointed in them in that they refused to let the evil children be evil. Edmund was portrayed as a poor child traumatized by his experiences in the war. Eustace, in The Voyage of the Dawntreader, is simply a little neurotic, not the little beast who becomes a big beast. That was the whole point his dragon transformation. He became on the outside what he had been on the inside the whole time! Alas, our world just has a hard time facing that sort of darkness.
Christians, on the other hand, are able to face that sort of darkness. C. S. Lewis did in his books, but Hollywood cannot. He and we are able to face it because we have a solution. Herod’s evil is just too much for me to fathom and my humanity would turn away from it, pretend it did not happen, deny it. But God has not turned from such evil; he has confronted it, and prevailed.
The answer to Herod is the very child he sought to destroy and failed to destroy, but who would himself willingly submit to unjust death on a cross. The answer to our darknesses, be they the corruption we might paper over in our own lives or the things which are inflicted upon us by others is the same Jesus. This is why he came. He came to redeem and restore his rebellious, broken, and yes, say it, evil world. It was not cute and cuddly, it was not simply marred by sin, but its beauty was destroyed as crystal falling to the tile 16
floor, as a master work painting in the fire. Jesus came to restore the whole of human nature to us. When I sin I am not “merely human” I am in fact less than human. It is in his perfection that I find my true humanity.
We proclaim the light of the World today, a light which shines in a great darkness: Jesus. The babe of Bethlehem has not come because it was OK, but because it was not OK, because it was evil. He ascended Calvary’s gruesome hill and died an evil and unjust death to bear its evil to destruction and unleash the healing of his mercy and grace.
Today, we may live in peace and hope and joy. The evil is not greater than his rescue. He has risen from death. Evil rages, but it cannot win. Christ, our rescuer, has prevailed. The slaughtered children of Bethlehem and the slaughtered children of Roe v Wade, play today in God’s hands, and no Herod will ever take them from him, because Jesus came and died for them. That same gift is ours. Though evil may afflict us in this life, the light which Christ has shone in us cannot be dimmed and snuffed by evil. Even if they take our lives too, that simply means he raises us from the dead.
A further discussion – how do we understand the salvation of these children? How does the doctrine of Original Sin play into this? How do we pastorally care for the families of children who die unbaptized? How do we maintain the necessity of Baptism without crushing the folks?