Christmas Eve, Year B, 2017 – Isaiah 9:2-11; Luke 2:1-20; Titus 2:11-14
Out of the darkness we come tonight, out of the winter cold. In the dark we light a candle, and the night holds its breath. Even the stars are waiting: now at last— after the last mad dash of getting-ready-for-Christmas, the last cookies baked, the last gift bought, the last Amazon delivery; the turkey thawing, the presents under the tree (or almost there!)—now at last the city is silent, and all the children are in bed, waiting, hoping for the dawn. In the hush, a single voice rises. “Once in royal David’s city…”
Once, in the night, on a night like this, a mother laid her baby in a manger for his bed. It is so small, this beginning of the light. Just a mother, like you or like me. A mother and a father and their baby, this family.
And it came to pass while they were there that the days were fulfilled for her to give birth, and she bore her first-born son and wrapped him in swaddling-clothes and laid him in the manger.
How many of us have done the same! We know this story, because it is ours. Suddenly in the night, a baby’s first cry, a voice rising, a new life rising, into the silent night. There is nothing more ordinary. And there is nothing more wonderful: this new little person, our child.
At our home this Christmas night there is such a child, our first-born daughter’s first-born son. Surely, David and I say to each other, there has never been such a beautiful baby, this child of our child, James Caedmon, this miracle. It is always thus: baby A and baby B in Montreal, Peter Newell’s brand new grandsons, twins—a double wonder. Noah, Saint-Jean, Emmanuel, all our church babies, all so beautiful, growing up now into their new life. Every night it happens: a boy is born.
Mary was that mother mild; Jesus Christ, her little child.
At the heart of wonder, the child and his mother, this night, this ordinary night. This night, though, there is more.
For this is a child to pierce the darkness, to give in the night-time of our need, a light.
Isaiah sang of this night, long ago:
The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light.
Those who lived in a land of deep
On them light has shined. (Isa 9:2)
Isaiah speaks to a people who know about darkness:
All the boots of the tramping warriors,
And all the garments rolled in blood. (Isa 9:5)
Assyria will come down on Israel “like a wolf on the fold” and this small people will know blood and tears. The fate of God’s people in the time of Isaiah is not unique: we have seen too much even in our peaceful time of the suffering of war. We pray still, every week, for Shiraz Berberian, 25 years old, stranded by Syria’s civil war in a small town in Lebanon, separated from his family now in Canada, unable to go back home. Closer to home, Hawaii is testing its nuclear-warning sirens; weapons of mass destruction are in the hands of a madman and a tweeter.
But though all this is deeply troubling, it is not the real heart of darkness. It is, Isaiah would say, a sign. Before and behind the trouble with Assyria, there is another trouble. Hedged about by hostile nations, the people have forgotten their God. We will do it ourselves, they have said. “In pride and arrogance of heart,” Isaiah tells us, “they said, ‘The bricks have fallen, but we will build with dressed stones’” (Isa 9:9-10). Though the armies are at the gate we do not need God. We can do it better: stone instead of brick, cedar in place of sycamore, powerful allies and their armies. That’s how the Assyrians came into the picture—the people of
Judah in the south invited Assyria in to help them in the civil war with the northern kingdom of Israel. Judah “won” the war, but Assyria destroyed the northern kingdom and forced Judah to be its vassal. “Those who lead the people led them astray,” Isaiah says, “and the prophets taught lies.” How? By teaching God’s people to seek deliverance somewhere other than in God. That way, Isaiah says, lies only tears. That way, the way of our own will and wisdom and strategizing and power, seeking in secular wisdom our help, living in the process more and more as people do who do not know God, who do not love God, who do not know the power of the love of God, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob for his people, the love of the God of Sarah and Ruth and Mary and Francis and Clare and Oscar Romero and Mother Theresa—so long He has been our God; so long he has loved his people, and loves us still—living as if there were no God, as if we were not from the beginning in the light and in the darkness, every moment of our lives, in joy and in sorrow, in better and in worse, every moment of our lives sustained by Him, held like a child in his arms…To live as if there were no God and no love of God: that way lies only tears.
This night our world still waits for its salvation.
This night, as on that night long ago, in Bethlehem of Judaea, under the reign of Caesar Augustus, emperor of Rome. This night the world waits, and watches, and longs for the sound of hope.
And in the night, a child’s voice rises. In the night a baby crying, a mother singing, a father full of wonder standing by. One small family and a few shepherds in the quiet of the night—and in this ordinary, an explosion of light, the night sky lit by the angels of God, the armies of heaven singing glory to God and news of peace on earth. The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light. It is here that it begins—not with Caesar and his power, but with a mother who heard God’s word and said “Yes,” with the father who stood by her, and with the child who was born. Mary was that mother mild: Mary, to whom on an ordinary day God’s extraordinary word came, God’s impossible word. “You will conceive and bear a son and you will call his name Jesus; he will be great and will be called the son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his father David, … and of his kingdom there will be no end.” Mary heard God’s impossible word. And she said, simply, “Yes.” Let it be with me according to your word.
Here in Mary the whole long history of not hearing overturned, here in Mary by the grace of God, God’s people hearing and serving the Lord. Here am I, the servant of the Lord. Let it be with me according to your word. Grace begins in the mother, given ears to hear, and in the father who stood by her and his child. Mary and Joseph…and the child.
Unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given. Because God so loved the world. Because God’s love is ancient and constant; because His love, like a circle, this circle written on our Advent wreath, never ends.
And his name shall be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
There is hope in the night-time of our need, in the night of all the world’s need, through all the years. There is a light that breaks. This night we hold it in our hands. One small candle lit against the night; one family, one child. In this child, our hope.
With the poor and mean and lowly he lived, who is God and Lord of all. With us he lives, even with us, poor as we are. With us and for us he lives, with us and for us he will walk through every moment of this life, our life. He came down to earth from heaven, who is God and Lord of all. He will live with us and walk with us and die for us, so that we might turn again. So that we might hope again.
The world waits this night, and all the stars are watching.
And we? We hold in our hands tonight one small light. And we sing. We sing of a maiden who is matchless. We sing of a night touched by the grace of God. We sing of a child in whose love our lives and loves may be the place of God with us once again. Even in the night-time of our need, we sing, for today salvation has come to this house.
Tonight, this night, this dear church, each ordinary family, chosen and beloved, hallowed this night by God.
O holy night! This is the joy of it: that because of the child born this night we too may learn to be holy. That we may be changed. For the grace of God has appeared, training us to live lives that are good, in good times and in bad, lives in which more and more, day by ordinary day, his light may be seen.
To us is born this night a Saviour, who is Christ the Lord. May he fill our hearts with joy. May he make our nights, our homes, our families holy, as that first Christmas night was holy, every family a holy family, the place where unseen angels sing, the home where now as in the beginning, the world’s true light may be seen.