This is a sermon for the Feast of the Nativity (Christmas). The Scripture it references is Isaiah 9:2-7.
I’ve often wished that Scripture told us more about the thoughts and motivations of the people in the Christmas story. What did the shepherds really think when the angels turned up with their good news? Did they trust what they were told, or set off in search of the child with more than a bit of doubt in their minds as to what they would find?
Trust can be an issue for us, too. Was Mary really a virgin, or are the gospel writers glossing over a more mundane start to Jesus’ life? How come Luke and Matthew tell completely different stories about Jesus’ birth, and just what was John on about, anyway? And is coming to church to be reminded of all of this going to somehow make me a better person, or at least give me something to think about, or is this really just a comforting tradition with which I can soothe my secular anxieties, but which isn’t going to provide real answers to any of life’s questions?
Do I trust Christmas, trust the part of the Christian story celebrated at Christmas? And if I did trust it, what would that mean for the rest of my life?
The Old Testament reading we had today, from Isaiah, was actually aimed at people with very similar questions. In a corrupt society, where justice and piety were given lip-service but not much more, and the king was more interested in personal and political gain than his people’s welfare, people wondered what they could possibly trust; and whether their God actually offered them any hope or was a prop to the status quo.
(Some things don’t change so much, it seems).
But in the midst of that situation, Isaiah sets out to systematically build a culture of trust and hope. He pointed to the things people worshipped which were either powerless or evil and called them out for what they were; worthless and not deserving of our devotion. He pointed to our tendency to be selfish and egocentric and highlights that all manner of evil comes about when we build a society which treats some people as more important or valuable than others. And he points to God – the one God who really exists and has any capacity to cut through our human darkness and chaos – and points to that God as a solid foundation for our hopes; the one stable point which we can trust to the depths of our being.
His message today starts with “the people who walked in darkness…” The darkness is real. We don’t have to look for to see it. War, terrorism, refugees in detention, poverty, addiction, abuse… we know these things. We carry the burden of them in our hearts. But Isaiah insists that in that darkness a light has shined. In that darkness there is still hope. In that darkness, there is still one we can trust.
I doubt that Isaiah really understood who Christ would be. But when God set aside all the power and dignity of heaven to become human; to become small, vulnerable, and helpless… then Christians looked back on what Isaiah had written and saw how well Isaiah understood the character of that God. The trustworthiness of that God. This is how far God would go, to bring light into our darkness. This is the price God would pay for our hope. To become part of our human family and, in doing so, to bring the potential for radical transformation of our darkness.
Christ is born; glorify him! Says one of the most ancient Christian hymns for this time of year. Glorify him – praise him – because in doing this, he demonstrates more love for us than we can fully understand in a lifetime. Knowing our own inner darknesses, it’s extraordinarily difficult for us to believe that we are truly and completely loved. But as you look at the manger and consider what motivated God to exchange the throne of heaven, the seat of power and authority over all of time and everything that exists, to be born in a stable; doubtless a bit grotty and certainly highly undignified; remember that it was love. Love for each of us. Love that wanted to create light in darkness and let that light shine, unconquered, as a source of hope and strength and joy for each of us.
It’s a powerfully humbling thought.
If we can trust this, though; if we can take hold of it and let it sink deep into our hearts; let it transform our doubts about our own worth or lovability, this truth can change us. And as it changes us, it can change the world.
This is where the joy of Christmas comes from. Not from all the pretty (or tasty!) things the shops are so eager to sell us all, but from the love of God for us so profound, that it holds the potential to bring light to every darkness there is. Mine, yours, the churches’, Manus Island, Afghanistan, Myanmar, Somalia and wherever else that darkness currently holds sway. What would you do differently tomorrow, if you really trusted that love?
God came in human flesh; so we celebrate with trembling and with joy. With trembling because of our darkness – our sin, even – and with joy because of the hope we have that that darkness will finally be defeated. It will not have the last word; the last word belongs to the one who spoke the very first word; “Let there be light.” And there was light; and it was good. We who have seen that light can trust that the last word will be just as good.
And so at the manger we can let go of our burdens, as Isaiah urges; the burdens of our sins, our despair, our doubt and our fear. We know who it is who has come to us. We know why he came. And we know that nothing will ever be the same again.
Earlier I asked you, if you really trusted that love, what would you do differently tomorrow? My own answer is that tomorrow – or at least once all the celebrations are over – the work of Christmas begins. To live in the light we’ve been given and seek to magnify it for others. To find the lost, heal the broken, feed the hungry, release the prisoner, rebuild the nations, pursue peace, and inspire hope. Each of us will bring different skills and passions to that work, and it’s something we must realise is a group effort; not to be done on our own but undertaken together. And we must do it with genuine trust that it’s an extension of what started so long ago with a baby in a manger.
But not just any baby. A baby we can trust.