Wednesday, December 24, 2008
Sermon - Christmas Eve - Luke 2:1-20
December 24, 2008
“The Usual and the Unusual Christmas”
A decree went out from Caeser. It was a real time in history. Quirinius was governor of Syria. Nazareth. Galilee. Bethlehem. Real places. Real people facing real problems – travel, taxes, a difficult pregnancy, finding a place to stay.
Joseph dutifully obeyed the authorities. He did what Caesar said. He had no choice. But because he was a righteous man he had given Mary the benefit of the doubt when he had the choice. He would have divorced her quietly. But a higher authority prevailed, and once again, Joseph obeyed. He did his part.
Mary was betrothed and with child. Not quite married, but more than just engaged – still it wasn't normal for her to be great with child and going on a journey. But she too was an obedient to her authorities and to her Lord. She did what she what was expected of her.
What a strange mix of the usual and the unusual this Christmas story is. Everyday people and places and events – with that twinge of something special. A hint of greater things to come.
It's God's way. He uses the ordinary to do the extraordinary. Bread and Wine become the body and blood of Christ – the very medicine of immortality. Simple water becomes a flood of righteousness, washing away every spot and stain of sin. Imperfect pastors (is there any other kind?) speak words that unlock the very gates of heaven, “I forgive you in the stead and by the command of Christ”. The simple doing the extraordinary. The everyday touching the eternal.
And so it continues with the birth of a child. Not an unusual event. Children are born all the time. He was swaddled up lovingly, and carefully laid in a makeshift crib. In our great fortune, we're used to hospitals and sterile precautions. No such measures for most children who have been born, especially back then and over there. Still, Mary and Joseph did what they could to care for this little one, this special infant boy.
And as usual as he was, he was certainly unique. As everyman and everyday – like us in every way, yet this one was different. Without sin. Perfect and holy. In a regular infant we can see shades of the innocence that predates sins, but that's really just in comparison to ourselves. In this extraordinary infant, we see the very image of God – the living word of creation made flesh. The eternal Son of the Father humbled, made low, for us. Always, for us.
What a blessed union of the everyday and the once and for all. A paradox of cosmic proportions – God and man joined in this one person. Unfathomable power and authority placed in the care of these two humble travelers of little means. Indescribable glory and majesty shrouded in the swaddling clothes of a newborn. God's plan for eternal salvation hidden in the peace and calm of a dark night in a small town, long ago.
Yes, the usual meets the unusual, and this is God's way. The baby would grow and learn, as humans usually do. We suppose he learned his father's trade, and did his work, as one would expect. He took care of his widowed mother, as a son did in those days. He observed the religious traditions and practices of a pious Jew, with little hint of being anything more than a carpenter from Galilee. But he was more.
When the time came, things got unusual. He went to be baptized. The heavens opened, and God declared, “This is my Son”. He did battle with the devil – as we all do – but he won, as we cannot and do not. He began doing miracles – highly unusual! He preached a message unlike any other – his words had authority. Perhaps he was the Messiah? But he didn't meet the usual expectations. Instead of triumphant glory, he sought humble service. Riding a donkey instead of a war-horse. Being baptized instead of baptizing. Instead of being served, washing the feet of his own followers.
No, this was not the usual itinerant preacher, the everyday wanna-be messiah that had come and gone so many times before. This is not just another religious leader with yet more rules and regulations for us to follow, laying out yet another path for us to work our way up heaven's ladder. His was a kingdom of grace. And his kingdom would be no regular religion just like any other. It was not of this world.
This Messiah was one who came to die. If we look into the manger and gush over the image of a sweet and pure child, but see no cross, we miss the whole point. If we forget that this precious child came to shed his precious blood for sin, they why are we celebrating him anyway? For this is the perfect and spotless lamb of God, appointed for sacrifice, to take away the sins of the world. This doesn't happen every day. But it did happen on Good Friday. The Christ laid in the manger is the same Christ nailed to the cross. The Christ wrapped in swaddling clothes is the same Christ wrapped in grave linens. The one whose birth was peaceful and humble and ordinary was destined for a death that was violent and humiliating, and.... ordinary. Romans crucified people all the time. Such a death was part of life for ancient Jews.
But then the usual gave way to the unusual once again, and Christ conquered death. And this is his greatest miracle. This is what no one expected, even though he said so.
On this Christmas Eve, we do all the usual things, read the usual readings, sing all the usual hymns, light the candles, like we always do. We'll go home to our regular places at the regular times, and do our holiday traditions in the usual way, with the usual foods, and the usual folks. But through it all, and behind it all, and in it all is our God – present and working his extraordinary salvation. There is nothing common about his grace in Jesus Christ.
May your everyday Christmas be filled with those unique blessings brought by the lamb of God, the babe of Bethlehem, true God, true man, the firstborn of the dead, Jesus Christ. For God so loved the world that he sent us his Son, and believing in him we will not perish, but have eternal life. Amen.