Monday, December 27, 2010

Sermon on Luke 2:1-20, for the 1st Sunday after Christmas, "To Us a Child is Born!"

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, may the Holy Trinity grant you Christmas joy! Amen.

The Christmas carol “From Heaven Above to Earth I Come” retells the Christmas story from the perspective of the angels speaking to the shepherds, and then the shepherds’ response as they go and see this wondrous birth, and find out what it means for the whole world. Verse 8 reads as follows: “Welcome to earth, O noble Guest, Through whom the sinful world is blest! You came to share my misery That You might share Your joy with me.” Welcome to earth, O noble Guest…Jesus received a majestic welcome from angel choirs; a less-majestic, but no less joyful welcome from peasant shepherds come to adore Him. Jesus was a heavenly visitor, a noble guest. But He while He was a stranger to the world, He wasn’t totally unexpected. He was known by many prophetic titles. By many promises He was long-expected. But not till He was born was His personal name Jesus revealed.

Before Christmas He was called by some of these titles in prophecy: the Messiah or Christ. Root of Jesse. Emmanuel—God with us. Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. But now He would be known by His personal name, Jesus—for He would save us from our sins. This Noble Guest would not remain a stranger to the world—in time He would be known to all the world, not as Guest but as Savior. He came as God, so that He might know human suffering, so that we could know heavenly joy through Him. In the shift from Guest to Savior we find out that Jesus came not as a heavenly tourist traveling earth, but that He came to visit us and bless us. The shift is from unfamiliar to familiar.

That’s what Isaiah prophecies about when He writes: “For to us a child is born; to us a son is given.” How many of you talk that way about somebody else’s child being born? When you are not the mother or father, how many of you talk about someone else’s child being born to us? It might be one thing for family members like a grandpa or grandma, aunt, uncle, or cousin to say “A grandchild was born to us” or “we had a baby niece born to the family yesterday” or “our cousin was born today!” But talking about a stranger or even most everyday friends and acquaintances, we wouldn’t say the child was born “to us.” That implies a much greater degree of familiarity than we’re used to. The child born in Brazil or Australia or Sudan is hardly a child born to us. So how is it that the child born in Israel, born in Bethlehem, is a child born to us?

Of course our Christmas hymns sing the answer, and our Bible readings proclaim the good news over and over again: “Joy to the World! the Lord is Come. Let earth receive her king!” “Glory to God in the highest, and peace on earth, goodwill to men.” Read through the Luke 2 Gospel, and see how many references you can count that say “for you,” “for all people,” “to us,” or “to them.” The angel came to the shepherds and said, “Fear not, for behold I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people.” A child born for all the people. The Savior for the world. A child born to us. But it’s still quite different to speak generically for all people, than for you personally. To say that He’s for us only in the sense of the whole world still seems a little unfamiliar. But how different is it to say for yourself, “To us a child is born.” We gave birth to or adopted our own child. I’m now in the position for the first time in my life to know what that is like, to be a father. And it truly feels remarkable to know that my daughter is our child. There really weren’t words to describe how amazing it felt to hold her in my hands for the first time after birth. But whether you are single or don’t have children of your own, we can all still share and participate in this marvel of knowing that the Christ child was born to us.

That remarkable truth that Jesus wasn’t just born for Mary and Joseph, or even for the shepherds or wise men, but that He was truly born for us personally—has to also be kept in balance with the truth that Jesus’ redemption isn’t just about us individually, but that God redeems us to be a Christian community, accountable to Him, but also to each other. Over time, churches have wobbled back and forth between emphasizing personal salvation to the exclusion of the communal aspects of salvation, and vice versa. So one side or the other gets lost, instead of balancing the truth correctly.

Some talk so exclusively about how salvation gives us a personal relationship with our Creator and Savior, that life as a Christian becomes a purely individual walk—apart from any community or congregation of believers. They lose the precious truth that God has created us in and for community, and that the church should not give up meeting together. On the other hand, some talk so exclusively about community, that they believe salvation is by group, rather than for individual hearts that have been given faith in Jesus. Individuals almost disappear into the group. But the truth of Christmas is not either/or, but both/and. Christ came for the whole world, and He came to create a community of believers. But He also came for us personally, to each one of us, that message of peace, forgiveness, and joy is given.

In another way, we can say that Christ is born for us because we are individually parts of the whole, the family of believers that are Christians. Churches are like families in that way, in that people often say “You don’t get to choose your family. You’re born into it.” In both families and churches you didn’t choose the members, and unlike the way we often choose our friends, we might find that our brother, sister, or neighbor might be quite different from us. Even if they were born from the same parents, they might have a totally different personality and tastes and dispositions from us. In the same way, churches are filled with people who might not otherwise have much in common. It gives a marvelous opportunity for growth in relationship with people that God has placed us together with. To have fellowship with others we might not ordinarily cross paths with or befriend.

That’s what I find fascinating about families and churches, that it might almost seem random or accidental, but in fact God had a plan and a purpose for it. And that connects to our Christmas story as well, because Jesus was born into an earthly family. It wasn’t random or accidental. God chose the family into which Jesus was born. God chose Mary and Joseph. He knew the kind of parents they’d be, the kind of godly example they would set. He knew their faithfulness to God’s commands and to bring Jesus to the house of God for worship. He knew their weaknesses and frailties. The angel of the Lord had to reassure Joseph to take Mary as His wife, and to trust in the Lord for what was happening. God chose the family for Jesus, knowing that as an infant and child, Jesus would rely on them for safety and protection. He was born to them, in a remarkably personal way, but He was also born to us…to the world. Immediately from His birth, this was obvious from the shepherds who came, and the wise men who later worshipped the Christ child. These were not close friends or relatives who happened to know they were expecting a child, and just dropped in. They had received the news from angels, and from trusting the words and signs of ancient prophecy. Nothing about His birth to this family was accidental.

As God chose a family for Jesus, so also He chooses us for His family! That’s right! God chooses you to be His sons and daughters, just as He chose mother Mary and Joseph to parent Jesus. He calls us through His Word to become brothers and sisters of Christ! How can we become part of that family, if we aren’t already? By being reborn through baptism into Christ. The washing of water and the Spirit gives us a heavenly birth into God’s family, in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. A new family name is put on our forehead, as God marks His ownership of us in baptism. Nothing accidental or random, but God chooses you to believe in Him and become one of the family. He offers us the spiritual family of the church.
And if we have ever felt disappointed or let down by the family that we found ourselves in—we realize that in the church we find a family with an even greater bond of unity. Even if our family is wonderful and we’re very close to them, no bond is closer than the unity of the Spirit. But no earthly family is perfect, and some have had broken families or troubled histories. Not every celebration of Christmas was always peaceful or ideal. Not every family was supportive and close. But God chose us for His family in Christ. With Christ as our Savior and as our brother, we have full salvation from guilt, from sin, from whatever hurts lay in our past. Jesus came into the world to repair the broken relationship with God, so that through Jesus’ reconciling us to God, there could truly be peace on earth goodwill toward men. God would be pleased with those who trust in Jesus, because He would save us from our sins and wipe our record clean before God.

Since God has chosen you for His family, since you can truly say the Christ child was born “to us”…to you…your Christmas celebration truly can be joy-filled this year. You have every reason to celebrate because God has welcomed you into His family, Jesus has paid for all of our wrongs and offenses on His cross, and you are always at home with God in Christ Jesus. As the hymn verse we opened with said, “you came to share my misery that you might share your joy with me.” Truly, by becoming one of us, one of the human family, Jesus shared in the suffering and common life we all know. But because God chose us to be in His family, Jesus also shares with us joy in every sorrow and peace with God and a reason to live and celebrate. To us a child is born—for you personally and also for all the earth. May your joy overflow this Christmas season as you live in God’s family.

Now the peace of God which passes all understanding, guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus, unto life everlasting. Amen.

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